Mummy on the Orient Express is a curious beast from a little run of sublime episodes amongst what was probably the worst series of Doctor Who since 1987. Like the mummy, it seems out of place within its setting. The reason for this appears to be a combination of the best new writer debut since The Empty Child, and a monster that is genuinely terrifying.
Jamie Mathieson had a difficult job to do with this, because it is an episode just past the midpoint of a clearly failing season of Doctor Who. By this point we have a Doctor who is a frankly inexplicable re-run of a past failed model: the Nasty Doctor. We also now have a companion who is an equally inexplicable re-run of another failed model: the companion who doesn’t really want to be there. The fact that the latter of these is by far the worst at the moment shows how far things had sunk by this point.
I have to admit to being a little biased towards a particular way of making Doctor Who, which makes Russell T Davies’s approach generally more appealing to me than that of Steven Moffat. Because the one thing that I want Doctor Who to do more than anything is to be a positive viewing experience. If I want “miserable” from my television shows I’ll pick a gritty crime drama or something. So what I really don’t want to see when I watch Doctor Who is a companion who has realised that travelling with the Doctor is something that is harmful in her life, but she keeps going back to him because she is addicted. It is great that Doctor Who is brave enough to tackle these kinds of issues, but doing it with a companion who is supposed to be our identification figure, and is somebody we used to love to watch, is simply the wrong way to go about things, especially given the coldness on display in the characterisation of the Doctor at this point.
Clara’s story has now become a parallel for somebody who is caught in an abusive relationship and can’t get out because she is addicted to the emotional rollercoaster and keeps going back to her abuser. The relationship used to work, but he is not the man he used to be when they first met. She has tried to break away but has failed, and now is even lying to the person who should be the most important in her life, to cover up the warped relationship. This reflects appallingly on the Doctor, because it is simply not realistic to claim that a man who has lived for so long doesn’t understand how relationships work and what is going on here. So apparently he knows Clara is being self-destructive and just lets her continue. And the way he responds is to finally give in to the draw of an invitation that he has been avoiding for a couple of centuries, likely to be one of the most dangerous situations he has ever entered into, without telling Clara what he is about to do. And he does this because he craves a little excitement. This is not a man who is being shown to care for the welfare of his friend. In fact, he is completely emotionally stunted.
What Jamie Mathieson does so brilliantly is to take this horrendously nasty situation that he inherits at this point, and to write a plot that utilises the Doctor’s coldness and attempts to justify it. He makes the best of what he has to work with, and does it astonishingly well. The plot relies on the Doctor learning from the manner of innocent people’s deaths, and having to do so quickly and without wasting time mourning for each loss. Tellingly, as soon as he has gathered sufficient information he places himself in danger and saves everyone else, allowing him to be the hero, while getting to that point by still being true to the particularly warped version of the Doctor’s characterisation being utilised this series. And amazingly he doesn’t come off too badly, if you can stomach the moments where he shows virtually zero compassion for people who are dying. The reason I say “virtually” is that Peter Capaldi is too good an actor and cares too much about Doctor Who to not attempt a hint of an inner torment if you look closely, but he is actively working against the material he is being given at this point.
On the level it is most designed to function, Mummy on the Orient Express works brilliantly: it’s really, really scary. It puts together a classic Hammer Horror monster and does it with visual perfection, and then places it within a confined space, and one with no escape. It even pilots in Miss Hardaker from The Curse of Fenric, and what a fabulous cameo appearance that is from the amazing Janet Henfrey. The countdown is a stroke of genius because it places the episode into real time from the viewer’s point of view far more effectively than 42 ever managed. In just the same way as the characters on the screen, we experience the reality of how short a time those 66 seconds are to work out a solution before somebody gets killed, which draws the viewer into the action. It is a bit of a shame that the choice of 66 seconds, which is set up as if it is a puzzle we can solve, turns out to be completely arbitrary and has a technobabble solution.
