|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.