We can be a bit shallow, us fans. We love a good monster. We’ll forgive a lot when a story features a proper, Hinchcliffe level, scary beast. And Mummy on the Orient Express has a cracker of a monster in the shape of the Foretold (Jamie Hill).
Too scary to put on the promos, it’s a grimy, cadaverous thing which makes the lot from Pyramids of Mars look welcomingly cuddly. It’s not just the empty decaying face of it, but also its slow relentless walk, always dragging that one foot behind it. The skinny, grasping arm stretching out at its victim’s face. Plus the onscreen countdown, adding a real time tension to proceedings. No wonder DWM readers voted this story best of breed in 2014.
However, being so in love with this story’s ghoulish brute, I think we have collectively papered over a few holes in the plot. The Foretold, we’re told, is an old soldier, who should be long dead, but is being kept alive by technology and will keep on killing until it gets orders to stop. Which is all well and good, but why is he a mummy? Was this alien war based in ancient Egypt? Is there a planet of the Mummies out there somewhere? What’s going on?
Then there’s Gus (John Sessions) the omnipresent, homicidal onboard computer, a direct descendant of 2001‘s Hal. It’s Gus, it turns out, which has orchestrated the whole affair, and brought the Foretold to the train, along with a group of scientists to divine the monster’s origins and purpose. To what end, though, we never find out. Let alone who built and programmed Gus, or what he was planning to do with a killer Mummy wth a gammy leg.
Incidentally… MOTOE features a corker of an example of a Doctor Who quirk I like to keep my eye on: characters who should have lines, but don’t.
The simplest example I can think of happens in City of Death. Two heavies, played by extras (making them extra heavies, ha ha), have been employed by Scarlioni to spy on the Doctor. They appear at the top of the scene, but instead of giving their report, we just hear Scarlioni commend them on their work. They leave without saying a word. By all rights, they should have lines. But that would mean paying them more. So they remain silent, in the face of all credulity.
This happens not infrequently in old Who, less often in new Who. In MOTOE though, it’s back with a vengeance. It transpires that the passengers are not just any old trainspotters, but eminent scientists Gus has brought together to study the Foretold. Experts in their fields! A whole carriage of them! Working together on a wicked problem! And none of them ever say a thing. Very weird.
One more strange plot development. As the end of episode approaches, everything has to be wrapped up quickly, so the train suddenly explodes. Next thing we know, the Doctor (P-Cap) is waiting for Clara (J-Cole) to wake up on a beach. Turns out he managed to teleport everyone on board the train into the TARDIS before the explosion. Then he returned them all to a nearby planet.
Which is all fine… but why did he then drag Clara out of the TARDIS and on to the beach? He couldn’t have explained the plot to her in the TARDIS?
I know, I know. Shut up and look at the scary monster!
The other thing going on here is the break up of the Doctor and Clara.
She spends the episode questioning her relationship with him. There are a few crucial moments which punctuate this uncertainty: when she complies with his request to lie to Maisie (Daisy Beaumont) and bring her to him, when she realises the Doctor brought her to the Orient Express expecting trouble and didn’t tell her, when the Doctor takes Maisie’s place as the Foretold’s target and when the Doctor then saves everyone. Clara’s emotions rollercoaster accordingly.
Then she makes an interesting choice; she lies to Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) and recommits to travelling with the Doctor. It’s a confusing choice because the Doctor’s the same spiky, manipulative grump he was at the beginning of the episode. So why would the events of Mummy on the Orient Express change her mind?
The answer is, of course, they don’t. It wouldn’t matter what happened in this episode, Clara was always going back to the Doctor. Because she is, as she hints in the final scenes, addicted to this lifestyle. This is another aspect to the darker side of Clara’s personality as explored in Series 8. She’s an addict, a liar and a cheater. She’s the Doctor’s proxy, which sometimes means being as sly and underhanded as he can be.
I gather from my discussions with various casual viewers I know that Clara’s not the most popular of companions. But I think she’s one of the most well rounded, if confounding, characters the new series has given us. Other companions have had depth, but have essentially been angels. Amy, for instance, could be fiery and flighty, but we were never in any doubt that she was 100% a good person.
With Clara, that distinction is much less clear. So as much as the Doctor asks during this series, “am I a good man?” we are just as often shown that Clara is just as morally ambiguous. And if we needed any further proof, when we get to the end of this season, they will part ways, each on the back of mutual lies to the other.
This caginess fits particularly well with this episode, where everybody is hiding something about themselves. Mrs Pitt (Janet Henfrey) is a grandmother masquerading as a mother. Maisie is hiding her hatred of her. Quell (David Bamber) is concealing a dysfunctional past. Gus pretends to be courteous mein host. And Chief Engineer Perkins (Frank Skinner) has nothing to hide, but acts shifty and secretive anyway. Because on a murder mystery, that’s what happens. Here, it’s not so much that everyone’s a suspect, just that everyone’s suspect.
And the Doctor? Well, he’s the one exception. Sure, he might have brought Clara here under false pretenses, but otherwise he doesn’t try at all to hide who he is. He’s a brilliant, brittle, uncompromising alien. Clara can’t help but love him, because despite all his crazy contradictions, he can, when he wants to, show us the most captivating monster contained within.
A bit like us fans and Mummy on the Orient Express.
LINK TO The Savages: victims being drained of their life force.
NEXT TIME: What have we learned today? More Capaldi, Coleman and scary monsters as we go Into the Dalek.