Monday, October 13, 2014

Another Alien Of The Week Episode With A Soldier Bent: “Mummy On The Orient Express”

The Good: Acting, A few clever lines
The Bad: Very predictable plot and character arcs
The Basics: In a season dominated with a negative view on soldiers, “Mummy On The Orient Express” is par for the course.

The eighth season of the rebooted Doctor Who has an intriguing sense of issues embedded in it. It was actually not until “Mummy On The Orient Express” that I realized that one of the aspects that the new Doctor has been lacking is a real love for exploration. The new incarnation of the Doctor (Twelve, Thirteen, or whatever number until it is retconned) has been cranky, methodical and scientifically-motivated without having a strong drive to actually save lives or care much about the people he saves. In other words, the Doctor seems to “explore” by rote; he fumbles from place to place without a real plan and with no apparent desire to save the lives of those he runs into.

In this season, the resounding theme of the show has been one against the merits of soldiers. Soldiers have been despised by The Doctor, which is odd because the prior Doctor was the “good man” who “goes to war.” At the climax of the prior season, The Doctor remembered his “lost” regeneration as the War Doctor and finished the regeneration as a warrior under siege from virtually every villain in the known universe. So, that this Doctor despises soldiers seems like a case of odd self-loathing or utter forgetfulness. “Mummy On The Orient Express” continues that despising of soldiers and, without any real segue or clear sequitor, reinvigorates the Doctor’s sense of imagination and delight for exploration (a trait which could have been organically infused by an encounter with River Song, but was not). That sense of delight helps make the trip The Doctor and Clara take as the intended “last hurrah” for Clara to the Orient Express very incongruent with where “Kill The Moon” (reviewed here!) left off.

Eager to say goodbye on a less-sour note than the tirade she went off with on their last adventure, Clara allows The Doctor to take her to the Orient Express. This Orient Express is flying through space and Clara is excited because it seems like a fun, low-key way to say goodbye. But almost immediately, it becomes clear that The Doctor and Clara are in yet another life-threatening situation when one of the people on the train complains about how her mother died horribly while one the train. The Doctor quickly recognizes the cause of death as the modus operandi of The Foretold, an ancient mummy who seems bound to a scroll that was brought aboard the train. In trying to bring comfort to the grieving passenger, Clara gets locked with her in the train car that is holding a sarcophagus.

But the Doctor quickly figures out that the people being killed are all notable for their intellects and the fact that they seem to possess the skills and backgrounds needed to study the Foretold. With only sixty-six second between the moment the Foretold appears to its victim and that person getting killed, The Doctor starts to study how the mummy is killing people in order to try to stop the adversary.

“Mummy On The Orient Express” seems to exist only to figure out a way to keep Clara in the Doctor’s life for a little longer. The episode is, otherwise, an utterly unremarkable “creature of the week” story and the episode has the feel of any number of episodes of The X-Files (reviewed here!) where the purpose was to scientifically explain a supernatural creature.

The feeling that “Mummy On The Orient Express” is a disconnected, “creature of the week” episode is accented by the lack of the larger arcs from the season or for the character of The Doctor. I have remained disappointed that the current season of Doctor Who has not pursued the hunt for Gallifrey that the prior season insinuated would be the purpose that drove the next regeneration of The Doctor; “Mummy On The Orient Express” does not suddenly pick that up. As well, the recurring scenes of “Paradise” inhabited by Missy are not peppered throughout this episode. Instead, one has to insinuate that Missy might be behind programming Gus, the computer system running the new Orient Express. The only explicit thematic tie between “Mummy On The Orient Express” and the other episodes in this season are the references to the fallout between the Doctor and Clara in the prior episode and the generic despising of soldiers.

It is in “Mummy On The Orient Express” that I realized that I like Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, but the new incarnation of The Doctor does not actually have any distinctive traits. In fact, he’s pretty heartless (ironic for a character who has two hearts). This version of The Doctor does not seem to genuinely care about the lives who are imperiled in his orbit. People are getting killed all around him and the Doctor wants to study how they die. He’s a cranky, somehow more genial version of Melvin from The Walking Dead! Even in “Mummy On The Orient Express,” Peter Capaldi plays the Doctor well, but for all the ways that Capaldi is engaging as The Doctor, The Doctor is not written as a particularly likable or even interesting character.

Unfortunately, Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald is not particularly interesting either. As my wife pointed out to me when we discussed “Mummy On The Orient Express,” which might be the episode she was most excited about seeing thus far, Clara played off the prior Doctor well by grounding him in his absurd moments. But with the new Doctor being a crabby, methodical and oddly unimaginative new Doctor, Clara has been transformed into a character who suddenly is delighted with exploration and does not want danger in her life.

“Mummy On The Orient Express” is disappointing in that it is criminally average. There is nothing surprising, only something explained. That is hardly compelling television, even if Capaldi plays the protagonist of the episode well.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and season reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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