In many ways, this week’s episode of Doctor Who, “Mummy on the Orient Express,” was a shift. The plot shifted into something that felt more like the classic season than the rest of Capaldi’s run has. Clara shifted from being dead set against ever doing anything with the Doctor ever again to taking just one more journey (and then more). The Doctor shifted into a much darker version than what we’ve seen. And the “big, bad, unseen, over-arching villain” shifted away from Missy in the Netherscape to Gus, a new foe that the Doctor already seems to know something about. Oh, and there was a metaphorical shift from love to addiction. But whether some of these shifts are long term choices or simple gimmicks for a single episode remain to be seen.
After I got over my initial shock of seeing Clara going anywhere with the Doctor after her outburst last week, my first positive impression of this episode came from the delightful cameo by singer Foxes, doing a jazzed-up version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” as a train lounge singer. That she appeared nowhere else in the episode is a crime. Look at how well Doctor Who has done with pop singers in the past… from Billie Piper (Rose Tyler) to Kylie Minogue (Astrid in “Voyage of the Damned“). Why not continue to draw from that well? I realize the episode was rather full already, but would it have been too much to ask for Foxes to have gotten a line or two of dialogue?
This episode very much feels like classic Who at first, with a strange monster threatening a group of people in a mysterious way, and it being up to the Doctor to solve things. “The Foretold” (the name given to the mummy villain) is a pretty scary-looking monster with top notch special effects, and the 66-second plot point was well executed. The bit about the train being full of experts who could solve the Foretold mystery was a bit of a throwaway, since nobody else on board seemed to have the slightest clue what they were doing. But all in all, it was a solid surface plot for a solid episode. However, that’s just the surface layer, and there’s a lot going on under the bandages, as it were.
For starters, we’ve got the Doctor himself, getting much darker and much less caring about the deaths of other people. Long gone is the pleasant Matt Smith’s “In 900 years alive, I have never met someone who wasn’t important.” Capaldi’s Doctor wants those doomed to die to simply provide as much data as they can before they go. I read one internet reviewer who thought this might be pushing Capaldi towards becoming the Valeyard*… that’s an interesting idea, but I’m not convinced that the current show runners will go that route. We did get an interesting look at this Doctor’s evolving understanding of soldiers (or maybe a re-enforcing of his existing biases) when he realized that the Mummy was, in fact, a soldier. There was also some discussion with the ex-military head of security about PTSD from war. We even had a bit about the Doctor’s addiction to dangerous situations.
While Capaldi’s acting was fine, I found at many points that I just did not like who the Doctor was or what he was doing. He was really a jerk. Given the many successful anti-heroes we’ve seen on TV in past years, from Dexter to Breaking Bad to American Horror Story, this is not necessarily a bad choice. It just wasn’t the Doctor I thought I knew, so maybe I’ll need to do some redefining in my head. And there was some very well-done ambiguity at the end when, for a while, we really weren’t sure if the Doctor was lying about saving everyone else on the train. Dark Doctor is not a person that I’m fully comfortable with just yet, but I think I could maybe grow to like him.
The Clara arc in this episode was also a different sort of journey. Last week, we saw her explode at the Doctor for his carelessness and aloofness. This week, she was taking another trip with him, which was supposed to be her final voyage. However, after some discussion of the Doctor’s addiction to dangerous situations where mysteries need to be solved, we see Clara doing a complete 180 and appearing to be addicted herself, lying to both her boyfriend and the Doctor so that she can continue on these trips. I’m holding out hope that she has an ulterior motive… that she’s maybe planning on using another trip or two to show the Doctor what a monster he really is before calling it quits. Because otherwise her turnaround feels very forced and simplistic, and makes me dislike all over again the character that this season has so far been warming me to.
We had several references to previous episodes, as seems to be the norm this season. We had the Doctor’s mention of the planet Obsidian (from “Midnight“), the (probably inevitable) “Are you my mummy?” line (from “The Empty Child“), and even the concept of getting all the experts about an alien threat together in one place reminded me of the time the Slitheen did the same thing in “Aliens of London“/”World War Three.” There was plenty to remind us that Capaldi is still somehow the same person we remember from previous incarnations, despite his darker turn.
And what about this Gus character? The Doctor has supposedly received several calls trying to lure him to this mystery/plot (I do vaguely remember something about it from “Big Bang“)… but is Gus a new big bad villain? Is he working for Missy, the maybe-goddess who calls the Doctor her “boyfriend” from the afterlife? Since it seemed like he wanted to capture the Foretold, could he be a weapons dealer of some sort? I have not been able to find any other mentions of him in older Who episodes, so I’m thinking he’s something new, whatever he is.
I liked this episode, though I didn’t love it. There was some good acting, some great lines (favorites being “I can’t tell if you’re a genius or just incredibly arrogant” and “Hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like”), and some interesting character development. A lot of whether or not I end up loving this episode will depend on where the story eventually goes with Clara & the Doctor, as that will determine whether this was the first step in a really cool arc, or a throwaway forced way of keeping Clara around for 4 more episodes till the Christmas special.
Next week’s episode, with 2-dimensional aliens, looks very interesting (and has the same writer as this week’s, so perhaps we will see these character choices have consequence). I’m hoping that next week’s “Flatline” does for Doctor Who what Paper Mario or Portal did for video games, forcing us to redefine our understanding of reality in a fun way… but we’ll see. Sometimes hopes are fulfilled, and other times they are dashed against the rocks (I noticed that this week’s “behind the scenes” snippet went back to simply recapping the first 10 minutes of the show you’d just seen… so they clearly were NOT paying attention to my columns).
And finally, if you missed it, here’s the music video for Foxes’ performance of a Queen cover during this episode.
*For those of you who only know the newer version of the show, the Valeyard was an evil villain who plotted against the Sixth Doctor. The Valeyard was (according to the Master) a sort of evil offshoot of a later version of the Doctor who was created sometime after the 12th incarnation through some wibbly-wobbly regeneration experimentation. Sort of like the Dream Lord from “Amy’s Choice,” if you need a more modern correlation.