You can’t go wrong with Agatha Christie. That’s the lesson of this week’s episode of “Doctor Who,” “Mummy on the Orient Express.”
This week’s episode follows the nasty spat Clara had with the Doctor at the conclusion of “Kill the Moon.” We can’t blame her—this Doctor has been an asshole in general, and his forcing Clara to make a decision that could affect all of humanity was just too much. At the start of the episode, as we see Clara and the Doctor leaving the Tardis and stepping onto the Orient Express, it seems as though we’re walking right past the big, pink elephant in the room. However, we find out that it’s their “last hurrah,” and it’s immediately pretty obvious that this is still not it for Clara. Danny already pointed it out in the last episode that Clara was simply speaking in anger and probably wasn’t done with the Doctor, and fans of the show know that companions never walk away from the Tardis in such a manner. But more on that later.
First off, let me just say that I loved the plot. It sits up there with “Time Heist” in a ranking of the most typical “Doctor Who” episodes of the season. Action, adventure, mystery, murder—all the elements of a great Christie novel and a great “Doctor Who” episode, and the reveal is clever and unexpected. I’m also a sucker for mythology, so the myth of the Foretold, a mysterious force or being that only appears to people who are about to die and then kills them in 66 seconds, was right up my alley.
Plus, you can’t beat the costuming and set design on this one. Our first look around the train, when Clara and the Doctor step into the car where guest star Foxes is singing a cover of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (no doubt specifically chosen as a reference to Clara’s conflict about whether to keep traveling with the Doctor), is amazing.
You’d think that after last week’s episode, and with this episode being the setup for what Clara calls their “last hurrah,” we’d be focusing more on Clara. Quite the contrary, we see comparatively little of Clara, a switch from most of the episodes this season. Instead, we see the Doctor doing what he does best: figuring out a dangerous puzzle, with many lives at stake.
Once again we see the Doctor fail to save people—rather, fail to save individuals. We know—and are particularly reminded of the fact in this episode—that the Doctor does what he needs to do to save people. If that means sacrificing one person, or failing to act in order to save one person, in order to save a larger group of people or the world in general, then he is going to do it. But we’re thrown off by his demeanor as he does so. The writers have spent the season building up the twelfth Doctor as a grouchy, unlikeable character to the point where it has been ridiculous. The Doctor—and I’m talking about every incarnation here—has always valued individual lives and even when it seemed as though sacrificing a person would be the only way to save a greater number of lives, the Doctor still never gave up on that individual person. If the Doctor knew he couldn’t actually save someone, he would at least offer some comfort, or show some remorse. We know that the Doctor is affected by the deaths of those around him, however deeply he hides his feelings. Still, it feels as though the number of dead surrounding this Doctor is much higher than that of the other Doctors, which makes me think that it may be in some way related to the Missy/Netherworld storyline. But the Doctor redeemed himself somewhat in this episode. Yes, people still die. Yes, he is callous about those deaths. But when Maisie is targeted by the Foretold, the Doctor jumps into the line of fire himself and ends up saving Maisie and everyone else.
(I also want to make a shout-out to the “Are you my mummy?” line, which was a reference to the amazing “The Empty Child” episode with Christopher Eccleston and was referenced again quite humorously by David Tennant’s Doctor in “The Poison Sky.”)
In the end, we still don’t know who Gus, the orchestrator of the whole situation, is. It’s unlike the writers to leave an antagonist—forgive the pun—under wraps at the conclusion of an episode unless they’re going to come back as part of a larger storyline, so I’m pretty sure Gus has to have something to do with Missy and the Nethersphere.
Besides the mysterious Gus, there was another great character in this episode: Perkins (wonderfully played by Frank Skinner). Clever, witty and with his own air of mystery, Perkins was enough to impress even the Doctor. Part of me was hoping Perkins would accept the Doctor’s invitation to stick around on the Tardis for a while, but I knew not one, but two old men traveling on the Tardis with a young girl would be pushing it in terms of the usual Doctor-companion dynamic in the show. Also, I suspected that Perkins would be too smart to take the Doctor up on the dangerous invitation, and I was so glad I was right. Perkins’ answer was perfect, and I loved that moment in the episode, which was made even more poignant by the following scene between Clara and the Doctor, when she decides that she won’t leave him after all.
Speaking of that final scene, I’m disappointed in Clara. She has grown a lot throughout this season, and I was impressed by her breakthrough at the end of last week’s episode. After all, the Doctor continues to put her in dangerous situations and make her do things she doesn’t want to—such as deciding the fate of humanity and lying to a troubled, grieving woman when her life is at stake. However, it seems the writers aren’t ready to let Clara go just yet, and of course her lying to Danny is going to provide what I anticipate to be some very weak drama. I keep hoping that maybe Danny will pull a Mickey and join Clara on the Tardis, but I’m not sure what to expect at this point, if Danny will remain in the background. But I’m sure the reintroduction of Clara lying to Danny will allow for Danny to be more visible in the future. However, I couldn’t help but think of Danny in the scenes when the Doctor confronts the captain about his past as a soldier and when the Doctor figures out the secret to the Foretold and surrenders to the soldier. Soldiers keep popping up this season, seemingly as a reminder of the Doctor’s complicated relationship with war and soldiers, particularly Danny.
Check in next week for my review of “Flatline.”