With a feeble “monster of the week” premise, “Mummy on the Orient Express” could have been a disaster, but Season 8’s continued strong character moments save the day.
Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose.
If I had written this recap last night while I was jetlagged and exhausted, I would have crushed “Mummy on the Orient Express” for its nonsense mummy plot, but a full night’s sleep and a re-watch has given me better perspective. The episode holds up much better in the light of day, even if there are still a few issues with the main storyline. If you’re the type of Doctor Who fan who prefers alien planet adventures to those tricksy “feelings,” then you might be understandably unhappy with “Mummy’s” so-so “monster of the week” plot, but the episode continues the recent trend of excellent character development.
Following Clara’s dramatic walkout and dressing down of the Doctor last week, “Mummy on the Orient Express” chronicles what’s ostensibly their casual farewell trip together. The Doctor tells Clara that it’s a relaxed tea and cookies affair, but, of course, nothing is ever that simple. They TARDIS aboard a train called the Orient Express, and the Doctor notes that there were many trains to carry that name, but only one of them traveled through space. The Orient Express is a “perfect recreation” of the original, famous luxury train, “only bigger…and in space,” the Doctor says. It functions as a theme cruise for the wealthy who want to recreate the classic feel and flapper costumes of the 1920s. In the real world, it exists so the Doctor Who crew can do their own take on Agatha Christie’s famous mystery Murder on the Orient Express, and the BBC costuming department can use some 1920s-era costumes that haven’t been out of storage in a while. But that’s the kind of thing that makes Doctor Who fun. Naturally, since the train is called the Orient Express, several unexplained deaths occur. It’s just like the time the Doctor endured a space-maritime disaster while onboard the Space Titanic in “Voyage of the Damned.” You’d think a 2000-year-old Time Lord with immense knowledge of history would have come to expect this type of thing. Adding the typical twist to the classic story, a mummy is responsible for the killings, appearing only to its victims and giving them exactly 66 seconds to fight/run/bargain/cower in terror before touching and killing them.
This is the world that the Doctor and Clara find themselves in, all while trying to wrap up (mummy puns!) their own relationship. Clara insists she’s done with the Doctor even if Danny can’t quite bring himself to believe that Clara would walk away from adventuring. She can’t deal with the Doctor’s seeming disregard towards humanity, sometimes letting people suffer and even die to fulfill his objectives. He let crew members sacrifice themselves so that he could rewire Rusty in “Into the Dalek.” He let Psi and Saibra kill themselves (or so he thought) to pull of the “Time Heist.” He left Clara, Captain Lundvik, and all of humanity in the lurch in their time of need and emotional stress in “Kill the Moon” so that they would make the decision about Earth’s future without him. This callousness is a hallmark of the Twelfth Doctor and his darker, less cuddly, more “alien” characterization. The season-long question of if this Doctor is (as he asked Clara in the premiere) a “good man” remains unclear, but Clara isn’t sticking around to find the answer.
But that doesn’t mean that saying goodbye is easy. It’s bittersweet, even for Clara who realizes that the Doctor isn’t the kind of man who will just drop in for dinner once their time together is over. Traveling with the Doctor is like an addiction, and companions have had a hard time letting go. Rose got trapped in another dimension. Donna had her memories erased. Amy and Rory were displaced in time and died. Martha is the only modern companion to leave the TARDIS voluntarily before Clara, and even the emotionally alien Doctor can see the toll the decision is taking on her. “I don’t like that sad smile,” he says. “It’s two emotions at once – like you’re malfunctioning.” She spent days being angry at the Doctor after the events of “Kill the Moon,” but she says that, despite her anger, she can’t bring herself to hate the Doctor. “Hate is too powerful an emotion to waste on someone you dislike,” she says. Breaking up is hard to do.
However, Clara won’t have to deal with the breakup if the mummy kills her first. The first victim was a 100-year-old woman who died in the dining car while raving about a mummy that no one else could see. The crew disregarded her visions as panic brought on by her fatal heart attack. It’s harder to dismiss the death of a kitchen worker who dies while deliriously raging about the same monster. Not wanting to disturb Clara with more dangerous adventures, the Doctor partners with Perkins (Frank Skinner), the train’s engineer, to investigate the deaths. Perkins is more than just the workmanlike engineer he seems, whip-smart and already gathering information on the mummy when he meets the Doctor. The two come to believe that the mummy is actually the Foretold, an ancient creature who has haunted mankind for centuries. Legend holds that men will fight the Foretold, confess their sins to it, and try bargaining for their lives, all in hopes of finding the magic words to disarm the monster.
