That Sad Skeleton (Mummy on the Orient Express)

(36 comments)

Oh no! The Doctor no longer has time to listen to all of "Minimum Wage" before he dies!

It’s October 11th, 2014. Meghan Trainor is at number one with her body positivity anthem “All About That Bass.” Lower in the charts are Magician, Sigma, and, yet again, Taylor Swift, who has been in with “Shake it Off” consistently since “Into the Dalek” aired. In news, Douglas Carswell wins reelection as a MP, this time as a UKIP member, while the US Supreme Court declines to hear a variety of appeals on same-sex marriage cases, making it legal in all but twenty states.

On television, meanwhile, the consensus best story of Series 8, and, for some tranches of fandom, the Capaldi era. This presents something of a problem. There’s a longstanding tendency in TARDIS Eruditorum where well-liked stories come in for a bit of a kicking. Although heavily informed by my taste, TARDIS Eruditorum is not a series of reviews; it’s a cultural history of Britain that uses Doctor Who as its lens and subject. (As my pitch goes these days, “you can tell a lot about what Britain is afraid of at any given moment by looking at what the Doctor is running down a corridor from.”) And sometimes that means that perfectly nice stories get impressed into service standing in for some cultural concern, perhaps most notably when Earthshock found itself rather unfortunately saddled with being the entry where I dealt with both the Falkland War and the emergent inadequacies of Eric Saward’s writing.

And in some key regards, Mummy on the Orient Express is ripe for that precisely because of its reputation. Coming off of Kill the Moon, a story I’ve emphatically nailed my colors to the mast regarding, the fact that Mummy on the Orient Express is widely beloved in exactly the same crowds that sneer at Kill the Moon. It’s beloved, essentially, as a well-made Hinchcliffe throwback: a scary one where a classic horror movie monster picks people off one by one. The underlying traditionalism in this assessment is not something to be encouraged. Add the fact that there’s something more than a bit unseemly about everyone’s favorite Capaldi story being the Clara-light one and you have all the makings of a sacred cow that’s perfect for the abattoir. 

Thankfully (or not if you’re really into me complaining) two not entirely unrelated things spare it. The first is that the story’s trad admirers largely misunderstand it, or at least engage in a perilously superficial reading of it. The second is that it’s just really freaking good. Let’s start with the first. It’s not that it’s hard to see why a particular tranche of trad fandom glommed onto this episode. The description is accurate. It’s got a well-designed monster marauding through an enclosed space and winnowing down the cast. This is in fact traditional. What it’s not is traditionalist. Jamie Mathieson is, by his own admission, not a classic series fan, having been scared off by Terror of the Zygons and largely avoiding the program until the new series came along. His imitation of the Hinchcliffe era extends no further than doing a scary one. The structure of killing characters off one by one and the confined location both came from Moffat’s brief on the story, which was simply the title. If you do a story “on the Orient Express” you’re pretty much committing to picking people off in an enclosed space. 

(A note that a non-trivial part of what makes this story work is the quality of Moffat’s brief, which was good as a throwaway gag in The Big Bang and is even better simplified from “Egyptian goddess” to “mummy.” The crux is that the iconographies in play—mummy movies and Agatha Christie—are at once entirely distinct and clearly compatible, both coming out of the same historical period and being rooted in colonialist exoticism of the Middle East. The result is a pairing that will make tonal and visual sense while still retaining the key frisson of weirdness that animates good Doctor Who.)

So the trad elements were baked into the episode no matter who the writer was. What, then, does Mathieson bring to it? It is not that he’s a particularly radical writer. Indeed, of the three main writers that Moffat gave Capaldi-era debuts to he’s probably the least radical, though Mathieson is arguably the writer this insight says the least about. He certainly has a discernible style, but it’s rooted more in precision than vision. The most interesting facet of it is probably his ethical conception of the Doctor, explored in the episode’s understated best scene on the beach. For him, the Doctor is simultaneously someone who is wearied by the terrible choices he has to make and compelled to put himself in the position to keep making them. This is a strong take that allows the show to play with the tone and iconography of Davies’s old “lonely god” stuff without getting bogged down in the paroxysms of ethical self-flagellation that steadily made the “last of the Time Lords” schtick tiresome. It’s a simple and clarifying angle: the Doctor does the right thing but repeatedly puts himself in situations where the right thing is still pretty awful. 

