Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 8 “Mummy On The Orient Express”
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Written by Jamie Mathieson
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Frank Skinner, David Bamber
Air Date: Saturday, October 11th, 2014
This season of Doctor Who seems to keep turning back to the same question: “Clara, be my pal, and tell me: am I a good man?” Uttered in just the second episode of the season after a turbulent regeneration in the first, her answer of “I don’t know” seemed to echo and replay itself yet again this week. Now the question and the answer are not part of a conversational exercise, but have become central to the question of Clara’s continued friendship with the Doctor.
When Matt Smith’s Doctor said “Rule #1: the Doctor lies” more than once, it all seemed like a humorous technicality. With a pure heart, the Eleventh Doctor could be trusted to let the end justify the means, even if the means involved some purposeful misunderstanding. Now, Clara seems to ponder the full meaning of that statement since the less polished manner of Peter Capaldi‘s Doctor sometimes seems gruffly at odds with his inner intentions.
These questions are probed this week in Episode 8.8, “Mummy On The Orient Express,” a smartly written and well-directed genre piece, or rather the intersection of two genres: the Agatha Christie murder mystery and classic 1930’s-style horror. It’s another base under siege, but the focus is now returned to the Doctor while Clara still reels from the events of “Kill The Moon.” It executes the formula well, recognizing the shortcuts it has to take to fit into 47 minutes and playing with them a bit. Peter Capaldi crackles in his portrayal of the Doctor this week. He presents a multi-layered character whose elemental goodness is something fans will easily recognize with some anti-social quirks that are clearly bothering Jenna Coleman‘s Clara.
Though I have been harder than some in my criticism of some of this season’s episodes, the failures (such as they are) of the program are only apparent because of the general upward trajectory in its quality. This episode continues that ascent and leaves me wondering how the four remaining acts of the season will play out.
This episode raises a question that is treated somewhat ambiguously in Doctor Who history: Is travel with the Doctor ever leisurely or boring? Based on the serials we’ve seen on television over the last 50 years, the answer should be no. We’ve seen the Doctor and his companions try to take a break and relax several times over the decades, be it to Metebelis Three (in “The Green Death”), the Leisure Hive of Argolis (in “The Leisure Hive”), or the Eye of Orion (in “The Five Doctors”), but those attempts at leisure are inevitably the start of one dangerous adventure or another. The show was also a truly serial drama for its first few years, with each episode beginning more or less exactly where the last one ended until the end of the 1960s.
On the other hand, the series refers to “off screen” events on a semi-regular basis, such as the Doctor’s encounter with the Mordee Expedition as the basis for “The Face of Evil,” his last day with River Song in “Forest Of The Dead,” his visits with his granddaughter in “The Rings of Akhaten,” or his time with Lorna Bucket prior to meeting in “A Good Man Goes To War.” The novelizations of classic Doctor Who stories expand on this even further. The book version of “The Tenth Planet” remarks early on that the last few planets that the Doctor, Ben, and Polly had visited were largely uninhabited, for example. This suggests that the TV serials were only the exciting parts of the time spent with the Doctor and other parts could be dull.
In this episode, the question is treated like an accusation. Did the Doctor know that an invitation to travel on the Orient Express would be dangerous? At this point, the Doctor and Clara are like a couple on the verge of splitting who take a getaway trip to recapture the magic or end things on a high note. As the Doctor notes in The Doctor Dances, days when everybody lives are rare in his life. So things turn as the viewer would expect and a holiday becomes yet another life and death encounter. While this is something that Clara might have relished with Matt Smith, it is grounds for suspicion with Capaldi. She’s peeked behind the curtain and been forced to decide the future rather than merely observe it emerge. That’s a process usually reserved for the Doctor, and she resents him for it. Looking at the Doctor through her jaded eyes, we wonder who the Doctor really is in a way that we haven’t for a long, long time.
Peter Capaldi’s portrayal gives us abundant evidence to doubt the Doctor and every reason to have faith in him. While the last two Doctors have been young and somewhat dashing in their own ways, this one is often blunt, tart, and not very sociable. He sometimes wields the truth like a blunt instrument, at one point asking “how many people will have to die before you change your mind?” However much he may speak in an unpleasant way, he acts very much the opposite. After asking Clara to lie to bring the next victim of the mummy to him before it attacks, he suddenly puts himself in the victim’s place, risking himself to save everyone. Capaldi is proving to be brilliant at this dual performance, speaking badly and acting well. It’s a type of anti-hero texture that we haven’t seen anything like since at least Christopher Eccleston, and possibly further back to the beginning in William Hartnell.
I was rather hard on “Kill The Moon” for the way it dealt with a base under siege format in a short 47 minutes. “Mummy On The Orient Express” returns to that premise, but does it in a smarter way that helps take off some of the rough corners. When the Doctor encounters Frank Skinner as Perkins, the train’s engineer, and is suddenly handed a lot of very helpful research, he remarks on the impossibility of how quickly Perkins came up with the necessary data. He then fills the plot hole by remarking that Perkins must have been looking into events long before he showed up. Likewise, after the Doctor asks David Bamber‘s Captain Quell how many deaths will force him to change his mind, the Captain eventually responds that three is all that is required immediately after that death occurs. The presence of the line and the way it is delivered succinctly replace what could be a much longer scene in a multi-part serial. This episode is full of little bits like these that move the plot along briskly, but don’t cut too many corners in terms of character development.
This is a great episode. It doesn’t have quite the dramatic punch of “Kill The Moon,” but it’s also a more graceful telling of a genre base under siege story. The visuals are stylish. The principal actors are in good form. The story returns to the focus of the plot to the Doctor, which is a pleasant change after a couple of weeks of looking at things through Clara’s eyes. I don’t know how this episode will rank in Peter Capaldi’s time with the series, but it’s one of my favorites so far in a season that has consistently dug deeper to try to find story gold.