Agatha Christie is no stranger to the world of Doctor Who, so an episode called “Mummy of the Orient Express” isn’t an entirely new concept, but one that’s always welcome. Unlike the Agatha Christie-herself involved episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, it is mainly the title that’s inspired by the writer, alongside an air of mystery and a few tropes of Christie’s writing shining through.
It’s pretty effective for what it is trying to set out to do.
Mummy on the Orient Express starts out as the “one last trip” for the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman). Coming straight off the previous week’s episode, this week shows the consequences of the choices made before, where now we are given the idea that after this adventure, The Doctor and Clara would part ways.
But, of course, like a cliffhanger where you think The Doctor’s life is actually in peril, Mummy on the Orient Express tiptoes around the notion of Clara departing, and instead puts that at the back of the story this time around, only to come back to meditate on some rather interesting ideas behind travelling with The Doctor.
The real hook of this week’s installment is, rather obviously, the titular antagonist. The mummy seen in this episode is one that only shows its face to the person it’s about to kill, and it’s always for the time period of 66 seconds, which does well for a concept, as a countdown timer appears on screen ticking down the tense final moments for each of the mummy’s victims, and one can’t wait to see what fate befalls them or if they find a way to survive.
There’s not that much surviving this episode, which builds up the unstoppable concept of the monster of the week, but never really pushes it to scary and dangerous Weeping Angel territory. While the mummy is characteristically designed to be sinister and scary, the episode really is more of a mystery than a kid-friendly slasher, though there’s quite a body count.
Some of the criticism can be attached to just how cold Capaldi’s Doctor can be, and while we’ve seen that a lot before, this episode is completely full of it. He lets a lot more people die in order to try and gauge the situation this time around, and while he pulls things more out of the bag later on, there’s no denying that he lets the bodies pile up until a solution is in sight.
It’s a tricky thing to get into the balance with this new Doctor, but this week is one of the more noticeable times of the colder, more ruthless Doctor. One’s mileage may vary, but everyone should hope for more lives saved and protected by The Doctor, rather than a quip on them already being dead.
Another negative point to raise is the pointlessness of the guest stars. Guest stars in Doctor Who aren’t always worth singing about, but Frank Skinner – while a nice face to see – as Perkins wasn’t that pivotal, and singer Foxes has probably the most pointless cameo in Doctor Who for a while: singing a cover of Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen in the background of the establishing of the Orient Express. In space.
That said, John Sessions is the perfect voice-only guest role as Gus, the voice of the Orient Express that brings some weight in the second half of the episode.
Jamie Mathieson as sole writer of this episode does a good job, having not written for Doctor Who until this episode, and next week’s episode shall be the next venture. While his treatment of The Doctor’s cold nature is a bit extreme this time around, he does well to lace in a few jokes and a few inside references to the history of Doctor Who, which is always nice to see. There’s a moment that evokes the Fourth Doctor that is executed oh so well in the context.
Direction from Paul Wilmshurst is also on point, mainly around the sequences with the titular mummy. They are wonderfully timed and executed and never fail to bring an eye to the clock and to the impending doom that could strike just about anyone on the Orient Express. While Clara’s presence is a bit shaky this episode, Wilmshurst at least does a good job resting on the smaller moments that tell us everything about Clara’s mind without anything really being said. By episode’s end, there’s a few disappointments, but there’s no fault on Wilmshurst getting some good effect from the cards he’s been given.
Mummy on the Orient Express is a solid installment to this series, but it is not mindblowing. It evokes the work of Christie in a passive way, rather than an active one. The Orient Express remains iconic, and the idea of a version of it in space is inspired and definitely Who, but there’s not much else in the way of hat tips. There’s mystery and fear, which are far from poor, but neither hit as well as other examples in the show.
Some weak usage of guest stars, but Doctor Who continues to give us a show that every actor in existence seems to turn up on, so it can’t be faulted too much.
If next week’s episode is the one I think it is, I’m hoping for some interesting execution of concept. And a lot less of a body count. The Doctor should only exhibit a certain amount of coldness, and this week was a little too much.