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Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express (Review)

“You know, Doctor, I can’t tell if you’re ingenious or just incredibly arrogant.”

“On a good day, I’m both.”

Mummy on the Orient Express is Doctor Who in a blender. It’s classic period piece, genre pastiche and science-fiction spectacle, mixed with a healthy dose of creature feature horror and a solid development of the themes running through the eighth season so far. It’s clever, witty and energetic. The episode is a delight from beginning to end, beating out Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist to claim the title of the year’s best “romp” – as you might expect from a story that is a Hammer Horror murder on the Orient Express in Space.

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The biggest problem with Mummy on the Orient Express is the resolution, which seems a little convenient. The problem isn’t so much that the Doctor manages to solve the episode’s central mystery in sixty-six seconds, but that there’s minimal set-up of the nature of the mummy before the Doctor stumbles upon the creature’s nature – that it is “a soldier. Wounded some years ago in a forgotten war.” It’s a clever reveal, hinging on the idea that the parchment has been hung vertically instead of horizontally, but it’s still a leap.

Then again, it fits quite comfortably with the recurring theme of soldierhood running through the eighth season. With Day of the Doctor, the Doctor has erased his own stained war record. Into the Dalek put the Doctor into conflict with a bunch of space-age soldiers inside the ultimate soldier. In The Caretaker, Danny Pink earned the Doctor’s wraith as a former soldier. Even here, the Conductor is a recovering war veteran struggling to come to terms with the war. This is all building towards the weaponising of the dead in Death in Heaven, airing before Remembrance Day.

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As such, the eponymous monster seems to foreshadow Missy’s army of Cybermen at the climax of the season – soldiers kept alive by alien technology that refuses to let them die in peace. Instead, this soldier is destined to resurrect itself time and time again. The season has been constructed with a great deal of care, with ideas echoing and resonating across the twelve episodes. Although not explicitly linked to the continuity of Death in Heaven, Mummy on the Orient Express is very clearly building towards it in terms of theme.

After all, this season was broadcast during the centenary of the First World War. As with many broadcaster around the world, the BBC dedicated considerable resources to covering the centenary. This significant anniversary has found expression in a variety of forms. Historian and commentary Jeremy Paxman hosted a high-profile four-part documentary Britain’s Great War in January 2014; the BBC launched The Crimson Field as a prestigious five-part miniseries in April 2014.

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However, the BBC’s engagement with the First World War was not merely confined to documentaries and period dramas. The BBC attracted the ire of The Daily Mail by producing a rap battle introduction to the complex factors leading to the outbreak of war in June 2014. In a way, Doctor Who is offering its own exploration of the First World War, even if the conflict is never explicitly identified as it was in Family of Blood. The season is fascinated by the legacy and consequences of war, and how warfare is processed, by those involved and society as a whole.

Into the Dalek confirmed that Danny Pink is working through his own trauma related to a more recent war; Dark Water explicitly reveals the nature of that trauma. However, Mummy on the Orient Express makes it clear that certain ideas are constant across time and space. Although Mummy on the Orient Express is set in a science-fiction future, it clearly draws upon Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s iconic murder mystery first published in 1934. The iconography is quite similar.

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The Doctor boasts that the recreation was crafted with “painstaking attention to detail. Most of the time.” The costuming is very definitely period, right down to the overalls worn by the train’s engineer. If Mummy on the Orient Express were set in 1934, Quell would easily be a wounded veteran of the First World War. Instead, he is simply a survivor of an anonymous conflict. Like Danny Pink and like the creature itself, Quell is an expression of the lingering trauma of war. It does not matter which war, although this period of reflection is focused on one in particular.

Mummy on the Orient Express quite cleverly acknowledges as much. Confronted by the ghoul, the Doctor offers a quick quip and makes a connection to Steven Moffat’s first two-part script for the resurrected Doctor Who. “Are you my mummy?” he wonders aloud. Moffat’s first story for the revived series, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, was set in London during the Second World War. It is interesting that Churchill – a recurring historical guest star – does not reappear this season. Instead, the Brigadier returns in Death in Heaven.

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Indeed, considering this context, there is something wry and knowing about Clara’s description of the trip as an attempt to say “goodbye to the good times.” Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934; the mood and setting of the book beautifully evoke the sort of opulence and optimism of the inter-war years for the upper classes. Given the season’s fixation on soldiers and warfare, there’s something quite clever and pointed about a dead soldier stalking the patrons of the Orient Express.

