Back on Track

Review of Mummy on the Orient Express
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

I feel like I ought to be head-over-heels about this episode, yet I'm not. And I can't quite put my finger on why.

It was extremely atmospheric; both sets and costumes were phenomenal. It had an excellent monster; the mummy was hair-raisingly creepy, and made enough sense to remain satisfying once unveiled. The effects were good, the acting was (as always) good, the soundtrack was very good... So why aren't I simply giddy?

I think it's the continuing soap opera.

Although it sets the stage and introduces the mystery of the Foretold, the first ten minutes of the episode is spent on showing how the Doctor's relationship with Clara is suffering. They're out for their "last hurrah"—Clara's version of pity sex, in effect. "I was saying goodbye," she tells Maisie. "You can't end on a slammed door." (Of course, if one feels that way, it's not really over.)

I find it really interesting that the production team did everything in their power to make it seem like Clara had really cut her ties with the Doctor, and that he was on his own in this adventure until the opening scene. Check out the official site's page for this episode or the Radio Times poster. Neither one has Jenna Coleman listed as part of the cast. Clara isn't in any of the clips in the episode trailer. Why were they so dead set on keeping her appearance a secret (it seems to be about the only thing that hasn't leaked—maybe because no one cared)? It's not like anyone believed she was gone for good.

But as I was saying, much of the focus of the last few episodes has been on Clara and her frame of mind. Part of me is really frustrated by this obsession with the Companion's POV; another part finds the exploration through her eyes of who this Doctor is fascinating. Either way, though, when you peel away the heavy relationship subplot of the episode, you're left with some good shit.

I mean, truly—how can a Who fan not love the Doctor pulling out a cigarette case filled with jelly babies? Or asking a millennia-old, phase-shifting creature in rotting bandages, "Are you my mummy?" Or laying down truth bombs like "Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose"? (Or there being a sarcophagus filled with bubble wrap?)

Then there's the scene where Clara gets tired of Maisie grilling her about what the Doctor is to her. "Seriously? We're stuck in this carriage, probably all night, and all we can talk about is some man?" I had to laugh at the blatant (if unintentional?) reference to the Bechdel test, and how that scene was completely failing it. Of course, if the episode hadn't already passed it when these two discussed Maisie's dead grandmother, it would've been ironically tone deaf rather than cheeky (even though that previous scene was an obvious reference to the Doctor also being one of those "difficult people").

And the Doctor is really difficult here. He seems oblivious, as last week, to the psychological effects his candor can have on humans. In fact, in the later parts of the episode when he gets involved in the research problem, he reminds me a great deal of the Rani, wrapped up in scientific discovery. Gone is the facade of the lifesaving hero; while saving lives might be a side effect of solving the puzzle, the Doctor is all business, and has no illusions about the fact that he may not be able to reach the right conclusion in time to help any particular individual. Instead, the needs of the many are paramount, and he convinces Clara to help him. "This is another chance to observe it in action. ... If it happens in there, it'll be a waste, so bring her to us."

This view of the Doctor is less upsetting to me than the last episode's. It's that "professional detachment" Psy noted with such snark kicking in again. The Doctor sees so much death and suffering in his travels, I think he can't afford to get too attached to very many of the folks he encounters. Like Clara, this adventure helped soothe my hurts, and I'm willing to think of last time as something of a fluke.

As for the plot, I'd be remiss if I didn't add at least a little theorizing about the series arc. To begin, GUS the computer knows who and what the Doctor is, and whoever is in charge of it has been trying to lure the Doctor to the Orient Express for some time. Presumably, said person wants either to make use of his scientific prowess (the stated goals are to capture and reverse engineer the Foretold) or to kill the Doctor—perhaps both, in a best case scenario.

We're practically being begged to connect the dots to the series's Big Bad. I'm not denying that it could be a red herring—it is, after all, a very small leap of logic for a Moffat-era story—but at the same time, it seems unlikely that it's anything else. So who knows what GUS stands for, but there will probably be a clue there for us to see plain as day when we watch the series with 20/20 hindsight.

Another continuous thread is the Doctor scrawling equations on any surface he can find. Though we don't see it directly, he's scratching a stick in the wet sand of the beach where Clara awakes at the end. I'd put money on it that he's working those same equations, and I can't help but wonder if we will see this habit explained by the end of this series, or if it will continue over several years.

But something that really jumped out to me this time is how very much "soldier" is Series Eight's "Bad Wolf." Beyond Danny Pink and the toy he played with as a child, we have seen that the Foretold was really an ancient soldier. The Skovox Blitzer was a kind of mechanical soldier. The Sheriff of Nottingham and his cronies were robot soldiers. Journey Blue was too much of a soldier to join the Doctor in the TARDIS...