The Doctor soon finds that he’s not the only doctor onboard. Many of the guests are noted scientists and scholars (“What are you a doctor of?” a porter asks the Doctor. “Let’s say intestinal parasites.”). One is Professor Moorhouse (Christopher Villiers), a doctor of alien mythology who explains to the Doctor that part of the Foretold’s allure is the magic of space. “Earth legends are such dry, dusty affairs, and always fiction. But up here, in the stars, anything’s possible,” he says. The Doctor is nearly arrested by the train’s leading officer, Captain Quell (David Bamber), who picks apart his hasty cover as a mystery shopper until another death occurs while he is in the captain’s custody. The investigation starts in earnest when Quell, the Doctor, Perkins, Professor Moorhouse, and the other academics team up, realizing that it wasn’t coincidence that brought them all together in one place.
Meanwhile, Clara, looking for an adventure of her own, sneaks out of her cabin and meets Maisie (Daisy Beaumont), the granddaughter of the Foretold’s first victim. The two get trapped in a storage room and separated from the rest of the train, giving them ample time to talk. Maisie’s guilt from her overbearing grandmother’s death presents a good opportunity to further explore Clara’s own troubles with the Doctor. Is it wrong for her to mourn a woman who she privately despised? “No,” Clara says. “Difficult people…they can make you feel all sorts of things.” How apropos.
It’s not hard to see why Doctor Who often gets criticized for how it writes female characters. Maisie doesn’t get to do much in the episode except be a weepy woman in a storage compartment, and, later, a damsel in distress. Meanwhile, all of the men get to solve the mystery of the Foretold in the main cabin. Once the Doctor realizes that they’ve been brought together for a reason, the train sheds it’s 1920s décor, revealing itself to be a laboratory under the watchful eye of Gus, the train’s computer system – a polite, British HAL 9000 of sorts. With the curtains pulled back, Gus instructs the team of scientists to discover the Foretold’s secrets and capture it or risk being killed themselves. And killed they are. Professor Moorhouse and Captain Quell are the next to be attacked, using their 66 seconds to describe their experiences to the group, but neither can solve the mystery before his demise. All they can work out is that the Foretold appears in the vicinity of an ancient text fragment that Gus has sealed into the train compartment. Frustrated and arrogant, the Doctor states that he could easily solve the mystery if he were the one under attack and able to see the Foretold. When he realizes that Maisie will be the next victim, he urges Clara to get her to the laboratory compartment under the guise of having a solution to save her.
The mystery resolves itself in typical rapid-fire Doctor Who style. When Maisie is attacked, the Doctor uses a phaser to capture her grief, trauma, and resentment and implants it into itself, making himself the target of the Foretold’s attack. And guess what? The arrogant bastard solves the mystery, wrapping things up in a tidy 66 seconds. That ancient fragment? It’s really an enemy flag from an ancient fighting force. And the Foretold mummy is an ancient soldier attacking those he views as his enemies. Just in time, the Doctor shouts “We surrender!” — the magic words to make the Foretold call off his attack. He disappears into a cloud of dust, revealing the phasing technology that allowed him to disappear and reappear across centuries of time. In classic Who fashion, the monster wasn’t a monster at all, just an exploited, misunderstood victim (both soldiers and misunderstood monsters being themes of the season – think Danny Pink and the Teller). The question is, who created the mummy and why? Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait to find out. With the mummy question solved, Gus drains the oxygen from the train car, as their task is completed and he no longer needs them. The last shot of the Orient Express shows it exploding. Cut to commercial.
Clara awakens on a beach to find the Doctor scribbling in the sand on an alien planet. He claims that he shuttled the survivors into the TARDIS and left them on the closest habitable planet – we think, he also offhandedly jokes that he only saved Clara and Perkins and left everyone else to die. We never see any real evidence of either outcome. The Doctor says he attempted to hack into the train’s systems to see who or what was controlling Gus, but it triggered the failsafe that caused the train to protect its secrets and explode.
