REVIEW: Doctor Who - "Mummy on the Orient Express"
If there’s one thing fans of Doctor Who have wondered about over the course of the show’s long run, it’s how the Doctor’s brain works. His ability to see past the “impossible” criteria in a given mystery and reveal the otherworldly truth makes for some of the best moments on the show. Sometimes the Doctor stumbles across the answer by accident, and other times the revelation comes through pure detective work. And in the case of Saturday’s Series 8 episode “Mummy on the Orient Express”, the Doctor took the latter route, only to an especially cold-hearted extent.
Much of Series 8 has focused on the Twelfth Doctor’s sudden lack of affection for humanity. It’s reflected all through Peter Capaldi’s performance: this Doctor is an angrier, more alien and less tolerant figure, something that chafes against Clara’s more soothing approach. Since Clara is a teacher, and the Doctor sees himself alternately as her mentor/colleague/father figure, it’s as if Steven Moffatt is trying to impart a message about all the different styles of education available in the real world. Do we let students (in the case of Who, the human race) fend for themselves, or do we hold their hands and help them along?
In “Mummy on the Orient Express”, the Doctor takes an even more objective approach than that. Humans are not even students any more – they’re more like lab subjects he can throw at the problem, letting each one die so he can examine their bodies for clues. For a while, we can see what Clara was ranting about at the end of last week’s episode. It begins to feel that humanity’s greatest defender is giving up on his charges – until he suddenly steps in harm’s way and shows signs of the character we know and love. Even so, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of the Twelfth Doctor’s dispassionate side.
In the context of the episode’s plot, these moral questions play out aboard a futuristic version of the famous train service from the title, one that travels through interstellar space (instead of the famous route between Paris and Istanbul). The Doctor invites Clara as a supposed “last hurrah” for their travels together, though naturally their plans are derailed (an acceptable pun, since this train flies in zero-G). This time, the culprit is the legendary Foretold, a mummified creature invisible to everyone except the next person it plans to kill – which it does exactly 66 seconds after the victim sees it appear.
What unfolds is a Doctor Who riff on the classic detective story by Agatha Christie, though episode writer Jamie Mathieson decides to avoid fixing the blame for the Foretold’s murders on a large group of passengers (one of the defining characteristics of the novel’s plot). Instead, it seems the real villains in this story may be connected to Missy and her agents in “Heaven” (or as Chris Addison’s character from “The Caretaker” called it, the Nethersphere).
Whoever is responsible, the episode turned out to be a surprisingly moving (if uneven) episode, which came as a relief after last week’s disappointing entry “Kill the Moon”. I liked the slight steampunk vibe of running a train through outer space, and the creative team included some clever details here and there that grabbed my attention (I’m thinking of the jazzy, 1920s version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”). I also appreciated the hints of HAL 9000 in the mysterious entity that takes over the train in the third act – a little bit of deadpan humour like that never goes astray in sci-fi.
The sore thumb in “Mummy on the Orient Express”, oddly enough, was Clara once again. On the whole, I’ve liked what the show has done with her over the past two series, but starting with “Kill the Moon” (or maybe even “The Caretaker”), it feels like the writers have fumbled with her character, in an attempt to create some tension between the Doctor and Danny Pink.
In this episode, the Doctor and Clara start off on strangely good terms, reopen the wounds several times over the course of the story, and then appear to totally eliminate the tension in the episode’s closing scene. Clara goes so far as to call their falling out “a wobble” (albeit in that cute Blackpool accent), and we cut to credits as she heads off excitedly on a new adventure. Wait, what?
All this accomplished was to undermine Clara’s sudden anger and moral objections about the Doctor’s conduct from the past few episodes, as if it was never as important as we were led to believe. Tonally, this is a big mistake, as it suggests that Moffatt and his writers are manipulating audience emotions when they should be focusing on other priorities; namely, defining the new Doctor and setting up a consistent path for Clara’s character.
Of course, all this amounts to is trying to predict Moffatt’s moves before he makes them, and despite what his long-time critics say, it’s not a very useful endeavour – he’s always had a flair for unexpected plot twists. I’m just hoping next week’s story doesn’t follow the pattern of Series 8 so far; it seems the episodes have oscillated rather sharply between strong and weak, and with all the good elements from this episode, I’d hate to see next week’s “Flatline” send the show back on the downswing. “Mummy on the Orient Express” gets three stars out of four.
What did you think of the eighth episode of Series 8? Did you get wrapped up in the mystery-solving, or should the episode be locked up in a sarcophagus? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!
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