As such, while the reveal of the nature of the Mummy comes out of nowhere on a plot level, it manages to hit on some of the core themes of the season. For a stand-alone monster-of-the-week episode credited to a first-time Doctor Who writer, Mummy on the Orient Express is very much in tune with everything going on around it. While Kill the Moon gained a lot of its power from setting up a subverting standard Doctor Who tropes, Mummy on the Orient Express instead hits all the requisite notes perfectly; while doing more on top of them.

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Following on from the end of Kill the Moon, Clara implies that this might be her last time travelling with the Doctor. “I can’t do this any more,” Clara admits. “Not the way you do this.” One of the more interesting changes in the Moffat era is the way that the show has radically altered the relationship between Doctor and companion, to the point where it is hard to imagine a companion departure scene playing the same way as it did in the Davies era, where Jack and Martha just wander off at the end of The Last of the Time Lords, or a catastrophe is required to part the leads.

With only the departure of Amy and Rory in The Angels Take Manhattan to serve as an example, the new dynamic creates any number of intriguing possibilities for a departure. Although hastily re-written when Jenna-Louise Coleman decided to stay on another season, Last Christmas offers a glimpse of one possible mode of departure; a friendship between the Doctor and his companion that might actually last a life-time. Mummy on the Orient Express teases another.

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After all, the Davies era seemed to treat travelling with the Doctor as a companion’s whole life. So it made sense that companions like Rose, Martha and Donna travelled with the Doctor until that became impossible. With companions like Amy, River and Clara travelling with the Doctor in their spare time, there is more room for interesting resolutions. Here, the Doctor and Clara make a conscious decision to end their damaged relationship in a dignified and grown-up manner. They don’t want the relationship to end messily; or badly. One “last hurrah” together.

Would Clara simply decide to stop travelling with the Doctor? Would the Doctor just stop visiting her? Would they stay in touch via phone calls or emails or anything that mundane? Moffat’s work on Doctor Who has revamped the dynamic between the Doctor had his companions dramatically, and it’s fascinating to see whether the show still feels tied to the same sort of narrative logic that had to banish Amy and Rory to ancient New York to keep them out of the TARDIS in The Angels Take Manhattan.

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After all, the Ninth Doctor boasted that he doesn’t “do domestic.” But the Doctor has changed and grown. He has married. He has accepted two of his companions as mother-and-father-in-law. He has broken that old crib out of storage for a child conceived in the TARDIS. And, yet, Clara cannot help but get the sense that this might still be a very final sort of ending. Half-heartedly, and hoping for affirmation, she suggests, “I mean, it’s not like I’m never going to see you again.”

Of course, Mummy on the Orient Express draws attention how disconnected all of this drama is from the world of the Doctor. Clara’s other life is as alien to him as he is to her. The Doctor marvels at her ability to be both happy and sad at the same time, and seems decidedly uncomfortable when she talks about her complex feelings towards him. As she works through those conflicted emotions, he tries to rush her along. “Good, fine. Well, I’m glad that we cleared that up.” When she’s finished, he asks, a little fatigued just from listening, “Can I talk about the planets now?”

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There’s a sense that the Doctor has no idea how to deal with human emotions. Even his attempt to fix his relationship with Clara involves taking her to a space train haunted by a killer mummy. “You knew this was dangerous,” Clara accuses at one point. “I didn’t know,” the Doctor insists, defensively. “I hoped.” Discussing the wonders of space flight, Professor Moorhouse observes, “Up here, in the stars, anything is possible.” As with his remarks about the “deep and lovely dark” in Listen, it seems that Doctor very much believes that, above any bond with humanity.

Towards the end of Mummy on the Orient Express, Clara ponders if he might be “addicted” to the adventurous lifestyle. He just evades the question. As with Kill the Moon and The Caretaker before it, Capaldi offers a truly alien version of the lead character – one who has great difficulty connecting to people, understanding them, comforting them. Again, the comparisons to Tom Baker invite themselves, right down to a cigarette case packed with gummy bears.

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Capaldi even allows his Scottish accent to slip into a more general northern accent as he monologues to himself inside his cabin. Offering a subtle vocal impression of Baker, he converses with himself. “Because you know what this sounds like, don’t you? No, do tell me. A mummy that only the victim can see. I was being rhetorical. I know exactly what this sounds like.” It is endearing to think that the Doctor occasionally consults with his earlier incarnations, like a more relaxed regeneration trauma. Murdering Mummy on a train? Consult the Fourth Doctor!

