Sunday, 26 October 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

This story in a nutshell: The show is fond of these self-explanatory titles these days...

Indefinable: Probably his most Doctorish showing so far this year whilst still retaining everything that makes Capaldi's Doctor so unique from his immediate predecessors. Because he and Clara are on awkward terms it is his chance to prise himself from her apron strings and investigate on his own. It's about damn time he claimed his show back and he dominates this episode, displaying as much warmth and humour as he does attitude and bite. It's a healthy antidote to anybody who might have thought he has plumbed new depths of bastard lately (last week he suggested a child be murdered before him and skipped out on the climax). Whilst there is the 'one last trip' with Clara angle to consider, it isn't the focus and that means the Doctor can get on with doing what he does best, dealing with a whopping great mystery, getting to grips with an icky monster and trying to save as many lives as possible. Yes, I can see why many people are suggesting this is the highlight of season eight so far. He scrubs up very nicely and offering jelly babies in a cigarette case and trips in the TARDIS to handymen reveals a gentler, more amenable side to the Time Lord that helps to build a more rounded picture of him in an episode where he is deliberately walking young women into potentially homicidal scenarios. The Doctor leaves Clara with no doubt that when he drops her off it will be the last time he sees her. Once she has made her choice he isn't going to play games or hang around, he's got planets composed entirely of shrubs to be getting to. I love the scene where he is talking to himself and makes the suggestion that this is the work of a mummy (he says 'mummy' with the same gravitas that Tom Baker would). He's not above pointing out peoples vices in order to expose them and kick them into action. I loved the moment when he was smoothing his way into the Professor's good books, it proves that he is capable of being polite whilst never dropping his cool facade. The Doctor is at his best when surrounded by the scientists and taking charge of the situation, trying to understand what the mummy is and why he is working under direction. You can see the keen intelligence, the ruthless need to unwrap the mystery and his willingness to sacrifice himself and others exposes that he will go to any lengths to do it. Rather than offering words of remorse to a man who is going to die in 30 seconds, the Doctor instead asks for details about their animated cadaver. Clara is impressed that the Doctor saved everyone but he refuses her praise and makes a glib remark about letting everyone die. At least he's true to himself. The scene on the beach is the closest you are going to get to a tender moment between this Doctor and Clara. It's beautiful because it's so subtle, which is as affectionate as he gets. It's taken two thirds of a season but Capaldi is firing on all cylinders now.

The Impossible Girl: I have one major reservation about Clara in Mummy on the Orient Express but aside from that aberration (albeit a major one, dealt with below) this is a pretty inoffensive showing for the character. For once (and it is very rare this season) the focus isn't on her (they'll make up for that next week) and she is allowed to embody the companion role in the same way that she did last season when we barely knew a thing about her. The difference between then and now is her much improved chemistry with the actor who plays the Doctor and Coleman's absolute confidence in the role now. I have re-watched season 7b in the past week whilst cross training and I don't think I have ever seen an actress struggling so much to make something out of so little characterisation (especially in Hide and Nightmare in Silver). In comparison the Clara of Mummy is at peace with her role in the series and Coleman is able to bring a lot more personality because she isn't caught in the middle of an arc that is deliberately making her character a mystery. I was a little perturbed by the fact that Clara stepped from the TARDIS with the Doctor on speaking terms after her impressive rage at him last week but Mathieson makes good sense of the sudden reversal, making this Clara's last hurrah in the TARDIS and making an attempt to say goodbye to the man that she has become alienated from. It gives the train added atmosphere, a feeling of melancholy that the Doctor has chosen this location as the last one to see his companion out on. Clara has figured that she doesn't hate the Doctor but she cannot travel with this version, not the way he does things. Until the climax Clara is essentially kept out of action and out of the way - I could almost believe that in one version of this story (following the dramatic climax of Kill the Moon) that she wasn't present at all. Little of what takes place plot-wise would be affected. When she realises she has been used by the Doctor to bring another victim to the mummy, Clara is furious. It makes even more of a mockery of her decision at the conclusion.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We apologise for any distress you may have just experienced. Grief counselling is available on request. On the bright side, I'm sure you've all collected a lot of data. Well done everyone!'
'I'm the Doctor and I will be your victim tonight. Are you my mummy?'
'Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones...but you still have to choose.'

