This week’s episode of Doctor Who brings us an invisible mummy on a space train. If you need more than that, you’re watching the wrong show. Perhaps something with middle-aged people sitting around a table and discussing the issues of the day is more your speed.
We begin in the dining car of an upscale train and we hear the Doctor say “start the clock”. An analog timer in the corner of the screen counts down from 66 seconds, and an old woman spots a mummy approaching her. Nobody else seems to see it and when the timer reaches zero, it grabs her head and she dies. To everybody else, it looks like she just suddenly died. Then we pull back to see that this is train… in space. Suck it, Snowpiercer!
After the opening theme, the TARDIS materializes in the baggage car. Clara is dressed in a lovely ’20s style. It would be easier if I just pointed out the times that Clara doesn’t look super cute. The Doctor explains that this train took the name of the Orient Express. British pop singer Foxes has a cameo here doing sort of a torch song version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”, and if I get started talking about how much I love Queen, we’ll be here all night. The Doctor establishes this is his last trip with Clara (her decision), and he wants to take her someplace nice. She says that she doesn’t hate him, but she just can’t do it anymore. Then he reminisces about what the skies looked like thousands of years ago. A fragile-looking woman calls him a liar and the porter escorts her back to her room. The conductor meets the Doctor and notes that there are a lot of doctors on this trip.
The Doctor determines that they don’t need to investigate the old woman’s death – she was over 100 years old and old people die all the time. Neither of them seem especially convinced, but they retire to their separate sleeping cars after an awkward exchange about whether they’ll still see one another after this trip. (Clara seems to think the Doctor will come around for dinner.)
Naturally, the Doctor can’t sleep and talks himself into investigating the mysterious death. After he heads off, Clara tries to find him and starts poking around by herself. The Doctor finds something called a life extender, and runs into Engineer Perkins. After a bit off a faceoff, they decide to work together and try to solve this invisible mummy case.
Clara runs into Maisie (the fragile woman) and follows her until they end up locked in a car with the old woman’s body. The Doctor corners a mythology expert and asks him the most interesting thing about the Foretold. Professor Moorhouse says that it’s the fact that once you see the mummy, you have 66 seconds to live. He finds the specificity curious. The Doctor doesn’t agree that this is the interesting part – he says it’s 5,000 year old myth and in some versions, there’s a secret word or a bargain that can make it stop. Then the lights flicker and the countdown begins. One of the chef sees the mummy and tries to get away. As this is happening, the Doctor and Moorhouse continue to talk – Moorhouse explains that you can’t run away because no matter where you go, it’s right there behind you. And with that, the mummy kills the chef.
Maisie confesses to Clara that she feels guilty about her mother’s death because she’d written her off as “a difficult woman”, and Clara knows a thing or two about dealing with difficult people. The Doctor corners the conductor and uses the psychic paper to convince him that he’s a mystery shopper who’s very upset about all the dying. He yells at the conductor, who’s getting drunk, about doing something to put a stop to this. Perkins brings the Doctor the passenger manifest because he’s helpful. And this leads to a bit that made me laugh out loud.
DOCTOR: Quick work, Perkins. Maybe too quick.
PERKINS: Yes, sir. I’m obviously the mummy.
By the way, I’m not trying to blow through the Clara/Maisie scenes, but they’re just the two sitting and talking about how you can’t really pick who you care about and sometimes you have to make allowances for difficult people. These scenes are a turning point for Clara, but there’s not a lot to recap.
The Doctor calls Clara to catch her up, and she finally manages to tell him that she’s trapped. He runs to find her and asks the computer to open the door, but GUS refuses. Yeah, there’s a talking computer in charge of the train. This episode has everything! He tries the sonic screwdriver, but it’s not working. Then the lights flicker, and the Doctor is sure that the mummy is coming after Clara, but neither she nor Maisie sees it. As time ticks down, the conductor tries to arrest the Doctor, and then we see one of the guards in the dining car shooting at the mummy that only he can see. By the time the Doctor gets there, the man is dead. The Doctor makes an announcement to the passengers explaining the mummy, and also points out that the train is full of experts in alien biology, mythology, physics… it’s like somebody had deliberately assembled this group to solve the puzzle.
The train stops, and then the holographic facade of the dining car drops, revealing a sterile lab. About half of the passengers disappear – they were only hard light holograms, there to fill the train. And that’s when GUS breaks in to explain that their task is to figure out how to capture the Foretold and reverse engineer its abilities. GUS reveals that there’s an ancient scroll on board, and the Foretold appears in its vicinity. So GUS set this whole thing up. Then the lights flicker, and Moorhouse sees the mummy. He tries his best to describe it to the others and the Doctor keeps pressing for details. Moorhouse panics and tries to bargain for his life but to no avail. He dies when the timer hits zero. The Doctor is more concerned with saving the next person than he is sad about Moorhouse, because that’s how Capaldi rolls.
Clara calls the Doctor and GUS pitches a hissy fit and decompresses the kitchen car and kills all the cooks. It threatens to keep killing “less valuable” passengers until they get back to work, and that sets the Doctor to wondering how the Foretold chooses its victims. A little investigation reveals that the victims were all ill or weakened. Mrs. Pitt was over 100 years old, the chef had a rare blood disease, the guard had synthetic lungs, and Moorhouse suffered from panic attacks. The Doctor orders the medical records of everybody on board to determine the next victim. The conductor worries that he may be a target because he suffers from PTSD. The Doctor is delighted to spot the next victim. And then the lights flicker. The Foretold advances on the conductor, and he does his best to describe it. There’s a really disturbing shot of the mummy’s hand passing through the Doctor’s face. At one point the mummy disappears and reappears behind him. And then… another death.
