During the 2012 mini-season, the Doctor Who production team started to commission tie-in posters to reinforce the modern preference for high-concept, movie-style pitches. Despite the wow factor of the designs, the episodes were disappointingly reductive – when faced with a story like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, no matter how fun, it’s hard not to feel that Doctor Who was being made by Ronseal, and doing exactly what it said on the tin.
In outline, Mummy on the Orient Express is the most shameless such pitch since Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, yet it’s a sign of Doctor Who’s renewed confidence in its genre-bending abilities that the mummy isn’t a mummy, and the Orient Express isn’t just the Voyage Of The Damned-style famous-vehicle-in-space that the premise suggests. Instead, as the series has done through its 2014 run, the episode offers tonal risks, narrative U-turns and that intangible sense of the uncanny that has kept Doctor Who young for over 50 years.
This is a remarkably mature story that teases out the central theme of the Doctor and Clara’s near-‘divorce’ into a story patterned on things being out of phase – whether that’s the monster, or the running theme of concealed knowledge and mutual mistrust. How do we know when somebody is telling the truth? What if there’s a hidden agenda? Is Frank Skinner’s enthusiastic sidekick a little too good to be true? To spoiler-phobes, even the inclusion of Clara is a revelation, given that the pre-publicity had hinted at a low-key presence, to the point where many wondered if this would be a companion-lite episode; in the event, it as anything but. Similarly, Jamie Mathieson’s script unravels its secrets like bandages and the story quickly sheds the retro-futurist affectations of its literary pastiche to offer an engaging sci-fi idea and smart character study.
The key to the episode is the central sequence in which the Doctor has to maintain a cold pragmatism as everybody else is dying. This isn’t going to win over the Capaldi sceptics who miss the bedside manner of Matt Smith, but this story overtly repositions the Doctor not as your bezza mate but as a sci-fi sleuth. Like Hercule Poirot on the original Orient Express, it’s a numbers game: the more people who die, the more evidence to make a deduction and save the rest. That realism has been in short supply in recent years, especially given showrunner Steven Moffat’s aversion to killing people – but Mathieson bumps up the body count. (How many of these folks will turn up in ‘Heaven’ come the season finale, though, is anybody’s guess.)
With apologies to The Unicorn and The Wasp, the result is the best Who-does-Christie story since Tom Baker’s The Robots of Death, a story whose willingness to frighten kiddies is replicated in the genuinely unnerving appearance and concept of the Foretold – brilliantly staged by director Paul Wilmshurst. As if the cheeky cameo appearance by Baker’s beloved jelly babies wasn’t enough, Capaldi delivers a spot-on impersonation of the Fourth Doctor in his Gollum-goes-geek sequence of rhetorical debate.
And somehow Mathieson blends the old-school, monster of the week elements with the continuing arc of a difficult Doctor and his difficult-to-please travelling companion, in ways that enhance both halves of the story. Given the sheer amount of plot (and how nice that the episode’s big bad remains largely unknown and unexplained, hopefully with a view to a rematch), the gradual reawakening of Clara’s passion for time-travel adventure has to play out as a consequence of the storytelling – something that allows Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman to continue to excel in their roles. When even the filler is of this standard, you know this is good.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I watch Doctor Who: Season 8 on pay-per-view VOD?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers