Doctor Who series 8: Mummy On The Orient Express review

This week's Doctor Who may not be the strongest episode of the current run, but it leaves us with plenty to mull over...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.8 Kill The Moon

“Do you come round to peoples’ houses for dinner?”

It seems a shame to start with something a little downbeat, given that Mummy On The Orient Express was really quite good fun. But after that ending to Kill The Moon, we can’t have been the only ones hoping for things to be picked up more directly than they were here. Just seven days ago, Clara sent the Doctor away and was bellowing at him, fed up with his patronising ways and treating her as a regular human, who just makes the same choices as everyone else. Internet fire was certainly lit.

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Clearly things have happened by the time Mummy On The Orient Express starts, but we’ve not got to see them – it’s as if someone jumped a chapter on the DVD. Clara is back with the Doctor, instantly, which is the big surprise. She’s chatting happily to him, which is another. But still, she’s decided that she’s basically dumping him, which is fair enough. That said, things have changed again by the ending, which we’ll come to shortly.

“You knew this was no relaxing break”

In lieu of a more obvious direction continuation, it turns out that it’s the words of Danny Pink come the end of Kill The Moon which have proven something of a catalyst. For his talk with Clara back then has brought the Doctor and her together on another adventure, albeit in Clara’s eyes, a final one.

And it’s a pretty spooky, and certainly enjoyable, adventure in its own right.

It doesn’t waste time, either. Mummy On The Orient Express starts with a ticking clock, with the number 66 important here (a coincidence that it’s double 33, one of the best episodes of Battlestar Galactica‘s reboot, which also played with a recurring time mechanic?). For on the space version of the famous train (the only space version, we’re told), people are dying. And they get 66 seconds’ worth of notice that they’re going to be doing so. It brings the mechanic of time firmly to the forefront.

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Consequently, once said clock starts ticking, one person in the carriage of doom can see a really rather well done Mummy coming towards them. Nobody else can. And when the clock drops to zero, the body hits the floor. They become a dead passenger.

Even before the credits have rolled, a terrified old woman has met her maker. You’d have to say that it’s a very good, sudden and quite shocking way to start an episode of Doctor Who.

“We’ve got doctors and professors coming out of our ears on this trip”

The guts of the episode thus form a mystery. Why are people dying? Why are they being chosen? Why can only one person see what’s happening? And it’s a fun set of puzzles that writer Jamie Mathieson has set up. Seemingly well schooled in the art of Agatha Christie, along with a fair few classic horror films, Mathieson blends them well, dropping fresh clues at just the right moments.

For, as the episode progresses, we first learn that it’s a bunch of people that have been brought together who can solve the mystery of what the Mummy – or The Foretold – actually is. Then, the covers are pulled back further. It turns out we’re not on a train after all. It’s a science lab. Then, the next piece of the jigsaw gets part-solved by Frank Skinner, whose suggestion that the 66 second problem boils down to phase shifting unlocks the Doctor’s brain on this one.

Mathieson dresses his episode up with not only as callous a Doctor as we’ve seen all series, but also an ensemble bunch of period characters who comfortably pass their Downton Abbey exams. Highlights amongst them are Daisy Beaumont’s Maisie and David Bamber’s Captain Quell. And in the midst of it is the Universal horror-esque Grim Reaper-alike Mummy, tapping said supporting characters on the shoulder when their moment comes.

Foxes even pops up for a sing song. Not sure why, but it doesn’t do the episode any harm. No doubt the single’s on iTunes by now.

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There’s also Frank Skinner, who perhaps doesn’t blend so seamlessly into the ensemble as the other supporting players. With no disrespect to the man, you never lose the feeling that you’re watching Frank Skinner on his way to his Oliver audition as, by turns, he helps unravel the mystery, reckons he can fix bits of the TARDIS, and comes out with profound statements. As entertaining as it is seeing him in Doctor Who, not too many people will have been too bothered that his character turned down the opportunity for a further jaunt with the Doctor come the end of the episode. He comes out of his Doctor Who sojourn a whole lot better than Peter Kay did, mind.

