“There’s a monster on this train that can only be seen by people about to die. If you do see it, you only have 66 seconds to live.”
Fun fact – the very first horror movie I ever saw was set on a train. 1970’s Horror Express is a chilling tale of a preserved prehistoric monster menacing the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express (including, inevitably, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), in the early years of the 20th century. It’s not the best horror movie ever (and certainly not the most scientifically accurate), but it still works very well due in large part to that setting – a moving railway train on an epic, lengthy journey from which there is no escape when the monster comes for you.
All of which is a lengthy, discursive way of saying that a thriller set on a moving train already has a factor in its favour for me. Horror Express may not be that well-known, but Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (from which this episode draws its awful pun of a title) is very much in popular currency, making this a recognisable setting that needs little explanation from veteran Being Human writer Jamie Mathieson. The novel twist? As the Doctor says, “there were many trains to take the name ‘Orient Express’; but only one… in space!”
Oh dear, was my first reaction. The idea of taking something familiar and putting it “in space” is so well-worn that there’s a whole page of cliché-chronicling website TV Tropes devoted to it. Not to mention the fact that Doctor Who itself has already done such a thing countless times, most notably with the Titanic… in space!, in 2007’s Voyage of the Damned. And the Orient Express… in space! was the apparent destination of the travellers at the end of 2010’s The Big Bang, which sounded a lot more interesting than the next story we actually got – A Christmas Carol… in space!
And yet, despite my misgivings, Mummy on the Orient Express was more than just a retread of Voyage of the Damned; it was, for me at least, quite an enjoyable story in a very traditional Doctor Who style – Gothic Horror. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes would have been happy to have produced this one. For starters, that was one scary mummy. The show’s been there before of course, with the bandage-wrapped service robots in Pyramids of Mars; but this was recognisably an accurate (perhaps too accurate for younger viewers) recreation of a mummified, centuries-old corpse, ragged bandages hanging off it to display an exposed ribcage partially hidden by leathery, disintegrating flesh.
The central conceit of the thing – that only its victims can see it, and from first sight they have precisely 66 seconds till it kills them – was another nice gimmick, if a little reminiscent of Steven Moffat’s increasingly well-worn ‘don’t look’, ‘don’t breathe’ and ‘don’t think’ motifs. Back on directing duties for the second week in a row, Paul Wilmshurst’s straightforward way of visualising this was a countdown in the corner of the screen – a device we may be over-familiar with from 24, but here as there, it worked well as a tension-builder.
While last week’s much-anticipated spat between the Doctor and Clara seemed almost tacked on to the end of the story proper, this week saw their fractious relationship much more satisfyingly interwoven throughout. Both spent much of the episode ruminating on their crumbling friendship, whether together or separately, and in the process we got some more light shed on both their characters.
After, apparently, several weeks since their big bust-up, the ep started with them very much still at loggerheads despite appearances. Clara’s assertion that “hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like” however wearily it was delivered, felt like an excruciatingly hurtful thing to say. And as is increasingly apparent, this incarnation of the Doctor does have feelings, no matter how well he hides them; Capaldi’s brisk brush off of the remark (“well I’m glad we got that out of the way”) subtly suggested that, deep down, it was a barb he really felt.
The tense relationship between the two really seems to bring out the best in both actors, and both Capaldi and Coleman were on top form as the script delved into their characters’ motivations. It’s increasingly obvious that the initial unlikeability of this new Doctor is a deliberate dramatic choice, allowing writers and actors to plumb the character’s depth. Reflecting on his lifestyle towards the end of the ep, Clara said as much about herself as him when she divined that “you love being the man making the impossible choice”, and realised that, for him, it’s “like an addiction”. And plainly for her too, explaining her abrupt volte-face when she explained her desire to leave as no more than a “wobble”. The Doctor may well be an adrenaline junkie addicted to difficult moral choices; but so is Clara. It’s the only thing that explains why she’s so eager to put herself in harm’s way.
Speaking of those difficult moral choices, if you read last week’s blog you may remember that I found Kill the Moon unsatisfying precisely because its central premise hinged on a moral dilemma in which one decision turned out, against everything the script had established, to be both ‘right’ and free of any negative consequences. Mummy on the Orient Express didn’t hinge so much on any one moral choice, but immediately established itself as having a better philosophical grip of such dilemmas with one line from the Doctor – “sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose”. If only the script last week had grasped that kind of nuance.
