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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express

1. Well, this episode had me at "Orient Express". It will probably end up being one of the great regrets of my life that I never travelled on the Orient Express during my lifetime (it having shut down in 2009), as I've always been fascinated by its mystique and glamour – as well as a fan of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

I'm not entirely sure why this had to be set in space instead of a simple time-travelling sojourn to the 1920s, as it was all highly reminiscent of Voyage of the Damned which of course dealt with the Titanic in space. But perhaps there was a little in-joke here, as the idea of a cursed mummy on board a famous vessel reminds me of the urban legend concerning Queen Hatshepsut's remains being on board the Titanic when it sank...

But in any case, a great premise supplemented by a great atmosphere. This is one of those storylines that make you wish you'd thought of it first.  

2. But how exactly do you go from "I never want to see you again!" to "time for one last hurrah!" After Clara's emotional (and justified) outpouring in Kill the Moon over the unfair position that the Doctor put her in, it was rather disconcerting to see her reasonably bubbly and cheerful as she was ushered on-board the Orient Express. Did a scene go missing somewhere?

It's not quite as bad as when Amy and Rory reacted to the kidnapping of their only child with a hearty shrug, but if you're going to form an emotional arc for your Companion, why on earth would you cut it short less than a single episode after it's been initiated?

By the end of the episode, Clara has declared her fury at the Doctor as "a wobble" and is seemingly back to normal again. Seems a bit of a waste.

3. As befits a story modelled after an Agatha Christie mystery, there was some great material here. The gist of it is that the Orient Express is being haunted by a mummy, who sporadically appears to a single person after the lights flicker on and off. From the moment it appears, the victim has exactly sixty-six seconds before they are dead, the mummy advancing on them the whole time. Just to ramp up the suspense, a small clock is inserted at the bottom of the screen so that the audience can keep track.

Having established these rules, the episode sticks with them. If the mummy appears, the victim has sixty-six seconds, no exceptions.

But like all the suspects in Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, the Doctor is quick to realize that the collection of scientists, doctors, professors and alien culture experts are not present by coincidence. The train's computer system GUS has deliberately gathered them all together to solve the mystery of the mummy, and isn't afraid to manipulate, coerce and even murder in order to get the job done. And to make matters even worse, the researchers can't even see it – unless they're the one who has only sixty-six seconds to relate as much information about it as possible before they die.

Like I said, great premise, especially when the research team know their lives are on the line.

4. The costume department loves playing with Jenna Louie Coleman, doesn't it? I don't think we've ever had another Companion play dress-up to this extent: all the Victorian costumes, the Renaissance Faire wear for Robin Hood, and now a 1920s flapper. Most of the time they just wander around in their normal clothes, but Clara clearly likes to be in character.

5. Best death scenes have to go to Doctor Moorhouse and Captain Quell. Just imagine yourself facing death and knowing there's absolutely nothing you can do but pass on as much information as possible to your fellows in the bid to save the life of the person who comes after you.

"This is my life, my death, I'm going to fight for it how I want!"

6. Frank Skinner as Perkins made for a great guest star, and it's almost a shame he passed on the Doctor's offer to take him on as a Tardis engineer.

Whilst Clara was with Maisie in the cargo car, he was the audience surrogate in regards to how the Doctor was behaving ("I can't tell if you're a genius or just incredibly arrogant"), but he put up quite a good act of being a bit shifty when we first meet him.
 
7. The concept of the Foretold was nicely put together, with the mummy finally revealed as a soldier being driven by malfunctioning technology to takes lives in a war he still thinks he's fighting.

The clues are all there (the scroll that’s actually a flag, the sixty-six seconds relating to how long it takes to "phase shift" the victim's energy, and the rumours of a code word to stop it which the Doctor eventually figures out is "we surrender") and the mystery is solved in a very organic and logical way (finding the common link between all the victims, realizing that the mummy's powers denote sophisticated technology, and the Doctor using the scanner to absorb Maisie's trauma into his own head).

It also plugs elegantly into this season's soldier theme, and the sight of the mummy saluting the Doctor was unexpectedly poignant.

8. It would appear that the theme of this episode was doing what you have to do, as spelt out in the Doctor's words to Clara: "Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose."

That said, he was not entirely indifferent to the fates of the other passengers, as his ultimate plan did hinge on taking Maisie's trauma out of her head and into his own. That was a clever way of dealing with the mummy and demonstrating the Doctor's intelligence by having him figure out the puzzle in under a minute.

Of course, it was staged in such a way that the audience isn't given the opportunity to figure it out in advance. Perhaps letting us have a better look at the "scroll" and having one of the other victims point out the symbols under the mummy's bandages would have made the whole thing feel like less of a Clueless Mystery.

9. Attached to this theme was the fact that Clara was made into the Doctor's accomplice by being ordered to lie to Maisie about how safe she was. She really had no other choice, but that doesn't mean an emotional toll isn't exacted.

But she was in good form as a Companion; offering support and sympathy to Maisie, and I'm sorry there wasn't a better farewell scene between them (apparently there was a cut scene that involved the two of them on the beach together).

10. The jazz singer singing Queen's Don't Stop Me Now was a nice touch, though she looked borderline catatonic. Then I found out she's an actual singer, so I'm assuming that demeanour is her shtick?

11. One thing that bugged me that there was no sense of movement on board that train. And sure, you could argue that passage was smooth because it was in space, but to me at least, that incessant rattle and jitter is a quintessential part of train rides. Without it, it just felt as though they were on a set. Which they were. But it felt like they were, which ruined the illusion.

12. "Are you my mummy?" Heh, I just knew they'd have to get that in there somewhere.
 

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