★★★ A mummy. On the Orient-Express. In space. There’s your monster. There’s your setting. Take that vertiginously high concept and make it work. A gift for any writer – or perhaps a poisoned chalice…
Jamie Mathieson, one of several writers new to Who this year, had already submitted next week’s episode, Flatline, when he was offered this second project. A Steven Moffat fancy, it harks back to a fleeting reference right at the end of season five when the 11th Doctor, Amy and Rory dashed off to deal with “an Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient-Express, in space” – an adventure that (if it ever happened) we never saw.
So now it’s a male mummy on the Orient-Express, snaking though the cosmos. Sounds terrific but how do you make that work? You have to establish the threat before the title sequence but then keep that threat going, and forestall the resolution, for the best part of 45 minutes in an unusually confined space packed with people. And the Doctor.
Mathieson’s solution is to have the mummy (aka the Foretold) stalking individual victims for a fixed 66-second span with only the victim able to see the monster. Then it vanishes. It’s almost ingenious – until it comes to the explanations. Why is this bandaged cadaver on the train? Why 66 secs? And why can the victim alone see it?
I’m perfectly capable of suspending my disbelief in the Doctor Who universe (Lord knows, I succeeded last week!) but I like to engage with the explanations provided. Here the answers are either dashed off (the Foretold is taking his victims “out of phase”) or left dangling for another day (it’s all a puzzle controlled by a computer, but set by whom?).
The director Paul Wilmshurst must be praised for what had to be a choreographing and editing nightmare – cutting each stalking murder to an exact 66 seconds with a countdown clock on screen. The first murder (wonderful Janet Henfrey who’s been playing harridans since The Singing Detective) establishes the fact that only the victim sees the mummy. Thereafter, though, the impact of each attack is diminished by repeatedly cutting between “now you see him, now you don’t”.
I’m trying, and of course dismally failing, to put myself into the mind of a child and see the mummy through their eyes. Is it really that frightening? Certainly, it looks horrible, with sightless eye sockets, lipless maw and exposed ribs. (I had a close-up inspection of the excellent costume at Millennium FX, thanks to producer Kate Walshe, right.)
The BBC was nervous about the horror content, limiting shots of the mummy in trailers and scheduling this episode at 8.35pm – Doctor Who’s latest ever timeslot. But the deaths (“he touches your head, you close your eyes and stop acting”) are disappointingly anaemic.
I hope I’m not sounding too down on this episode. It’s perfectly watchable and stylishly mounted: the carriages look opulent, the costumes are exquisite. Jenna Coleman looks great in her flapper attire, plunging décolletage and bobbed hairdo. With black suit and cravat, Peter Capaldi looks the image of William Hartnell’s Doctor in The Gunfighters.
If the Agatha Christie-style characters make little impact, comedian Frank Skinner, in a rare dramatic role, acquits himself as Perkins. He portrays the chief engineer as a man with secrets, in a part that perhaps needed a little more sparkle, such as a younger Bernard Cribbins could have given it. (Or am I just thinking of Perks from The Railway Children?)
Perhaps we should be intrigued by John Sessions providing the voice of Gus, the mystery computer. Is GUS an acronym like HAL from 2001: a Space Odyssey, which was one letter away from IBM? Its purpose and relevance are left unexplained as the train explodes and the story hurtles off in another direction. But surely we’ll return to Gus or, as the Doctor puts it, “who set this all up”.
I felt more involved in the “final act”, once Maisie is placed in danger (another glossed-over explanation is how the Time Lord freed Clara and Maisie from the baggage compartment) and the Doctor transfers her anxieties to himself to lure the Foretold. In the flurry, he manages to get in the line: “Are you my mummy?”
The Doctor’s actions again come under scrutiny, on the beach and in the Tardis, as he proves to Clara that he isn’t heartless but insists: “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones but you still have to choose.” It’s persuasively written and performed. Clara’s capitulation, her decision to stay with her buddy after their abortive “last hurrah”, joining him thrusting the Tardis levers to their next adventure, makes the heart sing.
The most interesting aspect of the episode is that the Foretold is identified as an ancient soldier “wounded in a forgotten war thousands of years ago”. When the Doctor “surrenders”, it stops its killing spree, salutes then crumbles to dust. It’s an absurdly simple exit but peculiarly plaintive. Who was this poor soul? Someone significant from the Doctor’s past or future? Don’t say it’s some tragic future version of Danny.
Perhaps we’ll never know. But, unexpectedly, we have another soldier to add to this season’s running theme. The 12th Doctor has made his feelings clear about soldiers: his rejection of Zawe Ashton’s character in Into the Dalek; his distrust of Danny in The Caretaker. And in Listen, thanks to Clara, Rupert’s unarmed soldier became the talisman of the Doctor’s childhood.
Where is this leading? We know the approaching finale will re-introduce Unit, the military/scientific task force to which the Time Lord has allied himself, often grudgingly, since the 1960s. It will be the first time we see Capaldi’s Doctor in that sphere. Is this when his antipathy to soldiers comes to a head? I am hoping that the initiative driving this will flower into Doctor Who’s subtle and respectful commemoration of the centenary of the Great War.