Written by Jamie Mathieson
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Frank Skinner (Perkins); David Bamber (Captain Quell); John Sessions (Gus); Daisy Beaumont (Maisie Pitt); Christopher Villiers (Prof. Emil Moorhouse); Janet Henfrey (Mrs. Pitt); Foxes (The Singer) & Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink)
Here There Be Spoilers.
So here I sit at my computer, an episode of Doctor Who on my mind, a martini at my side… and egg on my face. In my review of last week’s extravaganza Kill The Moon, I was certain that the Doctor was going it alone on the Orient Express considering his blow-up with Clara last week. So certain was I that Jenna Coleman was spending this episode on the sidelines (and thrown by her period hairstyle) that I didn’t recognize her as she stepped out of the TARDIS, believing for a half a minute that the Doctor had brought a new friend with him. It was disconcerting to say the least; here’s Clara, all smiles and dressed to the nines, admitting that it took a few weeks for her to decide that she didn’t really hate him. With my ears still buzzing from the shock of hearing her voice, I barely got the news that the Doctor’s and Clara’s trip on the interstellar Orient Express was apparently a last hurrah, a way for the two travelers to end their relationship on a wink and a grin, just a simple little pleasure-trip through space on a mock-up of the most famous train in history without any trouble whatsoever.
Don’t you believe it.
Mummy On The Orient Express starts with trouble before the Doctor and Clara arrive; a wealthy dowager, Mrs. Pitt, mysteriously dies. In the last sixty-six seconds of her life, she claims that a mummy, covered in dust and shambling menacingly, is coming towards her but no one else can see it. It’s the simplest of premises; some murderous creature in on the train and the passengers can’t escape; if they want to live, they have to defeat the creature. But how can you defeat something that can only be seen sixty-six seconds before it takes your life? While the plot seems to be a good, old-fashioned romp, it will force Clara (and us with her) to examine the Doctor’s seemingly cold-hearted demeanor… and is it so cold-hearted after all?
To start with, this episode is nothing if not great-looking; the period costumes and sets are suburb and the even the costumes that the Doctor and Clara wear are marvelous (Whovians are well aware that the Doctor rarely changes his own costume to blend in with whatever period he happens to be visiting). In fact, the look is so good that it is difficult to remember that these passengers are simply dressing up in period clothes to get the full effect of their holiday; you have to remind yourself that these are future humans from colonized planets that are indulging in a little interstellar role-playing (quite like the passengers of the ill-fated starship Titanic from Voyage Of The Damned). Perkins’ engineer costume is simply for show and Captain Quell’s Lugar is an affectation; the man would probably be more at home with a laser blaster. Appearances are highly deceiving and the most deceiving is the appearance of the mummy, which Mrs. Pitts first believes is a passenger in fancy dress. Looking back, it is a massive clue that most viewers will not get on first viewing; this seemingly ancient and mythical beast is nothing more than malfunctioning technology augmenting the long-dead brain of a soldier (and yet again, we are at the mercy of the Doctor’s most-despised advisory: a soldier, one that can only be defeated by surrendering to it). Interestingly enough, we are given two soldiers in this episode: the Mummy (also known as “the Foretold”) and Captain Quell. The contrast between the two are striking: the Foretold is a mindless killing machine, stalking the weakest victims that it can find, to a fulfill a purpose long-since forgotten while Captain Quell is, like Danny, a war-weary former-warrior who has been hoping to escape the memories of the battlefield in a job entirely unlike his previous duties. In fact, it’s quite amazing that the Doctor, once he ascertains that Quell was once a soldier, doesn’t treat him with the contempt that he showed to Danny or Journey Blue; if anything, the Doctor is disgusted that Quell has lost the will to fight, something that the Doctor will reawaken in his during his final minute (When the Doctor tells him not to bother firing at the Foretold, Captain Quell says, “Die? With bullets in my gun?”). It seems that the Doctor’s need for soldiers can often outweigh his personal feelings for them.
Although the Foretold is a marvelous-looking creature and its myths (as espoused by the sadly doomed Professor Moorhouse) fascinate the imagination of the viewer, it unfortunately falls into the category of “Things we’ve seen before only tweaked a bit.” Malfunctioning technology has, yet again, given us an apparently mythical and seemingly unbeatable creature. Stripped bare, is the Foretold really any different from the Minotaur from The God Complex? In that troubled episode, the Doctor and his friends were up against a creature that fed on faith, choosing victims one by one and slowly marching towards them, killing them by draining them of their life force and spurred on by a spaceship that ceased functioning properly centuries before. Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? What’s worse is that Mummy On The Orient Express introduces those intriguing details, like the sixty-six second time frame, and drops the ball when it finally explains them. There’s a quick murmuring from Perkins that sounds like “phasing takes about a minute,” but this is never explained. What is phasing and how is it necessary for the Foretold to do this in order to attack? This is especially disappointing because, let’s face it, that sixty-six countdown every time the Foretold makes an appearance is intriguing and as suspenseful as Hell. But every mystery needs a solution, and this one seems strangely vague.