The Doctor here is portrayed as cynical and detached when it comes to death, in keeping with his conduct in Into the Dalek and Time Heist. When the mummy stalks its victims, the Doctor is unwilling to offer comfort or assurances – he is candid about his attempts to use the dead (or the soon-to-be-dead) to help the living. “You can see this thing,” he urges. “We can’t. Even the smallest detail could help us save the next one.” When those around him are horrified, he explains, “We do not have time to mourn.”

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The Twelfth Doctor’s callousness has been somewhat polarising among viewers. However, it offers an effective counterpoint to the effusive emotional natures of the Tenth or Eleventh Doctors. Just because the Twelfth Doctor does not express himself in the same way does not mean that he is completely beyond sympathy or vulnerability. He is, perhaps, just more pragmatic in his outlook. “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you have to choose.” Feeling bad about the choice does not change it, after all.

Capaldi’s performance is fantastic. The actor tends to internalise a lot of the Twelfth Doctor’s emotional volatility. It closes the character off from the audience, but suggests a rich inner life. Just because the Twelfth Doctor does not flail or yell, do not assume that he is emotionless. The Doctor’s behaviour towards Clara and Courtney in Kill the Moon might just be the character’s most passive aggression and emotionally immature conduct since The Waters of Mars or The End of Time.

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The Twelfth Doctor’s restrained pragmatism extends into his relationship with Clara. “So, you were pretending to be heartless?” she asks him after they rescue the survivors from the Orient Express. The Doctor is as evasive as ever, instead turning the question back on Clara. “Would you like to think that about me?” he asks. “Would it make it easier?” His introductory sequence in Deep Breath established the Twelfth Doctor as an iteration of the character fascinated by appearance; unable to clearly identify others and perhaps unable to be clearly identified by others.

There is a compelling ambiguity to the Twelfth Doctor, as the show invites viewers to make what they will of him. After all, there is a debate to be had about the Doctor’s conduct towards Clara on the Orient Express, the way that he tries to avoid embroiling her in the mystery while satisfying his own curiousity. Is he simply trying to avoid her potential anger at him? Is he an addict trying to conceal his self-destructive behaviour? Or is he genuinely trying to conscientious and considerate? There’s a lot of ambiguity there, and a lot of room for discussion.

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Similarly, the show injects some ambiguity into the relationship between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara. The Caretaker seemed to suggest an almost paternal dynamic in his disapproval of Danny Pink; the closing line of Time Heist suggested the Doctor might see himself competing with Danny. Mummy on the Orient Express seems to play with the idea of romantic tension between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara. This is not the story of a father or uncle bidding farewell to a young female relative; this is trying to gently end an affair.

Interestingly, while The Caretaker had Danny ask Clara if she “loved” the Doctor, and why she “eloped” with him, Mummy on the Orient Express has Clara introduce the idea of romantic subtext. As she has second thoughts about leaving, she asks Danny, “So, what are you saying? Just because he brought me somewhere cool, I shouldn’t dump him?” It is Danny who falls back into the position of denying any romantic association. “Well,” Danny states, “you can’t dump him because he’s not your boyfriend.”

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The idea of a romantic angle to the relationship is reiterated in Clara’s later conversation with Maisie in the storage carriage. “This Doctor is your what exactly…?” Maisie asks Clara at one point. “He’s not my anything,” Clara clarifies rather quickly. It seems to hark back to the confusion and defensiveness associated with the relationship between the Doctor and his companions during the Davies era. While never s pronounced during Moffat’s tenure, it is hard to completely dispel that lingering tension.

In fact, the script even plays up the idea. When Clara finally has enough of the Doctor’s behaviour, she stands up to him like a partner who has endured too much betrayal in the past. “This is why I’m leaving you. This. Because you lied. You lied to me, again.” Fidelity and trust; the cornerstones of the relationship. Mummy on the Orient Express is keenly aware of the implications; there are some interesting editing choices in the final conversation between Clara and Danny. The Doctor visibly flinches when Clara says that she loves Danny.

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It is interesting that the show is acknowledging and even flirting with a potential romantic entanglement. Another oft-overlooked facet of the Moffat era is the way that the show is willing to subvert a lot of the expectations of televisual romance. As with Matt Smith and Alex Kingston, there is an age difference between Peter Capaldi and Jenna Louise Coleman that would seem to rule out any potential romantic chemistry on a family television show. It is quite interesting to see a show willing to suggest that romance is not exclusive to twenty-somethings.

