Mummy on the Orient Express

Story No. 270 Baby Dragon!
Production Code Series 8, Episode 8
Dates October 11, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Jamie Matheson Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: A mummy is loose on the Orient Express. In space.


The Last Hurrah? by Donna Bratley 5/9/17

Right, so where were we?

Ah, yes: Clara dumped the Doctor in a tantrum of epic proportions at the end of Kill the Moon (one of the few missteps of the series; I'll expand further when I can force myself to watch it again). And now she's dolled up to the nines and stepping out onto a beautiful Art Deco space train with the Doctor. A final fling, she says. Well, that's what we all do with people we've effectively kicked out of our lives, isn't it?

Maisie Pitt, despite the trauma caused by the grisly demise of her tyrannical old granny, makes the point commendably; even Danny Pink can see a flaw in his girlfriend's logic, and tellingly he's not exactly begging her to come back to earth for good. In fact, he's admirably restrained and pragmatic, given the animosity we've seen previously between Clara's leading men.

"Not dangerous" he says happily, right before she gets stuck in the luggage car with an extremely creepy sarcophagus while her companions are being stalked by, we're led to assume, its permanent occupant. That's travelling with the Doctor in a nutshell.

I adore this episode. The Twelfth Doctor, presented as an equivocal figure at times, is in full-on hero mode, however determined he is to disguise it. He's at the heart of a proper mystery, and it suits him as well as the formal attire he's taken on to match Clara's rather lovely beaded gown. We've got a good old-fashioned monster (that looks magnificent - properly scary) and a cast of boldly-drawn supporting characters/cannon fodder. I even liked Frank Skinner. (I'm still glad Perkins turned down the invitation though - there have to be limits somewhere!)

Jamie Mathieson doesn't waste time setting up his basic narrative, which is just as well because there's lots of juicy character stuff to get through. Every exchange between the Doctor and Clara is given suitable weight and breathing space, and it goes without saying that the lines are faultlessly delivered. That pained "can I talk about the planets now?" from Capaldi - not to mention the look on his face as he hears a few uncomfortable facts - is brilliant; as is Coleman's naive shock at the discovery that stopping travelling might actually mean never seeing the Doctor again. She gets a little gem at the start of that corridor scene: "Did a wizard put a curse on you about mini-breaks?" but there are a stack of those in this tightly-woven script. It's a long time since a new writer to the series has made such an impression.

It's good to see the Doctor talking to himself, fathoming things out (and in full Tom Baker mode - he even has a cigarette case of jelly babies! Have I mentioned that I absolutely love the Twelfth Doctor?), then giving in to his natural curiosity. It's lovely to watch him giving a figure of authority (David Bamber, who deserves every praise for his performance as the war-damaged but still dutiful Captain Quell) what-for; and the psychic paper getting a response he really doesn't expect is delightful too.

There's a genuine air of tension, abetted by the countdown clock - as a concept, profoundly annoying; in retrospect, a stroke of genius - and some fine death scenes among the supporting cast, but nothing is allowed to overshadow the heart of the episode, which is the drama of the Doctor and Clara.

She might rage, but Clara does exactly as the Doctor tells her and she's fully aware of the consequences, whether she's prepared to admit it or not. He takes responsibility for his actions, even down to cheerfully admitting he hoped their visit would prove dangerous: she doesn't necessarily do the same. As the episode ends, we see her doing precisely what she objects to in others: flagrantly lying, both to Danny and the Doctor in almost the same moment.

I'm not sorry she does, given Clara's ongoing development from convenient plot device to honest, generally likeable human being. From being half the plot in her early episodes - a pretty face barely imbued with personality traits - Miss Oswald has taken on plenty through Series 8: she has good points and bad, and often it's the latter which make characters most interesting. The control freak has compassion and courage; she's also capable of oblivious self-absorption and a momentary disregard for other peoples' sensibilities. It's not always admirable, but it feels very real.

There's also that snappy, sparky connection that Jenna Coleman has with Peter Capaldi to consider. They're glorious together, whether they're squabbling, sharing a joke, or soberly reflecting on the realities of the Doctor's chosen life.

Their scene on the beach is all the better for being a quiet, understated look at what it is to bear that burden - to be the man who faces the unpalatable and beats it. The one in the TARDIS that follows is utterly joyous despite (or possibly because of) the ruthless deception practised on Danny. That Clara can ask about the addictive nature of his lifestyle without making the obvious connection to her own experience is absurd, touching and altogether credible. That the Doctor recognises her symptoms better than she does serves as a reminder that he is always at least one step ahead. He has been throughout the episode, and that's what makes it so much fun.

If I'm going to be critical... who set the whole thing up? Who or what is GUS? Where did the ancient soldier come from? They're tiny quibbles, and when the real world doesn't always make sense, why should fiction? The Doctor saved the day with his wits and his heart. He reminded his companion how brilliantly heroic he can be, and he displayed the compassion tempered with realism that's become this incarnation's hallmark, raising a laugh ("Are you my mummy?") along the way.

