Doctor Who Recap
Mummy on the Orient Express
By Edwin Davies
October 20, 2014
At this point, it seems like the episode is going to go in one specific direction; the mummy is going to go after Clara and Maisie, and The Doctor is going to have to figure out how to save them in the nick of time. That does happen to an extent, but the journey to that point has a few unexpected and welcome detours.
The cleverest bit of writing in the episode is actually foreshadowed by its cringeworthy title. For the first half, even as the episode gets a lot of fun out of Clara's simultaneous irritation and delight at being dropped into one more adventure ("There's a body and a mummy! Can you not just get on a train? Did a wizard put a curse on you?"), the idea that this is all taking part on the Orient Express, even an intergalactic version, just seems kind of weird. Sure, set it on a train by all means, but why such a famous one, other than for the wordplay?
I don't think I can adequately express how delighted I was when it turned out that the whole episode was building up to an inversion of the resolution to Murder on the Orient Express. Whereas in that book it is revealed that more or less everyone on the train had got on to commit a murder, this episode hinged on the revelation that more or less everyone on the train had been brought on to solve murders. Or, more precisely, since everyone on board is an expert in some field relating to science or mythology, to figure out the nature of the Foretold before it kills them all. It's an immensely clever little twist that drastically alters the story in a way that still felt like a natural evolution of everything that came before the revelation. Credited writer Jamie Mathiesen, who has never written for the show before but did write the immensely odd comedy Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, really should be commended for what a great job he did in hiding the twist in plain sight.
Once the nature of their situation becomes apparent, the Doctor starts to act in a way that we've never really seen him act before. Knowing that the only way to gather information on the Foretold is to wait for it to pick a victim and have them describe what they see, hoping that they can use their last minute of life to reveal important clues about their enemy, The Doctor and his team of assorted boffins start trying to figure out who will be next.
Once they realise that the Foretold picks out people who have a medical or psychological weakness, we see a couple of distressing scenes in which The Doctor, at his most intense and unflappable, berates people who know they are about to die into telling him what they see. It almost feels like he should be renamed The Researcher for the purposes of this episode, because that's what he becomes; someone who experiments and tries to reach a solution, while unable to directly influence the events.
Unfortunately, those experiments require people to die. When Clara confronts him about that approach at the end of the episode, she wonders if his heartless approach was all an act to mislead the artificial intelligence that was monitoring their every move on the train. In that moment, Capaldi suggests a wonderful complexity. The Doctor cares incredibly deeply about human life, but that he also has a pragmatism that allows him to do what needs to be done. He's still heroic in this episode because he's trying to save as many people on the train as he possibly can, but to do so he has to act callous, and Capaldi and Mathiesen push The Doctor to the very limits of his likability to explore that part of the character.