And this gets at Mathieson’s main strength: he is good at honing a concept into a simple and clear form. And it is here, as opposed to in the particular concepts being honed, that Mummy on the Orient Express shines. Doctor Who’s monsters are often formulated in terms of their rules, but this story takes this to new levels. Its cold open is one of the most beautifully efficient things in series history: a demonstration of the episode’s conceit. There’s a mummy on a train that takes precisely sixty-six seconds to track you down and kill you; also the train’s in space. 

But very little of this is stuff that could have existed in any classic era of the show. Look at Robots of Death, the story most immediately similar to this. It’s absolutely a story about the rules of its monsters, but in the sense of being four episodes in which everybody is trying to figure those rules out. Here the rules are laid out in just over a minute and the rest of the episode is spent revealing their logic. And the rules have been packaged in a self-consciously televisual package, from the non-diegetic Capaldi voiceover that starts the episode to the conspicuous countdown timer. A mummy attack isn’t just something with well-defined rules, it’s immediately presented as a defined unit of television with a particular shape. This just isn’t something that could have existed in the show prior to The Eleventh Hour. 

The six mummy attack form the spine of Mummy on the Orient Express. Each one both offers a new exploration of the event (an introduction, two that explore the idea of simultaneity across the train, two in which characters who in other contexts could be plausible main heroes try and fail to stop it, and finally the Doctor’s) and a clear shift to the train’s overall state of play. Add in a general sense of acceleration to the six sequences (they begin at 00:03, 13:16, 21:50, 26:04, 31:29, and 37:38 respectively, so actually decelerate slightly over the last two, but by that point the overall plot has accelerated to the point where the overall sense of momentum is sustained) and you have an episode that’s exquisite in its technical craft. Which explains why this absolutely sings where similarly trad-seeming stories in 2013 and 2015 did not. 

What makes this structure work, however, is not just the efficiency of its construction but the panache of its execution. Paul Wilmshurst’s three stories all feature formalist set pieces at their hearts, and in each case he strikes a careful balance between reveling in the structural play and making sure the storytelling is clear. He’s also a particularly sharp visual stylist; all of his stories have extremely well-designed interior spaces that harken back to the 1960s tendency to have big main sets where the bulk of the action takes place. And he’s particularly deft with his color palettes, which are consistently vivid and well-balanced. Were it not for Moffat forging the most iconic writer/director pairing in the history of the series, he’d be a shoo-in for the best director of the Capaldi era. 

The cast is also on point. This story is really the first one where Capaldi gets comedy to work with his Doctor, and not coincidentally also the least cranky he’s had to be all season. Indeed, this is probably the closest Series 8 comes to featuring the character as he’ll appear in Series 9 and 10. It’s still not quite there: the scene of the Doctor talking to himself in his cabin is not something we’ll ever really see again. But it’s also delightful and funny, which, eight episodes in, still isn’t actually something Capaldi’s Doctor has really gotten to be yet. Likewise, his performance in the Mummy confrontation, as he wheels back and forth, wasting bits of his countdown with asides to Daisy, is a glorious bit in which Capaldi makes simple but effective use of the oblong train set as he delivers a sixty-six second masterclass in mixing suspense and humor.

And then of course there’s Clara. While I generally am not nearly interested in rationalizing sexism to worry about why people complain that the show in this period should be called Clara Who, the fact that she manages to have the Clara-lite episode of the season end up with her as the character with the primary dramatic arc probably comes closer than anything to justifying the sorbriquet. Despite being locked in a cupboard with a sarcophagus full of bubble wrap (an absolutely hilarious gag) and the only other named female character (where they then have the nerve to do a Bechdel Test gag), she’s clearly what this episode is about. It’s not just that the framing of the story is about her post-Kill the Moon reconciliation with the Doctor, but that the way in which she does this is by reconciling herself to the fact that she shares the Doctor’s addiction. This is in effect the middle part of a triptych about Clara settling on what will eventually be the final form of her characterization. Kill the Moon provides the crisis that instigates it, Mummy on the Orient Express documents the actual shift in her thinking, and next week Flatline will demonstrate the consequences.