Another mystery that doesn’t get much probing is Gus, the train’s computer, although this seems to be one of those dangling plotlines that, like Missy and the Promised Land, will probably be addressed at a later date (there’s getting to be quite a pile of them, isn’t there?). As time goes on, I get less and less worried that a head-scratching plot line will not be resolved; indeed, this very episode resolved a small detail from The Big Bang that most regular viewers will probably have forgotten: on Amy and Rory’s wedding night, the Doctor received a call from someone asking to investigate a mummy of the Orient Express in space. This was never mentioned again and it was assumed that the Doctor and his newly-wed crew investigated it while the TV cameras weren’t looking (the next episode was A Christmas Carol, which made no mention of the mysterious phone call). So it’s nice to know that there is some effort from the creative team to address any details that never got an explanation even years ago (maybe we’ll finally find out why a duck pond without ducks in Leadworth is significant), but I have a question about Gus as he/it stands: if his wish is for the Doctor and his scientist colleagues to figure out the Foretold’s nature and defeat it, why does he/it make it so hard for them? Tricking everyone on board to riding the Orient Express makes sense (this is a mission where death is a very real possibility), but why keep the facade going for so long. All in all, several people die before the Doctor realizes that the decor and many of the passengers are hard-light holograms, revealing a laboratory beneath and forcing Gus to step forward, as it were, and explain the reason they have been gathered. This seems unlikely, to say the least. In fact, it seems more likely that Gus (and whoever is behind the computer) is testing the Doctor, seeing just how good he is by pitting him against an ancient curse and then further testing him when it looks like Gus will kill everyone on the train once the Foretold is deactivated. True, Gus has allowed a few non-scientist passengers on the train (Maisie Pitt, her grandmother and the general staff) so that they can be the Foretold’s first victims, but it all seems to smack heavily of a game of cat-and-mouse. Maybe I’m just inventing a scenario that will cover what might be a logical flaw in the script, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
This, of course, brings us to the same place that we wind up every week during these little discussions: The Doctor and Clara. In most reviews, I would address them in separate paragraphs, but the status of their relationship is so crucial to this episode that their individuality takes a back seat. I’ve already described the shock of seeing the two main characters together after the bitter blow-up that constituted the final act of last week’s Kill The Moon. I won’t be the first one to express some disappointment that we haven’t been given a least a small taste of the weeks following Clara’s departure: the Doctor’s loneliness in the TARDIS, Clara unable to keep her mind on her work and off the stars, maybe Danny encouraging her to call the Doctor one more time to end their relationship on a high note. Well, we didn’t see it, but that may be because when the episode is not showing characters cowering front of an approaching mummy, we are listening to Clara express her feelings for her strange friend. Her sad smile, which the Doctor comments on and admits confusion as to how she can have two emotions at once, is the key to her feelings: she loves the Doctor’s heroism but hates his apparent coldness, she loves adventure but hates making the tough decisions, she loves her home life with Danny but loves her unique life in the TARDIS. In Kill The Moon, Danny sagely told her that she wasn’t finished with the Doctor and Maisie, another conflicted character who feels guilty because the grandmother she wished would die finally did, echoes this; when Clara tells her that you can’t end a relationship on a slammed door, Maisie points out that people do it all the time… except when they can’t. Clara may hate the way that the Doctor may not always play straight with her – admitting to her that he had a suspicion that their ride on the train would not be just a pleasure trip – but she has to admit to herself that she doesn’t always play straight either; she is just as game for adventure as he is (when the Doctor resists knocking on her door to include her in his investigations, she emerges from her room a moment later, ready for action) and she finds it easy to lie to the two most important men in life to continue her double life. It seems odd that Clara would resort to lies in the episode’s final minutes – Danny would probably understand Clara’s compulsion to travel and the Doctor probably doesn’t care what Danny thinks. Maybe this is a hint of the “control-freak” part of Clara’s personality that has often been alluded to: she wants her two lives separate from each other and this is how she controls it. What we do know is that Clara finds new appreciation for the Doctor, both in his putting himself up as a sacrifice to the Foretold in Maisie’s place and in his admission that he would have sacrificed the girl and everyone else to stop the creature. “Sometimes there are no good choices,” he says, “but you still have to choose.” Heavy is the head that wears that crown.
And so Clara elects to stay with her Time Lord and see more planets. We have no idea what Danny is going to say when he finds out that she lied to him, but that’s for another day. Things may not end well for the Doctor, Clara and Danny, but that’s what series finales are for, and that’s still five episodes away. In the end, we’re left with Mummy On The Orient Express, a good, fun episode that had a few story hiccups along the way (nothing that would’ve caused a derailment) and that laid bare the feelings of our two main characters: check out their faces when Clara asks to see more planets… these two need each other and we need them to keep traveling.
No matter the cost.
P.S. – That shot of the Foretold’s fingers reaching through the Doctor’s face was the creepiest moment of the whole series thus far!