Saturday, October 18, 2014

Doctor Who - Mummy on the Orient Express (S08E08)

Continuing a (probably) unintentional theme running throughout this series of Doctor Who, "Mummy on the Orient Express" starts out with a number of marks against it. The title is the obvious one, since it's built on a half-serviciable pun that is not quite as egregious as the one in "Robot of Sherwood", but only just, but more damning is the way that it starts out like any old episode. The cold open shows an elderly woman riding on a plush and fancy train getting killed by a horrifying mummy that only she can see, after which the camera pulls back to reveal that the train, despite its Gatsby-esque mid-'20s glamour, is actually traveling through space. Once the credits have played, The Doctor and Clara arrive on that same train, dressed up in their finest suit and elegant evening dress respectively, and reveal that the train is actually The Orient Express (or at least an Orient Express), and it becomes clear that they are going to get drawn into solving the mystery of what the mummy is and why it is killing people.

Now, that's all a perfectly fine set-up for an episode of Doctor Who, but I was trepidatious about it because the business as usual approach seemed like a betrayal of the ending of "Kill the Moon", which ended with the creation of a seemingly irreparable split in the Doctor/Clara dynamic. Starting the next episode by throwing them straight into another adventure seemed like the show falling back into the bad habit of treating major character moments as things to be forgotten. (Remember that time Amy and Rory witnessed their baby being kidnapped then went right back to having unrelated adventures with The Doctor?) But then The Doctor mentioned how Clara's smile was actually sad and melancholy, and it became apparent that the show wasn't going to forget about what happened in "Kill the Moon". This wasn't just another adventure; this was meant to be their final adventure together. A last hurrah for The Doctor and Clara, and a sad admission that he had done something that she may never fully forgive him for.

Obviously that was not the case; their adventure on the Orient Express led Clara to change her mind, and the pair will continue to travel among the stars for at least a little while longer. But in not only acknowledging that Clara had gone through an experience that caused her relationship with The Doctor to shift drastically, but also weaving that into the fabric of the episode, it further underlined what I've been saying about this series as a whole. Unlike the last couple of years, which tended to get bogged down in telling an overarching narrative at the expense of individual stories, the writers are now writing standalone stories that are linked together by the emotional journey of Clara and her changing dynamic with The Doctor.

That aspect of the episode only really comes into focus at the very end, though, even if it is bubbling under the surface throughout. For the most part, "Mummy on the Orient Express" is a fun, spooky episode that gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise (the aforementioned invisible, unstoppable and deadly mummy) which it gradually complicates in subtly interesting ways. The Doctor, working with an expert in mythology (Christopher Villiers) and the train's Engineer, Perkins (Frank Skinner, who brings a cheerful sarcasm to the role) conclude that the creature is what's known as a Foretold, a being which kills its victims exactly 66 seconds after first appearing to them, and only them. They try to figure out how to stop a supernatural creature, even after the Professor reveals that it cannot be killed (to which Perkins replies, "Can we get a new expert?"), at the same time that Clara finds herself locked in a compartment with Maisie (Daisy Beaumont), the guilt-ridden granddaughter of the woman who died, and an empty sarcophagus.

At this point, it seems like the episode is going to go in one specific direction; the mummy is going to go after Clara and Maisie, and The Doctor is going to have to figure out how to save them in the nick of time. That does happen to an extent, but the journey to that point has a few unexpected and welcome detours.

The cleverest bit of writing in the episode is actually foreshadowed by its cringeworthy title. For the first half, even as the episode gets a lot of fun out of Clara's simultaneous irritation and delight at being dropped into one more adventure ("There's a body and a mummy! Can you not just get on a train? Did a wizard put a curse on you?"), the idea that this is all taking part on the Orient Express, even an intergalactic version, just seems kind of weird. Sure, set it on a train by all means, but why such a famous one, other than for the wordplay?

I don't think I can adequately express how delighted I was when it turned out that the whole episode was building up to an inversion of the resolution to Murder on the Orient Express. Whereas in that book it is revealed that more or less everyone on the train had got on to commit a murder, this episode hinged on the revelation that more or less everyone on the train had been brought on to solve murders. Or, more precisely, since everyone on board is an expert in some field relating to science or mythology, to figure out the nature of the Foretold before it kills them all. It's an immensely clever little twist that drastically alters the story in a way that still felt like a natural evolution of everything that came before the revelation. Credited writer Jamie Mathieson, who has never written for the show before but did write the immensely odd comedy Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, really should be commended for what a great job he did in hiding the twist in plain sight.

