The Doctor takes Clara in one last trip in the TARDIS as a farewell chapter to their travels together. But the passengers aboard the Orient Express in space are being killed by a mummy, with just sixty-six seconds notice.
The title is obviously a riff on Agatha Christie’s Poiret mystery Murder on the Orient Express. But whereas in the original (spoiler alert) Poiret investigates all the passengers only to discover that they are all guilty of the murder, writer Jamie Mathieson has made it that everyone on the train could be a victim. The train itself, or at least the technology aboard controlled by Gus, is potentially going to be responsible for everyone’s death.
Just as with Kill The Moon last week, Mummy on the Orient Express feels like a real homage to twentieth-century Doctor Who, particularly the Philip Hinchcliffe-era. This mixes old-school horror with modern story-telling techniques like the onscreen countdown each time the Mummy is unleashed. There’s a lovely nod to the Fourth Doctor with the Twelfth Doctor’s cigarette case of jelly babies. It reminds me of the story about Tom Baker changing a scripted line about requesting a last cigarette before he was executed by a villain to asking for a last jelly baby.
Mummies, modest cousins to zombies, have only been used in Doctor Who once before. The Pyramids of Mars casts a long shadow. It is regarded an all-time classic by many fans and ranked number 8 in the Doctor Who Magazine‘s poll of stories earlier this year. But the mummies under Sutekh’s control are hulking service robots and this episode wisely takes a different approach, with a more traditional staggering, rotting corpse swaddled in bandages-type. As with the Skovox Blitzer in The Caretaker, this mummy is a soldier. The type of soldier that the Twelfth Doctor has particular animosity for, one who blindly follows orders. We see the Doctor as officer class once more, slipping into a commanding role with the mummy and sussing the Captain’s military experience immediately.
The Doctor remains as pragmatic as through the rest of series eight, freely admitting at the end that he would have allowed each of the scientists to die until he made the discovery. In this the Doctor has another mirror in Gus. It’s strange that the Doctor doesn’t hate Gus as he did ‘the Architect’, who manipulated him in a similar manner in Time Heist.
Clara seems to make her peace with the Doctor’s methods by the end of this adventure. The thrill of adventure and life-threatening situations are compared to a drug, one which she cannot give up just yet. Like the eponymous Mummy, characters here are trapped in patterns of behaviour. The Captain needs the Doctor to snap him out of his habitual apathy. The Mummy is essentially given permission to stop it’s centuries-long mission by the Doctor. The Doctor, who has no intention of giving up his lifestyle (he was unable to remain a passive observer in The Snowmen), and Clara don’t change. The latter finding it more difficult to quit than she thought. In the past the Doctor might have helped sever the tie, the most brutal example being him abandoning Susan at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. But as he gets older he finds it harder to say goodbye. River Song tells us in The Angels Take Manhatten that he hates goodbyes, and he kept travelling with the Ponds far beyond the point where he should have left them to their lives. Twice in the series we have seen him react negatively to Clara’s declaration of love for Danny Pink. It seems more likely that this is because he knows it spells the end of another friendship than Cult Box theory that the Doctor is in love with Clara.
I wondered if some viewers would be tutting about Clara being locked in a room failing the ‘Bechdel Test’ while the Doctor gets down to the job of figuring out what is going on with the Mummy and how to defeat it. But the characters themselves draw attention to it, and I think Clara being kept out of the action is key to making her realise what she will miss if the Doctor is off having adventures without her.
There is the sense that things will come to a head soon. Clara is lying to Danny again. At the beginning of this series Madam Vastra advises Clara to give the Doctor ‘hell’. While his methods are more questionable now, it looks like she will no longer be holding him account. Having threatened to end their friendship for his actions last week, she’s lost credibility by not going through with it. It’s the same thing she pointed out to the Clockwork Man in Deep Breath – “Threats don’t work unless you deliver… Never start with your final sanction; you’ve got nowhere to go but backwards.”
Originally posted on my Doctor Who blog: Trap One.