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New Who 8.8 Mummy on the Orient Express

I missed the live broadcast of this, as I was out watching Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company in Manchester, and then I had a busy week involving going to Dublin, so I only even got round to watching it nearly a week after broadcast. And then my laptop broke, and then I prioritised writing up reviews of some of the awesome Dracula films I've seen recently (on my PC, as I'm still sans laptop), so now it is another week after that again and I am three episodes behind with my Doctor Who reviews, which makes me sad. :-(

I liked the episode, though. It looked like it was lined up to be a 'silly', especially since (as effectively acknowledged within the script) the entire scenario was derived from a throw-away line four years ago at the end of The Big Bang. But actually the very impressive rendering of the mummy itself (loved the dragging foot!), the high body-count, a decent plot and some good character moments with real emotional weight gave it much more gravitas than I was expecting. It might have been nice to have both a 'Doctor-lite' episode and a 'Clara-lite' episode, showing each of them going it alone after last week's row, before going straight into this (supposedly) 'last hoorah' journey together, but the dialogue between the two of them as they skirted awkwardly around their issues was well written - as was that between Clara and Maisie, and between Perkins the engineer and the Doctor. In other words, this week's new writer (Jamie Mathiesion) seems a lot more competent all round than last week's - as his CV, which mainly includes a lot of Being Human, ought to suggest.

Certainly, the script carried its status as a genre piece both self-consciously and lightly. Obviously it was positioned as a mash-up between the grand tradition of mummy stories and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (which itself now also relates to Whovian continuity thanks to The Unicorn and the Wasp), but there were plenty of other genre references going on besides. Anything to do with the baggage car instantly conjured up Horror Express (though we never got a Baggage Man, alas), while the gaping mouth, trailing bandages and reaching arms of the mummy also reminded me a lot of the scenes with the Dementors on the Hogwarts Express. I also felt the echoes of some Classic Who, and particularly Fourth Doctor stories - the Egyptian-style sarcophagus obviously recalled Pyramids of Mars, but the bubble-warp inside it made me think of the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, while the notion of GUS collecting the Universe's leading scientists together in a single location reminded me of Skagra doing the same in Shada. Meanwhile, Clara's exasperated exclamation to Maisie that "We're stuck in this carriage, probably all night, and all you can do talk about is some man?" sounded very much to me like a knowing reference to the fannish dissection device that is the Bechdel test - which the script had already carefully passed through an earlier conversation between Clara and Maisie about the latter's relationship with grandmother.

This episode also kept the season's well-established themes close to the surface. In Into the Dalek, we saw the Doctor using a team-member who was clearly about to die to establish information which would be useful to the wider mission, and likewise in this story he repeatedly made people about to die at the mummy's hands describe what they were seeing, rather than (as he would see it) waste time attempting to sympathise with them. It is Clara instead who takes on a recognisable aspect of some past Doctors' roles when she is the one to say "I am so sorry" to Maisie as she dies. Twelve, by contrast with some of his recent incarnations, is a very utilitarian Doctor, and indeed Clara calls him on the fact at the end of the story - did he pretend to be heartless, she wants to know? But we are also reassured that his moral compass is essentially in the right place, even if he lacks sentiment, by the fact that he manages to save everyone he can, attempts to figure out who GUS was in order to address the real villain of the piece, and is in the end aware that sometimes you don't have any good options, but still have to have the guts to choose the least worst.

Lying has become a pretty big theme over the past few episodes, too, featuring prominently in Clara's interactions with both the Doctor and Danny, and here she finds herself doing it on the Doctor's orders once he has worked out that Maisie is likely to be the next in the mummy's firing-line. Clara is horrified at the Doctor's request that she should lie to Maisie in order to get her into the lab so that they can observe what happens while the mummy kills her, but her understanding of this Doctor's modus operandi, and her essential trust in him, is revealed in the fact that she agrees to do it all the same. Meanwhile, the Doctor's issues around soldiers are raised once again by the fact that the mummy turns out to be a former soldier, still fatally unable to break with the orders it has been given, and who is finally defeated by applying the correct military protocols (here, a surrender).

