...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Day 5362: DOCTOR WHO: Are You My Mummy Returns


It's nice that – as never happens in Agatha Christie – the cybernetic butler did it.

The first of two very different but both very excellent episodes from newcomer Jamie Matthieson ("Being Human" and the tragically-short-lived "Dirk Gently" TV series), "Mummy on the Orient Express" is a story that works on multiple levels.

It's a good old-fashioned faux-murder mystery with sci-fi trappings that works so well that you can enjoy it perfectly for that reason alone.

It's also part of the ongoing serial.

But on top of that it's making commentary on its own workings as a television adventure.

That commentary is more than just hanging a lantern on the Bechdel Test – Clara and new best friend Maisie sitting in the baggage car, two named* women characters having a conversation… but it's about a guy. Throws up hands, hilarity, etc.

(Of course the episode has already passed the test in Clara and Maisie's immediately preceding scene together: they discussed opening the locked baggage carriage door; Mrs Pitt being Maisie's gran not her mum; feeling guilty; and wishing bad things on people. Not a man in sight. If Mrs Pitt hadn't presumed the gender of the Mummy – if it even has one – to be male, it could have made a pass in the pre-title sequence!)

[*and I'm reliably informed that "named" is a later addition to the Bechdel conditions, which I've left in as it makes this a super-pass.]

It's more than just remarking that the production designer of the Space Orient Express has taken the odd liberty with the original…

"It's a completely faithful recreation of the Orient Express. Only slightly bigger."

…and with steam-punk passengers jogging the elbow. The Doctor even refers to the set dressing and extras as, in a twist, "the façade drops" and GUS "steps out from behind the curtain" (a theatrical reference as well as a "Wizard of Oz" one).

"Can I talk about planets now?" he asks petulantly at one point, like a Classic Who far determined to not listen to all that New Who "emotional stuff" from Clara.

Lifting other people's horror stories is nothing new in "Doctor Who", particularly from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of early Tom Baker. And, for all his Third Doctor posing and dress-up, there's a lot more of the Fourth Doctor's aloof alien in Capaldi than there is Pertwee's (in so many ways) clubbable establishment rebel. Just as Clara, with her own life and day job, resembles Season Twelve Sarah Jane. She'll be changing into a jump suit and training up her own companion soon, just you see.

So where "Kill the Moon" – cold, clinical space horror about human destiny – lauds "The Ark in Space", this time we are in "The Robots of Death" territory with art deco stylings and spaceship in wood-panelled disguise (even if it isn't the TARDIS this week).

But of course, as with those eponymous "Robots of Death" – the other occasion the butlers did it – the butler is ultimately working for someone else, and that person has an agenda.

So, just as "Ark" shall we say prefigures "Alien" in its devouring body-horror stylings, in "Mummy on the Orient Express" our horror-pastiche du jour is, not Hammer-esque faux Egyptian mythos but, with corporate interests seeking to weaponise the monster, "Aliens".

It helps that it's a particularly good monster: gruesome without being gross. The finest horror moment is when the Mummy's outstretched hand phases through the Doctor, clawlike fingers emerging through his eyes.

There's an interesting not-quite-awkward reflection on the way that people react to seeing the titular "mummy" or the Foretold to give it its legendary name. Denial; running away; shooting at it – anger; bargaining; and, in the end, surrender. That's all the stages of grief.

And where does that leave the Doctor and Clara's relationship?

"It's not like we'll never see each other again."

"Isn't it?"

That's both cutting to the heart of their emotional trauma – or the Doctor not buttering things up any more – but also a neat little comment on what happens (usually) when companions leave.

We begin "in media res", in the middle of the action as they say, with Clara already having agreed to this "one last hurrah". And that's commenting on the fact that, whatever she says, Clara is still carrying on with the Doctor.

It's the main theme of that "emotional stuff", or the heart of the episode, referred to in different conversations between Clara and the Doctor, Clara and Maisie, even the Doctor and Perkins, the heart-and-head difference between what Clara says she want, and what she feels she wants.

