As a ‘last hurrah’ before Clara stops travelling with The Doctor, he takes her on board a retrofitted spaceship homage to The Orient Express, arriving just after elderly passenger Mrs. Pitt died upon hallucinating a Mummy in the last 66 seconds of her life. The Doctor works with ship engineer Perkins to investigate her death while Clara helps Mrs. Pitt’s granddaughter, Maisie, to see the body. A kitchen chef dies, screaming about a ‘Mummy’. The Doctor consults alien mythology expert Professor Moorhouse about the legend of The Foretold. Clara and Maisie are trapped in a storage car with a sarcophagus.
The Doctor deduces that the Express was an excuse to bring alien experts together to study The Foretold. Gus, the ship’s automated computer, reveals himself as the architect and turns the ship into a laboratory. The Doctor and Perkins discover The Foretold is targeting the weak. The Doctor gets Clara to bring Maisie, the next victim. The Doctor convinces The Foretold, an ancient soldier draining power from bodies, he is the victim and helps him die. Gus tries to suffocate the passengers but The Doctor uses The Foretold’s teleport to rescue them. Clara decides to continue travelling with The Doctor.
The most satisfying episode of the season (perhaps of new Doctor Who), ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ executes a brilliant premise with as few frills as possible. It’s a shame that the story had to be a metaphor for The Doctor and Clara’s relationship, and that they end up talking about The Doctor’s morality again, but nothing else gets in the way of a good story well told. The episode takes a playful and darkly comic approach, which instead of trivialising the solemn moments, makes them more poignant. Here, the breathless onslaught of events is exhilarating rather than simply confusing.
With costuming and prop call-backs to the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, the whole thing could have been nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, but rather than empty pastiche, the episode learns from classic Doctor Who’s plotting and characterisation. Vividly drawn and wittily portrayed characters like Perkins, Quell, Moorhouse and Gus carry the story, which unfolds with an elegant economy unseen in recent seasons. A retro-futurist art design and soundtrack signals a return to pop TV shows like Batman and The Avengers, where action and style were paramount. Yet the episode never sinks to superficiality but instead offers well-made, mature adventure.
I can think of far less entertaining ways to put The Doctor and Clara’s relationship back on track, and many more contrived ways of getting Clara travelling in the TARDIS again. It’s a testament to Jamie Matheson’s writing (the best script of the season so far) that the objective of the episode is so well-disguised until the last few moments. It’s probably not a good thing for the longevity of the show that The Doctor and Clara work better as characters when they’re apart, but we get the most out of the leads when they’re interacting with the other passengers.
The episode deftly incorporates a throwaway cliffhanger from the Season 5 finale as well as an obligatory reference to The Empty Child, which suggests not all bridges to past eras have been completely burnt. Without apologising for The Doctor’s behaviour, there’s a much-needed mellowing of his cynicism that helps us better understand his actions. Danny still waits in the wings, while Clara’s contradictory behaviour allow her to rebound from her unconvincing rant in ‘Kill the Moon’. Frank Skinner as Perkins is an absolute revelation, and reminds us that Doctor Who has given comedians the chance to become accomplished character actors.
In a season that’s only consistency is its unevenness, ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ is a refreshing relief. The concept is strong, the characters a joy, and the realization is, for once, as interesting as the idea. Sure, the resolution is rushed and muddled and the heart-to-heart epilogue scene is rapidly becoming an unwelcome formula, but by that point nothing can detract from this outstanding offering. First-time Doctor Who writer Jamie Matheson demonstrates real affinity for the programme and its history and, though the classic 4-parter would be the preferred format for this story, he still manages to capture the quintessence of 70s Who in a 45-minute episode. But there’s no sell-by date on good storytelling, and the episode is no less insightful or complex for being more traditional. In fact, we get a much more acutely developed sense of The Doctor from seeing him in action rather than conversation.