It is worth pausing to point out that this is not the same approach that the Davies era took towards characters like Jackie Tyler. Jackie Tyler’s sexual appetite was initially presented as something as a cruel punchline, right down to the Doctor’s rejection of her advances in Rose. While the show’s portrayal of Jackie Tyler mellowed, even Love and Monsters or Doomsday treated it as an affectionate gag. In contrast, Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi are treated as just as capable as any of their younger cast mates in almost any regard.

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The Mummy is a creature that feels like an archetypal Doctor Who monster. It is a classic movie monster handily explained with the vaguest technobabble. The script draws attention to the beast’s pulpy roots, pointing out the creature is not one classic monster, but two. “It’s not just a mummy, it’s a vampire. Metaphorically speaking.” It is described in the most general terms possible – “legend has it that if you see it, you’re a dead man.” We’re warned that “no matter how far you run, it’s always right there behind you.”

It is not governed the laws of the physical world. It is not confined by the geography of the set. The Mummy is capable of appearing whenever it needs to appear, unstoppable by doors or locks or weapons. As with a lot of the monsters associated with the Moffat era, the Mummy appears to be a story come to life rather than a rational scientific concept. As with the Silence or the Weeping Angels, it is a creature perfectly suited to the television format; it appears and disappears between cuts, powered by a logic outside the rules of the real world.

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When it comes to the monster, Mummy on the Orient Express even has a bit of fun at the series’ expense. Clara and Maisie are horrified when the sarcophagus seems to open. However, once they see what’s inside, they calm down a bit. “It’s full of bubble wrap,” Clara reports, a description that would apply to about half of the monsters who appeared in the classic television show, at least if you believe Stephen Fry’s oft-quoted observation about the series on Whose Line Is It Anyway?

This isn’t the episode’s only moment of self-awareness. Mummy on the Orient Express even alludes playfully to the recent Bechdel Test survey that determined Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who passed less frequently than Russell T. Davies’. The results have been questioned and debated, but it has become a touchstone for critics who argue that Moffat’s tenure is decidedly less feminist than that of his predecessor. (Of course, it should be stressed that such subjective measures are highly charged and debatable.)

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Here, Maisie and Clara wind up trapped in a train car together, and their conversation inevitably turns to the subject of the Doctor. Clara laughs it off. “We’re stuck in this carriage all night and all we can talk about is some man.” It seems like a knowing nod towards the famous test for cinema suggesting that female characters spend too much time talking about men. For what it’s worth, the episode has already passed at this point, with Clara and Maisie devoting considerable screen time to discussing Maisie’s relationship with her dead grandmother.

Speaking of social awareness and social conscience, it is worth noting that Mummy on the Orient Express pauses to explicitly acknowledge that psychological health. Working to figure out the strange creature stalking the train, the assembled scientists eventually figure out a pattern. “It’s picking off the weakest first,” we are told. “Sensing the illness somehow. The fake organs, even psychological issues.” Quell’s post-traumatic stress disorder and Maisie’s exhaustion are treated as just as substantial as physical injuries, something often overlooked on television.

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Mummy on the Orient Express is also notable for the introduction of Perkins, the almost-too-astute engineer on the Orient Express. With Clara spending time with Maisie, Perkins is paired up with the Doctor; in that time, Perkins demonstrated a commendable understanding of the role. Presenting the Doctor with the “passenger manifest, plan of the train and a list of stops for the past six months”, Perkins quickly proves quite essential to the whole operation. Suspiciously essential. Still, he deflects the Doctor’s suspicion well enough.

However, as with Danny Pink, Perkins is presented as another companion who actually declines the invitation to travel with the Doctor. Inviting Perkins to help do some engineering on the TARDIS, the Doctor suggests, “Well, I suppose, whoever I did get in, it might just be easier to have them stay on board for a while. I don’t suppose you’d know of anyone?” This is perhaps the most emotionally candid that the Twelfth Doctor has been at this point in the series. Perkins declines, “No. Sorry, Doctor, but I don’t think I do. That job could change a man.”

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Frank Skinner does great work in the supporting role. In fact, given the broader themes of the season – like the idea of missing what is right in front of you in episodes like Deep Breath or Dark WaterMummy on the Orient Express seems to hint that Perkins might actually be the villain of the episode. The Twelfth Doctor briefly entertains the notion, but is quickly countered by Perkins. It would be particularly tragic if the Doctor had saved the villain of the piece and even invited him to travel on the TARDIS.

