Season 8, Episode 8: “Mummy on the Orient Express”“So you were pretending… to be heartless?” “Would you like to think that about me? Would that make it easier?”
It’s the quiet moments that really make me love this episode.
Yes, I like the spin on the idea of a Mummy, especially since mummies are kind of hard to make scary in this day and age. (Really, think about the last scary mummy movie you’ve seen… at a loss? Not surprising really, as there haven’t been any for a really long time.) Making the Foretold a soldier trapped in an endless cycle of a war he can’t win is an interesting continuation of the theme that is running under this season and, of course, provides the science fiction explanation for the traditionally magic-based nature of the Mummy. Whether or not you actually found the Foretold scary will vary from person to person of course, but certainly the makeup and creature design were some of the best I’ve personally seen in ages.
But even though the mysterious villain of the piece – speaking through the computer, Gus – ties into the series past and those phone calls to the Eleventh Doctor, and we’re left with no real answers as to who or what this villain is, leaving a story to return to later, Gus and the Foretold aren’t really the point, are they?
I’ve seen some complaints about not seeing the weeks we’re told the Doctor and Clara have been apart since “Kill the Moon” and leaping ahead to the the “final” farewell trip, but personally I really liked the jump in time. We don’t need to see the aftermath any more than we actually have, or the tentative rapprochement that one, or both, of the two made. We know it would be awkward and sad, and we can see that in the body language and cross-talk that we get from the Doctor and Clara as they board the Orient Express. We watch two friends standing on the edge of the end of a friendship, both not wanting it to end, and neither knowing how to stop it from happening. Clara, trying to explain how she feels to a man who is not quite the man she began her travels in Time and Space with (literally, in both cases); the Doctor trying to not explain how he feels, to avoid how he feels, even though he’s hurting.
And oh, how he’s hurting. Capaldi, turning in another wonderful performance, perhaps his best yet, gives us a Doctor who finds it even more difficult to talk about how he feels than most previous incarnations. We know the Doctor is lonely – in fact that’s been a reoccurring theme since the show returned – and Clara’s rejection clearly wounded him deeply, however much she feels it’s justified. Just watch the exchange in the hallway between the cabins where they talk about the chance of seeing each other again, and watch Capaldi’s face… it’s so blank, so controlled. Or listen to the first exchange, where he’s trying so hard to not let her tell him how much she isn’t sure she likes him anymore. This is hurting him.
No one wants to be rejected, but one of the many themes this season has been the seeming coldness of this Twelfth Doctor, and here we get multiple moments where he both displays that coldness and reveals its true nature. Consider when Perkins asks for a moment to grieve for Quell, and the Doctor tells him that when you have a gun to your head you have no time for grieving. The Doctor is rightly pointing out that they are all in danger and time is not something they have to waste if they hope to save those around them from the same fate, and think back on “Into the Dalek” where he realizes that Ross cannot be saved. It’s not that this Doctor doesn’t feel for those who are dying around him, it’s that he is more concerned with saving those still living.
And yet, we have this moment:“I didn’t know if I could save her. I couldn’t save Quell, I couldn’t save Moorhouse. There was a good chance that she’d die too. At which point, I would have just moved on to the next, and the next, until I beat it. Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.”
The Doctor has always made the horrible calculation about how many he can save versus those he can’t. We’ve seen it time and time again, Classic Series and New, but rarely have we had it spelled out so clearly. He always tries to save those around him, but when he knows he can’t save someone, when there is nothing he can do, he makes that terrible choice to try and use that death, to learn from that death, to try and save a many other lives as he can. The Tenth Doctor used to say “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” at the same moments, but the Twelfth is more direct, more matter-of-fact, and that’s what comes across as “cold”. What’s really interesting is that it’s exactly the same thing, minus the comforting words that ultimately mean nothing.
And then there’s his lie to Clara, and her lie to Maisie, where he/she says he can save her. Again, the Doctor has a long history of manipulating those around him for the greater good, and if he has a huge fault here, it’s that he’s good at it. Of course, Clara is right to be angry that he’s made her lie too, but somehow she hasn’t quite absorbed the fact that the Doctor lies all the time. There’s always a reason for the lies, and it’s true that Amy and Rory had far more exposure to those than Clara has, but that’s a surface read, considering Clara’s experience with the Doctor’s previous incarnations. Still, she’s primed to be angry at him, under the circumstances. And she, like the audience, is seeing a Doctor who is quite the contrast to her Doctor, even if it is revealed that he was lying and not lying, keeping his plan to try and save Maisie to himself to keep their mysterious adversary from knowing what he was up to.
