15 October 2014

TV: Mummy on the Orient Express

It seems to me that Mummy on the Orient Express is an episode of the kind we've not seen in full form since the Russell T Davies years. I'm not talking about the domestic drama plotline that Gareth Roberts has mined so successfully over the last few years, but the collision of disparate genres whilst retaining a sense of realism. Look at Tooth and Claw for example. There's a werewolf loose in the highlands, and it's out for Queen Victoria's blood, yet the real emphasis of the piece is on the relationships that have led the guest characters to this point, and it's a tack supremely executed. The same comparison could be made here.

In my opinion, this episode would work effectively if it followed Flatline. As it stands, it jars that one week Clara tells the Doctor to go "very far away" and the next time we see her she's stepping out the TARDIS again. Of course it does transpire that this is her 'final' trip (what is it about Moffat that means he can never let go? Forget the Doctor, it's the showrunner that doesn't like endings!). Having an Eart-based episode where the two halves of Clara's life collide (again) would have been an ideal way to either end or continue her journey. Even the one last trip idea would still fit, the week after.

But either way Clara's very much on the periphery of events here. Separated with Maisie, she spends most of the episode locked in a room in true classic series style. Although Jenna Coleman is no better than normal (meant nicely), this feels like a more natural role for Clara. Like in Time Heist, the companion is allowed to be the companion and no more - until the final scene, that is. I know TV has moved on now (don't get me started) but it's a shame the no-strings-attached episodic format is increasingly falling out of fashion.

The main thrust of this story - with Perkins, the Mummy, Quell and Gus - is very enjoyable. It continues the horror element beyond the halfway point, unlike Kill the Moon, and as such feels very much like a Hinchcliffe era call-back - and not just because it shares elements (or so it would appear at first) with Pyramids of Mars. Jamie Mathieson writes extremely competently and it's highly gratifying to have guest characters portrayed as being as important as the lead cast once more. RTD was very good at sketching in characters very quickly, and it appears Mathieson has the same such skill. He gives his creations their own story and history, intertwining them effortlessly. He weaves them in a way that doesn't make your head hurt and exemplifies the mentality that the ordinary person is anything but. I've missed this level of characterisation over the last few years and there are only a few characters I can think of that have made an impact over the Matt Smith era (Canton, Craig and Kahler Jex are the only examples I can think of off the top of my head).

This is possibly the best looking episode of Series 8 yet. Paul Wilmshurst really doesn't stop at anything to show off the ability of his team. The Foretold is superb, and very frightening indeed. This is perhaps one of the best original 'monsters' of the new series. Wilmshurst uses suspense and tension like a master, and handles the quieter moments with care. I can't wait to see how he handles the Christmas special, especially given his use of visual tricks like varifocal lenses.

After my first viewing of this episode, I really wasn't keen on the ending. I thought it was rushed and that Clara's decision made no sense. Whilst I'm less willing to budge on the latter point, having just watched the final seven minutes again, I admit I was completely wrong on the first count. It works very well having the juxtaposition of the chaos and the calm, but I felt the explosion could have been lingered on for a few seconds more for full impact. Still, the final segment of the story is all about the Doctor and Clara, and it's possibly the best scene this pair have ever shared. They are allowed to talk for once, properly. They don't just rush off into another adventure or back to marking, instead, they communicate like real characters. After 18 months of a relative absence of this, it's refreshing. Mathieson can stay.

The CGI visuals of the train didn't blow me away to be honest, and really I can't see much reason why this couldn't have been set on the original Orient Express. The only 'futuristic' elements were to do with the Foretold or Gus, and things could have remained that way. I didn't really see why the train reverted back to its metallic interior at all, so that could be lost. All the train's staff and passengers spoke and acted like they were from a century or so ago as well. And wouldn't it have looked good racing through stunning landscapes instead of relatively nondescript space? The only moment that I think would suffer would be the ejection of the kitchen staff. That worked well, and it was satisfying to see a computer follow through on its word and programming; as soon as the use of a passenger or staff member is at an end, so is their life. Some have speculated about Gus' origins or creator, but I think it's fine left as it is. This is the type of question we don't need an answer to.

The incidental music more or less passed me by, in that it was unremarkable rather than completely fitting. I feel almost obligated to mention Foxes' cover of Don't Stop Me Now though. I wasn't a massive fan of it at all. In fact, I disliked it. Like many people, I am a fan of Queen's original, and Foxes' music normally is pretty good (Youth and Holding onto Heaven are two tracks I especially like) but this '20s version just didn't do anything. Interestingly, I've read much the same from most who knew of her and her music before and the opposite from those who didn't. I don't think it's to do with that though, more general taste in music.

To return to the episode itself, I think this was really good overall. The main thrust of the narrative was excitingly and expertly created and realised but there were many sections on its periphery that brought it down in my estimations. My favourite bits were the 66-second segments as the Foretold hunted down its next victim and I didn't find them as tiresome and repetitive as some previewers. I'm sure there were some explanations at the end there somewhere, but I can't remember what they were at all. This has potential to be a classic, but I felt it still lacked a little overall to fully achieve. I can't pin down any specific element that prevented it in my opinion, but the whole piece as presented didn't quite hit the nail on the head. Don't get me wrong though, it was still bloody good.

Presented as a standalone with the marvellous Frank Skinner's Perkins as the main companion, I think this would have been a real winner with me. However, the strong character of the Doctor established last week continues and I do hope this is the vein he continues. Reportedly, a significant number of the moments of humour were ad libs from Peter Capaldi, which just goes to reinforce what a fine actor he is. How lucky we are to have him at the front of this series. 

In a Nutshell: A really enjoyable episode and one of the more memorable of Series 8 thanks to strong characterisation and direction.

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