So this is a compelling, scary episode, that almost succeeds in overcoming the background picture of the wretched TARDIS team we have at this point. Unfortunately the brilliant Frank Skinner is a reminder throughout the episode of how great a simpler Doctor/companion dynamic could be with this particular Doctor, setting an example of how Nardole will eventually function as a character. Perkins saying no to travelling with the Doctor must have been a difficult scene for Skinner to perform, as he is a big fan of Doctor Who, but it is also a huge disappointment for the viewers. He joins the long line of missed companion opportunities over the years, but this time it’s different, because something desperately needs to change at this point and Perkins represents a cruel glimpse into a world in which Doctor Who could be joyous again. It will get there eventually, but will anyone still be watching when it does? RP
The view from across the pond:
Murder on the Orient Express is hitting American theaters in a couple of weeks, with an all-star cast. It looks like it’s going to be great. But that’s in November. We’re still exploring themes of horror in Doctor Who for Halloween. I’d love to discuss how Universal brought horror to life with Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein and the Mummy, but that wouldn’t be fair for readers on a Doctor Who website. If only there were a way…
How lucky that in the vast pantheon of Doctor Who stories there is one called Mummy on the Orient Express. (See how I made those two ideas merge? Let’s hope I don’t make a train wreck out of it!)
I’ve been talking a lot lately about how Doctor Who puts science fiction into so many established ideas. Vampires that are really Saturnyne, children that are really Tenzas, werewolves that are really lupine wavelength haemovariforms (what?)… the list is extensive. Freud would have had a field day, but seldom do cigars turn up in Doctor Who… There are also Agatha Christie mysteries that are not quite Agatha Christie mysteries as evidenced by our meeting with her in David Tennant’s The Unicorn and the Wasp. Here, we get one of her most popular novels given form with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in Mummy on the Orient Express. This time, the train in question is… in space! (Ok, look, get over it; it’s a story and the idea is that some company makes a spaceship that looks like a train to recreate the exciting feelings of nostalgia and allows passengers to experience what it was like to ride a train. Nice company! It’s a vehicle – quite literally – to tell the story in a fun way that only Doctor Who can!)
Once again, a look at the elements of horror:
- Tight, claustrophobic setting: I love trains, but they are little more than narrow corridors with seats. You really don’t have anywhere to move or hide.
- Mysterious deaths: bad enough on their own, but coupled with a tight setting and no way of knowing who or what is causing the deaths making everyone a suspect. Unnerving even on good old Terra firma.
- An invisible killer: something that is only visible to the intended victim is scary. It means the victim sees what’s coming, but no one else does. And then the victim drops! That. Is. SCARY!
- A Mummy: possibly the best looking mummy ever, this isn’t just a wrapped cadaver, but a 6 foot tall, rotting, decaying mass of flesh and bone whose eyeless sockets stare out at their intended victim for the whopping 66.6 seconds they get to live once they see this creature of nightmare. Whoa… (I took a deep breath before typing that!)
WOW. How can the Doctor even hope to stop something that he can neither see nor detect?
I can talk about how Frank Skinner is the standout guest star of the episode or Captain Quell’s greatest fear is a mystery shopper (hilarious, by the way), or even the idea that this might be the trip the Doctor was about to take with Amy and Rory after their wedding… but I want to focus on this episode without all those extras. Yes they make it even more fun but the episode stands quiet well on its own. Because it is a mystery, I won’t ruin it by talking about the resolution. Hopefully you’ve seen it but if you use this website to determine which stories are worth checking out, don’t bury this one in a tomb; unwrap it and watch a terrific mystery/horror story unfold. Sure, the ending with the Doctor and Clara on a beach won’t mean as much without the context presented this season with the Doctor on a quest to determine if he’s a good man, but that’s ok. If you’re looking for a story that entertains, keeps you guessing, and leaves you on the edge of your seat, this is one is for you. On top of that, it’s one of the best Mummy stories I’ve ever seen. Typically, I find that mummy movies lack any, um…, meat, so to speak. Not here; this story is fleshed out nicely! Taking the classic whodunit and adding the horror of a walking corpse to a claustrophobic setting is a masterstroke. Well done!
I’ll soon be talking about all the horror tropes and influences we’ve seen in Doctor Who over its 5 decade run. In the meantime, don’t miss this one. You’ll curse yourself if you do! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Flatline