‘Doctor Who’ Convinces Us Not to Stop It Now With ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’

By  · Published on October 12th, 2014


I didn’t buy that the first episode of this season of Doctor Who was entirely made of meta-text – only slightly – but it’s hard not to consider the eighth episode, “Mummy on the Orient Express,” as much more than a message to the audience. “Don’t Stop Me Now” is a song by Queen that lends itself well to extra meanings when included on a soundtrack (see Shaun of the Dead), and here the title lyrics seem to be saying “don’t quit me now.” In the context of the show, where it’s covered by the British pop singer Foxes, it connects mainly to Clara (Jenna Coleman), who has told the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) that she’s to stop being his companion.

Of course, the song could be as much directed at him from her (“don’t try to stop me”) as her from him (“don’t leave me”), but at first I thought maybe he’d planted the musical number. As he’s telling Clara that everything on board the space train they’ve boarded is authentic to the real Orient Express, there’s a cut to Foxes, as if we’re supposed to realize that the 1979 song is anachronistic to the period that the rest of the scene is replicating. This also being the moment when they’re discussing how this ride aboard the ship should be a good one to end on. It is and it isn’t, for her and for us. If we quit now, it’d be on a high note, but who can quit an addiction when they’re so high?

We should have all stopped angrily last week, then, no thanks to Danny’s (Samuel Anderson) wisdom. But who am I kidding? Even when I’m my most critical of the show, I know there’s got to be another great episode around the corner. And if not, well, I just like the show. Period. Regardless of ups and downs. Fortunately for us at home, there is no harm or threat in our never kicking this habit. Maybe that means it’s more a tradition for the audience than an addiction, but that doesn’t fit the alignment of us with Clara here more than ever. She’s not much else than our surrogate on board the Orient Express, barely a part of the action and too easily representing our frustrations, our smiles out of sadness and our inability to remain hateful.

By the end of “Mummy on the Orient Express,” we all like the Doctor. She because he isn’t so heartless after all and he’s honest about his uncertainty about saving Maisie (Daisy Beaumont). We because he acted very Doctorly in this good old fashioned episode of silly yet entertaining sci-fi. I don’t feel like I totally got what was going on with the mummy storyline, but I enjoyed it as a vehicle for the main character to do his stuff – play detective in an absurd mystery – the best that he does it. Albeit with an accent that I’m accustomed to needing Closed Captioning for and a speed of speech this time around that made even reading what he says a bit difficult. Thankfully the expositional dialogue is less important than the energy behind its delivery.

Just as the details of what’s causing there to be a mummy-like soldier making brief appearances on this ship to kill people – and can only be seen by those people in their final moments (in a way that initially made me delightedly recall the underrated 1985 movie Young Sherlock Holmes) – isn’t as important as the basic idea that there is a mummy-like monster on a space ship that is also a train. It’s that same appeal that got me excited by the title and premise of the Series 7 episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (which also had an Ancient Egypt connection in Queen Nefertiti). There’s a simple pleasure there and here of just seeing what the name promises.

And there’s a simple pleasure to seeing the Doctor bossing everyone around (here mostly, oddly, a lot of smart people who don’t utter a peep let alone an impression) to solve a relatively slight problem inspired by Agatha Christie (whose role in “The Unicorn and the Wasp” only makes such a thing slighter) that he seems to have accidentally stumbled into just because that’s what happens to him. A simple pleasure to see his playfulness amidst his seriousness (“are you my mummy?”) and his talking to himself and his unconcern for characters he sees die out of necessity and fate and his minimal concern for characters he sees die because he won’t get off the phone (or whatever the fault of his that gets people killed) and, really, his doing it mostly alone, without Clara.

Aside from being our surrogate, Clara is of so little use in the majority of this episode that she may as well not even be in it. There’s not much offered as salvation for us for her character, a lot of which is spent here having her talk to her boyfriend or talk about her friend the Doctor. I’d find it ironic if I didn’t suspect that there was a joke intended in the idea of having Clara and Maisie trapped together, two female characters, and they’re talking about the Doctor and Clara says they shouldn’t be wasting their time talking about a guy. Surely writer Jamie Mathieson (who wrote a time travel movie starring Chris O’Dowd and Anna Faris that hasn’t been released in the US and which I really must see) understood that he was royally failing the Bechdel test and was giving a little wink.

You never can tell with Doctor Who, though. Just as you never can tell if or why little goofs seem to be made – why would the Doctor be able to confirm to Maisie that her Gran poisoned her pony if he’s only tapped into Maisie’s own thoughts? why is there a shot of the first mummy attack from outside the train windows if only the old lady can see it and therefore the camera’s perspective should be kept rather close? That’s one of the reasons I love it, and often it’s why I’m frustrated by it.

I suppose I can’t review this episode without saying something about Frank Skinner, even if I’m on the side of the pond that isn’t so familiar with him. Honestly, I don’t know a thing of his other work, but I liked him here. Enough, in fact, that when the Doctor hints that he’d like his character, Perkins, to come work for him on the TARDIS, I was perfectly fine with the idea. He might have been too big a presence, not to mention too male, to come off like he would genuinely be a companion if Clara actually quit, but at the same time I think it’d be neat and new to have another older gentleman (he’s got a year on Capaldi), one who is a fairly balanced counterpart in terms of intellect and assertion and wit (the vampire line was perfect). I’d love to see him at least make a follow-up appearance, unlike those characters hinted as possibly returning/recurring from “Time Heist.”

For that hope, as well as the fact that I’m anxious to find out how Danny and the Doctor eventually butt heads to their fullest (this episode gave the Doctor yet another point against soldiers) and to see where the Missy/Promised Land subplot takes us, and the enjoyment of the basic pleasures of this episode and because next week’s episode, also written by Mathieson, looks like it has a pretty cool premise, Doctor Who can rest assured that I’m not stopping them now.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.