In every era of Doctor Who, there’s always a guest writer who stands out from the rest of the line-up and becomes a fan favorite, because of the high-quality scripts they produce. During the Russell T. Davies era, it was Steven Moffat (which later landed him his gig as the series’ second showrunner). During the Chris Chibnall era, it was Maxine Alderton. And during the Steven Moffat era, it was Jamie Mathieson. Much like Mr. Moffat during his early days, Jamie’s episodes always leave a lasting impression on people because he’s a guy with a lot of creative vision. He consistently concocts some very ambitious and imaginative premises for his episodes, while also giving the Doctor, his companions, and even a few members of the guest cast razor-sharp characterization within the forty-five minute time frame he has to work with. It’s quite an impressive feat.
The main premise of this episode revisits a fun little hook from the end of “The Big Bang” and feels like a cross between “Aliens Of London” and “Voyage Of The Damned“: the Doctor and Clara spend a night on the Orient Express in space – a nostalgia tour for future humans that secretly turns out to be a trap for everyone onboard it. Since it’s a murder mystery, a classic whodunnit with an outer space setting, this episode draws a lot of influence from the works of Agatha Christie, which means it also has more than a few similarities with “The Unicorn And The Wasp” as well. Now that we’re officially in the back half of Series 8, things are really starting to get good as the Doctor and Clara’s character development kicks into high gear. We’ve spent the last seven episodes exploring different aspects of the Twelfth Doctor’s personality, getting to know more about what makes him tick, and “Mummy On The Orient Express” marks the point where Twelve officially becomes a fully-formed protagonist.
When “Mummy On The Orient Express” starts, the Twelfth Doctor is reluctantly dealing with the consequences of his actions in “Kill The Moon“: namely that he’s severely damaged his friendship with Clara and she now wants to give up traveling in the TARDIS. He’s willing to accept her decision if she’s willing to stick to it, but he tries to avoid talking about how much the nature of their relationship has changed over the last season whenever she brings it up. Because, as always, the Doctor feels very uncomfortable getting sentimental with the ones he cares for. He still clearly has feelings for Clara, but he doesn’t want to scrutinize those feelings again any time soon when he knows there would be no point in doing so. He promises to give her one last fun trip for their ‘final hurrah’, which he already suspects will be quite eventful, because he’s secretly hoping he can entice her into staying.
The Doctor loves a good scientific discovery, even a really morbid one, so once he discovers there’s an invisible mummy haunting the ship, killing off the passengers one by one, the murder mystery is right up his alley and the game is officially afoot. Peter Capaldi’s natural charisma is on full display throughout the hour, as the Doctor uses every trick up his sleeve to try to solve the case by fraternizing with the other passengers, questioning the crew, and hunting down every lead he find with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He clearly enjoys figuring out what makes the mummy tick, to a level that isn’t always appropriate considering how many people die before the creature is finally dealt with. As we’ve seen before during the David Tennant years, the Doctor can gain a serious case of tunnel vision when he’s working on a case, and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in particular will not let anything else distract him from accomplishing his goals when he’s got his mind set on them.
Once he begins to understand how the mummy’s method of killing people works, he decides to take full advantage of it. Whenever he knows someone is about to be targeted by the specter, he sees it as a rare opportunity to study the creature and gain some more information about it – probing the victim for questions when they’re seconds away from death. He’s already accepted that he can’t do anything to save the poor soul who’s currently on the chopping block, but hopefully he can use what he’s learned from their deaths to stop the creature down the line – which is disturbing to both the victims and the audience. He tries to be cold, logical and efficient, because he firmly believes that he and the other passengers don’t have time to mourn the people they’ve lost when time is of the essence (especially after a malicious artificial intelligence hijacks the ship and threatens to kill everyone onboard it if they don’t comply with his demands).