The fact that the mummy teleported leads the Doctor to believe that it’s technological and the 66 seconds might be the time it takes to charge, and it’s draining energy from the living. Only the victims can see it because it pulls them out of phase so it can drain them. Perkins, after checking the records, figures the next victim is likely to be Maisie. He tells Clara to bring her over because “it’s another chance to observe it”. Once again, he’s written off saving somebody. Clara brings Maisie (GUS is happy to unlock the door now, presumably), and Maisie calls the Doctor “a good man”.
Also, Clara reports that there’s a force field around the TARDIS, so clearly GUS knows who the Doctor is. The Doctor finally admits that GUS has tried to entice him on board before, and this was never going to be just a simple trip. And then the light flickers. As the mummy advances, the Doctor uses a scanner to imprint Maisie’s trauma onto himself, so the Foretold locks on to him instead. The Doctor is pretty excited about this whole thing and figures out that the scroll is a flag and the Foretold is a soldier powered by old technology that won’t let the war end. At the last second, the Doctor says “We surrender”, and the mummy stops It comes back into phase so everybody can see him, salutes the Doctor, and then turns to dust. GUS is happy that’s solved but decides he doesn’t need survivors, so he blows up the train.
Clara wakes up on an alien beach with the Doctor – he fixed the teleporter embedded in the mummy, saved everybody, and brought them to civilization. Clara asks the Doctor if he was pretending to be heartless – he was trying to prevent GUS from finding out his plan so he acted like he was willing to let Maisie die. The Doctor admits that he didn’t know if it would work – “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.”
The Doctor tries to talk Perkins into traveling with him for a while, but he’s not into it. Once he leaves, Clara asks the Doctor if he loves having to make the impossible choice all the time, or if it’s more of an addiction. He can’t say, because he’s never tried to give it up. Danny calls at that moment to ask if she’s done, and after she says good-bye, she informs the Doctor that Danny doesn’t mind if they keep traveling together. (Which is not what Danny said at all.)
Things are back to normal!
–Man, this season really has not let up. Even episodes that sounded like they could be disasters have turned out to be quite good. And let’s be honest, as much as I love a good high concept, “mummy on a space train” sounds like a potential flop. But it was great! Yeah, the “horror creature turns out to be a science fiction creature” is a well they go to over and over again, but this was well-executed, effectively creepy, and the plot had some nice surprises. And of course, Jenna Coleman and Capaldi were killing it, but that’s to be expected.
I love that even eight episode in, we still haven’t gotten into this Doctor’s head. When he comes off as heartless, it might just be because he is. Or he’s very good at hiding it. This Doctor is a little dangerous.
Again, we see the Doctor willing to write off people as acceptable losses. He’s never caused a death (well, maybe the Half-Face Man), but he’s not exactly willing to fight to the last breath when it looks hopeless. Past Doctors would get it together after they failed to save somebody, but Capaldi reaches that point before they’re actually dead. It’s still a little bit chilling when he does that. I’ve used this comparison before, but this episode really invoked “Silence in the Library”, and his reaction is very different than David Tennant’s was. “You’ve killed somebody I like and that is not a safe place for you to be standing” vs. “Anything you can tell us might help us save the next one”. And I still think it’s because he spent those 800 years on Trenzalore watching generations of people grow old and die. He’s more conscious than ever of how brief a life is.
–I really liked Clara’s about-face at the end. It seemed abrupt, but I really think she’s starting to see the good in the Doctor. Or to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least. And after realizing how many impossible decisions he has to make all the time, she can forgive the one he forced her into. Heck, with that addiction talk, I think she’s realizing that she likes it, too. This could be a problem with her boyfriend, but we’ll see how that plays out.
–For the last two episodes, we haven’t seen the breath and reflection motifs returning. However, even without those it still feels like a really cohesive season. Two episodes in a row began with a countdown clock, for example. And the fact that the Foretold was a soldier is a nice tie-in there. Actually, look at the way the Doctor was basically respectful of the Foretold’s past and the conductor’s PTSD. He’s got more of an open mind with regards to soldiers, which brings him back into line with past Doctors. It’s really nice to see this subplot moving forward, even in the episodes without Moffat as a credited writer.
–Just a couple of neat continuity things before I wrap up for the week. The Doctor offers a jelly baby to Moorhouse, which was kind of the Fourth Doctor’s think. Also, this is where I finally figured out what a “jelly baby” is. I pictured something like a Gummi Bear, only a baby.
The Doctor asks “Are you my mummy?”, which is the question the Empty Child asked the Ninth Doctor. (“The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances”) David Tennant did a callback to that in Season Four.
Finally, the Doctor mentions that GUS tried to get him on the train in the past, including calling the TARDIS phone once. In the Season Five finale, Matt Smith got a call on the TARDIS phone after Amy and Rory’s wedding. The last line of the season is him telling the Ponds about “an Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient Express…. in space”. You have to admit, that’s pretty good.
Next week, it’s “Flatline”, written by Jamie Mathieson, who also wrote this week’s episode. History indicates that it will be good!