When I was 13 or 14, I became manically obsessed with creating a definitive catalog of Doctor Who canon. This single master list would, in my sweaty pre-adolescent mind, finally determine the definitive continuity of every episode, book, comic strip, audio play and the pictures they used to print on the back of ice lolly boxes. Needless to say, it was about as fruitful an exercise as Sisyphus deciding it was time to change it up a bit and start pushing the boulder with his eyelashes.
Trying to create a coherent lore or backstory from references in Doctor Who episodes is like trying to transcribe the Bible after it’s been through the world’s longest game of Chinese Whispers. Unlike shows today, which more often than not have their entire runs and all their character arcs mapped out before the pilot even gets made, Doctor Who has always been made up as it’s gone along. The series creators back in 1963 didn’t have a master plan that in six years they were going to reveal Dr. Who’s home planet, and that fifteen years after that he’d start dressing like a circus clown and throwing people into vats of acid. Whatever made sense for the episode being made at the time was put in regardless of what had gone before.
In the days before home video this didn’t matter too much, as audiences weren’t expected to ever see a story again after it went out. But now, in an era where every episode ever is no more than a few clicks away, there’s pressure to try and explain every throwaway gag or reference and integrate it into the Doctor’s timeline. The idea that Time Lords only had twelve regenerations was invented purely for the Master’s motivation in “The Deadly Assassin” to make sense, but that meant that eventually an episode had to be written that explained why Matt Smith hadn’t turned into a crispy skeleton man in a cloak.
The character of the Doctor is always making references to other, unseen adventures, leaving us to wonder when exactly they were gifted a twelve foot staff from Madame Nostradamus, or what exactly made Zodin so terrible. In this regard, when the Doctor at the end of Series 5 receives a call in the TARDIS asking him to save the Orient Express in space, there was no reason to assume we’d ever see anything come of it. So when it was announced that we would, infact, find out what why the Doctor had to urgently attend the Orient Express in space, there was no reason to assume it’d be anything other than another madcap adventure in the vein of the ludicrously manic “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, an episode from the previous series with an equally prosaic title.
Following the fallout from “Kill the Moon”, Clara is determined not to leave the Doctor on a bad note, so he takes her for one ‘last hurrah’ on board the Orient Express. In space. However, where the Doctor goes, trouble isn’t far behind. Rather than the luxurious break he’s promised Clara, he’s actually following up a series of mysterious calls he’s received from the Orient Express. And sure enough, all is not well on board. In the tense opening sequence, the haughty Mrs Pitt protests at the presence of a shambling mummy in her carriage, only for no-one else to see it. Her indignation slowly turns to confusion, and ultimately to panic as the 66 seconds countdown to her death from a heart attack. Before long, a cook and a guard join the deceased. Clara befriends the bereaved Miss Pitt, long in the shadow of her domineering grandmother, whilst the Doctor teams up with Alien Mythology expert Hargreaves and Frank Skinner’s mercurial engineer Perkins to investigate the truth in the old legend.
From a visual standpoint, this episode is a technical achievement. From the first shots of the train thundering through the Magellan Cluster, the Orient Express has an authentic, Art Deco 1920s feel, that’s both grandiose in the classic Poroit style whilst also being confining and claustrophobic. The Foretold, the titular Mummy of the title, is a gruesomely awesome piece of design, the perfect combination of practical effects, CGI and performance. The Mummy has genuine presence, it’s shambling, rotting appearance inspiring genuine dread whenever it appears to the latest doomed passenger.
“Mummy on the Orient Express” boasts an impressive guest cast, and thankfully each passenger has the depth and development to justify it. Frank Skinner’s Perkins is unsettling but at the same time comical, playing the train’s chief engineer whose been doing his own research. When he declines the offer to travel in the TARDIS at the end, you’re left genuinely disappointed we won’t be seeing more of his chemistry with Peter Capaldi. Also terrific is the character of Maisy, whose back story makes her a tragic figure straight out of, appropriately enough, an Agatha Christie novel. The captain, a survivor of war with PTSD, is good for what material he gets and makes an interesting foil to the Foretold once it’s true nature is revealed. Foxes is there too. She’s not in it much, but her lilting rendition of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ is nice, but one comes away with the impression that it’s inclusion was more for the clicks the announcement of Foxes being in Doctor Who brought in.
“Mummy on the Orient Express” continues to develop the fractious relationship between the Doctor and Clara. The Twelfth Doctor infuses his by now signature rudeness and terrible bedside manner with a first stab at the more gregarious, extroverted qualities that would manifest in the character across the rest of his era. It transpires that the on-board computer, Gus (John Sessions), has lured multiple scientists and professors on-board the train in order to determine the true nature of the Foretold in order to use it as a weapon. As only those who imminently about to die can see it, the Doctor orders the dammed describe what they see before there death’s. Understandably, they all panic and struggle against it, much to the Doctor’s chagrin. His willingness to sacrifice the passengers reaches it’s peak when he figures out that the Foretold is targeting the physically and mentally ill first, so he asks Clara to bring the bereaved Maisy to him. If it hadn’t been for his quick thinking, it’s implied he would have let her die too.
In a satisfying coda, Clara awakes after being suffocated on a beach on the nearest inhabited planet. The Doctor explains that he got all the passenger of the train, and when he tried to hack Gus the train self-destructed. He makes a joke about his seemingly callous streak, saying that it could all just be a lie and he let everyone die. But this underlines the point of his speech; as he says, sometimes the only choice you can make are bad ones. His only option on the Orient Express was to use what he had, and what he had was the soon to be deceased. He wanted to save them, but if he knew he couldn’t there was no point in mourning it. Gone are the days of ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry’.
After spending the entire episode resolutely stating this was her last trip, it’s plainly obvious that Clara really doesn’t want to go. She says that the Doctor makes impossible decisions because it’s an addiction, but it could easily apply to her, too. When push comes to shove, she can’t bring herself to leave, and lies to both the Doctor and Danny in order to continue travelling, and continue juggling two different lives and hoping they won’t collide. The obvious delight of the Doctor foreshadows the burgeoning toxic relationship between him and Clara, that will eventually lead to Clara acting the part of the Doctor and paying the price, and the Doctor acting so irresponsibly in “Hell Bent”.
“Mummy on the Orient Express” came out of the woodwork to become one of the more generally well-liked episodes of Series 8, and won fans to writer Jamie Mathieson, who’d return to pen several more episodes throughout Capaldi’s era. Making an episode out of a single line might smell like a creative team running out of ideas, but this episode and the subsequent year’s “The Magician’s Apprentice”, which made a whole story out of Tom Baker’s ‘Do I have the right?’ speech from “Genesis of the Daleks”, proved it could be executed well if the line is expanded upon.
Ask most Doctor Who fans what they’d do if they suddenly became showrunner, their plans would probably be too focused on resolving old continuity issues and bringing back past monsters. The average BBC One viewer probably isn’t too fussed about the Quarks coming back, or how exactly the Doctor came to be Merlin in another dimension. But looking back at those earlier, futile efforts to marshal all of the show’s history into one straight line, I think it’s an urge born out of need to leave no gaps in our knowledge. The phone call in “The Big Bang” was a loose thread that was screaming out to be tied up, and in this instance the tying-up didn’t dilute the mystique that made it so tempting in the first place.
Hey, we still haven’t found out who exactly the Minister of War is, have we?