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What Would You Like to Believe About Yourself? Doctor Who: “Mummy on the Orient Express”

How do we talk about this episode, this Downton Abbey mixed with Agathie Christie mixed with steampunk mixed with monster movies that is somehow a quintessential Doctor Who episode, that is so specific to this Doctor and this companion and yet somehow a perfect overall statement on a character and show that spans more than 50 years and certainly more than 50 main characters?

“Mummy on the Orient Express” didn’t have to do to much to be an enjoyable outing in comparison to other Who adventures. (Really, with that title, it just had to be more than a warmed-over “Unicorn and the Wasp.”) It didn’t have to be the emotional, atmospheric, mystery thriller that we got, didn’t have to be an episode where we found ourselves hanging on to every word and every clue. Where by the end we felt as exhausted as Clara does on the beach, thankful for the sun in our face.

In case it isn’t clear, I thought this was one of the most quietly astounding episodes I’ve ever seen of the show, made all the more astounding by how naturally it forms. (Spoilers for the episode ahead!) The episode is packed with information, even the atmospheric cutaways to bulbs and clocks are clues to the nature of the mummy. An important scanner appears after the mummy kills a cook. The nameless kitchen staff themselves appear later and push the Doctor into assuming the leadership role we always see him in. None of these things are central to the plot but they all still create a consequence that makes the surroundings feel more realistic. (Really, the only things that don’t seem to be all that important are Clara and the Doctor’s amazing outfits.) All of this information coheres into a world, into a context, that the Doctor and Clara feel believable within.

“Mummy” would still be a clever, fun episode if it featured only this organic cohesion of plot, but the random happenstance of finding ourselves as viewers in Downton Abbey mixed with Agathie Christie mixed with steampunk mixed with monster movies also lays bare a variety of issues with this Doctor and his companion as individuals and as a duo. Really, any weird planet of the shrubs that the Doctor and Clara encounter should do this, but it’s not a given. Sometimes you get a “Lazarus Experiment” or a “Curse of the Black Spot” or a “Robot of Sherwood.” They don’t all have to be momentous character-defining episodes, but they shouldn’t entirely forget the simmering tensions that the characters are trying to bury under madcap adventures.

This season of Doctor Who seems to really be taking that directive to heart, and “Mummy” utilizes that to a surprising extent, especially considering the randomness of its story elements. “Clara and the Doctor’s love/hate addiction to each other comes under examination as they sacrifice lives to stop an ancient solder who looks like a mummy and who is killing people on a space train,” is one hell of a challenging synopsis to fashion into a believable episode of television. But the show pulls it off this time, and in the end the viewer learns something chilling about both of these people. Something that the characters themselves don’t seem to realize.

Clara’s presence in the beginning of the episode is a surprise. “Kill The Moon”s conclusion was…quite conclusive…and for Clara to pop up once more, all smiles and flapper, cheapens the conflict of that previous episode. But in this case you’re supposed to wonder. It turns out Clara has requested one last trip, with reasons explained and quite emotionally logical. The only reason Clara hated what the Doctor did, she realizes, is because she likes him so much. She’s not ready to give up this life. Or him, for that matter. Even if she can’t imagine a future traveling with the Doctor she still imagines a future with the Doctor. He’ll show up to dinner, of course, something that Clara, a woman who has followed the Doctor through all thirteen of his lives, obviously knows he loves doing. Yes, that’s the Doctor alright. Sitting still whilst time happens in linear order and without monsters and agreeing that no, none of us have had the time yet to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black.

Well, she had to try. Or rather, she had to confirm. Here’s to last hurrahs.

Doctor Who season 8, episode 8: Mummy on the Orient Express

And it’s funny. We don’t realize it until the very final scene of the episode, but Clara has started using these truths about her feelings on the Doctor to lie to herself. “I can’t do this anymore, not the way you do it,” she says to him before the mummy festivities really start rumbling and here is where her truths begin to erode. The statement starts out honest. In “Kill The Moon” the Doctor forcefully abandoned Clara, casting her into the role of decision-maker for the future of her entire species, and embodying that was horrifying to her.

You could argue that this was the Doctor’s way of revealing himself to Clara. He can tell her all he likes about how sometimes you have nothing but bad choices, but the reality of that didn’t really became apparent to Clara until she was given nothing but bad choices. It’s fun to be the companion because the choices you make are done so under a larger umbrella of the Doctor’s agenda. You restore the Dalek’s memory because the Doctor needs you to. You travel back to your own Danny’s childhood because the Doctor is hunting a theoretical monster. The companion assists, or argues against, the big decisions but rarely makes them. And that hasn’t really been the case for Clara lately, has it?

She can’t do this anymore, and yet that is what she does in “Mummy on the Orient Express.” Although she’s expecting trouble during her last trip and is somewhat relieved to find it, she’s initially unaware that the Doctor has purposefully placed them in harm’s way. Once she realizes it, her priorities shift and she becomes focused on their goal—stopping the mummy—and does what the Doctor asks her to. Make the impossible choice between two bad choices, he yells. Either watch Maisie die in the room they’re trapped in, or lie to Maisie and tell her the Doctor can save her, when really all he wants to do is sacrifice her. The Doctor’s lie becomes Clara’s lie and the choice is made.