Much like how the show handled Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in Series 1, Series 8 has really driven home the fact that the Doctor isn’t human, and the decisions he makes to neutralize a threat or take control of a crisis are not always going to be comfortable by human standards. However, even with that justification in mind, he’s still very much capable of crossing a line. This episode really is tailor-made for the Twelfth Doctor’s personality: it’s a perfect opportunity to scrutinize one of his core beliefs, and the culmination of the path that “Into The Dalek” and “Time Heist” set his character on earlier this season. As the stakes grow higher and the Doctor becomes more driven to beat both Gus and the Foretold, there’s an unspoken question of how far will he go to get the answers he seeks? How long it will be before his morally ambiguous approach to catching a killer becomes straight-up immoral?
A major turning point comes when the Doctor demands that Clara lie to one of the passengers who’s next on the mummy’s hit list, give her false hope, and potentially lead her to death – because he wants to present when the mummy comes for her. Clara quite rightly tears into him for that, and her righteous anger is immensely satisfying to watch. However, this decision turns out to be a ruse that he concocted once he worked out a way to gain the upper hand over the mummy, and he had to make it look convincing for everyone who was watching. He makes himself a target of the mummy so he can stop it himself, and he manages to pull off his scheme with only a second left to spare. Just like in “Time Heist”, after we’ve spent a whole episode questioning the Doctor’s actions, it’s very reassuring to see that for all his faults, Twelve wouldn’t ask the other passengers to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself.
In a rare and fascinating moment of emotional openess from Twelve, he later explains to Clara that he tries to make a difference wherever he goes, but he can’t always afford to be nice about it. It saddens him that he can never manage to save everyone, but he buries those feelings deep down to do what needs to be done. He doesn’t seem to like being the one who always has to make those kind of judgment calls, but he’s made peace with the consequences of his lifestyle by now. As the episode wraps up, we see that he’s warmed up to the idea of there being more company in the TARDIS besides Clara, since he offers Perkins a spot in his crew, though the man politely declines. He’s also learned his lesson from “The Caretaker” and gained some more respect for Clara and Danny’s relationship: he might entice her to stick around on his ship, but he won’t get in the way of what she has with Danny. Both of Clara’s men will accept whatever she chooses, whichever one of them she chooses, and he’s delighted when she decides not to make a decision at all.
After the really ugly fight they had in “Kill The Moon”, the emotional wounds of Twelve and Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) friendship are still pretty raw, but they’re beginning to heal. Clara has a lot of complicated feelings about the Doctor at the moment. He’s been pushing her past her limits for a good chunk of Series 8, and her travels with him have been taking a toll on her personal life back home. So she’s decided that their arrangement isn’t healthy for her anymore, and she wants to call it quits. She’s agreed to take one last trip with him, as their final hurrah, and it proves to be a very bittersweet affair. Because no matter how much they try to emotionally prepare themselves for it and convince themselves that it’s for the best, they would hate to give each other up. And it’s not just the Doctor Clara is attached to: she’s also grown very fond of the exciting and adventurous lifestyle in the TARDIS that she’s enjoyed for the last two seasons.
Much like the Doctor, Clara can’t resist a good mystery. She leaps at the first sign of one, no matter how much she claims she just wants a nice, quiet voyage through space, and she’s clearly grown addicted to the experience of solving one. Throughout Series 8, it’s been repeatedly hinted that Clara and the Doctor still pine for each other as more than just friends, despite their insistence otherwise, and here that implication is starting to become more overt, since they share a number of bonding moments throughout this adventure that are very affectionate. Now that she’s had some time to cool off, Clara has come to realize that by leaving the TARDIS, not only will she never see the Doctor again (she knows he never looks back after he says goodbye to a friend, which means he won’t be visiting her in the future), but she’ll also have to settle back into an ordinary life on Earth again, and after everything she’s seen and done since Series 7, she knows she would never be satisfied with that anymore.
Clara spends a good chunk of this episode consoling Maisie, one of her fellow passengers, and the brief friendship they share reminds me a lot of the one Martha and Tallulah had in “Dalek In Manhattan“. Clara consoles Maisie about her fears and her guilt, and in return Maisie hears her out when she vents about her own troubles. Maisie points out that it shouldn’t be this hard for Clara to move on from the Doctor if he frustrates her as much as he does, and he’s only just a friend to her. Something’s still holding her back and if she wants to get to the root of it, then she’ll need to look inside herself and really examine what she wants for her future – however, she’s not sure if she really wants to. Like the audience, Maisie believes that Clara is in some pretty deep denial about what her heart really wants.
