Doctor Who reviews: Mummy on the Orient Express

“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.

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express promo image

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 being 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.”

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express Doctor and Clara

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” written by Peter Harness.  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!

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express Foxes

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.

Doctor Who reviews: The Android Invasion

Last month my girlfriend got me the DVD of the Doctor Who story “The Android Invasion” as a birthday present.  This story actually has something of significance for me, as part two of it was the very first Doctor Who episode I ever saw.  Way back around 1981 or so, Doctor Who was briefly shown on one of the television networks here in the States on Saturday mornings.  I only ever caught that one episode, and I didn’t remember much about it, but the cliffhanger ending always stuck in my mind.  About two or three years later, when I discovered Doctor Who on my local PBS station, I immediately became a fan and, well, the rest is history.

Admittedly “The Android Invasion” is not an especially great Doctor Who story.  One of the main problems is that for the first two episodes writer Terry Nation struggles mightily to build up this sinister, creepy mystery as to what is taking place in the village of Devesham and the nearby Space Defense Station.  Unfortunately, most of the suspense is completely undone by the title of the story!  Why are the inhabitants of the village, including old friends of the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, acting so damn peculiar?  Well, it’s because they are android duplicates, obviously!

This serial had at least two working titles, namely “The Kraals” and “The Enemy Within.”  While neither of these is nearly as dramatic as “The Android Invasion,” at least either of them would have maintained one of the main mysteries of the story’s first half, instead of blowing it wide open in the opening credits.

That said, the first time I saw this serial in full, it came as a complete & total surprise when at the end of the second episode the Doctor deduced that not only was everyone in the village a robot doppelganger, but in fact they were not even on the planet Earth.  Instead, this was a carefully constructed replica built by the rhino-like Kraals on their homeworld Oseidon as a training ground for their duplicate agents, a mock run for their conquest of the actual Earth.

A much derided aspect of “The Android Invasion” revolves around the Kraals’ human agent, astronaut Guy Crayford, who spends the entire story wearing an eye-patch.  Crayford believes that the Kraals rescued him from certain death on a space mission gone horribly wrong, and that is why he is assisting their invasion plans.  He thinks he has to wear the eye-patch because when the Kraals saved his life, they were unable to restore his eye.  That is until the end of episode four, when the Doctor convinces him to take it off, and Crayford realizes he has a fully function eye underneath.

Even as an eight year old viewer, my first reaction was to think “What, in the two years he was a prisoner of the Kraals, Crayford never once took off that eye-patch to take a shower?!?”  If one wants to be charitable, on two separate occasions the Doctor refers to Crayford as having been “brainwashed” by the Kraals, so perhaps he was programmed not to remove the patch.  But if that was the case, why give it to him to begin with, other than to provide a dramatic, out of left field twist when actor Milton Johns yanks it off in the story’s final moments?

There are several other glaringly obvious holes in the plotting.  I could list them all, but we’d be here for a while.  That said, I think most of them only become obvious upon repeated viewings.  And, as producer Philip Hinchcliffe commented, when he was working on Doctor Who, it was never expected that these shows would be re-watched over and over years later.

I also felt that “The Android Invasion” was an unfortunate exit story for the characters of Benton and Harry Sullivan from UNIT.  This would be the last time that actors John Levine and Ian Marter would appear on Doctor Who, and it’s a shame that neither of their characters is given a substantive role.  Hinchcliffe admits in hindsight that if he had known that this was to turn out to be the last appearances of Benton and Harry, he might have given the pair more of a presence in the story.  As it is, it’s unfortunate that these two well-regarded characters have what amounts to little more than extended cameos.  It’s also painfully obvious that Patrick Newell as Colonel Blimp, um, Faraday is a last-minute replacement for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.  Although considering what a tiny role in the proceedings the Brigadier would have had if Nicholas Courtney had been available, it’s probably best that he did not show up, as he was given a much more dignified exit in the previous UNIT story, “Terror of the Zygons.”

Doctor Who: The Android Invasion DVD

Well, having gone on at length as to the faults of “The Android Invasion,” I will readily admit I actually quite like this story.  A major reason for this is the team of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah.  Baker and Sladen had this absolutely incredible chemistry and rapport, and they work extremely well off of each other in “The Android Invasion.”  Some of the serial’s best scenes are the ones between the Doctor and Sarah.  They really were one of the greatest Doctor/companion teams in the show’s history, and that is readily on display in this story.

“The Android Invasion” has a really cracking script.  I’m not sure what should be credited to Terry Nation, what goes to script editor Robert Holmes (who was known for performing extensive rewrites to make stories workable), and what was improvised by Baker and Sladen.  Whatever the case, the dialogue is intelligent and witty.  I especially enjoyed the exchange between the Doctor and the Kraals’ chief scientist Styggron in episode three.  Baker does his usual routine of being threatened with death by acting silly and nonchalant.  Left tied to a ticking time bomb by Styggron and his android henchmen who then shuffle off, the Doctor exuberantly calls after the exiting villains…

“Don’t go! Stay! Just for a few minutes, then we can all go together!”

The silly banter between the Doctor and Sarah later in the episode in the Kraals’ duplication laboratory also cracks me up…

The Doctor: I feel disorientated.

Sarah: This is the Disorientation Center.

The Doctor: That makes sense.

Martin Johns does a good job portraying gullible astronaut Guy Crayford.  It would have been easy to play the role as an sneering villain.  Instead, Johns imbues Crayford with both this boyish enthusiasm and a very pitiable quality.  It’s obvious to everyone but Crayford himself that he is a mere pawn of the Kraals, and when the character belatedly realizes how badly he’s been manipulated, you genuinely feel sorry for him.

The direction by Barry Letts is top-notch.  There are some marvelously effective, atmospheric shots.  When a list of the top Doctor Who directors is drawn up, Letts’ name is not typically included.  Understandably, most fans of the show focus on his considerable role as producer in shaping almost the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run alongside script editor Terrance Dicks.  It’s a shame.  I don’t know if I would rank Letts alongside such amazing directors as Douglas Camfield, David Maloney or Graeme Harper.  Nevertheless, Letts does some solid work on “The Android Invasion.”  I think his directing on this serial would be better regarded if he’d had a stronger story, but considering what he was handed, Letts makes the most of it.

The audio commentary on “The Android Invasion” was entertaining and informative.  The participants are Milton Johns (Guy Crayford), Martin Friend (Styggron), producer Philip Hinchcliffe and production assistant Marion McDougal.  I’ve observed in the past that for the older Doctor Who serials, it’s worthwhile to have a moderator to guide the discussion and help jog everyone’s understandably hazy decades-old memories.  Filling that role once again is Toby Hadoke, who does a superb job at leading the proceedings.

The extra feature “Life After Who” looks at Philip Hinchcliffe’s post-Doctor Who career.  Hinchcliffe went on to produce a wide variety of material, ranging from gritty crime series to period dramas.  Unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with most of this material.  I’d have to check to see if any of it is even available on DVD here in the States.  That said, some of it looked very intriguing, and given the opportunity I’d like to be able to watch some of these projects.  Particularly of interest is Nancy Astor, the story of the controversial first female member of British Parliament.

So, despite its flaws, “The Android Invasion” is an entertaining serial, and the DVD contains some interesting extras.  As I said before, while it will never be considered one of the top Doctor Who stories ever made, it is a personal favorite of mine, in that, for all its silliness and gaping lapses of logic, it is a great deal of fun.  Actually, having written this review, I now feel like sitting down and watching it again.  That’s the hallmark of an entertaining story.