Speaking of Journey Blue, we've now seen at least two potential Companions not quite click with the Doctor. First Journey asked to come along but was rebuffed; then Perkins (a lovely character I wouldn't have minded seeing more of; and, in fact, the dialog suggests we might) turned down the Doctor's offer. (And I have the feeling I've missed at least one other, but I can't for the life of me remember who.) We don't see very many such interactions—at least not ones where the potential Companion walks away alive (see: Lynda-with-a-Y, Astrid Peth, etc.)—so I'm wondering if these are deliberate insights into Twelve's character.

But it's Clara's character that confused me most. The ending is—quite deliberately, I'd say—ambiguous. For once, it's more from the Doctor's POV than Clara's. Although we hear both sides of her phone conversation with Danny, we have no idea what went on between them before she hopped in the TARDIS this time. Was it her intention all along to see whether or not she could still stomach traveling with the Doctor, and that's the "mission [she] accomplished"? Or has she just made a spur-of-the-moment decision to blow Danny off?

In other words, we don't actually know how Danny feels about any of this; all we have to go on is what Clara tells the Doctor. We have to decide for ourselves what's going on behind closed doors in Clara and Danny's relationship and come up with our own interpretations of what just transpired between the phone ringing and Clara declaring she'd only "had a wobble."

Don't get me wrong—I'm glad to see her back in the game. Clara and Twelve are currently my second favorite post-Hiatus TARDIS team, after Ten and Donna (probably because the dynamic is similar). I just have no idea what sort of monkeywrench will get thrown into their relationship next, and that makes me sad. One of the things I've always loved about Doctor Who is the trust and camaraderie between the Doctor and his Companion(s)—at least once they've established their relationships. Having that dynamic be the story with the adventure as backdrop instead of wild adventures with companionship as backdrop just doesn't suit me as well.

At least there was a satisfying story on which to drape Clara's angst this time. After things went off the rails last week, it's nice to see the series get back on track. Here's hoping it's a smooth ride through the rest of the series.

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Comments

Whilst the "will she won't she" gubbins is a bit distracting and probably could have been done better, what a fantastic episode. I loved the Doctor channelling his inner Fourth Doctor whilst talking to himself.

A couple of observations:

Of course jelly babies should really be delivered in a small white paper bag, although the case was quite classy.

Kudos to whoever had the idea for the mummy's hand poking through the Doctor's head. If they blew most of the effects budget on that shot it was worth it.

8/10 easily and probably as close to old style Who as seen in a long time. Roll out the Flatlines

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

Yes, I love picking out the little moments when Capaldi's Doctor channels his previous selves.

And I agree that this was overall quite an enjoyable episode. :)

By mrfranklin

Better, with hints of the fun that I really love from Doctor Who. It still just didn't perfectly click with me though - maybe somewhere along the way I became for Matt Smith like so many young fan girls were for David T. Once this series is done and I've had a full year with him gone I should probably go back and give this series another chance, because on some level I completely accept that we are getting some great stuff here. I just don't feel it yet.

By Travis (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Every fan has a unique reaction to the changes that come with a regeneration. I know lots of fans (like me) who are head-over-heels about Capaldi (whether or not they like the stories), and others who just can't get into his grumpy persona. Both are perfectly valid—after all, no one would expect everyone on their street to have the same opinion about any random individual in the neighborhood.

I hope, though, that you are able to "feel it" some day. It's always much more fun to watch the show when you click with the Doctor in question. :)

By mrfranklin

Before watching the episode I was squirming at the idea of a train in outer space. But I was pleasantly surprised. It harks back to certain anime for one thing.

And it struck me less as the height ot transportation technology and more like a futuristic Disneyland experience. Rich folks of the future like to get dressed up in period costume and ride in a space ship shaped like an antique train no matter how impracticle that might be.

I was a little confused by the way The Doctor got rid of the monster. How he deduced that A) the sccroll was a flag, B) that the fact that it was a flag meant that the mummy was a soldier, C) that the ghost soldier could be gotten rid of by surrendering to it and then dismissing it, escapes me. And if the purpose of the whole exercise was to learn what the mummy was and how to control it then why blow up the train? The Doctor had accomplished that purpose. Blowing up the train just destroyed the scroll and made the whole thing moot.

But overall I was impressed by the episode. It had a pleasantly old school Who feeling to it. And I don't feel it insulted my intelligence.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I got the impression that whoever controlled/employed Gus the computer wanted exclusive knowledge of the Foretold. So once the Doctor figured it out, Gus blew up the train so there would be no witnesses—presumably after having either transmitted the relevant data elsewhere or removed the mummy's control unit via transmat (to Heaven?).

By mrfranklin
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