When the Doctor tells Clara to lie to Maisie and lead her to her death, she naturally feels disgusted by how callous and underhanded he’s being, but also not particularly surprised by it. Since Clara has always been perfectly willing to defy the Doctor’s wishes to do what she thinks is right, she tries to help Maisie to get to the TARDIS, only to find that they’re blocked off from it, so she reluctantly complies with his plan, becoming complicit in his betrayal. When she discovers he lied to her again – that he knew they were probably walking into a trap, but he figured she would enjoy the experience – she’s finally pushed over the edge and gives him another chewing out to rival the one at the end of “Kill The Moon”. She’s about to ready to write him off entirely as a terrible person and a terrible influence on her (when she thought the world of him just last season), but he throws her for a loop with his last-ditch gambit to save Maisie – a plan so sneaky and so reckless that it managed to fool even her.
Afterwards, Clara feels more than a bit ashamed of herself for being so quick to think the worst of her friend, despite knowing the world-saving time lord for several years now. Ever since “The Rings Of Akhaten“, she’s always looked up to him and tried to follow in his footsteps to make a difference in the world. But ever since Eleven regenerated into Twelve and his outward personality changed, he’s dropped a lot in her estimation lately, to the point where she wasn’t sure she really knew who he was anymore. After their harrowing encounter with the Foretold, she’s finally gained a greater understanding of how Twelve sees the world and why he makes the difficult and unpleasant judgement calls that he does. So by the episode’s end, she finds it in her heart to forgive him.
Despite everything that happened in this adventure, and all the red flags the last three episodes have been giving off that her relationship with the Doctor is starting to become really unhealthy really quickly, Clara ultimately decides to stay onboard the TARDIS – because she can’t give up the Doctor, and she can’t give up the lifestyle she loves that gives her a sense of fulfilment. She also seems to realize on some level that Maisie was right: she does still have feelings for the Doctor as more than just a friend, but she also loves Danny as well and treasures him just as much as her boyfriend. The love triangle between Clara, Danny and the Doctor has now officially kicked in, with Clara’s heart feeling torn between the two men she’s closest to. To smooth things over with her boys, she even decides to start lying to them both again about the choice that she’s made – because she’s apparently learned nothing from how well that worked out for her in “The Caretaker” – but thankfully her relapse into old bad habits is addressed pretty quickly over the next two episodes.
Most, if not all, of the side characters in this episode are pretty likable and endearing, considering the limited amount of screentime that they have. Captain Quell is a proud, straight-laced, retired soldier who’s been put in charge of running the Orient Express. When people start dying, he tries to cover it up to keep the peace and avoid the uncomfortable idea of the ship being haunted, but the Doctor won’t stand for his cowardice and calls him out on his lack of action. He can’t afford to pretend that nothing bad is happening when he’s supposed to be a leader that everyone is counting on. So after he realizes the truth in the Doctor’s words, he steps up to try to protect his passengers. He ultimately becomes a target of the mummy, because of the depression and PTSD he gained from his wartime trauma, and he tries to face his death with as much dignity and bravery as he can muster (the way a soldier ought to), having found redemption for his failures before the end.
Professor Emil Moorhouse is a genial, scholarly type who studies myths and legends for a living because they fascinate him. He would love to meet a real monster for a change, but he learns to be careful what you wish for a bit too late when the mummy drags him off to an early grave. Arguably, the most sympathetic member of the guest cast is Maisie Pitt. She was raised by an abusive grandmother, who later became one of the mummy’s first victims, and she’s not handling the woman’s death well. Maisie was traumatized by the horrible upbringing she had and she wished ill on her grandmother for years, so when she actually dies, she feels incredibly guilty about it. She’s having a hard time coming to terms with it, so Clara does her a kindness and tries to help her find some closure. To add on to the miserable time she’s having, Maisie’s depression nearly gets her killed by the mummy, and she’s only saved at the last second by a crazy plan from the Doctor, which could have easily failed.