So yes, the story is trad-bait of the most skepticism-arousing kind. It’s also an exquisitely directed episode full of innovative visual storytelling in both script and execution. And it’s one in which Jamie Mathieson casually and without fanfare does the lion’s share of the work in nailing down the often fluctuating characterizations of the two leads. I talked last week about the way Kill the Moon tears off to the fringes of what the show can do and leaves subsequent episodes to map the territory uncovered. Mummy on the Orient Express in no way completes that map, but it does enough of the work to ensure that Kill the Moon is not, on the whole, a failed or unfulfilled experiment. There are many components to why the Capaldi era becomes a golden age for the program and many talents involved in it. But these two episodes are the ones where that legacy is made possible. These are the ones that set the template that all the subsequent glories are going to start from. By any standard, that’s far more interesting and significant than the fact that it’s got a well-designed monster in an enclosed space.

A final note, because it’s been literally years since I got to spin a weird fan theory. One of the episode’s, and indeed the entire Capaldi era’s great unpulled threads is the identity of GUS, the homicidal mastermind of the whole Mummy experiment. Mathieson was going to reveal it here, but concluded that it was just tacking an underwhelming second climax on and so omitted it. And he was going to take another crack at it in Oxygen, where the reveal would have been that the Doctor’s actions in that story provided GUS’s origin story. Thank goddess he didn’t, however, as that would have foreclosed the far more entertaining possibility. A ruthless scientist without conscience who unapologetically exploits others in the name of scientific discovery? Who knows who the Doctor is and is capable of phoning the TARDIS? Who the Doctor refers to as “your majesty” before declining to fall into the trap? In a season where it’s finally made unequivocal that Time Lords can regenerate into a different gender, there’s only one shadowy mastermind this could be. At long last, after all the fan jokes about the identities of various mysterious female characters (to the point where they joke-recorded Michelle Gomez mouthing the word in place of the actual reveal in Dark Water to throw off anyone in the crowd hearing), we finally do have a character who turns out to secretly be the Rani.

Comments

Camestros Felapton 4 weeks, 1 day ago

//we finally do have a character who turns out to secretly be the Rani.//

The episode certainly had a portentous feel to it, as if it was going to contribute substantially to the overall arc of the season or add to the mythology. Yet somehow it didn't.

But if it was a yum Rani moment?

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Jarl 4 weeks, 1 day ago

This episode also lead to the absolute best event in Eruditorum Comment history: "Learning that 4chan has a positive consensus about this episode actually makes me like it less."

Some things just bring everyone together. Some things are popular because they're just good.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 weeks, 1 day ago

It's weird, the 4chan Doctor Who community is responsible both for the delightful mosaic of title cards summarizing my take on each era and the sneering and transphobic Wiki article it's an illustration for.

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Lambda 4 weeks ago

It's rather like a Doctor-Master relationship, chan culture has a similar sort of cleverness. The format of imageboards itself creates a new and fertile form of communication with "reaction images" etc. "Trolls trolling trolls" makes it impossible to have any real orthodoxy, since you never know whether people are being serious or not. The format has its trumps; it almost really does have an infinite number of monkeys which are capable of recognising when they've accidentally created... something worth creating, and anonymity certainly has its positive side, one of my favourite sentiments I've come across was when someone on one of the image-sharing boards remarked that anonymity means you do things purely for the good of the community rather than because you want the credit. And of course, they share a massive anti-authoritarian streak.

So the two have similar sorts of "brains". It's just that a lot of *channers use it all for evil, probably because they're too insulated from their effects and aren't invested in anything positive. (I assume, I haven't been there for many years now.)

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Dan 3 weeks, 5 days ago

"anonymity means you do things purely for the good of the community rather than because you want the credit" I can think of a few other motivations for people to keep posting in those places than the good of the community... not to mention other motives for anonymity.

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Aylwin 4 weeks, 1 day ago

Lovely crisp summation of the Clara-transformation triptych, the crystallisation of the Capaldi era and the nature of Mathieson's Doctor.

The latter, I suppose, makes Mathieson a kind of counterpoint to the more upbeat tendencies of many Moffat and Harness stories, where "a better way" is often made available, enabling the circle to be squared (with apologies to Jane). (Dollard seems more mixed, in so far as the small sample allows generalisation.) It generally works well, in contrast to the Davies-era-throwback angstiness of Whithouse, though I remain infuriated by the "Why I can't be arsed to help" speech in The Girl Who Died. And I suppose it ends up being important in underpinning the weariness that overcomes the Twelfth Doctor at the end of his run.

