Series 8, Episode 8
Mummy on the Orient Express
Posted by Sage
In one of my most vivid fantasy lives, I solve murders on trains. My imagination can turn an Amtrak headed from Philly to NYC into a glamorous coach, chugging through a countryside far more exotic than the mid-Atlantic. And that one time I took a trip in a sleeper car? Forget about it. I was almost praying for someone to be offed so I’d have the chance to show my stuff.
So imagine my glee when our Doctor Who recap trade-off structure meant that I’d get to cover an episode called “Mummy on the Orient Express.” That’s right, Kim got stuck with moon dragon abortion and I got a ’20s-esque space noir. I’m sure it’ll even out sometime.
The promo for this week’s episode heightened the impact of Clara and the Doctor’s row by leaving the companion out entirely. Would the Doctor be taking this journey alone? But why waste the chance to doll Jenna Coleman up in a sensational beaded dress and chic bob? Donna Noble would approve. Flapper, not slapper.
In fact, both of our time travelers are looking bangin’ in this episode. My stomach did a little flippity flop when I first saw the Doctor escort Clara out of the TARDIS by hand saying, “Your train awaits, my lady.” There’s a gallant-ness to him that we haven’t seen before in this regeneration. He and Clara remark that this trip feels like “a good one to end on” and we know. Though he’s never apologized to Clara about dumping the moon dragon on her and probably never will, he’s going to do everything he can on this trip to convince her not to leave. The cuddly factor may fluctuate, but the Doctor has never and will never be anything but utter shit at being alone.
Let me take another minute to again heap praise on Jenna Coleman, who continues to bring incredible pathos to Clara. Kim commented that she felt cheated out of the conversation preceding this trip. The end of “Kill the Moon” was so devastating because Clara’s anger was righteous and real. We’ve seen modern companions be disappointed in the Doctor. We’ve seen them call him out. But we’ve never seen one so irate and so final. Clara felt like she’d been duped and she was done playing the Doctor’s sympathetic sidekick. But in the first few minutes of “Mummy,” I established my head canon for that missing conversation. Clara called the Doctor and reopened the lines of communication. She’s not the kind of girl who would throw a fit just to be coddled; she wasn’t sitting around waiting for him to drop by and fall at her feet. But I imagine that her feelings towards him softened as she hung out at Danny’s flat watching telly – she remembered the phone call from her old friend, and how he’d begged her to help him. (And with apologies to Danny, she was probably bored to tears.) So she won’t leave on the proverbial slammed door. She’ll take the farewell tour. She’s forgiven him but she still can’t live with him. “Yes, the sad smile. It’s a smile, but you’re sad. Two emotions at once. It’s like you’re malfunctioning.” And Jenna NAILED that sad smile. Also: ARM CLUTCHING. (“Can I talk about the planets now?”)
In true DW fashion, the trip isn’t destined to be all champagne wishes and caviar dreams and jazzy Queen covers. Before the TARDIS makes its appearances, an elderly woman demands a man in “fancy dress” be thrown out of the dining car, and then drops dead just outside of a minute. Her granddaughter and the rest of the passengers and crew of the Orient Express are left to mourn the woman’s sudden but seemingly natural passing, until a cook suffers the same fate in the kitchen. The Doctor swears to Clara that he didn’t knowingly steer them into danger. Rule #1: The Doctor lies.
The two are separated early on when they emerge from their (sigh) separate compartments, both suspicious about Mrs. Pitt’s death. The Doctor, Nosy Parker, crosses the path of Perkins, Chief Engineer. Perkins’ motivations are unclear, but the Doctor instantly takes to him. If Clara is, in fact, telling the truth about not wanting this trip to “be a thing,” then he’ll leave her out of it. But he needs a sleuthing partner, and Perkins is just arch enough to be entertaining. Meanwhile, Clara runs into Maisie Pitt, wandering the corridors with her shoe in her hand, looking to break into the compartment holding her grandmother’s body. The two women end up locked in with a spacey-wacey sarcophagus, as you do.
The funny thing about the Doctor’s redemption in this episode is that it’s not saved for the final moments. It’s stealthily happening the whole time. Once he figures out that the figure stalking the train is the mythical Foretold, he goes right into deductive mode. He unpacks the mystery, piece by piece by observing who and how it attacks. And while the survivors might find him cold, he’s getting it done. The Doctor doesn’t have the luxury of grief – not while he’s responsible for these lives. And at least he’s facing the threat, unlike Captain Quell for most of the story. (“How many people have to die before you stop looking the other way?”) Maisie’s grief and guilt, on the other hand, do nothing for her except put a target on her back.
