Sunday, 12 October 2014

Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express (Episode Review)

Mummy on the Orient Express serves as the culmination to one of the series' big storylines to that point, discussing the Doctor's potentially callous side of his new incarnation. Along with Clara finally snapping in the previous story and the Doctor himself often seeming to go too far in this tale, we see the Doctor's obsession with danger and his disregard for life being called into question. Thankfully, for all the ups and downs, the episode handles these themes admirably.

As a final send-off to their time together, the Doctor takes Clara to the Orient Express. Named after the famous locomotive from Earth's past, the starship has been created to resemble the train in every way possible and carries various important figures. Unfortunately for the both of them, this final dance is far more dangerous than either realises. An undead creature which can only be witnessed by its victims is hunting throughout the train, picking off targets one by one. Called into action, the Doctor soon comes to understand things may be far worse than even he realises...

This episode already wins a few points from early on when it does the right thing: Takes time to explain and establish the setting, details the environment, establishes a few of the characters, and then moves onto the big crisis. Jamie Mathieson clearly understood the weight behind the events of this episode and took the time to quickly remind people of them, balancing out character development with dramatic pacing and getting into the story. Sure, this is basic first act stuff, but given how often this was badly screwed up or even outright abandoned in the Matt Smith era, it needs to be praised.

Things are only made better as the momentum of this start carries through to following events, and multiple ideas, narratives and sub-plots are weaved about without any problems. Many of these are crucial to the episode itself rather than the series as a whole, but they never feel as if they are in the way of the longer ongoing stories, and in many respects they help to enhance them. There are quite clear parallels and relevant themes which can be drawn between them and the Doctor's current state, but it's not rammed down the audience's throat. The same goes for many clever hints and notable details. All too often in current Who it seems like writers try to make a big thing of leaving moments or turning points to make re-watching the episode seem entirely different. Here the hints are present, but it's without the same grandeur or bombastic treatment as others, slipped in here and there as comments or judgements of characters.

The monster itself is also a major strength of the story, least of all being that it's a proper classic callback to old style Doctor Who akin to The Robots of Death. The mystery behind the monster genuinely works here, and while it does have its own unique gimmick to try and make it stand out, the mummy does not quite resort to another "don't blink" ability. While it can only be seen by its victims, this is rightfully used to cause problems for the heroes rather than truly being a pointless add-on to try and capitalise upon the success of the Weeping Angels or Silence. The story itself uses its presence sparingly, but this is done in order for it to help give it far more impact on every arrival.

The supporting characters here are a mixed bunch on the whole, but there is enough to make them more memorable than many others of this season. Captain Quell and Perkins, in particular are well acted and sane enough to give the story a few interesting elements. While hardly the most well rounded figures ever to be added to the show, there's enough of a dimension to them to make their fates and involvement carry more weight than last week's characters. The core cast are as strong as ever, but given the talents of Capaldi and Coleman that should go without saying by this point. Admittedly though, Clara is far better characterised in this tale than many others. It does give an impact of her importance to the Doctor and shows what their friendship means to one another, but it never goes so far as to try and completely force her into being important.

The cinematography for this episode also is well worth mentioning as it adds some subtle suggestions leading back to classic Who again. Many shots, angles and positions about the rooms have an oddly reminiscent Hammer Horror vibe to them, especially when near crowded groups. This is paired with some more unconventional POV style shots, but at the same time they don't truly conflict with one another. If anything they help to blend together the more weird styles of the story with the more traditional fantasy horror vibes it was weaving into a science fiction episode.

Perhaps most interestingly is that the episode also managed to find a truly effective balance between comedy and the science fiction themes. A big part of this is thanks to Capaldi's deadpan delivery and comedic timing, but it needs to be made evident that the episode shows exactly how such scenes could be done. Horror and humour exist here in equal measure, often in exactly the same scene, but it avoids the failing of the latter completely overriding the former and shows the sort of jokes which work best in such a colourful setting. If anything it's the antithesis of The Caretaker's own attempts and shows exactly how the dark nature of this new Doctor can play towards a more varied form of humour as and when it's needed.

This said, there are some definite issues which do notably hold back the tale. While the acting and writing is well rounded, there are a large number of notably strange additions to the story which fail to really add up. Least of all of these is a moment where the Doctor appears to be talking to a prior incarnation of himself, and both Masie (set up to be a key figure) and Clara are sidelined. While both do play a core part in the story and Clara is given a great arc here, it's hard not to overlook they spend most of the tale trapped in one room.

Furthermore, the initial teaser and closing moments of the episode are oddly jarring in their own way. The former is shot in such an unusual manner that it's initially off putting. While intended to no doubt hook the audience's attention, the acting of the first victim, the unconventional way in which the scene is shot and the lack of a few later established factors can make it a jarring introduction. The closing moments meanwhile seem a little too neat and get rid of most supporting characters there and then, without answering a few big questions in the story. It's satisfying for the moment, but unless the tale follows up upon it, this could be adding yet another question to a small forest of plot threads hanging over the show.

The episode's main gimmick of the timer is also a little hard to take seriously at first, and it unfortunately only starts to truly hit hard by the third victim. This is primarily thanks to the way each scene is shot, with a few particular issues arising thanks to the timer itself being inserted into each sequence of clips. It's more distracting than a true addition to the tale and the story only takes real effect once it starts to play out in a more focused manner, relying more upon the cinematography and less a flickering series of numbers in one corner of the screen.

Despite a few questions left unanswered and some definite missteps in places, on the whole Mummy on the Orient Express is one of this series' high points so far. It offers everything a good story really needs, a great villain, great acting, decent payoff to running themes while taking them to the next level, and enough ideas to keep the audience guessing. After Kill The Moon, this is definitely the story Who needed to prove to audiences it could still deliver a great tale. Watch it without any regrets, if you like the premise this is not one to be missed.


  1. This is easily my favourite Capaldi episode so far, and it definitely makes up for Kill the Moon. Personally I didn't find the timer as distracting because it was done in the same style as the clocks of the same time period as the Orient Express (to my knowledge anyway) and it was far more interesting to see what was happening with the mummy than it was to watch the clock that I barely noticed it was there when it popped up (but that's personal opinion).

    I am surprised that they didn't bring the dead characters back for the sideplot they're building up, since it seems almost perfect for setting up that story (especially since several characters had decent, if short development), they could have even done it where the mummy comes back in that area looking like its old self, but I'm not disappointed they didn't since I don't hold what a show didn't include against it.

    1. I agree entirely, in comparison to the others this is definitely one of the strongest episodes where it takes the time to properly explore the Doctor's presence and dual nature. It also helped that it wasn't 100% focused upon trying to explore his character this early on in the series and gave a genuinely fantastic mystery. As for the clocks though, personally they seemed like an unnecessary addition as much as anything else. If an editor was to go back and remove them, the scenes would be just as effective and they didn't really seem to add anything besides a visual gimmick.

      Ah, well, honestly i'm personally quite glad they did not. The last few times they've done that i've personally found it distracting and out of place, and Missy herself hasn't made a good impression on me. She just seems to be yet another River Song clone, only this time in an antagonist role and without the redeeming qualities of Alex Kingston. That's just me though, and this could easily be tied into the arc at a later date.