Mummy on the Orient Express

14th October 2014 • Review by Seb Patrick •

Well, I’ve not been as pleasantly surprised by a spectacular rug-pull since “Utopia”.

And back then, it was the case that what looked like being a mid-series (well, late-mid-series in that case) filler episode turned out to be a mid-series filler episode with an absolutely astonishing, series-bending twist thrown in ten minutes before the end. Here, it’s just that what looked like being a mid-series filler episode – and something that couldn’t possibly live up to the mind-blowing brilliance of the previous week – turns out to be a really, really, really good episode.

I almost feel guilty for how unenthusiastic I was going in.

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I mean, it’s not like this is in any way a game-changer of an episode, aside from giving the ongoing Doctor-companion-relationship-breakdown story a fresh punch. It’s just an incredibly strong example of a by-the-numbers, even archetypal, Doctor Who episode. All too often throughout… well, I was going to say throughout New Who, but it’s actually true of the entire show’s history, what makes Doctor Who good is its ability to constantly do something fresh and different. Almost all the best – or certainly the most lauded – episodes are the ones that are quite unlike any others, or that set out a new template. Hell, that was basically the entire thesis (if you could get to it) of my review of “Listen” (still, incidentally, the strongest episode of Series 8 so far in my book – but that’s against some very stiff competition that very much includes this one).

Consequently, the regular, story-of-the-week, base-under-siege type of episodes tend to be the meat and potatoes of Doctor Who. We know they have to get made, because we know the show can’t be format-breakingly brilliant every week; but it’s easy to get weary of them, and stories like “The Almost People” or “The Hungry Earth” or “Cold War”, even when they’re not exactly terrible, can very easily blend into one unedifying mass.

But, you know, sometimes “meat and potatoes” can also mean an absolutely sublime fillet steak that melts on your tongue, accompanied by delicately roasted, crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside spuds that drip with oil. And that’s exactly the sort of thing Jamie Mathieson gives us with “Mummy on the Orient Express”.

Indeed, coming in the middle of a series that’s been so intent on shaking things up, on immediately putting this new Doctor in unfamiliar environments and unfamiliar dynamics, it’s actually refreshing to discover that yes, he can be brilliant in a fairly straightforward story as well. Separated from Clara for a good percentage of the episode’s running time – although not before a lovely introductory scene which feels ever so slightly like a baiting of the significantly inferior “Voyage of the Damned” – what Capaldi proves here is that he’s more than capable of taking the helm of this kind of story as well as the ones (like “Kill the Moon”) more acutely designed for his incarnation. He’s also got the uncanny knack of being able to talk to himself for extended periods (or, if not to “himself”, then to a cracking impersonation of Tom Baker), something that’s been lacking in recent prior incarnations who’ve generally needed someone to bounce off.

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If there’s a level of disappointment in yet another apparently supernatural entity turning out to be little more than the result of broken alien technology (and broken wartime alien technology, at that), then at least it’s made up for by the fact that the episode gives us a genuinely brilliant and compelling monster. What it might lack in imagination (it’s not even as if it’s the first time we’ve had a mummy in Doctor Who, of course) it more than makes up for in execution – it’s legitimately terrifying in a visceral way, and almost comes close to justifying the ever-irritating later time slot.

The hook of its method of terror, meanwhile, offers one of the more imaginative stylistic tricks that Doctor Who has come up with in a good long while. Practically smashing its way through the fourth wall, the “countdown” clock could come off a cheap and nasty gimmick – but somehow, it works. It helps that it’s front-loaded, planted as the very first image of the episode, in a pre-title sequence that establishes the conceit succinctly. But it’s also responsible for one of the episode’s cleverest moments, serving as misdirection when we think it’s applying to a character onscreen – only to turn out to be somebody else entirely on a completely different part of the train.

It’s emblematic of the fact that this is an episode that’s supremely confident in almost everything it does, even when the thing it’s doing is a reasonably straightforward monster-disaster-movie-siege plot. It rattles along, it’s always sharp, the “lab” twist is perfectly placed and executed, it’s both fun and scary… it’s just Doctor Who on exhilarating form. Even Frank Skinner, who I like a lot but who is decidedly not an “actor”, is pretty good – although he’s gifted exactly the sort of one-off character any lifelong fan would give their right arm to play.

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And then, to cap it all off, the Doctor actually saves the day. I’m not someone who’s having major difficulties with this Grumpy Twelve incarnation, at least certainly not to the extent that others are; but I will admit to a slight yearning for a story where the world feels like it’s a bit better because of his place in it. Here, that’s exactly what we get – and even better, he does so in a way that’s so entirely him. He refuses to let on to anyone else exactly what he’s doing, and is happy to foster the belief that he has a callous disregard for them all, before doing something almost unforgivably stupid and life-risking and clever. And tops it off with the “Are you my mummy?” line. That’s my Doctor.

(Of course, Grumpy Twelve is back for the final scenes with Clara once everything’s shaken out. And for the second week in a row, a brilliantly written scene on a beach looks equally brilliant through the lens of Paul Wilmshurst. But even so, there’s something slightly different about him here. We can almost feel like we’re getting a sense of what he’s doing. Like he knows that he’s the wrong man for Clara to be travelling with, that she needs to grow up and leave her home and her “space dad” behind, but is almost growing weary of trying to nudge her away.)

I loved this episode. I love this series. I love this Doctor. I love this show, and where it is and what it’s doing right now – it’s alive and vibrant and clever and brilliant in a way it hasn’t been since the highest points of Series 5. I understand that’s not true for everyone, that there are murmurings of discontent here and there (or outright shouting, if you’re on Tumblr). But honestly, I feel sorry for those people. It must suck not to be onboard with all of this.

Seb Patrick once met Paul McGann, who immediately pretended to be Mark McGann. He writes for Den of Geek, BBC America, Film4 and the official Red Dwarf website, among others. He owns over thirty toy Daleks and wishes the Dapol factory tour was still open.

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