Doctor Who #955: Mummy on the Orient Express

"Sometimes there are only bad choices. But you still have to choose."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.11 2014.

IN THIS ONE... 66 seconds on the clock before the mummy catches up to you aboard a train... in... SPAAAACE!!!

REVIEW: Remember that phone call at the end of The Big Bang? Well it seems like Doc11 and the newlyweds didn't go to the Orient Express in space to deal with that Egyptian goddess. Doc12 finally takes care of it here, in what is meant to be Clara's last trip aboard the TARDIS. He knew it was a trap all along, see, which isn't doing wonders for their failing relationship. Taken for its one-off qualities, Mummy (and yes, there's an obligatory "are you my mummy?" joke) is a a great little tale with a cool-looking, classic monster, complete with rules like the best monsters of the Moffat era do. The 66-second countdown (actually 67) the viewer can see is a great tension builder, as is the cramped set (this is more than just another Titanic in space thing), and the way the Doctor works it all out is brilliant stuff. He's a scientist, so he uses the scientific method, even if it means being rather cold and clinical. There's just no time for grief before the mummy attacks again. And ultimately, he makes good on his boast that he can defeat the monster in 66 seconds by placing himself in danger to save another. It means the resolution is quite quick, too quick, which isn't to say too easy. He just talks so fast, you need a repeat viewing to actually catch it. As it turns out, the mummy is another soldier - we've had many this season, including the train's captain suffering from PTSD - this one seeking an officer to put him to rest. And guess who Danny JUST tagged as an officer?

But it's the Doctor-Clara relationship that really stands out. They are each lying to the other. The Doctor desperately wants this NOT to be their last trip together and deftly plays on her addiction to excitment and danger. She calls him on HIS addiction, but she's the one who can't give up the life. Changing her mind, but not willing to admit she was wrong, she throws Danny under the bus and says quitting was his idea, and that HE'S changed his mind. All lies, but the kind the Doctor is more than willing to accept, if not believe. He's won this round, and the prize is Clara's continued company. Perhaps he understands humans more than he lets on and capitalizes on her sad smile (or emotional malfunction as he puts it). Perhaps he doesn't, as this Doctor tends to exhibit symptoms one associates with Asperger's (asp burgers? what's with the Egyptian theme?), but still understands Clara through her Doctorishness. It's through those traits that he secures her cooperation.

It's a terrific episode for Capaldi, not just in the crunch when he's being brave, clever, callous and calculating, but in the quiet moments too. He can't sleep in his cabin trying to calculate the odds of danger striking. He compromises Clara and forces her to lie to Maisie (she'll pull a Tennant and be so sorry by the end, which means more Doctor osmosis). He's got great dry humor (like the old ladies' job description). He touches on the lesson Clara just learned in Kill the Moon, saying bad choices still force you to choose, which obviously comes with a toll. The best scene, however, is the one on the beach, where the passengers' survival is ambiguous. He SAYS he saved them all, but by the time Clara wakes up, they've all be dropped off. Only Perkins, a pretty cool character with his own dry sense of humor (I'd like to imagine him as a recurring character, puttering around the TARDIS while the action is going on outside, but alas...), is present later to prove he's telling the truth. Maybe. But the Doctor's weak laugh makes us wonder. Is he telling the truth by couching it in a joke? I do that all the time! And if he lies to Clara, which I choose to believe he does, then she's doing the same thing he does later: She CHOOSES to believe him, because the reverse is intolerable and would effectively terminate their friendship. If it helps her to think he only ACTS like he's heartless, then that's what he'll tell her. And so they go off into the time vortex both lying to one another and to themselves. (Oh, and to Danny.)

- A lot of great moments, and it's all somehow wrapped in the season's motifs and themes. A great, great Capaldi episode.


Anonymous said...

Nothing but good to say about this one. I can watch the mummy attacking the Doctor over and over.

"But the Doctor's weak laugh makes us wonder. Is he telling the truth by couching it in a joke?"

That laugh was the thing I loved most about this episode: it revealed how the Doctor was still worried about what Clara thought of him. Facing down a legendary unstoppable killer, no problem. Fixing a teleporter before he runs out of air, business as usual. Clara not trusting him? Now that's something to worry about.

I'm not sure 9, 10, or 11 could have been so frank about letting people die, not because they didn't do it too (for lack of options), but because they were still dealing with the guilt of having destroyed Gallifrey. But 12 can face it. I'm reminded a tiny bit of "The Pyramids of Mars" when Sarah didn't think the Doctor was taking a recently murdered aristocrat's death seriously enough, and the Doctor reminded her that two other people (mere groundskeepers) had also died and a great many more will die if they don't focus.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

One of the best of this season, if not the best.

Siskoid said...

Anon: Yes, Pyramids of Mars was always on my mind during this episode (well, the Egyptian motif), but also during the whole series for exactly the reason you mention. While the 12th Doctor initially seemed closest to Pertwee, he's really turned out to have many of the fourth Doctor's traits.

Tim: The next episode is also a contender.

Martin Léger said...

I love this episode too. Its also kinda neat that Clara and the Doctor barely spend time together in this episode.

Ryan Lohner said...

This was just plain awesome, and oddly enough I even loved one aspect that usually makes me grind my teeth in frustration during Moffat's watch: how unclear it is whether the person who set this whole thing up got away scot free to never be seen again, or is being set up to return in a bigger role next series. My vote's for the Rani, simply because it's about time we saw her in NuWho.

dave said...

I'd just watched snowpiercer a day before this, so was in a train frame of mind. I'd be interested to see what ur thoughts were on the engineer? In the UK frank skinner is quite a well known comedy celeb and was a bit stunt casty. I liked his character, but it kept derailing me that it was frank!

Siskoid said...

No recognition factor (John Sessions as the voice of Max is another matter), so I thought he was a cool character with dry wit and a pleasant ambiguity. I would have liked to see more of him, not as a companion, but uniquely, as CREW, if he'd accepted the position the Doctor offered him.


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