Going into last night’s episode, many fans would have been wondering exactly where things stand between the Doctor and Clara after she seemingly called it quits last week. But that question is left tantalizingly unanswered for most of Mummy on the Orient Express as the duo embark on one last adventure before they go their separate ways.
For the second week in a row we welcome a new writer to the Doctor Who family with Jamie Mathieson delivering a well-rounded if unspectacular debut. The TARDIS arrives on the titular Orient Express train, only this one is “slightly bigger and in space”. But what starts out as a fond farewell between two friends quickly takes a nasty turn when they discover a mummified monster that is roaming the carriages and killing off passengers at an alarming rate.
Known throughout space and time as The Foretold, this mythological mummy is reminiscent of the Silence in that it can only be seen by its intended victim, but rather than simply wiping his or her memory, here the monster kills its victim within 66 seconds of being seen.
While this monster initially offers a creepy presence, thanks to a ghostly, zombified design, the repetitive nature of its appearances means it looses its threat very quickly. It would perhaps have been more effective to have played the murder with more mystery, showing the audience the ticking clock and then leaving us to guess who would be next.
Otherwise this is a strong debut from Mathieson, who successfully imbues the murder mystery with an Agatha Christie-esque vibe that is similar to The Unicorn and the Wasp in its antiquated charm; however, this episode takes itself much more seriously, packing a killer twist that is perfectly timed to ramp up the tension and interest just as the story starts to dwindle.
In many ways this is a classic Doctor Who story, with Capaldi essentially in full-on detective mode, frantically working out the clues as the body count piles up and ultimately saving the day by using his immeasurable smarts and a little sci-fi trickery.
Importantly, this includes a moment of heroic selflessness from the Doctor as he absorbs a passenger’s energy in order to take her place as the Foretold’s next victim. It’s really the first time we’ve seen this side of Capaldi’s Doctor and it comes as just the right time to convince a hesitant Clara that there’s still a good man in there somewhere. As it turns out, this isn’t quite their last hurrah after all.
Capaldi is very good in this Doctor-centric episode – something which will comes as a blessed relief to those who felt Clara has taken too much of the spotlight this series. This is the most comfortable we’ve seen Capaldi in the role as he shifts seamlessly between the callousness of his ‘rebel Time Lord’ persona and the lighter madcap professor side of his character, and he also makes the most of the powerful human moments he shares with Clara.
There’s also a large guest cast this week, making up a varied assortment of passengers on the train. However, the mummy needs some victims so there’s very little time to get attached to many of them, with Foxes much publicised appearance being reduced to a mere cameo and a swooning cover of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.
One guest who does register, though, is comedian Frank Skinner who gets a more pronounced role as the train’s honourable Chief Engineer Perkins. Skinner has a nice back and forth with Capaldi, proving to be more than a match for the Time Lord’s investigative skills and also challenging the Doctor on his sketchy morals. It’s a great performance in what must have been a dream come true for the lifelong Who fan.
Paul Whilmshurst returns to direct his second episode of the series and does solid work in combining the glitz and glamour of the roaring 20s-themed train with the isolating beauty of the cosmos outside of it, but he never really gives us anything spectacular to make his work standout.
And that’s exactly what’s missing from this week’s episode. Yes, it’s an exciting and charming romp in outer space, but the guest cast pass through unnoticed and the main monster lacks a lasting bite, all of which means Mummy on the Orient Express never quite captures the imagination in the way of great Doctor Who episodes.
Next week on Doctor Who… The Doctor and Clara square off against an alien life force from another dimension that is dissecting humans as part of a sinister experiment. But how will they hide from an enemy that exists beyond human perception?
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express on BBC iPlayer