Mummy On The Orient Express
Series Eight, Episode Eight
Well, you knew this day would come. After twenty episodes, including the one where she was a random Victorian, Clara is finally leaving the TARDIS. Chin up. Remember to wave.
Just kidding, obviously. Did anyone really think this was a possibility? Episode eight of twelve isn't the time to pull that dramatic cracker and you know it, but they give it a go anyway, sending Clara on her "last hoorah" with the Doctor. Few but the very young (or the very dizzy) will be on the edge of their seats wondering if she'll stay or go. This story, really, is about what will happen to convince her to carry on.
|"Clara, don't go. Who'll wear all those outfits?"|
Peter Capaldi continues to walk a fine line between emoting and maintaining an alien distance. Is he more concerned with gathering information than saving the lives of his information-gatherers? Broadly speaking, yes – he's looking at the bigger picture, stopping the killings overall. He's not worried about the little stuff, like getting upset about it, because He's Not Like Us. Fair enough. He also says that "people with guns to their heads don't have time to mourn", but it doesn't seem to me like he'll be doing that at any point.
Right now, fantastic as he is – and he's so good I can gladly watch him talk to himself – it's hard to imagine putting Capaldi on my Favourite Doctors list. He tacitly admits to being heartless at the end, which fits the "alien" thing he's going for, but there are times when his attitude to problem-solving veers closer to Steven Moffat's amoral Sherlock Holmes than the Doctor. But we're not quite there yet, thanks to moments like going to wake up Clara, struggling with the idea because it's not what she wants, then deciding not to. He's not going to stop her leaving if that's what she really wants, and he's genuinely pleased when she wants to stay. He's also motivated to do the right thing – he might not be upset about a death occurring now, because he can't stop it, but he's driven to prevent the next one. So there is a heart underneath after all. (Two, in fact.)
Plus, after casually ordering Clara to bring a soon-to-die passenger somewhere she'll be of more use, he surprises everyone and takes her place. Chivalry isn't all there is to it – he's convinced he'll do a better job in her place, and he's impatient to get the problem solved. But heroism is heroism, and that, thankfully, is What The Doctor Would Do. I get the whole disassociated-alien thing they're ramming home week after week, but I do like to glimpse the old heroic bit as well. You know, the uh... Doctor bit.
As for Clara, her journey is mostly based on what happened in Kill The Moon, and a week has done little to dull that muddle. She's ending it because the Doctor left an important decision up to her and the rest of humanity. Sorry to repeat myself, but to me that seems an odd reason to hate him, and piling emotional fallout on top of it is rather like building on sand. She spends the episode mulling it over, and calling Danny for moral support (as their relationship is making great strides, most of them sadly off-screen), but she just seems a bit fuzzy-headed here, which is frustrating as it leaves Jenna Coleman without much to sink her teeth into. (Frankly, this isn't one of her stronger performances. That super-excited-high-five ending, with the TARDIS charging off into the unknown, could be copy-and-pasted from any other companion.)
Last week's dramatic flounce makes less sense as the episode progresses. Several people, including Danny, point out that she clearly doesn't hate the Doctor, so what's the big deal, eh? After this, and seeing the good in the Doctor's actions, she plumps for carrying on. It's probably just me, but it still feels a little like a coin toss on her part. Oh well, glad it's over.
|"Doctor, we're trapped!"|
"Clara, bring your friend here, now!"
*isn't trapped any more*
Yeah yeah, character development's all well and good, but what about the monster? Well, the mummy is an unnerving addition to the Doctor Who pantheon. It looks scary (if a bit standard, all bandages and rotting teeth), and the gimmick – see it and you've got 66 seconds to live – is very neatly worked out. (The director gets loads out of it.) As for the plot, er, not so much.
The train is crammed with experts, gathered expressly to investigate the mummy. When the Doctor figures this out (25 minutes in), the Orient Express transforms into a lab, losing its holographic passengers in the process. You've got to wonder, once they're aboard, what's the point pretending they're on a pleasure jaunt? How many of them will die before they get any work done? No wonder several trains full of people have already died without results; whoever's organising this must be completely insane. (I'm hoping that's an arc plot, like the yet-another-soldier-reference, since the Doctor doesn't rush off at the end to find the people responsible.)
Once they're on the case, the "experts" aren't much use. The Doctor mostly chats with the chief engineer, played with enjoyable archness by Frank Skinner, but all the actual geniuses seem strangely mute. The solution comes only when the Doctor faces the mummy, and talks until he stumbles on the answer. Holmesian it isn't; possibly because the episode spends 25 minutes on the wrong track, there isn't time to piece it together at the end, so it feels like a lucky guess. Jamie Mathieson is another new writer for Doctor Who (yay!), and he provides plenty of great dialogue, especially for the Doctor, but the structure is definitely a bit askew. There's a feeling of the writer figuring it out as he goes (Oh, it's a lab! Oh, the mummy's a soldier! Oh, surrendering makes it go away!) rather than having it laid out from the start. The final leg of the adventure, i.e. getting off the train and rescuing everybody, is dumped on us via epilogue. Another casualty of the false start, perhaps? The scene in question, with the Doctor laying out his not-entirely-amoral plan, is scintillating, so I don't mind. Capaldi is, in general, a bit of a rockstar here.
I liked Mummy On The Orient Express more than recent episodes. It has a monster defined by strict rules, which for once don't get compromised. It's exciting in short bursts, though overall it does wobble a bit. The solution is a bit flat, especially when the Doctor's supposed to have a massive thing about hating soldiers, which strangely doesn't warrant a mention here. The guest cast are a delight to watch, as ever, although a surprisingly high percentage of them die. (Mind you, with the "Heaven" arc, maybe none of them do?)
Most importantly, the Doctor and Clara put most of their awkwardness behind them, which is a relief, although they immediately set a course for more. It feels like a middle-of-the-series, taking-stock kind of episode in that sense; one to revisit later, when the dust has settled. Until then, I had a good time watching it.