Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express

"Having an accurate wee into a moving train toilet would make a great round on The Cube."

Mummy on the Orient Express is nothing like what I was expecting it to be. I will try not to let my expectations to affect my ultimate opinion, but I'm afraid that's inevitable to some degree.

First off, I wasn't expecting Clara to even be in the episode following last week. I knew she would be back for Flatline, but in the synopsis for that, it stated she was separated from The Doctor, so I thought this could be a 'Clara-lite' story which would demonstrate - perhaps - why The Doctor needed her. I mean... after last week's fight between the two and the promise of consequences, there's no way that Clara could poss-

Oh dammit, why is she stepping out the TARDIS doors like nothing happened?!

While Kill The Moon is hardly brushed aside, I do feel it was a missed opportunity to see The Doctor and Clara struggle with separation for a bit. But instead the implied weeks between the two stories are dealt with retrospectively and, while it works, it does somewhat cheapen Kill The Moon and dilutes the character dynamics which have been at the forefront of Series 8. We gloss over so many details which would give us a deeper insight into the characters thought processes. How did this last hurrah come to be arranged, for example?

Again, some of this is addressed retrospectively. How Clara is dealing with her feelings about The Doctor is addressed many times throughout the episode: her discussion with Maisie about how "difficult people can make you feel all sorts of things", actually discussing her departure with The Doctor, and her chats with Danny (incidentally, I found their relationship far more relaxed and nuanced here than ever before). Effective in its purpose, but perhaps a bit too obviously scripted - it feels like it's trying too hard to address these points and be subtextual at times.

Unfortunately, while Peter Capaldi is good enough to keep it convincing, I'm not so certain about The Doctor's characterisation. Mummy plays up to Twelve's callous side to quite a large extent as he casually tosses aside any concern for the deaths of his fellow passengers. Though it also seems to make it clearer than any previous episode that this is partially an act in order to manipulate and protect as many people as possible. I'm not sure if I'm okay with this. We are approaching the final string of episodes now and I feel like we should have a firmer grasp of The Doctor's character. While at first it was interesting to question whether The Doctor pushed the Half-Face Man out of the balloon, it now starts to feel less like ambiguity and more like the writers themselves don't actually know.

You'll notice that I have not mentioned the titular Mummy of this episode yet. That's because I don't think it's that important to the episode. A running theme in Series 8 seems to be stories using monsters and settings as a new context in which to look at The Doctor and Clara. Hardly novel, but certainly unique in the sense it has been consistent throughout the entire series, bringing even the more typical episodes like Robot of Sherwood to a more meta (and satisfying) level. 

In the case of Mummy on the Orient Express, it does sometimes leave the main plot feeling a bit sidelined. We see plenty of the Mummy (enough that I think we needed a bit more variety in presentation, such as kill method), but the context and background of it is wrapped up very quickly for what is supposed to be a big mystery. They play the unfolding mystery a la Agatha Christie quite heavily, but despite that we don't learn anything substantial about the Foretold until the end, where it's quickly wrapped up in under a minute. The resolution isn't rushed, but given there's a perfect opportunity to do so in the scene after, I am disappointed to have not seen more depth given.

The plot isn't as overlooked as, say, The Caretaker was but the strength of it means it's a bit more of a shame! The episode builds up an effective sense of mystery about the Foretold, a decent supporting cast, some surprising twists about the train's purpose, and a good sense of threat from both the Mummy and Gus, the train's computer system. Indeed, this has all the makings of a classic Doctor Who story. The only true let-down is that once the Foretold mystery is over, the rest of the story aboard the train could do with a reminder to "show, don't tell".

We have been left with a little mystery as to how 'Gus' obtained The Doctor's phone number, as well as who was behind the train conspiracy in the first place. Hope it gets picked up on, ideally sooner than this picked up on The Big Bang!

To talk about the stunt casting for a second: This episode features Foxes covering "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen; as well as Frank Skinner as Perkins, the train's engineer. While Foxes was certainly overhyped in the publicity, her appearance ultimately boils down to a nice cameo. On the other hand, I'm struggling to see why Frank Skinner's character was in the episode other than for the sake of the casting. It's not bad as such, but perhaps on the wrong side of unnecessary.

So what of a score? Well... I'm in a difficult position now. I feel like it's deserving of a 7: It's a good story, but there's quite a few things keeping it back. But this would put it on the same score as Deep Breath, Kill The Moon, and Time-Heist. So I'm going to say goodbye to traditional scoring until the end of the series, at which point I'll be in a better position to re-evaluate certain episodes and do some repositioning. Until then, I'll say it's good but I fear we'll be seeing more of the same issues in next week's Flatline.