“Mummy on the Orient Express” written by Jamie Mathieson, is possibly my favorite episode of Doctor Who Series Eight so far. It very effectively took the mid-1970s “Gothic horror” sensibilities of the early Tom Baker stories overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe & script editor Robert Holmes and filtered them through the prism of modern-day Who.
Several weeks have passed since “Kill the Moon.” Despite the furious anger Clara (Jenna Coleman) had towards the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) at the end of that story, by now she realizes she does not really hate him. That said, neither does she particularly like him anymore, either. Clara is ready to throw in the towel on her TARDIS traveling, but the Doctor convinces her to join him on one last journey. He takes her to the far future, where a replica of the famed Orient Express passenger train journeys through outer space from one planet to another.
Clara wanted a nice, quiet, relaxing vacation for this final trip. Unfortunately her hopes are quickly dashed. One by one, people are dying of sudden heart attacks. Each of them, in the minute before he or she is killed, perceives the horrific sight of an ancient mummy lumbering towards them, a being they and they alone can see.
The Doctor realizes these deaths match up to a legendary creature known only as the Foretold, a seemingly unstoppable entity that always claims its victims exactly 66 seconds after appearing, a creature whose existence has never been explained. The Doctor also notices that a rather large number of the passengers just so happen to be scientists specializing in alien biology, physics and mythology. He deduces that they have all been assembled for a purpose. “If I was putting together a team to analyze this thing, I’d pick you. And I think somebody has. Someone of immense power and influence has orchestrated this whole trip. Someone who I have no doubt is listening to us right now. So are you going to step out from behind the curtain and give us our orders?”
With that the hidden mastermind, via the Orient Express’ computer system, announces that they have all been gathered to analyze the Foretold, find a way to capture it, and reverse engineer its abilities. And if they do not succeed, well, then they are all going to die at its hands. This horrifying possibility proves to be all too real, as Clara searches through the train’s records, and discovers that the mastermind has actually attempted this on several other occasions, with scientists on different spaceships… and they all died.
Peter Capaldi is once again magnificent as the Twelfth Doctor. Both his mannerisms, striding in and imperiously taking charge, as well as his attire, again bring to mind Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. There is also quite a bit of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, especially as he played the role during his first three years under Hinchcliffe & Holmes.
“Mummy on the Orient Express” undoubtedly brings to mind the 1975 classic “Pyramids of Mars” written by Holmes. First off there is the obvious connection of mummies who are in fact something entirely different. The mummies in “Pyramids” were actually service robots created by the alien Osirians. Similarly, the mummy-like Forgotten in this latest story is not a supernatural entity but a long-dead soldier reanimated by incredibly advanced alien technology, a deadly weapon of war & assassination.
Also present is the coldly analytical attitude of the Doctor. In “Pyramids of Mars,” faced with the threat of Sutekh the Destroyer, a godlike entity with the ability to decimate entire planets, the Doctor is focused exclusively on thwarting this apocalyptic entity, to the exclusion of all pleasantries. When the Doctor and Sarah discover that their ally Lawrence Scarman has been murdered by his brother, whose body is now an animated cadaver controlled by Sutekh, the Doctor is quite cold and blasé about it…
The Doctor: His late brother must have called.
Sarah: That’s horrible! He was so concerned about his brother.
The Doctor: I told him not to be. I told him it was too late.
Sarah: Oh! Sometimes you don’t seem…
The Doctor: Human? [The Doctor examines a deactivated service robot] Typical Osirian simplicity.
Sarah: A man has just been murdered!
The Doctor: Four men, Sarah. Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself. And they’re merely the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped. Know thine enemy. Admirable advice.
“Mummy on the Orient Express” sees the Doctor taking a similarly ultra-pragmatic stance. Each time the Foretold appears to a victim, the Doctor attempts to get that person to describe the creature in as much detail as possible before they die. He knows that he cannot save them, but if enough of the Foretold’s victims provide him with the information he needs to deduce its nature, then hopefully he will eventually be able to stop it from slaughtering everyone on the train.
After the Orient Express’ captain is killed by the Foretold, the Doctor is seemingly unmoved, instead speaking aloud in a rapid stream of consciousness as he runs through the evidence, trying to connect the dots. In an exchange that echoes the aforementioned scene from “Pyramids of Mars,” Perkins the train’s engineer reacts with disbelief at the Doctor’s seemingly callous nature…
Perkins: A man just died in front of us! Can we not just have a moment?
The Doctor: No, no, no! We can’t do that! We can’t mourn! People with guns to their heads, they cannot mourn! We do not have time to mourn!
