For the record, I decided not to do a post on last week’s “Kill the Moon”. I’m simply too far behind in too many areas of my life blogging and otherwise, and it wasn’t a particularly stellar effort. There are elements of that episode that lead directly into this one though (as always seems to be the case under Steven Moffat).
in “Mummy on the Orient Express”, we finally have a Peter Capaldi episode that fulfills. Fulfills Capaldi’s enormous potential as a dark hero, fulfils the untapped possibility in his relationship with Clara, fulfills as pure entertainment in every respect. Mathieson is known mostly for Being Human and hasn’t written for Who – though he has written about time travel in the 2009 film FAQ About Time Travel. With “Mummy” he reveals a deep awareness of Doctor Who and what makes the character of the Doctor so tragic, and a deft touch in using the conventions available in the mythology to full effect. It makes me very eager to see what he’s come up with in next week’s “Flatline”.
For starters, “Mummy” works very well as a horror thriller, partly due to the fabulous guest cast. The setting is a beautifully reconstructed future version of the Orient Express traveling through space, on which a mummy is appearing that’s visible only to the person it’s about to kill – and only for 66 seconds. The first victim is a foul-tempered old woman more than a century old, but it soon enough becomes clear that her death wasn’t a natural occurrence. Into this breach step the Doctor and Clara, ostensibly for their “last hurrah” as a traveling pair, except that the Doctor hasn’t shared his suspicions about this train (he’s been invited and summoned to it before) to Clara.
There are really two stories playing out here, both of them beautifully written. We have the very scary struggle for survival against the mummy, who we soon learn is actually the ancient legend “The Foretold”. And we have Clara’s continued struggle to accept – or not to accept – the nature of who this new Doctor who isn’t her Doctor really is. All of the passengers (those that aren’t holograms) are experts who have been hand-picked for their special expertise to assist in studying what The Foretold really is and to harness its power. This includes the mythology professor Moorhouse (the superb Christopher Villers) and the tech wiz Perkins (Frank Skinner) who’s briefly teased as a possible traveling companion for the Doctor (I would have loved that). The chief conductor of the train is a retired soldier with a dark past named Captain Quell (David Bamber) and the strings, it turns out, are being pulled by whatever is behind the computer “Gus” (John Sessions).
All of these people look they belong on the Orient Express, which is a nice piece of detail, but the real drama here is going on inside the Doctor’s head, and between he and Clara. He is indeed a “difficult man”, and Clara knows full well the challenges in traveling with a difficult man. Fellow passenger Maisie (Daisy Beaumont) wonders why we can’t like the people we’re supposed to like, but then answers herself – “I guess there wouldn’t be any fairy tales, then”. Capaldi is in all his glory here as the cold, hard man who seems to see every death as a learning opportunity and thinks nothing of lying to the doomed – or forcing Clara to – in order to make something useful out of their death. Clara seems quite justified in her dismay at what the Doctor has become, even in having allowed herself to hate him.
The real beauty in Capaldi’s stupendous performance as the Doctor, though – and Mathieson is really the first writer of the season to fully tap into it – is that he makes it clear that he’s exactly the same man as the younger, gentler incarnations who preceded him. It’s simply that this Doctor makes no concessions to appearances or diplomacy – he gets right to the point, and seems to wear the harsh judgment his choices bring down on him like his comfortable old coat. “Sometimes the only choices are bad ones” he tells Clara with just a bit of wounded pique, “but someone still has to make them”. That’s who this Doctor is – the man who makes the hard choices and accepts the isolation and loneliness they sometimes bring as hazards of the job. In the end it seems Clara realizes this – understands that in no way can Danny or any other man measure up to the Doctor in terms of pure courage and compassion, and in no way can any relationship she’ll ever have bring her the rewards her relationship with the Doctor can. But she hasn’t yet decided if it’s worth the cost.
Mathieson chooses to end his story quite poetically. The old soldier Captain Quell dies with honor, doing with his death what he could never do for his fellow soldiers who died at his side – and The Foretold proves to be an old soldier itself, kept around long past its time waiting only to be released. And the Doctor saves Maisie after all, despite acting as if he couldn’t, by literally taking her pain into himself and fooling The Foretold into thinking that he was the weakest link when in truth he is – as always – stronger than anyone.
Before Clara recants her desire to split up she asks him if all this – the danger, the mystery, the hard choices – is like an addiction. She then asks if he could give it up, but he turns the question back on her with a snappish “Let me know how it goes”. And her actions are the answer to her own question. For now, at least, Clara stays by the Doctor’s side, telling him a lie she knows he doesn’t believe, but one senses that she can never truly accept him as he is – that she needs her hand held in the way Matt Smith’s Doctor did, but this one seemingly never will. It’s a beautiful, bittwesweet end to this story to match the one of The Foretold, and it stamps Mathieson as a writer to watch for Doctor Who and beyond.