When we go back and look at the full extent of the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who, it seems very likely that "Mummy on the Orient Express" will be one of his essential episodes, defining the Twelfth Doctor the same way that "The Girl in the Fireplace" was as an early stunner for the Tenth and as "Amy's Choice" was for the Eleventh. While this series has yielded some complaints from its detractors that Peter Capaldi "just doesn't feel like the Doctor", this is the episode where what he is is seemingly coming into full view. One of the themes that I've loved about this eighth series/seaon is that its actively challenging viewers' (particularly those that are only familiar with the Matt Smith and/or David Tennant incarnations) perceptions about what actually makes the Doctor the hero they adore.
The Twelfth Doctor is, to be frank, not a particularly nice guy. He's incredibly brash and far more callous in his disregard from human life. This characterization stands in direct contrast with Ten's holding humanity with wide-eyed wonder and Eleven's fairy tale best friend. But does that make him any less of The Doctor? Not really, especially not if you look deeper into previous incarnations of the character from the classic era. The First, Third, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors particularly all had their darker, more alien moments where it was very clear we weren't seeing a romantic idol for the companion to have physical tension with, but instead a cosmic wanderer who is wholly separated from the ethical dilemmas that define us on a regular basis. Sure, occasionally Tom Baker would reach a moral quandry regarding whether he had the right to end the Daleks as a race, or some equivalent; but for the most part, Twelve's quote from Into the Dalek: "She's my carer, she cares so I don't have to" runs much truer to the spirit of the character than "the man who regrets and the man who forgets".
Jamie Mathieson's writing debut for the show perfectly encapsulates this darker shade of the Doctor's personality. He's no longer a man seeking out a home, having realized that he's saved Gallifrey, so his more alien aspects begin to bear that out in his personality. Human beings are an expendable resource, even his companion, to an extent. Sure, this was meant to the "last hurrah" for he and Clara, but in the end, he was hoping it would be another opportunity for adventure, the one thing that is his true constant companion. There's some quite ominous material being mined here, when we reach the episode's end and Clara compares the Doctor's need for this type of traveling as an "addiction", and she's being pulled into it of her own free will. It's a fascinating little arc that played out between this episode and "Kill The Moon", where the Doctor's lies and manipulations had real consequences with Clara announcing that she would no longer travel with him.
While there was a sense of initial disappointment when she immediately walked out of the TARDIS with him this week, the shadow of last week's events was cast throughout all of their interactions this episode. Clara is constantly wanting to discuss their friendship and what may come next, while the Doctor, never one for endings as we know, just wants to talk about the various former planets that the Orient Express (IN SPACE!!) would pass by. By episode's end, Clara comes to a reckoning with her feelings regarding this version of the Doctor. While the details that occurred in both episode's mattered and made for fun viewing, it was the final scenes between the Doctor and Clara that hammered home the throughline (along with some involvement by Danny). Clara is one of the first companions, along with Amy, where we've gotten to learn that they have a life outside of their adventures on the TARDIS.
Clara could have quit right after this journey, and gone on to live a full, healthy life as a teacher, maybe with Danny, and found a new hobby. But instead, she too is just as equally addicted to that same sense of adventure and having access to all of time and space. Her decision to lie to The Doctor and Danny, despite having just held The Doctor's own lies against him, carries a sense of some tragedy despite that on the surface this would seem a victorious moment. It's tremendous that she doesn't feel the need to please Danny by leaving the Doctor, and her sense of agency here is some of the best I've seen for a companion in Nu-Who. Yet, at the same time, we all know a companion cannot travel with the Doctor forever, and so often it ends in tragedy. It's hard to shake the feeling that the ticking clock that appeared in this episode may be "foretelling" the limited time Clara has left. Tom and Lorenzo called it to Sid and Nancy in the TARDIS, that's as pitch perfect a description as it gets.
As for the actual monster story of the episode? It was delightful. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for the old Universal Monster films, and The Mummy with it's delightful mixture of Egyptian myth, Zombie-aesthetics, and Vampire-like needs has always been a favorite. The Foretold is the first Doctor Who monster I've seen since the debut of The Silence that actually elicited some form of chill in me. There's something terrifying about a creature coming for you that only you can see and the 66 second clock ticking down elevated the tension to a fever pitch at points. The plot was strong, and the period specific elements, lent it a better Agatha Christie style atmosphere than "The Wasp and the Unicorn", where Agatha Christie actually appeared in it as a character.
The Second Act twist, which we've seen a number of times now this series, was well conceptualized. When the realization comes that everyone on board the train that isn't a "hard-light hologram" is an expert that's meant to analyze and defeat the Foretold at the behest of Gus, the unseen mastermind/probably artificial intelligence that's been trying to get the Doctor on-board the Orient Express for centuries, this Doctor's worst (best) impulses come to the fore. Each time one of the experts becomes sacrificed to this shambling horror, the Doctor uses it as an excuse to develop data to defeat it. The existence of actual stakes helped the narrative considerably as well. I think you can count on just a few hands the number of characters of any real impact that actually die on screen, and here, no one seemed safe, and when they died, they were gone. Not shuffled off to another dimension, not teleported to another ship, just simply deceased. This is a series that could greatly benefit from more of this kind of consequential story-telling on a regular basis, with actively devastating threats. The only way the Doctor could win was if people die...talk about darker shades of storytelling!
Those sacrifices would be pretty meaningless though, if the guest cast wasn't as tip-top as it was this week. Frank Skinner was tremendously funny in his role as Perkins, basically the companion away from the companion (probably signifying a more Doctor-lite episode next week) and David Bamber, Christopher Villiers, and Daisy Beaumont portrayed tremendously fleshed out characters respectively. Many times, these supporting players aren't much more than period setting wall paper, but there was just something about the Doctor's (and Clara's, in Maisie's case) level of interaction with each that actually exuded a sense of sadness in me when they they were either approaching or meeting their final end.
There are many, who I assume are used to the bigger River Song-esque arcs of this series, that have asked: when is the actually season-long story going to get any build up? In truth, it seems pretty clear that we're already there. Anything with Missy and the Nethersphere/Promised Land is basically just background detail. The real arc is the emotional roller-coaster that is the Doctor and Clara and it's absolutely riveting to behold. This is the first time in the New Series that we as viewers have gotten a chance to focus in on the ramifications of a regeneration from the companion's perspective, and much like what happened to poor Adric back when Tom Baker changed into Peter Davison, the effects aren't necessarily positive. While it's going to be very tough for me to choose my favorite episode this series, and I hope the final four entries make it even tougher, "Mummy on the Orient Express" will absolutely be one I revisit on a regular basis for Capaldi and Coleman's wonderful performances and for one of the most cracking debuts we've gotten from a new writer to the series in quite some time. This is Doctor Who at its best.
Thoughts to Ponder:
- So that was Gus on the phone with Matt Smith's Doctor at the end of "The Big Bang". As always with Moffat's tenure, there's never really a hanging thread it seems.
- The conversation between Maisie and Clara was an actively pretty funny one and openly acknowledged some of the series criticisms in regard to the role of its female characters. O particularly like how they scoffed at how all they can do is sit locked in a room and "talk about some man".
- Jelly Babies!!!
- The Mummy was a soldier, continuing to underline that thread, and it looks like Clara has decided to side with the "Officer" instead of the "Infantryman". Surely this will return to the discussion that arose in "The Caretaker" regarding the orders that officers give and the impact it has on those they give it to. The fall-out here is going to be rough, but hopefully in a way that continues the rich themes that have made Series 8 one of the best in the entire show's history.
- "I want to complain about the breakfast bar...and the dying." Peter Capaldi is incredible.