Picking nits:

This just isn’t something that could have existed in the show prior to The Eleventh Hour.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're getting at here, but didn't 42 involve a similar sort of formal conceit? (Not that it did anything interesting with it, but still.)

And I know you've retrenched a bit on the consensus popularity, but I'm still slightly surprised if this is really rated higher than Listen, if nothing else. (The snarky version of this would be to say that I wasn't aware of a consensus on it being even the best Jamie Mathieson-scripted story of season 8, but that would probably be even more obviously a sign of my general detachment from fandom at large, and even in these parts this one outpolled Flatline, so.)

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 weeks, 1 day ago

The thing that couldn't have happened pre-Eleventh Hour is not the real-time structure but the countdown clock in the corner of the screen.

Both DWM and I believe GallifreyBase indicated this one to be preferable to Listen and Flatline, so there's certainly a large segment that's Mummy > all.

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Aylwin 4 weeks, 1 day ago

Ah, thanks. And yes, that clearly is just me being out of touch then.

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David Anderson 4 weeks, 1 day ago

Quite right about Mathieson nailing down the characterisation of the leads, especially Capaldi. Up until this point, Capaldi's Doctor's been too cranky to be likeable, or too unsettled in one way or another (Deep Breath, Listen), or just written by Stephen Thomson. This is the point at which I stopped thinking, here's Capaldi playing the Doctor, and just thought, here's the Doctor.

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Citizen Alan 4 weeks, 1 day ago

I can't help but think back on all those debates from a few years back about whether the Colin Baker doctor could have ever possibly worked. And then along comes Peter Capaldi to show us exactly how a surly obnoxious doctor who yells at people all the time could have worked brilliantly.

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Przemek 4 weeks ago

The real question here is: could Capaldi's spiky Doctor have worked in that multicolored coat?

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Kazin 4 weeks, 1 day ago

I loved this episode when it first aired and still like it a lot, but I revisit the episodes on either side of it more often now. There's just so much more going on in both of them. Still, Mathieson is a great writer and a great find by Moffat.

There's still a reference to Gus in Oxygen (I think there's a sign somewhere that says Ganymede User System or something like that), but I agree, Gus's identity is best left to weird fan theories. If Gus is actually the Rani, then this would also be the best Rani episode by far.

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Prole Hole 4 weeks ago

That bar's so low you'd need a pickaxe to clear it.

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Riggio 4 weeks, 1 day ago

A throwaway comment you made actually gives me another reason to be confident in the Whittaker era. Because this idea of building the temporal structure of the episode itself around its central conceit was done back in the Davies era. It wasn't done very thoroughly, and the writer clearly was far from what would turn out to be his higher potentials. But it was the first experiment in that structure.

Of course, I'm talking about Chris Chibnall's "42."

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kevin merchant 3 weeks, 6 days ago

And of course "the end of the world"

"earth death in x minutes"

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ScarvesandCelery 4 weeks, 1 day ago

I do have a problem with the "This is the episode where Capaldi really becomes the Doctor" line of commentary - it kind of frames the twelfth Doctor's early characterisation as an aberration or a mistake, when to me it always seemed very deliberate - in my opinion they were clearly going for the "peeling away the layers" approach to writing the Doctor that they said was the plan for the sixth Doctor, but never showed any signs of putting in the work for. So when parts of fandom say "Capaldi never became the Doctor until late series 8/ series 9/ series 10" (depending on how much of his era they're arguing is terrible), I feel like they're missing the point he was kind of going through a character arc (and a good one, that I'm rather attached to)

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 weeks, 1 day ago

I'd point out that my claim is actually about when he reaches stable characterization.

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ScarvesandCelery 4 weeks, 1 day ago

Oh yes, I was fine with how you phrased it in this essay - I was more commenting on the general trend of critique surrounding the Twelfth Doctor (I realised that wasn't very clear the moment I hit "post comment")

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Citizen Alan 4 weeks, 1 day ago

"If you do a story “on the Orient Express” you’re pretty much committing to picking people off in an enclosed space." Actually, in the novel Murder on the Orient Express, only one person died in the whole book. In fact I'm pretty sure you just one of the Christie novels in which there's only one murder victim.