Returning director Paul Wilmshurst then blends all this together with the skill and eye that helped make Kill The Moon such a visual feast, and an excellent slice of horror. Last week, then, he paid homage to the earlier Alien films. This time, it’s a classic horror character who gets taken elsewhere in the universe. Wilmshurst gets his money’s worth out of him. Given that the episode’s jumps hinged on a CG character, we were genuinely surprised how strong the Mummy was (take the moment where he steps through Capaldi for a start). Observing the rules of effective horror critters – slow moving, unstoppable, capable of generating a jump, looks good in 1080p – the Mummy here may not crawl under the skin of too many adults, but the younger audience? They might just have hidden their eyes for a moment or two.

“People with guns to their heads, they cannot mourn”

The other mystery, then: just where does Mummy On The Orient Express leave the Doctor and Clara?

We’ve talked before about the swirling rumours regarding Jenna Coleman’s intentions for the show, and if she is heading off, then the fact that Clara is moving further and further away from the Doctor in each episode is no coincidence. Clara and the Doctor have had their moments this series, but it’s hard to argue they’ve ever been too warm to each other.

There’s not much here that goes against that. In fact, considering this is supposed to be a “last hurrah” for the Doctor and Clara, it was entirely in keeping with the tone of the series that the Doctor would hijack this, knowing full well that the Orient Express would bring them into contact with a monster.

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Yet there is an olive branch of sorts midway, and at the end. The episode stops to allow Clara and Daisy Beaumont’s Maisie to have a conversation (this run of Who has been good for conversations).

There, Clara chats about why she and the Doctor aren’t great friends anymore. “We travelled, and now we’re stopping. This is goodbye to the good times”, she says. “You can’t end on a slammed door”, Clara argues. Daisy disagrees, and adds the line “life would be so much simpler if you liked the right people”. Clara’s life may be pulling her apart from the Doctor, but does she want him fully out of her life? For a few minutes, it seemed so.

After all, Clara continues to hate the tactics and manipulation of Capaldi’s Doctor, who will lie to her in a far less charming manner than Eleven ever did (after all, the Doctor lying is hardly fresh news). The difference here: he made her lie. She became complicit. And that was over the line. Throw in the fact that the quiet retreat also was never ever going to be that quiet, courtesy of the Doctor knowing that trouble was ahead, and had this been the finale, Clara could feasibly have stormed off into the sunset.

But she didn’t, and the speech on the beach come the end (we like that, it rhymes) has turned things around, at least for the minute. Some magical lines leave the Doctor’s mouth here. “You were pretending to be heartless?”, questions Clara. “Would you like to think that about me? Would that make it easier?”, asks the Doctor. It’s a great scene between Capaldi and Coleman, and one that reopens the door for the pair of them to work together. Which they’re doing for another week at least.

Other Business

While we’re here, a few further longer thread questions. Someone else has the phone number to the TARDIS, we learn. Someone has been trying to lure the Doctor to the ‘Orient Express’ for some time. Is this Missy or Seb? Or someone else? To have the Doctor’s phone number, and the power to assemble such a bunch of people suggests it’s not an everyday foe the Doctor is ultimately going to face.

Also, for a man so set against soldiers, rarely in recent times has the Doctor acted so definitely as one (he encounters another on the ‘train’ too, one suffering the ramifications of warfare). He’s clearly willing to let person after person die, knowing that a few deaths here will save many down the line. Two things about that. Firstly, he’ll never get a part in Star Trek. Secondly, that’s military thinking, isn’t it?

Is the Doctor, basically, going to have to display all the traits he hates come whatever Missy has in store at the end of the series?

Lots to mull over then, as is increasingly the case with Doctor Who series 8. With regards this week, Mummy On The Orient Express certainly isn’t the best of this run, but given what we’ve seen the past few weeks, that’s far, far from a negative. Director Paul Wilmshurst once more brings terrific pace and staging to his direction, whilst Jamie Mathieson’s first Who script has lots going on too.

Mind you, his next one, for Flatline in seven days’ time, shows real promise too. Who’s betting that one tears the Doctor and Clara apart again?

Our review of last week’s episode, Kill The Moon, is here.

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