Great script, great direction, great performances. When you have all three, you have a classic. Mummy on the Orient Express sits comfortably in that category for me.

"Infinity welcomes careful drivers" by Thomas Cookson 24/5/19

When this aired, I'd moved into shared supported accommodation with recovering drug addicts and winos, who decided between them to get boozed up this particular Saturday.

The living room I watched this in quickly became a noisy, frightening doss den. It was impossible to concentrate, but a blend of stubbornness and paralysing fear made me stay to the end. I tried ignoring the chaos, avoiding any interaction with the others and forming some kind of review analysis in my head. My verdict was that it was unsatisfying, flashy, wafer-thin 'rubbish'.

Fandom's largely positive reactions made me wonder if I'd missed something. So I gave this a rewatch and found it better than I remembered. But it still didn't quite break even with me.

There's the sense that somewhere in here's the makings of the long-sought Doctor Who movie, moreso than The Doctor's Wife, Remembrance of the Daleks or State of Decay.

Trouble is, it's ruthlessly cut short, bogged down in the season-arc business in the strangest way. Like Let's Kill Hitler failing to address the previous episode's anticipation becomes more jarring than bringing the story to a halt to address everything would've been. It felt very rushed, with the characters undeveloped.

Series 8 was seemingly working to an understandable plan until here. An arc where Clara becomes increasingly alienated from Capaldi's Doctor until she finally walks out. Kill the Moon's conclusion seemed to matter hugely. Would Clara's separation from Capaldi last throughout until the finale? I was riveted for what would follow.

Last week's trailer seemed to show Capaldi riding solo here, which proved a lie. I even expected he'd be teaming up with Foxes as this story's surrogate companion. I felt Capaldi could really benefit from that change of dynamic.

If Clara re-encountered or patched things up with Capaldi, surely they'd make a big deal out of it. How would that awkward reunion play out? What would they say or feel toward each other? I wanted to see that happen. Maybe Clara would've missed him after her tirade or come to a brave catharsis about their fallout.

Yet instead this story skips that and carries on as normal with them back travelling together again. So nondescript is her return appearance I had to squint to tell beneath her flapper make-over that it's actually her, rather than some other bit of skirt Capaldi picked up elsewhere. Jenna Coleman tries to salvage the clunky expositional dialogue she gets to explain how and why she changed her mind offscreen and they're BFF's again, but to no avail.

What's the point of them falling out in the first place if they were just going to get over it like that? Even doing one episode beforehand with them still apart would've shown some consequences. You wouldn't even need to show the reunion; the exposition above would suffice so long as they'd been apart.

Is Moffat deliberately fannying around, or was he rushed for time and found he couldn't reconstruct the season or rework the scripts to show consequences to their rift when this script already assumed the status quo would be unchanged? It makes Kill the Moon's denouement worthless. We were interested to see where things would go afterwards, but turns out we shouldn't have bothered caring.

So we continue our voyage through the stars aboard a train traversing space and whistling loudly. Criticisms of the implausible science are usually met with fanboy snark over how the show's premise is of a space-time craft that's bigger on the inside and a hero with a changing face.

For me, the discrepancy between Classic and New Who's implausibilities is that the TARDIS is a technological marvel. It conjures our wonder at the frontier possibilities of human engineering. The momentous enormity of the concept dwarfs the scientific logic. But New Who's cartoon logic simply feels forced, slapdash and contrived. Dodgy science seems to infiltrate stories in the same craftless, tactless manner as soap material, soapboxing moments and celebrity cameos, betraying a patronising treatment of viewers' intellects.

With Mummy on the Orient Express, the titular train steaming noisily through the stars just looks a cartoon. Were the train running on actual train track in space several light years long, connecting distant worlds, I'd be impressed at such a mindboggling, impossible feat of engineering. It'd probably be my favourite idea this season. Instead, it barely supersedes its silly, glib novelty.

Foxes' presence is another example of false advertising. Obviously her presence is stunt casting, like Kylie in Voyage of the Damned. But gradually the thought of Foxes being in the show genuinely intrigued me, seeming a worthy one-off marriage.

I could imagine Foxes bringing real character to this. She's a quirky personality who'd sit right at home in this surreal show. In fact, 'Clarity' almost perfectly describes Name of the Doctor's climax and raw 'feels'. In interviews, she described how well she got on with Capaldi, and I looked forward to seeing their onscreen dynamic.

Except they never have one. She's onscreen for barely five seconds and doesn't have a single line of dialogue. She gets to sing, and maybe if she'd contributed a song characteristic of her lyrical gift for touching on painful truths it might have been worthwhile. Instead, she sings a karaoke version of Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now', which doesn't do more than drift into background music.

Capaldi is paired instead with Frank Skinner's Perkins. A caricature of a stoker who makes a rather too quickly convenient ally. Clara is paired with Maisie, the first victim's granddaughter. A cliched drip who makes Tallulah look substantial, and their interactions together largely revolve around blatantly failing the Bechdel test. It would've helped if the story established greater and wider stakes than the fates of these passengers alone.