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Roll the ball 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Maybe I am misunderstanding what you're getting at here, but didn't 42 involve a similar sort of formal conceit. But I agree that Gus's identity is best left to weird fan theories.

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David Anderson 3 weeks, 6 days ago

While I mildly enjoyed 42, I think the point is that nothing in 42 would be much different if the formal conceit weren't there. While 42 has a race against time, so do lots of episodes that don't attempt any formal correspondence, for example.

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prandeamus 3 weeks, 6 days ago

No love for Foxes and "Don't Stop Me Now"? Not only was it a great song to do in that retro-futuristic environment, but the song's theme (don't stop me now ... good time ... having a ball) is a good way of describing the addictive nature of Clara's adventures with the Doctor. I'm sure other people can articulate this better than I can. Or indeed tell me I'm talking rubbish.

There's a standalone video by Foxes on the Orient Express set cut with scenes from the first half of the series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-OTYT02W7E

Also, I seem to remember Frank Skinner's performance being quite divisive. After the initial scenes which were designed to make his role vaguely suspicious, I really took to the character but I remember that others found him unwatchable.

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Przemek 3 weeks, 5 days ago

I enjoyed both the song and Frank Skinner's performance greatly. It was lovely to hear a song I really like reimagined as retrofuturistic jazz (come to think of it, it's nice to have such a bite-sized DW-style musical genre mashup right in the middle of a full-size story genre mashup). As for Perkins, he was entertaining, mysterious and funny at the same time - we rarely get such interesting side characters in this show anymore. That scene where he rejects the offer to travel in the TARDIS always breaks my heart a little because you can clearly see that he would love to go but the writers won't let him. His stated reason for not going never sounded the tiniest bit believable to me.

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Przemek 3 weeks, 5 days ago

Although, to be fair, Perkins is the only NewWho side character who got the offer to travel with the Doctor and lived to tell the tale. So that's something, I guess.

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mx_mond 3 weeks, 5 days ago

What mostly struck me about the episode watching it were all the careful looks Clara and the Doctor were shooting each other. There really was a sense that they’re walking on eggshells (or moonshells) around each other. I think it went a long way in helping me like the Twelfth Doctor: I saw that he realised how deeply he has hurt Clara and became more considerate in response.

I really wish the way to defeat the Mummy worked on real-life soldiers as well. And maybe sometimes it does. Anyway, I liked how surrendering – moving outside the context of war – could push the monster out of the soldier mindset. It appealed to the pacifist in me.

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Przemek 3 weeks, 1 day ago

A great analysis of a great episode. You've managed to explain the quality of "Mummy on the Orient Express" better than anyone else I've read. (And thanks for acknowledging that it began as a throwaway joke in Series 5 finale - it's surprising how many people missed that).

I think a non-trivial part of why this episode is held in such high regard was the pleasant surprise of a new writer's first episode being so good right off the bat. After watching a lot of mediocre episodes by established DW writers the quality of Mathieson's first contribution to the show was electrifying. The fact that his second episode was just as good as the first one (if not better) quickly made him the name to be on the lookout for. I hope against hope that he'll write something for the Thirteenth Doctor in the future...

Both Capaldi and Coleman were on fire in this one. Capaldi's wistful delivery of "the last hurrah" still stands out to me as one of his most memorable performances and he finally got to show this Doctor's more vulnerable side openly. Clara's outrage at the Doctor's methods was just as magnificent as in "Kill the Moon" but her coming to terms with it was even better. It certainly didn't hurt that, as you point out, Mathieson had such a clear and fresh vision of who the Doctor is. So many writers just write a generic Doctor that this show sometimes feels like it's running out of ideas for its main character. And then people like Mathieson come along and prove that no, we haven't said everything there is to say about the Doctor yet. Marvelous.

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UrsulaL 2 weeks, 2 days ago

In "42" the conceit felt forced, as if it was more important to fit the storytelling to the time structure than to tell the story well. The storytelling pace was awful. In this story, the time comceit was brief enough that it served the story, rather than dominating it.

The clock on screen, I agree, is very Moffat, part of the visual toolbox developed both here and in Sherlock.

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