The theme of the nature of the soldier returns on several levels here, and since that has been so controversial, it merits a look, yes? Certainly the Foretold is front and center, revealed as an ancient soldier – trapped, manipulated by forces unknown – fighting a war long ended. For all the Doctor’s seemingly negative reactions to the military this season, there’s a significant sense of sympathy and understanding here. He makes a point to tell the Foretold that he is “relieved”, which in a military context can mean you can rest now, something the Doctor – again, a soldier himself – would know, and to point out that the Foretold was fighting against the technology that was keeping him/it alive and killing. There’s a leavening, a tempering, a sense of nuance here, that seems to have been lacking in the other episodes, that makes one wonder how this will play out with Danny, since I still am convinced that all of this is building to the real confrontation between the two men in Clara’s life.
The two ex-soldiers. The two men who both carry the lives they haven’t saved .
Ah yes, our final scene. I’m not quite convinced the Doctor believes Clara’s “sudden” change of heart here, and repeated viewings still leave me with uncertainty, which is quite all right, actually. The way it’s shot and edited, it seems like the Doctor can hear Clara’s side of the conversation, and it doesn’t quite match her actions after she hangs up, and oh-my-god-people-freaking-out-about-how-awful-Clara-is… RELAX. Clara is lying here. We know that. She’s obviously lying here, and while it is possible that the Doctor doesn’t see it, it’s really unlikely. Is this going to come back to bite her? Of course it is. She’s lying to both the Doctor and Danny. This will not end well.
Is her lie understandable? Of course it is. Of course the Doctor is addicted to being the man who makes the hard choices, bad or not. That’s who the Doctor is, who he’s always been. Clara is asking the wrong question here, because it’s not that the Doctor loves making the impossible choice, it’s that it is the only way the Doctor knows how to be. It’s why he stole a TARDIS in the first place. It’s why he fights monsters. He is, protestations notwithstanding, a Hero, and who wouldn’t want to be part of that life? Who would want to give up the Universe, bad and good, when it’s a phone call or door knock away? C’mon folks, Clara giving up traveling with the Doctor is the least likely, the least realistic, ending to this arc of the story. Because she’s addicted to it, too.
One does wonder, though. We’ve got the Soldier thing with Danny and the Doctor. We’ve got the question of the Life To Lead, with… Danny and the Doctor, and the choice Clara may have to make, and then we have Missy and the Promised Land/Heaven/Nethersphere. I can’t help feeling that it’s all going to end in tears.
Our guest cast was pretty damn impressive, by the way. Perkins – not the alter ego of our villain, no matter what the Internet claims – was played by Frank Skinner, stand-up comic and host of a TON of British programming and a quite vocal fan of the show, and did an excellent job of it, despite concerns that he isn’t actually considered an actor. Perkins was a great foil for the Doctor, and Skinner was certainly good enough in the role that fans are already wanting a return. Maisie, played by the wonderful Daisy Beaumont, proved an interesting parallel to Clara when it came to bad relationships, and you’ve probably seen her on The Bill, Touching Evil, Eastenders or The World Is Not Enough. David Bamber played Captain Quell, who first appeared to be that horrible functionary, but was quickly revealed to be far more of a three-demensional character, and if he seems familiar, think Casualty, Rome, The King’s Speech and The Bourne Identity. And then there’s Christopher Villiers, who played Professor Moorhouse. Villiers actually has a history with Doctor Who, playing Hugh Fitzwilliam in “The King’s Demons” opposite Peter Davidson’s Fifth Doctor and doing voice work for the Big Finish audio stories. Mrs. Pitt is also a Who alumni, playing Miss Hardaker in the Seventh Doctor’s “The Curse of Fenric” and doing work for the Big Finish series.
I do keep coming back to that beach scene. So very good, that. Other nice moments? Capaldi channeling Tom Baker in both voice and jelly baby use. The production design and costumes, which were both gorgeous, and the Murray Gold Music. And, of course, John Sessions as Gus. “Are you my mummy?”
This may be my favorite episode of the season, honestly, for all the reasons above. But mostly for the beach scene, where Capaldi and Coleman take us to that place where Doctor Who is just magic, and hold us there… for just long enough.