"On a collision course I am a satellite, I'm out of control…." sings the diagetic cabaret (this week's special guest star Foxes) "…don't stop me now (because I'm having a good time)" It's another intrusion of the episode commenting on itself and Clara's position in a nutshell.

So we see a resolution to Clara and the Doctor's falling out, the fallout as much of events in "The Caretaker" as "Kill the Moon".

Interestingly, we've also been watching some Fifth Doctor stories recently and so we're reminded of that too when we see last week's argument about choices picked up again here, though it's far more subtle than any of the "as you know, Tegan" conversations used in opening scenes to string stories from Season Nineteen together.

The story that we've seen building all season, which Clara comes out and says this week, is "addiction" – is she a TARDIS junkie? Is the Doctor?

What is most odd about this is that after this week it just falls away from the arc. We see that things have been driven to a crisis last week, when the adrenaline-seeking thrills run smack into being asked to take responsibility. In this episode, we get Clara admitting that she may have a problem and seek to address it. She's not quite going cold turkey, but this "one last hurrah" approach is a pretty sharp cut off. And then at the end… she spectacularly throws herself off the wagon again, transparently lying to both the Doctor and Danny – and herself, even – that this is "fine".

But – and it's not a fault of the writing here – the series then goes off in a totally different direction. Rather than concentrating on the it's-not-even-a-metaphor-anymore of addiction, it becomes more about what it is to be the Doctor.

The roots of that arc are here too (and in "Kill the Moon") with the Doctor pushing Clara to see his point of view, showing her that he doesn't necessarily have the luxury of sugar-coating decisions. She responds to that by becoming more and more like him. Which ought to climax in the "I am the Doctor" reveal in "Death in Heaven" absolutely not being a bluff… but wasted opportunities in the Moffat era are a whole other essay.

(Though on that topic these thoughts on a better Series Six / Season Thirty-Two from Jon Blum are worth a read.)

On being the Doctor: it's more than just "Rule One: the Doctor lies". Clara can handle the lying; but would she be able to give up enough control to perform the surrender that the Doctor does here? Again, throwing forward to "Death in Heaven" where Missy wants to give him an army, here his response is to give up to one.

And though this isn't a flaw either, but I'm not entirely convinced that "Mummy" does properly answer "Moon", though.

"Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose."

As I said in the previous review, I don't think that the choice in "Kill the Moon" is that sort of choice. Even without the hindsight that it turned out fine, Clara could see that it was much more a "do what's right/do what's easy" decision. What made it hard was the enormous pressure to do what was easy.

I'm not even sure that the choices this week are that sort of choice. Certainly, the Doctor lies, and makes Clara his accessory in lying. And he is brusque and callous.

"People with guns to their heads, they cannot mourn. We do not have time to mourn."

But also at absolutely the very first opportunity he has to do so, he takes someone else's place in the firing line. Not one person dies who he could have saved.

Essentially he chooses "not quite socially acceptable" over "saving fewer than the maximum number he can save". Deciding which the "bad choice" is is not the most complex moral calculus.

By allowing Clara to believe that he was lying, he also avoided making a promise that he cannot keep. Just count the number of times the eleventh and tenth Doctor promise that they can save everyone only for a massacre to ensue. The Doctor spoke early in this season of having made many mistakes. One of his biggest – he seems to be thinking – is by becoming young and strong and charismatic he was, in a way, lying to everyone, and that is the lie that he's trying to avoid now.

However, the Doctor also says: "Would you like to think that about me? Would that make it easier?"

At this moment, Clara is open to forgiving him on the basis that he picks the lesser of two evils if those are the choices on offer. That is what she would like to think. So he makes it easier for her.

I'll toss in a really minor quibble, just so you don't think it's entirely perfect. Some confusion, possibly in the production, about who on the train, apart from the "experts", is really "real". When GUS's cover is blown and the Orient Express trappings are replaced by the neon laboratory, the extra guests and staff dematerialise, revealed also to be part of the illusion, hard-light-holograms (yes, like Rimmer from "Red Dwarf") as set dressing. Except, not all of them – as some are still alive to be murdered by GUS as "motivation" for the team who have been set to investigate the Foretold.