Perkins is the ship’s chief engineer and the Doctor’s assistant detective while Clara is preoccupied. He’s an inquisitive and eccentric man who loves a good mystery. Like the Doctor, he’s immediately drawn to the strange deaths that the Foretold is causing, and as someone who knows a lot about the ship’s layout and the ship’s crew, he’s very well-prepared to start looking into the problem. He and the Doctor get along exceptionally well, and for a while, he seems to treat their space voyage as an opportunity to live out an old Agatha Christie novel. However, as more and more people start to die and the stakes start to rise to a level that’s well out of their control, Perkins is given a wake-up call that the position they’re in isn’t spooky or mystifying in a fun way: it’s tragic and horrifying.
A lot of good people die senselessly, including people that Perkins knew for years, because Gus will stop at nothing to solve the mystery of the Foretold. He also starts to get fed up with Twelve over time. The Doctor’s methods when it comes to getting answers pushes everyone past their limits, and like Clara, Perkins briefly starts to wonder if he’s really driven to neutralize the threat by any means necessary, or if he’s just a terrible person who couldn’t care less about other people’s deaths so long as he can satisfy his own curiosity. Thankfully, he proves to be the former. At the end of the day, Twelve offers him a spot on the TARDIS, because he’d like to have him around as another companion. And before today, Perkins probably would have leapt at the chance, but now he decides to turn him down – because he can’t go through an experience like that again and he’s not sure who could. Not everyone is cut out to be a companion: in a lot of ways, you have to be almost as mad as the Doctor himself to stick around, like Ms. Oswald – and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing or both.
The monster of the week in this episode is the Foretold, a cursed mummy who’s invisible to everyone else onboard the ship except the people it intends to kill. It appears before its victims when they least expect it and hunts them down, giving them sixty-six seconds before they die. It lumbers along slowly like a zombie, because it really doesn’t have to rush when it comes to hunting down its prey. They can run as much as they like, but it always gets them in the end, since it can teleport and walk through walls with ease. In that regard, the Foretold is a very unsettling foe, because much like death itself, it’s implacable and inevitable. Steven Moffat will create a similar brand of nightmare fuel himself with the Veil in next season’s “Heaven Sent”: another creature who’s basically the living embodiment of the Grim Reaper and will never stop coming for you wherever you are.
The Foretold ultimately turns out to be an old alien super-soldier who was ‘cursed’ to kill enemy combatants who were sick or injured, until their side conceded defeat to his – which not only gives the Doctor the means to stop it in the climax, but also advances the main wartime theme of Series 8. Since the mummy is being forced to kill people against its will, the true malicious villain of this episode is Gus, an artificial intelligence who orchestrated the whole trap on the Orient Express and lured a bunch of alien experts to it, to learn the truth behind the myth. He’s even willing to start killing the ship’s crew in cold blood himself, to force the Doctor to cooperate with his demands. We never learn much about who programmed Gus, and they’re never brought to justice either, since Gus manages to escape with all the information he gained, scot free. This episode’s ending gives off the impression it’s setting up another return for him down the line, but if that kind of storyline was ever in the cards for the Capaldi era, it was very quickly dropped.
“Mummy On The Orient Express” is directed by Paul Wilmshurt, and the personal touch he brings this episode is a lot more intimate and subdued than it was in “Kill The Moon”, since this story has a much smaller scale and a more confined setting. Whenever the Foretold makes its move to kill someone, we’re treated to a lot of hazy, out-of-focus POV shots (in the same vein as “Hide” or “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS“): which really makes these creepy sequences stand out from the rest of the episode, and provides a subtle bit of foreshadowing for the way the mummy turns out to be killing people later. Since the vast majority of this episode is set onboard a train, most of it was filmed inside a studio, though there was a bit of location shooting done during the beachside scene at the end, where was filmed in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales.
