The preview at the end of last week’s episode left me with the impression that this might be a “companion-lite” episode. Especially given that the Doctor and Clara parted on, well, bad terms at the end of the previous story. So you can imagine my surprise when the TARDIS arrives on the Orient Express and the Doctor and Clara walk out, seemingly as friendly as ever. At first, I thought that this didn’t bode well for the episode; however, it turns out that “Mummy on the Orient Express” was exactly the kind of episode I was hoping for. It was fun, yet creepy, and still managed to deepen my understanding of the characters and their relationships.
The story begins with the Doctor and Clara setting out on their final adventure. One last trip, before Clara gives up her “hobby” and focuses on Danny and her normal life. The Doctor has taken Clara to the Orient Express…in space. It’s a faithful recreation of the famous train, down to the period costumes worn by all the passengers. Their final trip is far from peaceful, however, since there is a mummy-like creature, called the Foretold, who can only be seen by a person 66 seconds before it kills them. As the passengers are dying one by one, the Doctor, and the other experts purposely recruited for this voyage, must solve the mystery of the Foretold, before there’s no one left.
What really made this episode work for me was the story. It managed to span a range of emotions without seeming disjointed. The scenes where the Foretold appears to its victims were genuinely creepy and the idea of “starting the clock” for each victim provided a heightened feeling of suspense. In contrast to the creepiness of the Foretold, the conversation between the Doctor and Clara when they first boarded the train was actually rather sweet and touching. I loved how Clara was attempting to discuss her feelings, but this made the Doctor uncomfortable, so he just wanted to avoid them and talk about the planets instead. Additionally, despite covering some serious subjects, there was also a lot of humor peppered throughout and the overall tone stayed light.
Another aspect that made the story work were the colorful supporting characters. Although they were not all given a great deal of screen time, the supporting characters were memorable, so I cared when the Foretold came to claim them. I especially enjoyed David Bamber as the conductor, who really made an impression with limited screen time. Frank Skinner as Perkins was also fun to watch, but I was left wondering a bit about his character. Did anybody else notice that he didn’t really directly interact with anyone but the Doctor? I spent most of the episode wondering if he really existed. I’m assuming the character was a real person, since the Doctor invited him to travel with him on the TARDIS, but his lack of interactions with others stood out to me. Maybe it was reflecting a class issue, since he was a member of the crew, not a passenger or management?
Another key to the episode’s success, was the effectiveness of the Foretold, both visually and narratively. I loved the look of it, and I thought the look went along with the image of what the Foretold actually was, a soldier who should be long dead, but is kept alive thanks to old technology. Plot-wise, revealing who the Foretold actually was worked for me as well. I know there’s a lot that wasn’t explained, but the Doctor managed to solve the mystery around the Foretold to a satisfying conclusion, even if there are a few loose threads at which you could pick (like how did the legends know that there was a word that would make it stop…).
The main unresolved plot point for me was who exactly was Gus? Was he simply a computer that was out of control? If not, who was behind him? What happened to Gus at the end is a bit up in the air, so will we learn more about this in the future? And how did he know who the Doctor was? Will this connect back to Missy or something in the finale? Will this reappear at some point, or is this simply an oversight that will never be addressed? Seeing as how often Moffat has gone back to re-address something that I thought was left unresolved in the past, I’m curious to see if Gus is ever referenced again (and maybe due to my childhood love of Whose Line is it Anyway? I wouldn’t mind the return of John Sessions)
While this episode was a rather lighthearted one, it still links with many of the overarching themes this season; first, it plays into the soldier theme of the season. With the Foretold being a soldier still fighting a long-ended war, this is the second antagonist in three episodes who is a lost soldier looking for orders (which the Doctor provides). This places the Doctor as a commanding officer, just like Danny said he was, so I can’t believe that this is just a coincidence. I also could see in this episode the parallel (that I’m not completely fond of) between the Doctor as delivering orders to Clara. One of my problems with “Kill the Moon” was the fact that Clara was so reliant on the Doctor to tell her what to do, when I’ve seen her as very independent and wiling to think for herself. In this episode, I was struck by the part where the Doctor wants Clara to bring Maisie (the next victim) to him. He tells Clara to lie to her, to tell her that the Doctor can save her, and Clara objects to this. However, a moment later, she does it. It made me wonder if these last few episodes are positioning Clara as a “soldier” lost without orders from the Doctor.
Besides seeing some parallels between Clara and the Foretold, I saw some parallels between Clara and the Doctor. The final scene in the TARDIS establishes that both Clara and the Doctor are addicts, addicted to the exciting lifestyle they have. The Doctor went on the train hoping for trouble, because a pleasant trip would be boring. Clara, when faced with the fact that her time with the Doctor is over, can’t handle it and decides to go on traveling with him, like an addict who can’t stop. Clara has also become just as adept as the Doctor at lying, which this episode shows. The Doctor has often kept things from Clara lately (like the fact that he suspected trouble on the train), but this episode shows that Clara is his equal in fabrication. In the aforementioned scene from my previous paragraph, Clara is able to lie to Maisie with ease, and at the end she lies to both Danny and the Doctor to avoid giving up her travels with the Doctor.
Which, of course, leads me to the other big issue dealt with in this story, the Clara/Danny/Doctor situation. While I have had some problems with Clara in the past few episodes, I was liking her again here. Probably this had to do with the fact that her loyalty seemed to swing a bit more towards the Doctor again, which helps since I am generally going to side with the Doctor (unless you are torn between Rory and the Doctor, in which case I say that I will go with Rory every time, because Rory is awesome). I’m not sure that I like how this episode positions the Clara/Doctor/Danny dynamic, however, because it does seem to frame it as another triangle (like the Amy/Rory/Doctor one), and it didn’t start out that way at all. The good friends/equals that the Doctor and Clara were at the beginning of the season shifted to a more paternal dynamic in “The Caretaker,” and becomes almost romantic here.
Furthermore, I am going to be very annoyed if Clara has any more “wobbles,” like she did in the last episode. Clara’s actions here, however, I think take away a lot of the moral high ground she’s been holding over the Doctor; she is now lying to both Danny and the Doctor and I don’t see this working out well for her. I just hope that Moffat isn’t setting her up for a big fall.
Of course, I couldn’t discuss this episode without acknowledging the references to the past. Echoes of Tom Baker resounded through the episode, from the cigar case of jelly babies to the return of mummies as an antagonist, last seen in “The Pyramids of Mars.” Also like “The Pyramids of Mars,” the Doctor’s reaction to death was a topic of discussion again. Much like when Sarah Jane took the Doctor to task for not caring when Professor Scarman killed his brother, others criticize the Doctor for his rather cold reaction to the deaths in this episode. However, the same point is made that the Doctor is operating from a practical, clinical position; if he grieves the deaths of the people he’s met, he is losing time over something he can’t change; by focusing on the problem, he can possibly prevent other deaths from occurring. It’s clear that he is not going to be the cuddly eleventh Doctor, but he does care about human life; he’s doing his best to save as many people as he can.
Overall, this is one of my favorite episodes of the season so far. It deepened my understanding of the characters, while still being entertaining. After being disappointed by the last few stories, this was the perfect episode to remind me of what I love about the show. It was a clever homage to the Agatha Christie type murder mystery (the murder of people in a confined space, dying off one by one…), but in a completely Doctor Who way. How many other shows could pull off a mummy…on the Orient Express? While I may have some concerns about where some of the seeds planted in this episode are going, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. I felt this season had a bit of a wobble in the past few episodes, so I’m hoping this means that the show is back on track. And in better shape than Clara…