“Mummy on the Orient Express,” written by Jamie Mathieson, who’s new to the series, is a particularly satisfying episode of Doctor Who, successfully striking a balance between telling a suspenseful story in its own right and further exploring the tension between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman). The setting grabs your attention immediately: A recreation of the famous luxury train, steaming through space on hyperspatial rails, provides the excuse (as with the Titanic in 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned”) to combine a period setting with sci-fi trappings. The art deco production design is beautifully done, with the costumes of the characters (including Clara in a striking flapper outfit) perfectly creating the pseudo-1920s feel. But after last week’s explosive argument between the Doctor and Clara, there’s a melancholy start to the episode, with the Doctor bringing Clara here as a special treat for their last time together. But even as they return to the sort of sharp-edged banter we saw earlier in the season, the deaths begin, and they’re soon thrown into a desperate struggle against an ancient mummy haunting the train that can only be seen by the person it’s about to kill.
With the mummy on the rampage, several of the characters in the episode don’t make it to the end, but Professor Moorhouse (Christopher Villiers, who previously appeared on Doctor Who in “The King’s Demons” back in 1983) and Captain Quell (David Bamber) are sharply delineated characters who make an impression in their brief time on screen. Maisie (Daisy Beaumont), the granddaughter of the mummy’s first victim, is a good foil for Clara and proves to be the key to the Doctor’s final victory. Also of note is comedian Frank Skinner as Perkins, the train’s chief engineer. Despite the inevitable whiff of stunt casting, he plays well opposite Capaldi, as Perkins seems almost suspiciously eager to help the Doctor. He turns out to be a red herring, though, and his final wry refusal of the Doctor’s offer to bring him on board the TARDIS is a sweet ending note.
The Doctor is under constant pressure as the mummy reappears at intervals to pick off another victim. The episode certainly brings the suspense, with the inexorable advance of the mummy being chilling every time it occurs, even though essentially the same set piece is repeated a half-dozen times. From the time the creature appears to the victim’s inevitable death is exactly 66 seconds each time, with a ticking countdown clock superimposed on screen. It’s a stylish touch from director Paul Wilmshurst, as is one especially spooky shot of the “out of phase” mummy walking straight through the Doctor, with its outstretched hand appearing to emerge from his eyes. Great physicality from performer Jamie Hill complements the impressive design work on the mummy, which pushes the limits of how scary Doctor Who can be.
Everything finally comes together and makes sense with the revelation that the mummy is the last remnant of a soldier from an ancient, forgotten war, forced to remain in this state by another instance of malfunctioning advanced technology. Like several other adversaries the Doctor has encountered this season, the creature echoes an aspect of himself, thousands of years old and unable to stop existing. It’s an unexpectedly affecting moment when the Doctor finds the key phrase to make it stop—“We surrender”—and it struggles to shape a final salute before disintegrating.
Capaldi’s performance has grown more and more impressive, and his early difficulties at finding the right balance between harshness and warmth for the Doctor are now long gone. Here he makes the most of some good comic material—the hilariously inappropriate “Are you my mummy?” joke, the cigarette case containing jelly babies, playing along when the captain mistakes him for a “mystery shopper”—while also effortlessly taking command in the fight against the mummy. The hard edge is still there as he induces Clara to lie to Maisie (leading to her life being endangered) in order to provoke the final encounter with the creature, but even though the moral is the same (“Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones”), this episode does a far more convincing job than “Kill the Moon” at conveying the Doctor’s point of view, and as such without making him seem so capriciously heartless.
By the end of the episode, it seems like the trip to the Orient Express has achieved its purpose of bringing Clara to the point where she can say goodbye. But then the rug is pulled out from under us: After suggesting that the Doctor is addicted to his adventuring life (“Well, you can’t really know if something’s an addiction until you try and give it up,” he replies), she demonstrates that she is, too, suddenly reversing her determination to leave. The Doctor is delighted, they smile at each other, and the swelling music tries to convince us it’s a happy ending. But it seems unlikely that anything good will come of this, as Clara may have thrown away her chance to leave in a manner of her own choosing.
Next Week: The Doctor and Clara confront a bizarre extra-dimensional menace in “Flatline.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The classic series also did “Agatha Christie in space” with 1977’s “The Robots of Death,” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. Influenced by Christie’s And Then There Were None, it’s another story set aboard an isolated opulent but futuristic vessel, with a technological menace picking off the occupants one by one.
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