I'm sure it was significant that the scroll apparently connected to the mummy's appearances was not in hieroglyphics, as you might expect, but in Achaemenid Persian nail script, and somebody who knew that script might very well be able to decipher what the scroll says from a few screen-caps. But unfortunately that does not include me, and nor does Google reveal anyone else around the internet who has attempted a translation, so it remains a mystery - as, of course, does the true identity of GUS. In manner he reminded me of Eddie the Shipboard Computer from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, while his monocle icon of course recalled Poirot, but I am guessing that in the end he will turn out to have something to do with Missy, and that the acronym behind his name will be de-coded for us at some point during the final two-parter.

Last but not least, Water-and-breathing watch noted that:
  • The Doctor's initial theory to account for Maisie's grandmother's claim to have seen a mummy while she was dying went "Dying brain, lack of oxygen, hallucinations."
  • The same grandmother's Excelsior Life Extender included bubbling water as a prominent feature - explicitly good, life-giving water here once again, as opposed to the nasty, dirty drowning type.
  • After the mummy has been defeated, GUS announces, "Air will now be removed from the entire train", which does indeed proceed to happen, rendering Clara and most of the other passengers unconscious - but not, of course, the Doctor, who has a respiratory bypass system which may well turn out to be very useful indeed if, as I now very strongly suspect, water-related oxygen-deprivation turns out to be a major plot-point somewhere in the final two-parter.

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Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
steer
Oct. 26th, 2014 10:32 pm (UTC)
Interesting review as ever. I had to laugh about that Wirrn line though. I wonder if bubble wrap was a bit rarer back then. Nowadays, you look at the Wirrn and go "Wow, that's obviously bubble wrap" -- but I don't remember thinking it at the time and I don't remember bubble wrap being a thing until a few years later. But I do have a really bad memory.
strange_complex
Oct. 27th, 2014 09:33 am (UTC)
You have inspired me to research this issue now. According to the company's official history, bubble wrap started to be marketed commercially in America during the 1960s, but they only expanded into Western Europe in the early 1970s. The Ark in Space was broadcast in 1975, so my guess is that by that time some people in the UK would recognise it as an exciting new futuristic material, but it wouldn't quite have become a common household object yet.
steer
Oct. 27th, 2014 09:38 am (UTC)
Hah... thank you. You're clearly more diligent on these things. I noted the company creation time from WP and thought it was plausible that they didn't have wide distribution by the early 70s but didn't dig further.

The Wirrn is apparently a very popular villain... I was listening to the Big Finish audios and they claimed that they get a spike in sales for titles mentioning it (there are two Wirrn audio stories).
venta
Oct. 26th, 2014 11:08 pm (UTC)
My favourite (extremely silly) reference of the episode was one I only spotted because I had subtitles on (I was watching using crap speakers, in proximity to a v. noisy washing machine).

The Doctor said to the Mummy (something along the lines of) "I will be your victim for the evening". After a pause, he added "Are you my mummy?"

:)

strange_complex
Oct. 27th, 2014 09:35 am (UTC)
Yeah, I spotted that one, but I think I just groaned at the silly pun!
major_clanger
Oct. 27th, 2014 07:50 pm (UTC)
Another Fourth Doctor reference that someone pointed out to me: if you listen to the scene where Capaldi is debating with himself, he does the other half of the conversation in Tom Baker's voice.
strange_complex
Oct. 28th, 2014 09:34 am (UTC)
Ah, thanks for telling me when that was! I've heard several people refer to Tom Baker impressions in this episode, but I didn't spot them myself (probably due to frantically scribbling notes about other things at the time). Now at least I can easily go back to the right point in the recording and hear it for myself.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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