12 October 2014

TV: Mummy on the Orient Express (Newsom)

review by Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

Sixty-six seconds to sum this one up? Oh, well, it’s set on a train in space, it’s a claustrophobic monster movie, the Doctor’s got to work out how the monster works in order to stop it. There’s a big starry cast, great design work, and it rolls along. It’s smart, it’s quite memorable, and the mummy’s really terrifying and oh crumbs, I haven’t even finished yet...

This episode does everything that Doctor Who should be doing. It’s a slick, classy, classic, traditional adventure. The title appears to give away the tone from the off - Agatha Christie meets horror, and it does them both splendidly - but this is smart and ingrained and Doctor Who in its own right. In forty five minutes, much of the Orient Express setting is background detail, but what detail - a futuristic art deco setting, updated without any fanfare, played straight and solidly. Even the sweet anachronistic cover from Foxes (nice to know there’s someone else who’s picked an unwieldy nickname) screams anachronism but in a fun way. It wouldn’t take Jo Grant long to realise this isn’t on Earth, even without any rubber headed aliens.

The train going through space is wonderful fairy-tale imagery, but the straight-out-of-a-horror-film mummy feels both incongruous and very real. Often shot through a varifocal lens to only pick out the gruesome details, it shambles along unstoppably and unknowably. It even looks creepy when it’s in the background behind somebody speaking. And if you listen closely you can hear Robert Holmes cackling as it sticks its rotting fingers through the Doctor’s head. There’ll be nightmares again tonight.

I love a good mystery, and I love a well-plotted episode of Doctor Who. The plot could be described as traditional - the companion and the Doctor get split up for most of the action, which is a rarity nowadays - but it’s pacey, it’s well condensed. The explanation for the mummy is far cleverer than most too, as well as being thematic for the rest of the season - we’ve had so many soldiers turn up so far, the Doctor should be kicking himself for not getting it sooner. It’s hardly guessable, that misses the point and the thriller genre this tries to fool you into thinking it belongs to, but it makes good sense. Again, the ending skips over the boring bits after the monster is defeated and, intentionally or not, adds another layer of mystery to the Doctor. Like Clara, we could almost believe he left everyone else to get burned up - after all, he did so in Time Heist!

I try not to make too many comparisons to old episodes of the show, but I’d compare this one with The God Complex from a few years back, with another mysterious monster in a familiar setting bumping people off (completely coincidentally, both by writers of Being Human!). Only, this story felt more fun somehow, with the characters and design ramped up to absurdity, the idea of a scary semi-invisible mummy being on board made the episode a whole lot sweeter. It’s the epitome of a show that knows it’s often ridiculous but steams on with perfect judgement and direction. The God Complex notably went for full on tension - hello again 12 rating! - and the Doctor and his companions railing against not being able to stop the piling body-count. Here it’s done subtler and therefore becomes more palatable. This Doctor doesn’t - immediately - care for every single life, especially if he knows they’re going to die anyway. The show rightfully doesn’t ask us to mourn for people we’ve hardly seen, nor does it play it for laughs. It’s that right tone of serious flippancy that people want - from Doctor Who, from episodes of Poirot and Miss Marple too.

Because like Poirot, there’s a big cast of actors in small roles, though each has a niche and a character and a chance to shine - Christopher Villiers, David Bamber, Daisy Beaumont - even Janet Henfrey, playing another old bat, who’s only in it for precisely sixty-six seconds! John Sessions provides a great ‘who’s that?' voice to ponder, pleasantly not sending up the upper-class computer voice. And Frank Skinner nails the delivery of each line, especially the jokes - although not at the end, as that man clearly wanted to stay on board the TARDIS forever.

And then there’s Peter Capaldi, who is given tons to do this week, tons of emotions and character. I think I liked him in this episode more than any of the others, with just the right combination of facets shown here: he’s a Doctor who’s snarky about people dying and big scary monsters but not flippant, and who might not have a plan but whose hearts are in the right places. Given that this episode was written after the character was cast, unlike some of the earlier episodes, I’d be happy to see this being the ‘definitive’ Twelfth Doctor if such a thing will exist, much in the same way that The Lodger seemed to set a new mould for writers to work with for Matt Smith’s Doctor.

With the Doctor taking most of the action, Clara plays second fiddle, though notably not the traditional companion role of running after him asking questions. And curiously, I didn’t think that she was going to be in this - why would that be deliberately kept quiet? Perhaps to make the ending of last week’s look final? She’s subtly different from the start, which added to the confusion, not quite letting herself get involved and become won over again, and happily gets a chance to talk things over with Daisy Beaumont’s character. Both the episode and her arc in it seems to be reaching out to the people who complained last week saying: “this is why you love it, honestly.” Clara is our audience identification in this, in that we’d want more after seeing this particular adventure. The writing is clever: this time it’s presented as an addiction for her, which fits in with all the life juggling we’ve seen so far. Clara can’t give it all up and never see this man again any more than we can.

review by Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

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