Sunday, 12 October 2014

Doctor Who Review: Mummy on the Orient Express

(As always, there will be spoilers for this episode. Also for just about every Jon Pertwee story as well.)

Last week I complained about the science in Doctor Who. This week we had a train in space, a mummy that was "out of phase" with reality, and a personal teleporter the size of a hand grenade -- but I wasn't bothered at all. Why not? Because no-one tried to explain any of it. When they offer an explanation that defies the very laws of physics that allow the characters to stand there and utter the explanation: that's when it doesn't work.

It was a fantastic episode. The story leaped forward, powered by a series of regularly delivered revelations. There was the first death by a mummy only the victim could see. The story then established that we're on a luxury space version of the Orient Express, and that this is to be Clara's last journey with the Doctor, and that the mummy is going to murder systematically, and it's following rules laid out by an ancient formula. Once we have all the setup clear, we discover that the Orient Express was just a trick: a way to lure into one place a team to identify this creature, and stop it. Then we discover that it's killing in order of the passengers' weakness. But we witness only one more death before the Doctor substitutes himself into the victim role, and unravels the entire mystery within the mummy's 66-second deadline. Very nicely done.

This time even the story of the Doctor's character made some sense. For some reason (and I still wish we were told what it was), the Doctor is unusually alien in this reincarnation, and just can't relate to people, and this has been driving Clara crazy. But he's also compulsively addicted to adventure, and can't understand why she isn't as well. That's why he can't resist taking Clara to the mummy-train, even when he's supposed to be giving her a final pleasant outing. But we also see signs that he's trying to improve. There's a nice moment where he's tempted to wake her up to go and explore the train, and stops himself; he's not oblivious to what she's been saying after all.

All this character stuff was in the other stories, too, and perhaps as many people will complain about Clara's suddenly changing her mind and sticking with him at the end, as complained about all the relationship stuff in the other episodes. But perhaps because the rest of the story was so good, I was willing to give the Doctor-Clara relationship the benefit of the doubt. And at least this time the Doctor's behaviour made some sense: he acted heartless, but with a purpose anyone can understand.

This was the ideal episode for the New Doctor Who format, i.e., one story told in a single fast 45-minute episode. The race against the clock worked with the frenetic pace of the show. The mystery is always explained in a rapid-fire 60 seconds, but this time that became a necessity of the plot itself: the Doctor had to solve the puzzle in 66 seconds, or he'd be dead. The confines of the train, the single deadly menace, and a small cast of characters, all worked to the story's advantage. In fact, as the pace ramped up, all the superfluous characters literally vanished.



It's my opinion that the single biggest difference between the New series and the Old, is the use of single-episode stories. The structure of four- or six-part adventures required a very different kind of story. In each story there is a new set of characters, and often a whole new society on a whole new planet. All of that takes time to set up. And if the story is going to stretch over four or six weeks, then it needs many stages. The writers almost have no choice but to put the local characters into feuding factions, some with the Doctor, some against him, some befriending his companions, others waylaying them. And the enemy came in pieces, too: there were the locals who were helping the monster, and then the monster itself, and then a second wave of monsters (the three Cybermen are an advance party for the main attack, etc), or a higher power in charge of the monsters (if it was a third Doctor story, that was always the Master).

That was what gave Doctor Who stories extra depth and interest, and often turned them into excellent stories about people. The people the Doctor encountered were divided, and fought amongst themselves as well as against the latest alien menace -- that was true from the quarrelling cavemen in An Unearthly Child onwards.

The New stories can't do that. There isn't time. Somehow they have to fit in a Doctor-Who-style story anyway: between the setup, the mystery, and its resolution, there isn't much choice but to hurry. One solution is to produce low-key stories, with only one or two characters, and a simple situation with a villain; chamber pieces. The van Gogh story was a great example -- they met only van Gogh, and the monster. The danger, though, is that the story is too thin; for example, the alien traffic jam story.

Another solution is the simple race against the clock, and that's what worked with the Mummy on the Orient Express, and with Time Heist. The Mummy gets extra technical clever points for the 66-second countdown clock, and the insertion of "Are you my Mummy?" at the most riotously perfect moment.

These episodes are the biggest success of the New Doctor Who. They are the equal of anything in the old series (although too different to be in any way comparable), but also representative of an entirely different show to the old series, or to anything else on television. This season has delivered the best and worst of what the show can be. Although I never thought I'd say it when I heard the title a week ago, the Mummy on the Orient Express was among the best.


Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Listen
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Flatline
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

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