‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, written by Jamie Mathieson, is a classic pulp horror story in the vein of ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ and ‘Horror of Fang Rock’. The Doctor takes Clara to a space train for their final adventure before they part company only to discover the passengers are being picked off by a spectral mummy only the victim can see.
The stylish 20s era train, entertaining guest stars and gripping supernatural hook make this a stand out episode.
Spoilers From Here On In!
The teaser for this episode indicates that this is going to be something special, with a wonderful panning shot of the exquisite train, a clock ticking down from 66 seconds in the corner. Immediately it establishes the style and suspense that will run throughout the episode.
Janet E. A. Henfrey, previously seen in ‘The Curse of Fenric’ as the doomed Miss Hardaker, again returns as a victim to a vampiric monster. This time she plays Mrs Pitt, who spots the mummy of the title approaching her in the dining cart. No one else can see the monster so despite her attempts to raise the alarm she is soon drained of her life, while everyone else believes that she has died of natural causes. The final shot echoes ‘Enlightenment’ revealing that the train is in space.
The mummy is a very effective monster. The fact that only its victim can see it helps further isolate them. Lacking a physical presence there would seem to be no way to stop it and despite its slow pace it can just appear right behind you. It is the stuff of nightmares. The onscreen countdown only increases the sense of inevitably to its victims demise.
Still intending to end her association with the Doctor, Clara has agreed to one last trip. The Orient Express in Space is to be a wondrous farewell to the good times. The sadness of this is nicely conveyed by Clara’s sad smile that so vexes the Doctor (again hinting at the Time Lords slightly autistic nature).
Foxes appearance as a lounge singer, singing a 1920s version of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, sums up the mixture of time periods and genres. The setting will continue to hark back to a bygone era while drenching itself in the future technology of tomorrow.
After an encounter with the grieving granddaughter of Mrs Pitt, Maisie, the time travellers learn about the death and the visions of the mummy. At first dismissing it as nothing the Doctor talk himself (with the 4th Doctor’s voice) into investigating.
While studying the life extending chair Mrs Pitt was sitting in when she died the Doctor encounters the mysterious engineer Perkins, played by Frank Skinner, who becomes something of a replacement for Clara. Perkins is a great character hiding his enigmatic and slightly sinister qualities under a friendly persona. I half expected him to be revealed to be a creation of the Doctor’s mind, until other people started talking to him, since there are similarities between the two.
Clara, meanwhile, encounters distressed Maisie, who wants to see her gran’s body in the luggage hold. Showing her caring nature and concerned for Maisie Clara ends up trapped with her in the hold, along with a sarcophagus.
Not only does Clara’s imprisonment provide some measure of peril but her talks with Maisie help explore the themes of relationships. Maisie hated her grandmother but feels terrible guilt that she is dead, that their time together is now over. Similarly Clara is here to mourn the death of her friendship with the Doctor.
The Doctor is busy consulting with one of the numerous doctors and professors who are currently onboard, Professor Moorhouse. Christopher Villiers, previously in ‘The King’s Demons’, provides his with a lot of class. This scene neatly provides us with a lot of exposition as we learn more about the legends of the Foretold, the mummy that kills its victims in 66 seconds. The only glimmer of hope is that there is something that can be offered to escape death.
The Doctor’s investigation leads him into a confrontation with Captain Quell, played by David Bamber. A former soldier he fits the theme of this season, playing an authority figure still carrying physical and mental wounds from the past.
With the bodies mounting up as the Foretold continues to claim victims the Doctor realises that the qualifications of the passengers is no coincidence. Someone has brought them together to study the Foretold and learn its secret.
He is promptly provided right as the mysterious ‘Gus’, speaking through the computer, drops the facade revealing that the dining car is a lab and that much of the staff and other passengers were hard light holograms.
This sets up the idea of science being used to combat the supernatural. The situation is drenched in horror as the scientists find themselves using each other as test subjects in order to save themselves.
This is demonstrated as Professor Moorhouse becomes the next victim. He reserve and detachment, while the Doctor coaches him to make scientific observations about the monster, breakdown as he realises that he is going to die. The fear, panic and despair are effectively portrayed while the Doctor can offer no comfort.
Captain Quell is the next victim and it is interesting to see how a soldier reacts compared to the scientist before him. In his final moments he is still defiant, firing his weapon because what kind of soldier dies with bullet in his gun? He gets some small comfort that this is a good way to die for a warrior and thanks the Doctor for waking him up.
Given how soldiers have been portrayed this season, or at least how the Doctor has treated them, this is a great scene and performance. Quell shows courage and provides valuable information, making observations while staring death in the face.
Having established that the Foretold chooses its victims based on psychological trauma the Doctor persuades Clara to bring the next victim, Maisie, to the lab, even if she has to lie to her. Against her better judgement Clara does just that, telling poor Maisie that the Doctor can save her.
As it turns out the Doctor does have a plan, transferring Maisie’s grief to his own mind. This effectively makes him the next victim. The clock starts and the mummy begins its approach. This is incredibly tense since we know he only has 66 seconds to find a solution.
Realising that the parchment that the Foretold seems to haunt isn’t a scroll but a flag the Doctor correctly identifies the mummy as a soldier. Ancient technology keeps it out of phase with reality using the 66 seconds to bring its victim into phase with itself (hence why it always appeared blurred to the victim to begin with).
There is indeed magic words to stop it and those words are ‘we surrender’.
The horror and futility of war is a reoccurring theme in Doctor Who, with the best solution being to end all conflict. This is beautifully summed up here and the weary Foretold, as much a victim in this story as anyone else, gives one last trembling salute and crumbles into dust, finally at rest.
Gus seems pleased with the results but shuts off the oxygen and blows the train up. Clara awakens on an alien world on a rocky beach. The Doctor saved the day while he slept, happy to draw in the sand until she woke up.
There is an ethereal beauty to this scene, as if Clara was waking from a bad dream. This gives them time to discuss the events and how the Doctor lies because he can’t guarantee success. Harking back to the previous episode he explains that sometimes all he has are bad choices but he still has to choose.
The Doctor offers Perkins a place in the TARDIS, since the engineer is intrigued by the time machine, but he declines. This is not that surprising but it is still surprising. Frank Skinner is great in the role and the character has a lot of potential as a companion of the Doctor.
The episode ends with Clara lying to both Danny Pink and the Doctor, deciding to continue travelling with him. The events of the adventure maybe giving her a better understanding of what the 12th Doctor has to go through.
This was an excellent episode, one of the best this season. It was pacey, had a well written characters, a plot that made sense and a very effective horror element. The use of light and shadow created an effective sense of mood, making the confines of the train believable (even if they were in space).
There were attempts to tie this to the end of ‘The Big Bang’ but my article here should indicate why the telephone call in that episode doesn’t really synch up with what is shown here. That aside it was a nice nod to the past, as were the jelly babies.
In conclusion this was one of the best of the 12th Doctor stories and I am looking forward to next weeks episode written by the same writer.