Mummy on the Orient Express is very clever, very astute and very well-observed script. It’s another demonstration of just how strong this season has been.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

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9 Responses

  1. This season has taken Doctor Who to some uncomfortable places, ironic for the “minimalism” theme. I’m on tenderhooks this year; not because of the Netherspehre arc, but how the Doctor and Clara’s relationship is going to end. By only slightly tweaking Lady Batholomew’s line from TNG’s “Ship in a Bottle”, we can summarize Coleman’s relationship with him thusly:

    “He is an exciting man, Danny. Brilliant, incisive… ruthless. He has an almost irresistible appeal.”

    Davies put forth the idea that the Doctor is too dangerous and alien for ordinary people to come into contact with, often resulting in their death. Companions are rendered immune from that, often resulting in a kind of godhood which elevates them among the great, cutting themselves off from real life concerns and causing their old lives to wither away (see also Ace in Big Finish). Moffat combines these two interpretations with his own habitual indulgence in raw sex, and the end product is a playboy adventurer who steals peoples’ girlfriends with no real effort because he is so damn suave and enigmatic . And Clara is the deluded woman who doggedly tries to domesticate him.

    I’m having a problem reconciling these two facets of the Doctor’s persona. He’s a cold and remote God and also a…sugar daddy? I dunno, I think it harms the character. Much like how Colin’s tenure was bookended with his crass treatment of Peri. They need to get a male companion back in here double-quick. Or at least another Donna!

    • The show could always use another Donna! (Who is probably my favourite all-time companion, although Romana is pretty close.)

      I’m not sure I’d argue that Clara is trying to domesticate him. I think she accepts that he won’t change. She might want him to, but I think she accepts in a way that (say) Rose (and the other Davies era companions) didn’t that this is just who the Doctor is. I don’t think Clara expects him to settle down, and I think she knows that she can’t travel with him forever. She’s deluding herself, but she seems more in tune with reality than Rose/Martha/Donna. I don’t think Clara ever thinks he’ll be her boyfriend or that they’ll travel together forever, but she also thinks that one more trip (or two more or three more…) won’t hurt.

      Interesting you should mention Baker. I think there’s an argument to be made that the production team are doing something vaguely like what Saward wanted to do with Colin Baker. Except that they have the ability to actually pull it off. Which sounds mean, but… feck it. (There’s also an argument to be made that Christopher Eccleston is Colin Baker 2.0, except a better actor with better writers. That would make sense, given Bad Wolf is basically “Vengeance on Varos” meets “Revelation of the Daleks” on speed.)

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  3. I still find Danny wooden and unlikable but otherwise that was much better than last week – no Courtney!

    Is just me or does the show keep teasing us with the possibility of a Companion who ISN’T a 21st century London female but from the past or future? I didn’t expect Frank Skinner to join the Tardis but the possibility of a Jamie or Leela is tantalising.

    • Yep. Although I’ve warmed to Clara a great deal since Deep Breath – okay, maybe since Time of the Doctor, which I re-watched recently is quite wonderful when I figured out what it was – the Victorian Clara was an infuriating tease. Viewers aren’t idiots. They can deal with a character outside their frame of reference. Captain Jack got his own spin-off after all.

      And Frank Skinner was really great. Didn’t want to put this in the review, because I don’t know, but I really hope they find a way to bring him back. Part of me suspects there’s more to him than meets the eye. Could he be Gus? As with every guest star of note since the show came back, could he be the Master?

      • Honestly, Clara is a dress-up doll whose likeability is correlative with whatever costume she’s throwing on next. Am I human? Do I enjoy seeing Coleman’s rear bumper in silk PJs? Yes. (and she’s not even my type.) But one senses the production team knows this on some level – after all, Moffat is a dedicated shipper himself, and he’s not to proud to play to the stands with overtly fetishizing his cast. That’s fine, but Clara is the first companion since Nicola who has virtually no substance beyond that. Even Leeta can’t make that claim! Every time she turns up in a new cosplay my eyes roll so far back that they turn inward.

      • I don’t know.

        I would have agreed entirely with you be the end of the seventh season – where I think the attempt to play a clever trick on the audience backfired fairly spectacularly – you can’t blame the audience for thinking Clara is a trick rather than a character when you spend the year telling us that she’s a trick, particularly not in the midst of a celebratory fiftieth anniversary season.

        However, I think the eighth season has done a good job with her. Moffat isn’t quite as deft at characterisation as Davies was, but I think that Clara has become significantly better defined over the course of the last eight episodes – particularly from Listen onwards.

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