DOCTOR WHO (2005) series 8, episode 8
"Mummy on the Orient Express"
WRITER: PAUL WILMSHURST
DIRECTOR: PAUL WILMSHURST
AIR DATE: October 11 2014
In the weeks following her traumatic experience on the Moon, Clara (Jenna Coleman) finds that her furious anger toward the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has somewhat abated. She concedes, despite disapproval from Danny (Samuel Alexander), to let the Doctor take her on “one last hurrah” in the TARDIS. They arrive in the future on board an intergalactic craft modelled after an old Orient Express train, in which they and other human passengers are dressed in the style of the period.
They discover that an old lady named Mrs. Pitt (Janet Henfrey) died in a state of hysteria in front of her daughter and other passengers after claiming that a man dressed as a mummy was attacking her, despite no-one else seeing the assailant. The Doctor speaks to Perkins (Frank Skinner), the train’s engineer, who expresses serious misgivings about the woman’s death, revealing to the Doctor that he is suspicious of Gus, the train’s automated computer system (voiced by John Sessions). Meanwhile Clara talks to Maisie (Daisy Beaumont), Mrs. Pitt’s daughter, who is traumatised by her mother’s death and desperate to see her body. In their search, they end up trapped in a storage car containing an Egyptian-style sarcophagus. Elsewhere on the train, a chef (Scott Stevenson) dies of a heart attack in front of other kitchen staff after claiming to see a mummy which only he can see. After scrutinising video footage, the Doctor notes that both victims died exactly 66 seconds after the flickering of nearby lights. An academic on board, Professor Moorhouse (Christopher Villiers), verifies that the pattern of the deaths follows the legend of a supernatural entity known as the Foretold (Jaimie Hill). Clara establishes contact with the Doctor but, as he sets out to rescue her and Maisie, he is arrested by Captain Quell (David Bamber) under suspicion of murder. When one of Quell's men dies 66 seconds after nearby lights flicker, the captain realises that the Doctor is innocent and releases him.
The Doctor tells the assembled train occupants that there is something odd about the train, including a preponderance of scientists among the passengers. At this, Gus, the spaceship’s computer, switches off its hologram function to reveal that they are actually on board some kind of mobile laboratory. Gus orders the group to study the Foretold in order to reverse engineer its technology. Clara contacts the Doctor again, saying that she and Maisie have found documentation showing that the agency controlling Gus intend to use the sarcophagus to capture and contain the Foretold. This conversation provokes Gus to murder the kitchen staff, exposing them to the vacuum of space and threatening that others will be killed if further transgressions occur.
Are you my mummy?
Professor Moorhouse is the Foretold’s next target. The Doctor uses his death to establish that the Foretold drains energy from its victims using phase-shifting technology. Perkins points out that the victims so far have been the frail and unwell. Captain Quell theorises that he will be next on account of post-traumatic stress from his war experiences, a theory confirmed when the Foretold kills him next. When Perkins surmises that Maisie is likely to be next target due to her trauma, the Doctor persuades Gus to let Clara bring her to the laboratory. Once there, Maisie declares that she can see the Foretold, but the Doctor draws on her memories and tricks the Foretold to target him instead. Using the 66 second window, the Doctor deduces that the Foretold is a bio-engineered soldier from a past war. On realising this, he frantically surrenders to the Foretold with only a few seconds remaining. The Foretold takes this action to be the end of its mission, the cessation of war itself, and becomes visible to the remaining survivors. Saluting the Doctor, the genetically modified soldier crumbles into dust, leaving behind its phase-shifting device.
With the technology appropriated, Gus sets about killing the survivors by evacuating air from the train. As the others pass out, the Doctor quickly rigs the phase-shifting device to teleport the entire group into the TARDIS before the train explodes. On a nearby planet, the Doctor explains to Clara that he has dropped off the passengers at a nearby city. He regrets that he did not have time to hack into Gus to find who was responsible for the train, while she agonises over his apparent heartlessness toward those he let die. The Doctor explains that doing the right thing sometimes involves making hard choices. As they prepare to leave, the Doctor offers Perkins a job to maintain the TARDIS but he politely declines.
Back on Earth, Clara lies to Danny about cutting her ties with the Doctor. She also lies to the Doctor about having Danny’s approval to travel with him, urging the Doctor to take her on more adventures to see more planets.
Perkins and the Doctor
unravel the secret aboard the Orient Express
Call me a sucker but, as a sci-fi/horror trope, mummies generally work for me (as opposed to medieval knights and sea-faring pirates!). Of course, it depends entirely on the quality of the tale being told and the scariness of the monster, but here all of the elements – a macabre Egyptian legend (the Foretold), a ruthless homicidal computer (called Gus), and the Doctor at his manic and deductive best – blend together to create televisual magic. This may not be a patch on Listen, the season’s earlier pinnacle, but it still deserves its full 5-star rating for providing viewers with a rollicking ride from start to finish.
It is essentially an Agatha Christie mystery set in space - hence the clear tribute paid to Christie in the title and the heavy use of ideas drawn from that author’s oeuvre. The mystery is not so much the identity of the killer – we know who or rather what is killing the train occupants pretty much from the word go – but instead the nature and motive of the killer is what intrigues us. What does the Foretold want? Where did it come from? And will the Doctor solve these vexing questions before the train occupants are all bumped off one by one? The fact that it plays out like a mystery is a major strong point, bringing out the aspect of the Doctor’s persona that I like best – the tactician, strategist, logician and detective all rolled into one. And the fact that his masterful skills of deduction are pivotal to the story’s resolution – as opposed to gadgets or gimmicks (sonic screwdriver, golden arrow, etc.) – is deeply satisfying. I prefer story resolutions which feel integral and earned rather than forced and tacked on. And that’s exactly what we get here, offering us a far better resolution than the somewhat strained premise of a hatching egg-Moon witnessed in the previous episode. When the Doctor realises that the old bandaged soldier is still playing out some long-forgotten war in its confused mind, he shows the creature sympathy and respect, allowing it to find closure and rest. The monster reciprocates by respectfully saluting the Doctor before disintegrating. It is a poignant moment and an earnest gesture juxtaposing the flippant one offered up by Danny Pink in the last episode.
makes his last stand
In addition to a satisfying resolution, there were a number of great performances from the relatively large ensemble cast. In particular, Frank Skinner surprised me with his effectively low-key turn as a thoughtful train engineer, strongly suspecting that the train’s computer was a nasty piece of work long before anyone else had twigged. Here Skinner exorcised his stock-in-trade cheeky chappy and instead infused his character with sensitivity and a good deal of pathos. I loved his polite refusal at the end, declining to travel any further with the Doctor because he had sufficient insight by this point to know that a life with the Doctor was not the route to happiness and fulfilment – he was just a simple man looking for a quiet life at the end of the day. It was another poignant moment in an episode packed with such moments. And Jenna Coleman also shone once again, showing new hidden depths to her fast improving character, this time demonstrating a real knack for duplicity. Her lies – no doubt white lies in her own mind – to the two most important men in her life served to underline that she was at heart deeply insecure and flawed. This was a welcome development since the Impossible Girl has frequently been a little too righteous and almost super-heroic for her own good. Stephen Moffat needs to seriously dial down the Impossible Girl element in future, and between this display of fraudulence and last week’s display of volcanic anger, a much more rounded character is finally emerging.
So a great episode all round, memorable, thrilling and with some outstanding performances. The stuff of legend indeed.