My main frustration involved the decision to present a literal ticking clock accompanying each murder. Suspense is a delicate art, whereby a strong, dense mixture of acting, writing and directing puts us completely with the threatened characters, hanging on their every breath as they try to escape death. Jurassic Park or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes weren't just compelling viewing because of their special effects, but by what the actors and directors expertly did with their material.

Siskel and Ebert notoriously hated 80's slasher flicks, considering them a grotty, nasty, depressing viewing experience where the camera leers sadistically on each doomed female before the predictable kill. They did highlight John Carpenter's Halloween as a beautiful exception that made its female lead proactive, resourceful quick-witted. How Carpenter frames her final stand in a way that places the viewer in her shoes, sharing her elation at surviving rather than being helpless or gloating over each victim's miserable fate.

Maybe the actors and director are doing their best here, but I can hardly tell because the loud animated presence of that bloody pop-up countdown in the corner's so utterly annoying and distracting when the focus absolutely needs to be on the acting. There's almost no anticipation for if and when they're going to die, when the countdown tells me exactly when it'll happen. It turns each ordeal into a noisy, craftless annoyance that I just want over with. The experience is more gruelling than stake-raising.

How did Moffat, once touted as Who's master of suspense and horror, not see what a bad idea this constant distracting point of focus was? I mean, I know Moffat lost all ability to stop and think whether something was a good idea before putting to screen, circa Let's Kill Hitler. His era has shown a progressive shift from an emphasis on horror suspense to insipid in-jokes. In this case, riffing clumsily on 24's gimmick at all the wrong dramatic points.

Frustratingly, the story otherwise has lots going for it. There are long patches where Clara and the Doctor are separated, giving Capaldi a proper chance to stand alone and shine without being made second fiddle to soap material or the butt of comedy about being the uncool grumpy granddad a la Robot of Sherwood.

Capaldi finally seems to be making his mark. Whether offering passengers a cigarette case of jelly babies, gauging information about the mythical Foretold or talking each victim through their final moments to get a description of the mummy whilst breaking it to them that they're not going to make it (it helps Capaldi has a high-class actor to work with in Christopher Villiers). This finally sets up the beautiful moment where Capaldi defies our and Clara's worst fears by saving Maisie and revealing his gambit to use her and let her die was a ploy to fool Gus.

The scant characterisation actually gives the story a nice efficient streamlined quality that should serve it well, and by the second half its muddy issues are overcome, and it's firing on all thrusters. Unfortunately, the ending feels especially rushed, just as things were getting interesting. Had this been a more spacious two-parter, I feel this could've been something really special and old school, rather than only in potencia.

Gus is hinted as being a Fenric-esque villain, leading the Doctor into traps to settle some ancient mental duel. But the story doesn't have enough time or impact to establish such a game-changing foe effectively. The resolution's sloppily rushed. The need to make room for Clara's final dilemma leaves no satisfying closure over the ambiguous hints over whether or not Capaldi actually saved the other passengers before we cut away. Which is needlessly annoying at the wrong point.

The final scene sees Clara turning into a compulsive liar, who deceives Capaldi by pretending Danny said something completely different over the phone, seconds after ending the call. But why? There's not a reason I can think for why she can't tell them both the truth when they've afforded her enough freedom to live her dual life. I'm afraid this was where Clara, and the show, took a turn for the irredeemable for me.

For comparison's sake, I found myself rewatching Leon: The Professional, which centres around the maladjusted orphan Matilda, who, despite her reckless, irresponsible behaviour (the film's death toll largely brought about by her instigation and appetite for destruction), we can't help but love. Much like Clara, she warmly brings our cold, alienated loner hero to life. But she's also, like Clara, a troublesome compulsive liar.

So if I can tolerate Matilda, then why not Clara? Well perhaps Leon's violent setting allows us to feel reassured those hoodlums and police might've been fated to die regardless. Matilda's a messed-up character who's suffered a hellish life and lost her family. We know her compulsive lying's a cry for help, based on self-preservation. Her reckless behaviour based on desperation for justice (and rage at its absence) that we also want to see done. Finally having freedom from her father's tyranny and not knowing what to do with it. Matilda represents many a vulnerable inner-city youth. The film stacks everything against our protagonists and has them over the movie's length begging to be loved despite their faults.

Clara comparatively has had a relatively easy life and career. She wasn't a troublesome toxic liar or any of these things before, so why is she now? We're not watching Clara come to appreciate anything through these experiences with Capaldi, whom she often physically abuses and shows little gratitude toward, even whilst being addicted to TARDIS life. We're not remotely in synch with her increasingly unstable, toxic behaviour.

We hate that she's capable of fooling the trusting Doctor. In fact, it's clear in hindsight she's only lying here to show us that she can lie, so her ultimate treachery in Dark Water doesn't seem unprecedented. That's why her duplicitous actions baffled and alienated us, because they don't serve an honest character purpose. But Moffat, in his seeming narcissism, thinks everyone lives by his inflexible social contracts and that Clara lying her way around Danny's promise is more dramatically interesting than Doctor Who itself.