The Good:
* Maybe we'll skip over the season which produced the cuddliest T-Rex stomp-stomp-a-stomping through Victorian London, robots who are more stylish than they are scary hanging out in Sherwood forest, the mobile dustbin with waving arms that is advertised as the most perfect killing machine ever devised, the Admiral Ackbar substitute that is mooning over its lost mate in the vaults of the bank of Karabraxos or the forest of the night swamps modern day London and forgets to add any kind of threat to the situation. You might be under the impression that Doctor Who has forgotten how to scare its audience. But that's only half of this years content. Season eight for me is the year where Doctor Who managed to (occasionally) find the fear factor again. Firstly you have the Daleks who have been allowed to get back to doing what they do best (murdering the fuck out of everybody) but other nightmarish creatures come in the form of a haunting silhouette sitting on a child's bed, an indefinable threat at the end of time, giant spiders with drooling fangs nesting on the moon, two dimensional nasties from another plan of existence that will suck the dimension from your body in their attempt to say hello (or not). They've all been conceptual horrors that have worked because I haven't quite been able to rationalise them or make them safe. You can't communicate with them, simply run away. And that's the same problem with this weeks macarcbre creation that drags it's putrid, scabby feet through the plush carriages of the Orient Express. A Mummy might be a recognisable horror from folklore but it is one that I have rarely seen realised this unpleasantly. The last time one showed up on the programme it turned out to be a servo robot slaved to an alien God trapped on Mars. This time round there are no such concession to make the walking cadaver safe. Ribs exposed, dressings barely covering its decaying flesh, sightless black orbs for eyes, gnashing, broken teeth and a impression of putrefying for years before being animated and let loose on its victims. So horrible that it wasn't able to make it into the trailer for series eight in fear of scaring off the little ones for good. What's unique about this mummy is the off the wall notion that once it has you in it's sights you only have 66 seconds to live. The way these set pieces play out with the victims unable to escape the rotting carcass within the cramped setting creates some of the tensest moments in a Doctor Who episode for quite some time. I especially like the murder of the chef who tries to put a door between him and the mummy and he still winds up with its filthy hands around his throat.
* I may have mentioned it several times before but I just love stories set on trains. I couldn't explain what it is beyond the boyish obsession with transport, the urgency of drama taking place on a rapidly moving vehicle and the general atmosphere that comes with the clickety-clack of the wheels bouncing off the track. Trapping a bunch of characters in a confined space with a threat coming at them is hardly a new idea in Doctor Who (it was the Troughton eras bread and butter) but how sparkling is the notion of a Mummy savaging the passengers of the Orient Express that is worming its way through space? That's a purely Doctor Who notion that should get any fans toes tingling. The first time I spotted the train cart gliding through the stars and heading towards a nebula I clapped with excitement. The boldest, nuttiest setting for some time. Inside is pure 1930s and as we all know from experience that is where the BBC designers absolutely shine. Plush decoration, elegant costumes, subdued lighting, food and drink aplenty and even some catchy entertainment, the Orient Express is stunningly realised to be the height of luxury.
* Foxes version of Don't Stop Me Now is delightful. Doctor Who isn't usually the sort of show that has the time to play out an entire song within it's economic time frame and I would therefore suggest you check out the full song on YouTube which comes dressed with plenty of clips from this season. It's one of the most impressive trailers for Doctor Who I have ever seen. 
* What a story set in one confined location needs is some well defined characters to bring it alive. Since this was originally a setting for an Agatha Christie book (which the title apes) it makes sense that the assembled guests should be vividly characterised, even if they are just fodder for the snarling cadaver. Impressively, Mummy on the Orient Express has three characters that really stood out and if I'm honest that is three more than the average these days in generally characterless world of Moffat-Who. Whilst it does become a little obvious later on that there are plenty in the crowd who haven't been handed a personality (especially when the lab is in lockdown), Captain Quell, Perkins and Maisie all strike me as a strong guest cast that are afforded enough time to make an impression. It might have something to do with the way he is shot in the shadows when he first appears but there is a sinister air around Frank Skinner's Perkins that makes him a little more interesting than the loyal engineer he ultimately turns out to be. I certainly wouldn't have objected in him hanging around in the TARDIS (a long term fan, Skinner had to have the chance to take a spin around the console room) and making the odd appearance in subsequent episodes (whilst not stepping outside the ship at any point). That might have been an fun idea to play out for the rest of the season. Perkins is the character that the Doctor has most related to all year; hanging out in the shadows, trying to fix things without making a fuss and not having to ingratiate himself with the passengers. Yes, you can see why they might get on. Daisy Beaumont imbues Maisie with enough regret and sadness to make her more than a flapping victim of fate and I found the admission that she had long wished her grandmother dead an excellent bit of character shorthand to understand the sort of person she was. Most impressive of all though was David Bamber's Captain Quell who manages to convince with relatively little screen time that he has had a chequered past, seen some terrible things and is living out his life in a safe job where he thought he could retire comfortably. There are acres of off screen history that is alluded to and the viewer can sketch in, especially when you see how keen he is to hit the bottle. Bamber is willing to expose the character at his best (brave and uncompromising) and worst (despondent and irrational). It's an impressive performance that could get lost in all the melodrama. The fact that the character is marked because of suffering from post-traumatic stress is expertly woven into the episode so the moment makes perfect sense. It's been a long time since characters were whipped up this instantly, it was a skill that RTD excelled at that Moffat lacks. Mathieson should be enticed back for this skill alone (let alone all the other qualities that shine in Mummy and Flatline).
* I'd recognise John Sessions' voice anywhere. His clipped, upper crust affectation proves remarkably sinister, even if we never find out who he is. The kiss that is blown to And Then There Were None was not lost on me.
* Decompressing the kitchen and sucking the staff out into space because the Doctor made a phone call? That is harsh. I proper kick in the gut for the Time Lord. In an era where it looked like nobody could die, Moffat has returned the show to it's roots of murdering innocents in creative ways. About damn time.
* The exquisitely shot and scored scene on the beach. One of the best Doctor/Clara moments, highlighted as such because it is followed by one of the worst.

