Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express

11/10/14: Written by Jamie Matheson/ Directed by Paul Wilmshurst / Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Frank Skinner, John Sessions
Reviewed by Sean Alexander

Immortal.  Unstoppable.  Unkillable.  Doctor Who has been many things over the years – political satire, murder mystery, straight comedy – but it’s usually when its roots are showing that it delivers to the widest audience.  ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ may be a one-line pitch from show-runner Steven Moffat, but in the hands of newcomer scribe Jamie Matheson that simple premise becomes possibly the purest piece of Who this series.  And if last week’s ‘Kill the Moon’ channelled the spirit of Philip Hinchclife’s still feted era of gothic chills, ‘Mummy…’ takes it one step further by placing Egyptian myths and Agatha Christie into the same, period-dress melting pot.
"See sense man, I'm not Jon Pertwee, oh no"

And as a ‘last hurrah’ for the Doctor and Clara’s now seemingly terminal friendship, ‘Mummy…’ has a bittersweet edge that augments the tale of a disparate group of passengers, each hiding secrets that could quite literally bring about their end.  And the Doctor’s keeping secrets again, too; the final date for him and Clara being nothing more than a chance for him to investigate the myth of the Foretold – a 5,000 year-old mummy that can only be seen by its victims within the last 66 seconds of their lives.  Mummies and murder are no strangers to Who of course, but the curse here is a technologically augmented super-soldier that feeds on the energy of its targets; released finally by the Doctor telling it to ‘stand down’.  Alien forces and technology gone wrong have become something of a recurring theme in modern Doctor Who (the nano-technology solution illustrative of ‘The Doctor Dances’ being just one cure-all example).  And whether ‘Mummy…’ would have been any the worse without the pseudo-science - or indeed the framing device of assembled scientists tasked with solving a milennia old riddle – is moot.  Because ‘Mummy…’ has no trouble with exploiting its simple premise without the cod solution.

Memories of ‘Voyage of the Damned’ – another episode which took an infamous form of transport and fashioned a murder/mystery amongst the great and the gowned – are soon dispelled, even though this particular Orient Express is just as unlikely a form of futuristic conveyance.  Where ‘Voyage…’ tried to fit the script to the setting, ‘Mummy’s simple device of an avatar who is only visible for a minute-and-a-bit is strong enough dramatically, not to mention gimmically, to sustain the threat.  How much this is as result of Peter Capaldi’s continuing assurance in the role of a far more ambiguous Time Lord than most of his predecessors is one for the die-hards to kick around during endless ‘best Doctor’ debates.  But if the Doctor has always been one to race after ambulances in an adventure sense, now it seems the thrill of the chase comes at a price: the alienation of those closest to him, until that is Clara makes her last-minute volte face and reveals her own risk addiction is just as great.  With four episodes left this term, the inevitable choice awaiting Miss Oswald between love and happiness with Danny Pink and adventure and excitement beyond those blue doors gets closer and closer.  How it will be resolved has become one of the most intriguing sub-plots in a season choc-full of dangling threads, red herrings and the occasional trip to the Promised Land.

But right now this is a brand of Doctor Who brimming with style, panache and the kind of confidence that a new star and a tighter form of story-telling than recent years has allowed (the story arc this series certainly seems more of a slow-boil than a pressure cooker).  The fresh dynamic between Capaldi and Coleman has jettisoned much of the naughty school-children spirit of Matt Smith’s tenure, and the morally ambiguous stance now liberates rather than confines the narrative.  Even the modern kind of stunt-casting here pays off, as Frank Skinner makes a perfectly affable pseudo-companion in Chief Engineer Perkins, a man with enough insight (not to mention self-preservation) to realise that playing in the Doctor’s sandbox can be a terminal pursuit.

 With two-thirds of Series 8 now gone it’s still a pleasant experience to report that Moffat and his new/old team of writers have definitely found their mojo once more.  Unshackled of the previous year’s burden of honouring the past and providing a celebratory tone to proceedings, Doctor Who is once more appointment TV – well, at least for those of us demanding a little more than light entertainment from our Saturday schedules that is – and the ides bode well for the final quartet of stories.  Start the clock…

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