Also better than last week was the quantity and quality of the well-drawn guest characters. Kill the Moon offered us one good character in Lundvik; here, as in its presumed inspiration Murder on the Orient Express, we got a variety of characters, all of whom had depth and believability.
Some excellent casting helped. Frank Skinner was the biggest ‘star name’ involved, and gave a likeable, chirpy turn as inquisitive engineer Perkins. But it was the less showy parts that really impressed. It was great to see Janet Henfrey, dying in the ep’s opening minutes as the crabby Mrs Pitt; Henfrey, who previously appeared in the show in 1989’s The Curse of Fenric, started her career in Dennis Potter plays and has cornered the market in pinched, bitter spinsters. She barely seemed to have aged since 1989, but as you can tell from 1965’s Potter play Stand Up Nigel Barton, she seems to have been in late middle age since her youth.
Daisy Beaumont too excelled as her grieving granddaughter Maisie, with a lovely two handed scene with Clara that amusingly nodded to the Bechdel Test as all they could find to talk about was “some man” (despite that, the ep passed the Bechdel Test with ease). Christopher Villiers, another Who veteran (from 1983’s The King’s Demons), made Professor Moorhouse another likeable character, to the extent that you actually cared when he died. And David Bamber fleshed out weary and traumatised war veteran Captain Quell to have a subplot of redemption from his own guilt – the guilt which made the Foretold target him in the first place.
The fact that Quell was a traumatised war veteran was another notable nod to this season’s ongoing theme of soldiers, as ultimately was the Foretold itself. Not for the first time this season, the creature was revealed as not being, in itself, evil – rather, like the Skovox Blitzer, it was acting under orders it was unable to defy. And once again, the Doctor not only recognised that fact instinctively, but had to take on a military role himself to defuse the threat. I noted that he didn’t return the Foretold’s grateful salute, as a true officer should have; but he did then say, “you’re relieved, soldier”. Another hint to what Danny instinctively realised in The Caretaker; whether the Doctor realises it or not, he’s not only a soldier himself, but an officer too.
No sign of the other ongoing theme this week, the mysterious Missy and her ‘Nethersphere’. However, the amiably ruthless corporate computer Gus (slimily voiced by John Sessions) never had his origins explained, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Alien-like plot to retrieve and weaponise the creature, with the crew expendable, has its origins with Missy. She’s back next week, I gather – perhaps more will be explained.
As an enjoyable slice of Gothic horror with a surprising amount of depth, this ep worked very well. If I have a quibble though, it’s that the space setting seemed pretty redundant; it really felt like it should have been set on 1920s Earth, and with very few modifications, easily could have been. The jeopardy of the decompression could easily have been the threat of being thrown to your death from a fast-moving train; the Foretold could have still been alien tech, as could, conceivably, Gus the computer.
Indeed, I found myself wondering if an Earthbound 1920s setting was the original version of the story, as it would have made more sense of a number of things. A spacebound mummy makes less sense than one in the early 20s, when Tutankhamun-mania was at its height; and Captain Quell, with his old-fashioned revolver, seemed very much to epitomise the shell-shocked veterans of World War I. Although the lushly visualised 1920s trappings worked well, the space setting failed to really convince, and I think I’d have enjoyed the ep more as a ‘pseudo-historical’. Still, if it had been, we wouldn’t have got that marvellous 1920s swing version of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, courtesy of singer Foxes. So that’s one nice thing about setting it in the future.
This season has, so far, produced no stories I’d think of as ‘classics’ (with the possible exception of Listen, and I know a lot of people disliked that one). Conversely, though, despite my negative opinions of Kill the Moon and Into the Dalek, it’s produced nothing I’d think of as an absolute howler either. Mummy on the Orient Express, with its well-realised setting, good roster of believable characters, clever central premise that neatly ties into the season’s ongoing themes, and above all its interesting exploration of the motives behind the Doctor and Clara, may not be a ‘classic’ either. But for me, it certainly falls towards the better end of the quality scale this year.
Oh – and how Tom Baker was the cigarette case full of Jelly Babies? 🙂