The Bad:
* What the hell is wrong with Danny Pink? I cannot relate to this guy at all. Clara phones him up and tells him she is on a train that is travelling through galaxies that is being stalked by a mummy. If that was me on the other end of the phone I would be desperate to join her. Somehow Danny makes the idea of travelling in the TARDIS sound like the dreariest of notions. Why would a character be created who does that? And why would our beloved companion fall for such a funless jerk?
* After heaping praise on the general look of this episode I have to admit I wasn't impressed by the lab set. It was over lit and reminded me a lot of 80s Who, offering no shadows for the mummy to hide in anymore.
* Who the frick was John Sessions' character? How can something that important to the plot (especially after the whole affair is exposed as a scientific expedition posing as a luxury trip) be conveniently left blank?
* Perhaps any explanation would have been a disappointment? Remember earlier in the season when I discussed the nature of horror and how the reasoning behind the unnatural occurrences often spoils the level of threat? That's exactly what happens here. A slavering zombie decked in mucky bandages stalking innocent victims. That's scary. A soldier of a war that we've never heard about re-animated for no good reason and convinced by the Doctor that the conflict is over. That's just puzzling. I'm not sure the situation is adequately explained at all but Capaldi talks with confidence and speed you might just be bewitched into thinking it all makes sense. I was left scratching my head as to how any of this was relevant. The Doctor says 'we surrender' and the mummy stops killing and is reduced to ashes? Worst soldier ever. Surely those that filled it 'full of kit' thought of that? Who modified it in the first place? And what was up with the 66 seconds malarkey? Did I miss the explanation for that? And who controlled Gus? Why did they want the mummy reverse engineered?
* Clara's off. She's definitely off. She's had a massive barney with the Doctor. She's had an adventure with him that practically serves as a coda to their adventures. She's resolved to leave the heartless man the Doctor has become and enjoy her relationship with Danny. Whilst it has held up the action at times this character arc for Clara has been woven into the season rather nicely, right back as far as Deep Breath where she began trying to understand who this man was again. This is an effective way of proving just how alien Capaldi's Doctor is, that he has alienated his companion enough to leave. And now she's off. Definitely off. Oh wait, no she isn't. In one of the most obscene moments of character reversal Clara decides actually she wants to keep hanging with the Doctor just because and never mind about the wobble that she had. What. The. Hell? The climax of Kill the Moon worked so well because the Doctor has been acting so callously, something he keeps up in this episode. To wipe away Clara's reaction to all this so glibly makes the whole journey we have been going on seem so pointless and it makes a mockery of the previous drama. Oh yeah, sorry, I was angry but I want to make it to the end of the season so everything is okay now. I was dumbfounded. Just at the point where Clara has started to exhibit some personality she is dialled back to her factory settings in the most unconvincing manner. Mind you if it came to a choice between travel with a callous bastard and a life with a funless maths teacher... Creating drama that you simply shrug off when it has done it's job? The whole thing feels off and utterly unnatural. 

The Shallow Bit: How do they do it? Every time they give Jenna Coleman a makeover they somehow manages to make her look even more gorgeous than the last time. This time she is dressed for the period (mock 1930s). Anyone who is persuaded by the female form claiming that Coleman is the most gorgeous creature to have graced Doctor Who could quite possibly be telling the truth.