While this is taking place, Clara is at the back of the Express, attempting to comfort Maisie, whose grandmother was the first victim of the Foretold. Then the Doctor contacts Clara on her cell phone. He has deduced that the next victim will be none other than Maisie, and he wants Clara to bring her up to the scientists so they can once again try to study the Foretold, “observe it in action.” Clara is, of course, aghast. She is even more upset when the Doctor tells her to lie to Maisie, to say that the only way he can save her is if she comes to the front of the train. And Clara very reluctantly does exactly that. Face to face with the Doctor, Clara accusingly tells him “You’ve made me your accomplice.”
It’s very interesting that “Pyramids of Mars” played such an apparent influence on both this episode and on the one it immediately follows out of, “Kill the Moon.” In that, Clara insisted that they should just get in the TARDIS and leave since the Moon did not get destroyed in 2049, because in his travels the Doctor has previously seen it still existing even further in the future. To which the Doctor responded “Clara, there are some moments in time that I simply can’t see. Little eye blinks. They don’t look the same as other things. They’re not clear, they’re fuzzy, they’re grey. Little moments in which big things are decided and this is one of them. Just now I can’t tell what happens to the Moon because whatever happens to the Moon hasn’t been decided yet. And it’s going to be decided here and now, which very much sounds like it’s up to us.”
This very much parallels the scene in “Pyramids of Mars” where Sarah argues that she comes from the year 1980, so it is obvious Sutekh did not destroy the world in 1911. In response, the Doctor takes Sarah back to 1980 in the TARDIS, and she is horrified to discover the Earth has been reduced to a lifeless wasteland. The Doctor tells her that if they do not go back to 1911 and stop Sutekh then there is no future.
In “Kill the Moon” Clara resented the Doctor for thrusting her into the position of playing God, of making her the arbiter of the fates of others. Now, still attempting to deal with her feelings about the Doctor’s actions, in “Mummy on the Orient Express” Clara witnesses the Doctor reassuming that role. She is not at all comfortable with either alternative.
In the end the Doctor saves Maisie and figures out exactly what the Foretold really is, thus finding a way to stop it. But this was not something that he was at all certain he would be able to do. As the Doctor later solemnly explains to Clara “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.”
Back in 1999, I was over in Britain for a few months. While there I went to a comic book convention in Bristol, England. The evening of the last day, at the hotel bar, I was hanging out, having drinks and chatting. Also there was Dave Stone, an author who had written several Doctor Who New Adventure novels. Talking with him, I discussed how I disliked the depictions of the Seventh Doctor in many of the books, often finding him to be an overly manipulative, judgmental figure. As an example, I cited some of his actions in the novel Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel. After listening to what I had to say, Stone simply replied, “The Doctor cannot save everyone.”
That was certainly at the forefront of my mind while watching “Mummy on the Orient Express.” Something that I’ve occasionally observed concerning the episodes with Clara was that she possessed this belief that if the Doctor simply tried hard enough, if he was as clever and brave as he could possibly be, “neither cowardly nor cruel,” that he would somehow always find a way to do the right thing. We saw this in “The Day of the Doctor” when at Clara’s urgings he managed to alter history and save Gallifrey. Last week, at the end of “Kill the Moon” it really felt like Clara was rejecting the entire concept of a no-win situation, and that she demonstrated it was possible to find a consequence-free choice where everyone lived happily ever after. But now, just one episode later, Clara witnesses that sometimes that is just not possible, that sometimes you really are forced to choose the lesser of all evils.
Clara suggests to the Doctor that “being the man making the impossible choice” is an addiction. Immediately after Clara calls Danny and tells him that she is finally done traveling with the Doctor, and she’ll be home soon. Yet, in the next breath, she turns to the Doctor and tells him that she has changed her mind, she wants to keep traveling with him, and that Danny is okay with this. Clara lied!
Going back to the beginning of “Mummy on the Orient Express” there is a sexy chanteuse played by Louisa Rose Allen aka Foxes singing, appropriately enough, a rendition of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen:
Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time
I feel alive and the world it’s turning inside out – Yeah!
I’m floating around in ecstasy
So don’t stop me now don’t stop me
‘Cause I’m having a good time having a good time
Hmmmm… that could apply to the Doctor as well as Clara. So who is the addict?
I may not be especially happy with how the character of Clara has been proceeding in the last couple of episodes. But I certainly have to acknowledge that Jenna Coleman is doing a wonderful job with the material.
Putting aside all of the brilliant character moments, “Mummy on the Orient Express” is a riveting episode. It was a very effective mash-up of the eerie 1972 movie Horror Express starring Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing and the Japanese anime series Galaxy Express 999 created by Leiji Matsumoto. The concept of a mummy-like alien creature that is completely invisible & intangible to everyone except its victims, that can teleport anywhere, that will kill you exactly 66 seconds after it appears, is genuinely frightening. I expect that “Mummy on the Orient Express” must have contained some bona fide modern-day “behind the sofa” moments for younger viewers.