The costume and wardrobe department get to show off again in this episode, when they’re given the challenge of recreating period clothes from the 1920’s, and I’d say they did an excellent job of it: Clara and the Doctor are both looking quite dapper and dashing in this installment, all decked out in their finest evening wear. This episode doesn’t require a lot of CGI, outside of the establishing shots of the Orient Express soaring through space, and as a result the special effects shots that we do receive all have a lot of effort put into them and are rendered pretty convincingly by Millenium FX. Murray Gold’s score is equal parts jazzy and sinister through tracks like “Start The Clock“, “There’s That Smile“, “The Sarcophagus Opens“, “The Artifact” and “Study Our Own Demise“. Lastly, Foxes performs her own rendition of “Don’t Stop Me Now” (by Queen) for this episode, which appears early on when the Doctor and Clara board the Orient Express.
All in all, “Mummy On The Orient Express” is a fantastic character study for the Twelfth Doctor, and an impressive step-up from “The Unicorn And The Wasp” when it comes to the show putting its own spin on an old school murder mystery genre. It easily ranks alongside “Flatline” as one of the best episodes from the latter half of Series 8.
* “I really thought I hated you, you know?” “Well, thank God you kept that to yourself”.
* “I went to a concert once. Can’t remember who it was. But do you know what the singer said?” “Frankly, that would be an absolutely astonishing guess if I did know”.
* In all seriousness though, I love how sassy Twelve can be, and Peter Capaldi always does a great job of selling his dry sense of humor – including now, when he’s clearly trying to use his wit to get out of this conversation.
* “It’s nothing. Nothing. Definitely. Sure. 99% sure. Really? 99%? That’s quite high. Is that the figure you’re sticking with? Okay, okay. 75. Well, that’s jumped quite a bit. You’ve just lost 24%”.
* “Perkins, chief Engineer” “The Doctor, nosy Parker”.
* “Okay, I have a friend who’s really good with locks. Do you want to come with me, see if we can find him?” “Ugh!” “Or you could just do that… because that works, too”.
* “Do you know what you’re doing?” “Nope. But I do need to be slightly more skilled than a high-heeled shoe”.
* “Do you ever wish bad things on people?” “Oh, yeah, all the time. Like whoever designed this door, for a start”.
* “Seriously? We’re stuck in this carriage, probably all night, and all we can talk about is some man?” It looks like Clara’s worried that they’re going to fail the Bechedel test.
* “This is a, I don’t know, goodbye to the good times?” “Were the good times all like this?” “Yeah, now that you mention it”.
* “Life would be so much simpler if you liked the right people. People you’re supposed to like. But then, I guess there’d be no fairy tales”.
* “Fifty seconds-” “Will someone please shut that man up?!” Oof.
* “You know, Doctor, I can’t tell if you’re a genius or just incredibly arrogant!” “Well, on a good day, I’m both”.
* I’ve given Peter Capaldi plenty of praise, but the climax features some pretty impressive acting from Jenna Coleman as well, who conveys most of Clara’s conflicted thought process nonverbally when she agrees to the Doctor’s underhanded ruse. When she meets up with Twelve, she has “Doctor, you lying bitch” written all over her face, and when Twelve admits he knew the trip was probably a trap ahead of time, you can practically see the fire ignite in Clara’s eyes as she pounces.
* “You knew. You knew this was no relaxing break. You knew this was dangerous!” “I didn’t know. I certainly hoped”.
* “Hello, I’m so pleased to finally see you. I’m the Doctor and I will be your victim this evening. Are you my mummy?” Cute, Doctor, cute.
* “Oh, you really didn’t like your gran, did you? By the way, you weren’t being paranoid. She really did poison your pony. Oh, and your father. Sorry” Hot damn, that woman was evil.
* “Thank you so much for your efforts. They are greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, survivors of this exercise are not required” “Ah, well, there’s a shocker”.
* “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose” Sad but true, and no one understands that better than the Doc.
* “Is it like an addiction?” “You can’t really tell if something’s an addiction till you try and give it up” “And you never have” “Let me know how it goes”.