Tuesday, 14 October 2014

After last week’s ambitious but flawed attempt at dealing with Big Serious Issues, this week’s Doctor Who had a less high-brow pitch. The title says it all, really – Mummy on the Orient Express. There’s a Mummy. And it’s on the Orient Express. In space.

The Doctor takes Clara, on the brink of giving up on the whole time travel lark, on one last hurrah, a grandiose train journey through the wonders of the universe. Of course, there’s been a murder, an old lady killed by a Mummy only she could see. It’s Agatha Christie meets Hammer horror, and the Doctor soon finds himself leading the investigation.

And that’s the main thing I loved about this episode. It’s an investigation. The Doctor’s often depicted as an action hero, but I like to see him as a detective – a Sherlock Holmes in space, picking up clues from his environment and defeating the monster with intellect. There wasn’t much room on this train for running around, and so new writer Jamie Mathieson gave us a tightly plotted mystery – and also deserves a biscuit for having the often-overused sonic screwdriver rendered useless. Some of the reveals in the climax may have felt a slight bit rushed, and a slight bit scientifically iffy, but that’s difficult to avoid with the format; importantly, everything slotted together nicely and it was fun to watch the Doctor work things out.

The episode also works well because of the eponymous villain. Mummies are rarely done well and are little used in modern genre fiction, especially compared to similar iconic creatures such as vampires and werewolves. I certainly can’t imagine a Mummy joining the Being Human gang Mathieson spent four years writing for. But this was a Mummy done brilliantly. With its rotting bandages and lumbering yet unstoppable approach, the very sight of it meant death, and the on-screen clock only added to the tension, involving us in the investigation and acting as a constant reminder that time is running out. And time did run out for several characters – despite its seemingly wacky premise, this was an episode in which people died, and their deaths were felt. And just when you think you know what’ll happen next, the evil supercomputer controlling the train chucks all the chefs into the coldness of space. Ouch. Dark, but not at the expense of the fun.

It’s not quite the last hurrah Clara had hoped for, and the B-story of her desire to leave the TARDIS for good is brought in at just the right moments without stepping on the toes of the plot, though it did feel like she was in that luggage car for a bit too long (practical reasons, I assume, as this episode was double-banked with the next). And I’m not entirely sure that Clara deciding to stay with the Doctor because Danny says it’s OK is sending the best messages about independent women. At least Clara’s continuing to be a lot more believable this series than she has been previously, thanks to much more consistent characterisation and having an emotional, character-based arc rather than that impossibly convoluted Impossible Girl bollocks.

My only other gripe with this episode is with the bunch of apparent genius scientists gathered together to fight the Mummy. They’re the best in their fields, and yet… they all just stand around. Sure, it’s a decision to keep the script economic, but it’s incredibly noticeable that only one of them ever actually speaks. 'Scientist with Enormous Beard' was a particular favourite character of mine and I was disappointed he didn't get any lines.

All in all, though, Mummy on the Orient Express is, if not groundbreaking, solid Doctor Who. A great monster, a tightly plotted investigation, the Doctor and Clara both on form. I’m looking forward to Jamie Mathieson’s second episode next week, even if the trailer failed to grab me.

Oh, and it also had a cool jazz cover of Don’t Stop Me Now. It only clicked after the credits had rolled that it ties in with Clara’s story. Clever. I had no idea who Foxes is, and having now googled her, her music is not to my taste, but who can object to jazzed-up Queen? Here it is again:


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