Once the Doctor realizes that Maisie is next on the hit list, he instructs Clara to bring her to him – to lie, if she has to. And she does, because what other hope is there? But I love that Clara considered disobeying him and hiding Maisie away in the TARDIS. What she experienced in “Kill the Moon” wasn’t weakness. Clara Oswald is not afraid to make a decision, if the situation requires it. We’ve seen her do it before, to save herself, The Doctor, even the entire population of Gallifrey. And if it hadn’t been a decent plan, Gus wouldn’t have put a force field around the thing.
But the force field betrays what Clara had already suspected: the Doctor had an inkling that something untoward would be happening on the Orient Express. (“I didn’t know. I certainly hoped.”) Gus had been trying to lure the Doctor to the trains where he conducts his experiments for years, why did he decide to answer the call this time? Why was this the choice for his and Clara’s “last hurrah”? I think he wanted her to really see how he has to operate – how “everybody lives” is a great day – the best day. But not the every day. And I think he knows that he’s not the only one addicted to trying.
Luckily Maisie got on the scene just as the Doctor had nearly cracked the case. So when the Foretold appears to her, the Doctor steals it away. (“Focus. All your grief, your trauma, your resentment. Now….it’s mine.”) Yes, Maisie is saved for now. But the Doctor saves his true manic elation for the mummy itself. You know that it was killing him not to be able to see it before, even if it was a harbinger of death. He can hardly wait to introduce himself: “I’m the Doctor and I will be your victim this evening.”
The resolution is a little pat. The mummy is a soldier? Looking for a flag? We’ve had better. But we’ve had few better denouements as the scene between the Doctor and Clara on that rocky beach.
The Doctor: “No, I just saved you and I let everyone else suffocate, ha ha ha. Yeah, this is just my cover story.”
Clara: “So, when you lied to Maisie, when you made me lie to Maisie…”
The Doctor: “I couldn’t risk Gus finding out my plan.”
Clara: “So you were pretending…to be heartless?”
The Doctor: “Would you like to think that about me? Would that make it easier?”
You clowns are making it really difficult not to ship it. (I submit to you: if she was sleeping the whole time, how did Clara get from the TARDIS to the beach? Eh? EH?) Anyway, the Doctor doesn’t offer any apologies here. He did what he did and if he hadn’t, a lot more passengers of the Orient Express wouldn’t have made it to the nearest civilized planet. While he figured out how to save the rest, he watched people die, wondering the whole time if he could have saved one or two or all if only he’d worked a little faster. Of course the Doctor doesn’t want to dwell on the dead. He challenges Clara out on this beach for wanting him to be all or nothing – her hero or a cold-hearted egomaniac – to make her decision easier. But why should the Doctor be the only one who has to handle the tough calls? The only job in the universe tougher than the Doctor’s is being the friend who stands by him as he does it.
“Hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like,” Clara repeats to the Doctor. But back on the TARDIS, we get a different story. Clara checks in with Danny, who – bless him – has been encouraging her to lift her Doctor embargo. She watches the Doctor fiddle with the console while she talks to Danny and looks right at him when she says “I love you” into the phone. Then Clara’s the liar, telling the Doctor that Danny had forbid her from traveling and now was “fine with it.” (“Now, shut up and give me some planets.”) If he knows Clara Oswald at all, he didn’t buy that story for a second. But he’s still as delighted as we’ve ever seen him. Other Doctors have had the talent for making friends easily, but this regeneration knows he’s not among them. If she’d really left, he would most certainly be alone. So he’s willing to overlook her lie – to further encourage her addiction – just so they can keep going.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- Is Missy behind Gus? What say you, readers?
- “Old ladies die all the time. It’s practically their job description.”
- Let’s have a one-to-one conversation between the Doctor and himself every episode. “I was being rhetorical.”
- This SCORE. Fine-ass Murray Gold outdid himself this time.
- Dr. Emil Morehouse would like a jelly baby, thank you very much.
- “People with guns to their heads cannot mourn.”
- “Ooh you didn’t really like your Gran, did you?”
- “No casualties, just a bevy of sleeping beauties.”
- “That job could change a man.” “Yes, it does. Frequently”
Kim will be back next week to take us through “Flatline,” another Jamie Mathieson (Being Human) episode. For now, leave those post-show thoughts in the comments. Did Clara make the right call?