Result: 'To our last hurrah...'  Another strong episode, albeit for completely different reasons to Kill the Moon. I was a little hesitant about Mummy on the Orient Express after my first viewing because I was so appalled by the climax - it is the reverse season six syndrome. Back then I was convinced that a handful of sub-par episodes were good because they ended on a humdinger of a cliffhanger that blew my mind away (The Almost People, A Good Man Goes to War). With Mummy you have a generally very engaging episode that reduces that frustratingly refuses to provide any decent answers and climaxes on a moment of character reversal that obliterates any character development for Clara in an instant. Like Flesh and Stone, an arc intrusion in the last scene threatens to leave a lingering feeling of disappointment in a piece that has so much to offer. Maddening. However I want to focus on the positives because this claustrophobic chiller is packed to the gills with them. A stylishly attired, captivating, occasionally genial and fascinating twelfth Doctor with ample opportunities for Capaldi to impress for one thing. A genuinely frightening monster with a catchy twist (gone in 66 seconds) for another. Setting the episode on a train scores it instant marks from me (its a childhood obsession I cannot shake) but the realisation of the setting deserves high praise too. You can see precisely why the Doctor chose this spot to say ta-ta to Clara. There are a handful of well-drawn characters to push the story along and the set pieces of the mummy stalking its victims are genuinely ghoulish. Director Paul Wilmshurst captures the stifling feeling that you cannot escape this nasty creation no matter what you try and do. For the first 40 minutes the episode juggles its plot, shocks and characters with real skill and it's only when it comes to wrapping everything up (hoho) that the narrative falters. Simply put, the answers are non-existent and make very little sense of what has gone before. As much as I can praise this story for getting so much spot on, I cannot offer full marks to a writer who dazzles with frights in the one hand but has no reasoning to back it up in the other. Funny, scary and engaging...but frustratingly kept from being absolutely top dollar: 8/10


Ed said...

Dear Joe,

Another insightful review. You've pinpointed one of the most frustrating (to me) aspects of this season, namely the inconsistency of characterization of Clara. One minute acting and thinking one thing, the next something else with no rhyme or reason or narrative connective tissue to explain the swings. Then again, consistency doesn't seem to be Mr. Moffat's main priority. We have a Doctor who worked with soldiers in UNIT, who was a soldier during the Time War, and who now practically breaks out in hives when he encounters members of said profession, for no apparent reason. We have Clara, a companion who deplores the Doctor's callous behavior, yet whose meet-cute (if one can call it that) with Danny involves her mocking his comment about the moral dimension of being a soldier by rhetorically asking him if that means he shoots people then cries about it - one of the truly most horrible scenes in the series ever, in my opinion. Way to introduce yourself to a coworker/potential boyfrien, lady! (While we're at it, really, what is up with this military-bashing? I can see wanting to find peaceful solutions to problems (hell, I'm a big fan of peaceful solutions), but nowhere do the leads realize that sometimes, alas, wars start and the people they disapprove of are the ones who are putting their lives on the line to save lives - theirs included). For the sake of the series I hope there's some payoff/narrative loose-ends tying up awaiting in the last two episodes regarding these issues.


Tango said...

To Ed: The contempt of Twelfth Doctor to the soldiers is not as out of character as you think, all the doctors have always been anti-military, perhaps the Tenth Doctor was somewhat exaggerated with the colonel Mace, the Third Doctor was feeling more like a prisoner than scientific advisor . Doctors of the classic series were more tolerable but after the devastating events of the Time War, the Doctor is less tolerable to the soldiers because they remind him of a time in his life trying desperately to forget.

To Joe: After your paranoid and unpleasant review in "Into the Dalek", which you wrote that the relationship of Clara and Danny was like "stirring in His trousers" Moffat's writing, tell me: Are you relieved or disappointed that relationship is the most boring and pathetic of all relationships of the series? Even Adric and Nyssa were more believable chemistry in a scene from "The Keeper of Traken" that Clare and Danny the whole season.

But I disagree with you about Danny, he's not a jerk funless, he is a true man; much better than the pathetic Rory Pond puppet of his wife. Series 6 would have been better off without with the poor excuse of man, with the great Amy Pond as the main and only companion.

David Pirtle said...

The only thing I disagree with you about here is Danny. There is nothing of a jerk about him, and i do not think he is funless. I think that, like many who have experienced a lot of action and trauma early on, he just wants a quiet life. He doesn't want or need the Doctor's life, which obviously puts him at odds with many fans. I can understand that, but I can also empathize with him. I can also see what Clara sees in him - he is just the kind of anchor she would be searching for when the new Doctor has left her feeling emotionally adrift.