At least one guest (Janet Henfrey's Mrs Pitt, the first victim, pitiless damnation for the rest of your… oh about 66 seconds) and two of the staff (the chef who is the second victim and the attendant who is the third) have to have been "real", since the mummy singles them out to kill.

It hardly seems that Mrs Pitt was aboard as an expert – unless it's in poisoning ponies and parents… which come to think might have some relevance if the Foretold were to turn out to use poison or hallucinogens in its workings… perhaps GUS is just being thorough.

Or perhaps the clue is that they are the ones killed – that GUS has selected suitable "Mummy-victims" to give the experts something to study, or at least to keep the Foretold busy and stop all those experts being picked off before they can figure out anything useful.

(Though that would suggest that GUS has some idea of the Foretold's pick off the weakest first M.O. – which he then helps nobody, least of all his own agenda, by not sharing.)

Actually, now I think of it, picking off the weakest first is, in this situation, really bad tactics – it blows all the Mummy's advantage of surprise on those least able to defeat it, leaving more dangerous enemies aware of its presence and better informed. You might put that down to long out-of-date operating procedures, but surely for any stealth attack the best bet must be to pick off the strongest first.

Maybe it wants to die and this is the only parameter it can vary that might give someone a chance of letting it stop.

Oh and why does the Doctor miss an opportunity to remind us that he hates soldiers this season?

So for whom is GUS, the suavely chippy computer, working?

Well it's not clear, it's certainly not spelled out, and it could be a seemingly-hanging plot thread to be picked up later – as Moffat so often does, indeed as he's doing this very week, referring back to the conclusion of "The Big Bang" for no readily apparent reason.

For example, it's not impossible that it might have been Perkins after all. Although he's set up as more of a red herring character.

Speaking of Perkins*, could he be a Time Lord?

[*Not to be confused with "The Great British Bake Off's" Sue Perkins; could she be a Time Lord?"]

If he is, then which one? There is an obvious candidate: I recall much speculation at the time that Frank Skinner was playing Drax, the cockney wide boy from "The Armageddon Factor" who is still widely loved (possibly because he's one of the few Time Lords who isn't out-and-out evil, just a bit… naughty. About as naughty as the Doctor is, in fact.)

Sadly, there's nothing on screen to confirm this. Perkins probably is just that bright guy. It's a really good part for Skinner and you can see it's physically painful for him to deliver the line turning down the Doctor's offer to travel in the TARDIS.

Also worth mentioning – given the whole "the Doctor lies" subtext fast becoming the text – Perkin's survival eliminates any lingering doubts over the Doctor's "little joke" that he only saved himself and Clara and let everyone else explode with the train.

But who could be collecting "genius experts" to conduct an amoral experiment? It's clearly… The Rani.

Look, she's even kidnapped Einstein again:

Mummy's Experts

Rani's Geniuses

But seriously, who do we know who would find the sort of death-defeating super soldier technology on view here useful for their build-a-better-Cyberman project?

So far this season we've had Missy or mention of "The Promised Land" in every episode except the shaggy-dog story of "Listen ("Time Heist's" being retrospectively the reminder of the "woman in the shop" who gave Clara the TARDIS telephone number). And whoever's responsible here does have that number for the TARDIS. So it would be a little odd for there to be no connection to the series' main plot arc (as opposed to developing story or character arcs).

And GUS's monocle icon is very reminiscent of the 3W logo that will appear in "Dark Water".

(Image courtesy of radiotimes and Chairman of the Voord on Planet Mondas forum)

And do I need to remind you that the Cybermen are techno-mummies of long standing (from as early as "The Mummy's Tomb" ahem "Tomb of the Cybermen" or even "The Tenth Planet")?

This is classic "Who": as steeped in the period detail as "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" (give or take a Foxes singing some Queen); as brazen and shameless a rip-off as "The Brain of Morbius"; and as much like Agatha Christie as "Black Orchid". So not very much really. But terribly, terribly entertaining anyway.

Show me to the dining car!

Next Time: More from Jamie Matthieson. And another train. And the Doctor cut down to size. Will it all fall flat or will we branch out in a new dimension as this most varied of seasons swings back from trad to rad in "Flatline".

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