It’s a shame that Clara and the Doctor spent so much of the episode separated because their opening and closing scenes together crackle with life. Their conversation gives the episode an emotional punch to support the otherwise weak train plot. When she asks how the Doctor knew he could save Maisie when the Foretold attacked, he claims that he didn’t know, but that he had to take a leap of faith and try. It’s the same chance he took with Captain Quell and Professor Moorhouse that lead to their deaths. Sometimes there are no good choices, but you have to make one anyways. It’s a veritable Kobayashi Maru. He had a hunch with Maisie, but he wasn’t sure. He worried that revealing his hunch would alert Gus to his plan, so he played it close to the chest. “So you were just pretending to be heartless!” Clara exclaims, relieved. “Would you like to believe that about me?” the Doctor asks in return. “Would that make it easier?”
Did the ends justify the means? Is a being with two hearts really capable of being so heartless? Is the Doctor a good man?
Back inside the TARDIS, the Doctor finds Perkins working on the TARDIS’s machinery. Does he want to travel along with the Doctor, having adventures and working on the TARDIS? With Clara leaving him behind, the Doctor has an opening for a new companion. But Perkins declines. Traveling with the Doctor seems like the kind of experience that would change a man, he says wisely. (Damn right. Just ask Clara.) The Doctor agrees, knowingly. He’s certainly more than a simple train engineer.
In the end, Clara asks the Doctor if he enjoys being the man who has to make impossible decisions, if it’s an addiction – mirroring her own addiction to the life of being the Doctor’s companion. It’s an addiction she can’t bring herself to leave behind. She calls Danny, telling him that she cut her ties with the Doctor while she tells the Doctor that she’s decided she isn’t ready to leave him behind just yet. Who’s the duplicitous one now, Clara? In one fell decision she lies to Danny – something she promised him she wouldn’t do – and pulls the levers to the TARDIS, setting out on another adventure with the Doctor. She’s no doubt sowing the seeds of future drama down the line.
It feels a little bait and switch for the BBC to have led viewers to believe that Clara was leaving, only to have them pull it away at the last moment. Her emotional decision to leave the Doctor behind was the high point of last week’s “Kill the Moon,” and the BBC’s press material for “Mummy” made no mention of Jenna Coleman, leading viewers to believe that she was gone. This, following months of rumors that Coleman had left the show, rumors that the BBC was happy to bolster. It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand it feels like hollow drama that ultimately served no purpose but to hype the departure of a companion for ratings purposes. But you can’t deny that the scenes between Clara and the Doctor were phenomenal in the last two episodes, supporting otherwise questionable plotlines. I’m willing to accept it. Steven Moffat has had some serious struggle developing season-long plotlines, so if the tradeoff is a focus on the emotional impact of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship (which, as I said, has been excellent) then I’m willing to deal with it. The two closing scenes on the beach and in the TARDIS were pure magic. I’m willing to overlook all sorts of “the moon is an egg” and “there’s a solder-mummy on a train” plot goofiness if they keep backing it up with that magic.
-Jenna Coleman should have to dress like a flapper every week. I can’t be the only one with that thought, right guys?
-How great is Peter Capaldi? Every week his deadpan, emotionally complex take on the Doctor just gets better and better. I can’t imagine me ever loving any Doctor more than I do David Tennant’s 10, but I can easily see Capaldi getting my #2 spot – and he’s getting there quickly.
-The Doctor having a cigarette case full of jelly babies was a perfect visual gag.
-The singer in the train’s first car singing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” was apparently Foxes, but I’m not a British tween, so I don’t really care.
-The Doctor’s throwaway “Are you my mummy?” joke will resurrect some horrible nightmares about Steven Moffat’s outstanding and terrifying “The Empty Child” episode.
-So who had programmed Gus to run the train? It has to be related to Missy, right? Characters continue to die in the Doctor’s service, and we’re headed for the season 8 finale “Death in Heaven” where all of these stray threads seem to be pointing. I wonder if we’ll see Captain Quell or Professor Moorhouse again before this is over?
See you all down the line in time and space!