The viewer can sympathize with Clara’s struggle because this is an overwhelmingly pragmatic Doctor and subsequently hard to argue against. He’s focused entirely on the goal and throws innocent lives towards it in an effort to nudge it into a position where he can achieve his goal. Revealingly, he doesn’t lie to Clara about this. He didn’t know he could save Maisie, he says, anxiously scratching in the sand, and he would have kept sacrificing lives until he beat the mummy.

This is jarring to us because the background players, the importance of the “little people,” would have once launched the Doctor into soliloquy. Now they are of increasingly small importance to this man. He leaves them to solve their own problem in “Kill The Moon.” He uses an entire kids’ school as bait in “The Caretaker.” He watches a man’s brain get sucked out through his eyes in “Time Heist.” He’s scornful of a woman distraught over the death of her brother in “Into The Dalek.” The sacrifices of others come easier to the Doctor these days, and they’ll remain easy if he keeps his fixation on goals, on beating monsters, on setting himself in a binary relationship with the universe, accepting or opposing.

Even with his admittance at the end of “Mummy,” this Doctor knows he should care more about the incidentals. In fact, it’s why he’s been so needy towards Clara since his regeneration. He pops in dangling adventures like carrots, imposing himself on her personal life, and openly calls her his conscience. Clara isn’t just a companion, she’s quite possibly one of the few people in the universe who the Doctor feels safe with. The Twelfth Doctor has his flaws, but with Clara he’s honest about them. Really, he’s more than honest, he’s open, too open, to her. Over the course of the season he hasn’t just developed a need for Clara, he continually places her in positions that will make her just like him. She’ll see how hard it is to make the impossible choices, he may think, then she’ll be the only person around to know how hard my role in the universe is. The binary thinking of this Doctor has been imposing itself more and more on this relationship. Clara really isn’t just a companion to him. She’s a confidant, increasingly a “Doctor” herself, and in the moments when she’s not she is literally gone, off living her own life.

Doctor Who season 8, episode 8: Mummy on the Orient Express

Neither of them seem to realize that this entanglement is occuring. The Doctor is a born general. He sees the mummy as an old soldier and summarily dismisses it. He takes Clara on missions and fully expects her to succeed alongside of him. Danny Pink sees the relationship clearly. The Doctor is pushing Clara to do things of which she would have never thought herself capable.

And that capability is alluring to Clara, as it would be to anyone. Alluring enough that she’d agree to one last hurrah and enough that she’d have serious doubts about cutting the Doctor out of her life. Because just like the Doctor is “addicted” to making impossible choices, Clara is addicted to who she is when she’s with the Doctor. She hates him because she likes him too much.

And that’s how the Doctor keeps Clara. More than that, that’s how the Doctor makes Clara just a little bit more like himself. Now Clara is the one who is lying to make an impossible choice: to herself about the behavior she’s willing to accept from the Doctor, and to her boyfriend about returning home.

Clara’s lie achives a goal for both her and the Doctor. They both love and hate each other and they’re willing to sacrifice bits of themselves to achieve the goal of continuing onwards.

So off they go, smiling, lying to their loved ones, both of them in sync in a dangerous new way. And its creepy, so creepy, scarier than the monster in the episode itself. Because we know something that the two of them don’t know: that this isn’t a happy ending at all, it’s the beginning of something poisonous.

Doctor Who season 8, episode 8: Mummy on the Orient Express

 

Thoughts:

  • First time the term “sex machine” has been used on Doctor Who. Y/N?
  • I wasn’t actually looking forward to this episode at first. (I’m not really into train mystery stories, which I assumed this would be.) But then they turned me completely with Foxes’ cover of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” It’s like they know me! Or rather, know my karaoke go-to songs! I can’t wait until the show has Lorde cover “I’m On a Boat.”
  • The BBC made a full video for her performance which includes snippets of upcoming episodes:

  • Amazing jelly babies reference. “You certainly know your mythology.”
  • Good sneaking in of an “are you my mummy” reference, too.
  • There’s a super-obvious Albert Einstein lookalike in the group of scientists, which makes me wonder if any of the other “scientists” are supposed to look like famous thinkers. Did you guys notice any other resemblances?
  • Perkins was pretty funny but I’m glad he doesn’t hop aboard the TARDIS. Best not to distract from the enigmatic main character with an enigmatic companion, eh? Also that meant he got to nail the episode’s theme with that line about how flying with the Doctor changes you.
  • It seems like the train’s conductor should have showed up in Missytown’s Good Time Nethersphere, but rumor has it that making Missy’s storyline an ongoing arc through the season was a bit of an afterthought, done so during the finale episode production block where the actress was able to film extraneous scenes to insert into earlier episodes. If that’s true, that means we’d be seeing her interact with only the supporting actors who were available to come back for that block of filming. So… in terms of the story, Missy just might be a crazy person and nothing deeper. We’ll see!

Chris Lough would like to believe that a vacation is coming for him, and soon, even though that is not at all the case. He writes about Doctor Who, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a lot. Find all the Tor.com Doctor Who recaps here.

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