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BBC1. 8.35pm. 11.10.14.
Written by Jamie Mathieson
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Following last week’s ‘Big Issue’ drama, this was Doctor Who returning to a lighter mode in the sort of adventure that can best be described as a ‘romp’. That’s not to say there was any shortage of thrills, some of them perhaps a little on the frightening side for younger viewers, and hence making sense of the later-than-usual time slot for the second half of this series. The monster of the week was a ghostly apparition of a mummy stalking passengers on an intergalactic Orient Express – an outer-space train running on some sort of hyperspace whatsits rather than tracks. The twist is that the mummy is visible only to its next victim and that other passengers and crew cannot see it. It turns out that the mummy is in fact a soldier “wounded in a forgotten war” equipped with a state-of-the-art but malfunctioning camouflage system and that the Orient Express is a holographic projection created by “someone of immense power and influence” who has invited the Doctor along for the ride. Here, no doubt, is some story-arc business being laid down for the future: in a sense the identity of the mysterious external agency did not matter as the episode worked perfectly well on its own terms.
As a horror/science fiction hybrid, ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ reminded me of the Gothic period of classic Doctor Who. One can imagine the script commissioning meeting. Let’s get a group of people facing an unknown alien menace in an isolated location: ‘Horror of Fang Rock’. Ensure that the Doctor’s companion dresses in period costume: ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’. Add in the mummy wrapped in decaying bandages from ‘Pyramids of Mars’. Reveal at the half-way point that the environment is not real but a sort of laboratory experiment: ‘Carnival of Monsters’. I’ve mentioned before in this blog how some episodes of Doctor Who over recent seasons have seemed to be looking back more and more to the classic series. This is not so much in terms of resurrecting old monsters – other than the necessary Dalek episode we haven’t had a returning monster since the Zygons put in an appearance in the fiftieth anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ – but rather in terms of story templates and genre influences. It’s interesting to speculate why this might be the case and one reason might be that Peter Capaldi’s mercurial, often irritable, always unpredictable Doctor is closer to the classic series that the recent touchy-feely ‘new man’ incarnations.
This was the first script by another new writer to Doctor Who, Jamie Mathieson, and, like Neil Cross’s contributions in Series 7, it suggests that showrunner Steven Moffat has succeeded in finding new writers who understand the unique and special nature of Doctor Who as a television drama. A characteristic of the Moffat ‘era’ has been the widening of the pool of writers used by his predecessor Russell T. Davies. This strategy can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand a small pool of writers ensures consistency of tone and style (this is why, say, the Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks and Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes periods of classic Who generally stand up better today than the late 1970s or 1980s). On the other hand blooding new talent ensures that Doctor Who remains fresh and does not repeat the same tropes and situations too frequently. One thing I’ve felt about this series to date is that there has been a greater diversity of stories than any series since Doctor Who returned in 2005. And most of them, including this, have been of a very high standard indeed.
It would probably be fair to say that Mathieson proved more adept at providing thrills than character development (though I’m not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing, given that other writers have sometimes seemed more interested in the supporting characters than the Doctor himself). A focus of this episode was the ‘healing’ of the Doctor’s relationship with Clara following her decision to leave the TARDIS at the end of ‘Kill the Moon’. Hence the trip on the Orient Express was meant to be a “last hurrah”. Clara’s (re-)acceptance of the Doctor and decision to continue travelling with him at the end of this episode seemed rather forced to me and not entirely psychologically plausible. There again it’s an indication of the emphasis that new Who has placed on characterisation under both Davies and Moffat that I can even use the term ‘psychologically plausible’ in a Doctor Who blog! The best moral/ethical moment here was the Doctor’s instruction to Clara to persuade the next victim, Maisie, to put herself in danger so that he can try to identify the monster: “Lie to her – tell her I can save her – whatever it takes to get her here.” At this point the Doctor is unsure whether or not he can indeed save her, and even the fact that he succeeds does not undermine the recognition that the Doctor is not a superman who can always protect everyone. This is becoming a recurring theme with Capaldi’s Doctor and is very welcome: Doctor Who always was a cut above the rather more straightforward, even simplistic, moral universe of other SF series such as Star Trek.
Finally, while I was mildly concerned when I read of the casting of comedian Frank Skinner in a key supporting role in this episode, as chief engineer Perkins – it smacked of the controversial and not always successful celebrity casting of the John Nathan-Turner era – I am happy to report that his performance was nicely judged and not at all obtrusive. The episode raises the possibility of Perkins possibly becoming a companion in the future: it would be good to see him back for a short tenancy of the TARDIS in the manner of Captain Jack.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.