Once the nature of their situation becomes apparent, the Doctor starts to act in a way that we've never really seen him act before. Knowing that the only way to gather information on the Foretold is to wait for it to pick a victim and have them describe what they see, hoping that they can use their last minute of life to reveal important clues about their enemy, The Doctor and his team of assorted boffins start trying to figure out who will be next. Once they realise that the Foretold picks out people who have a medical or psychological weakness, we see a couple of distressing scenes in which The Doctor, at his most intense and unflappable, berates people who know they are about to die into telling him what they see. It almost feels like he should be renamed The Researcher for the purposes of this episode, because that's what he becomes; someone who experiments and tries to reach a solution, while unable to directly influence the events. 

Unfortunately, those experiments require people to die. When Clara confronts him about that approach at the end of the episode, she wonders if his heartless approach was all an act to mislead the artificial intelligence that was monitoring their every move on the train. In that moment, Capaldi suggests a wonderful complexity. The Doctor cares incredibly deeply about human life, but that he also has a pragmatism that allows him to do what needs to be done. He's still heroic in this episode because he's trying to save as many people on the train as he possibly can, but to do so he has to act callous, and Capaldi and Mathiesen push The Doctor to the very limits of his likability to explore that part of the character.

The Doctor ultimately succeeds by figuring out that the Foretold is a long dead soldier who is being forced to kill by a faulty piece of technology, so he surrenders to it and ends the "war" that it has been fighting against the passengers. But that success can only come by making some (tragically literal) sacrifices. After saving everyone and escaping from the train (both of which happen off-screen in a necessarily quick but still abrupt bit of storytelling), The Doctor lays out his predicament, and in some ways underlines the terrible nobility of his actions, in one simple sentence: "Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose."

It's in this moment that "Mummy on the Orient Express" reveals itself to be the second part of a two-parter with "Kill the Moon", but not the kind of two-parter we're used to seeing on Doctor Who. The characters only make brief, vague references to the events of the previous episode, and none of the events from "Kill the Moon" directly impact the ones that occur here. They even establish that several weeks have passed between them. But in a thematic and character sense, that line about bad choices closes out an arc for Clara, one that allows her to better understand the responsibility that The Doctor has to take on to help people. She also had to choose between two potentially terrible options, and what she took for The Doctor's callousness may have just been an expression of how much he has internalised the need to make a decision, no matter how dire the consequences.

Taken individually, the two episodes make for a pair of strong, fun and interesting standalone adventures, but taken together they display an emotional intricacy that no two-parter has since "The Empty Child"/'The Doctor Dances" back in 2005. That's immensely good company, but these episodes earned their place alongside them.

Rating: 9/10

- The Foretold itself was impressively and disgustingly designed. Everything from the torn bandages, to the suggestions of rotting skin and the painfully dragging foot made it genuinely scary to look at, even before you add in the stopwatch that accompanied its every appearance.

- The moment when it put its hand through The Doctor's face was also wonderfully creepy. The bigger effects in the episode - by which I mean the shots of the train moving through space - looked pretty ropey, but the relatively simple ones were incredibly effective.

- No scene in the last few years typifies the Moffat approach to the show more than The Doctor having 66 seconds to talk and think his way out of death. That's a situation where cramming as many words on to the page as possible really comes in handy.

- Probably the best moment in the episode - though there is a lot of competition - comes in the scene where Clara reiterates her desire not to travel with The Doctor again, then talks about how they'll still see each other. Capaldi's face in that instant really conveyed The Doctor's sadness at realising that Clara doesn't understand how their relationship is meant to work. If you stop traveling with The Doctor, he's not going to just come around for tea.

- "Hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don't like."

- "I can't tell if you're a genius or just incredibly arrogant."
"On a good day, I'm both."

- The revelation that the Foretold is a dead soldier (and, more importantly, the respectful way in which The Doctor addressed it) reinforced how weird and out-of-place his anti-soldier rhetoric was in "The Caretaker". Unless The Doctor believes that the only good soldier is a dead soldier, it really looks as if the show was struggling to come up with an extra reason for him to hate Danny.