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Posts Tagged ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’

I don’t usually pay much attention to other people’s reviews of Doctor Who, especially the new stuff – but, and to go off on a tangent almost at once, it has increasingly seemed the case recently that the official review column in DWM has been paying attention to what I write here, either by answering the points I raise (Robot of Sherwood is apparently not the ‘worst episode ever’ – obviously I beg to differ) or cribbing some of my own observations (e.g. the one about the current theme arrangement sounding like Telstar). This isn’t a carp, Graham, but – just between the two of us – it’d be great if you could sneak a name check for this blog into the next set of reviews. Go on, you know you want to.

Now where were we? Oh yes: Mummy on the Orient Express, which has received generally positive reviews from both friends and those few online outlets I vaguely pay attention to. Possibly I am guilty of prejudging this episode, but I didn’t find it grabbed me as much as the previous week’s, despite having more of a sense of fun about it and a somewhat better plot.

I think this is partly because – well, here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with a high-concept episode made with one eye on the visuals that will accompany it, but I don’t think this should overpower the reality of the scenario or the plot itself, and I do feel this was happening here. A futuristic reconstruction of the Orient Express I can buy, but not the visual of a steam train flying through space on ‘hyperspace ribbons’ or whatever they were supposed to be. That’s an ask too far for me in what’s still supposed to technically be an SF series, especially when the fact that the train was in space was fairly incidental to the plot – it could have been a force-shielded train travelling around a planet with a hostile atmosphere and the story could have unfolded in exactly the same way.

In the same way – well, look, if you’re going to do a Doctor Who story about killer Egyptian mummies (and that’s ultimately what this was) you’re really setting yourself up for a fall, simply because you’re actively inviting comparisons between your episode and Pyramids of Mars. That’s pretty much the definition of a no-win scenario, because Pyramids of Mars is the work of the cream of Doctor Who‘s A-team operating at the very top of their game. And it also illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Here are the Mummies from Pyramids of Mars:

mummies

Very different from the Mummy on the train, aren’t they? Less obviously horrific, and less authentically a proper Egyptian Mummy. There’s something weird going on with the face, not to mention that convex chestpiece. But, as it turns out, there’s a very good reason why these Mummies don’t look quite like a proper Mummy – in the fiction of the episode, they are revealed to be robots, not embalmed cadavers. As a result, I think it gives the whole story a touch of verisimilitude, rather than just relying on visual cues for its excitement.

On the other hand, we have the Mummy from the train, which is as perfect a representation of a classic Hollywood Mummy as one could wish for. Which, for me, just begs the question of why – this is, after all, supposed to be some kind of alien warrior, and there should surely be some hint of that in the realisation of the beast. Otherwise the story is basically just playing dress-up with visual cues, rather than trying to create a convincing self-contained universe.

mummy-on-the-orient-express

While we’re on the topic of Pyramids of Mars, let’s talk about the characterisation of the Doctor (again). No complaints about Peter Capaldi, obviously (more Pertwee-esque than ever in his costume choices this week, and on a similar note I wish I could find some way of commenting on how cute Jenna Coleman looked in that 1920s outfit than simply saying ‘wasn’t Jenna Coleman cute in that 1920s outfit?’), but… well, look, the Doctor has alien values and can sometimes seem callous.

Let’s step back to 1975, or possibly 1911, where the Doctor and Sarah have just discovered their friend Laurence Scarman has been murdered:

The Doctor: His late brother must have called.
Sarah: That’s horrible! He was so concerned about his brother.
The Doctor (clearly preoccupied by a deactivated Mummy endoskeleton): I told him not to be. I told him it was too late.
Sarah: Oh! Sometimes you don’t seem…
The Doctor: Human? (regarding the Mummy) Typical Osiran simplicity…
Sarah: A man has just been murdered!
The Doctor: Four men, Sarah. Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself, and they’re merely the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped.

And this lovely understated character moment is pretty much all they have to say on the subject (Uncle Terrance, in his novelisation, has a typical go at softening up the Doctor by suggesting he is simply hiding his real feelings of grief, but none of that is there in Tom Baker’s performance). This week, on the other hand, felt like the latest in a long series of episodes primarily about the Doctor’s niceness, or lack of it, with long sequences of dialogue only present to allow this to be discussed. I felt like shouting ‘Come on, give it a rest!’ at the screen as the episode went on. Again, rather than choosing a story and then developing it in an organic-feeling way, it seems like they are just selecting a set of cues (emotional this time) and constructing the plot to emphasise them.

Possibly I’m just too in love with an old-fashioned style of storytelling. But it does seem to me that one of things distinguishing Old Doctor Who from New Doctor Who is that what was left as implicit subtext in the original show is dragged centre-stage to become an actual theme in the current version (or, to put it another, it still feels like fanfic – high quality fanfic this week, but fanfic nevertheless).

Apart from all this the rest of the story was a mixture of good and bad stuff, probably inclining towards the good. Most of the guest performances were decent, with even Frank Skinner thankfully understated, although some of the dialogue and line readings were a bit too 2014 to really beĀ convincing. I’m still not sure what’s going with Clara’s characterisation – is she supposed to seem as unreasonable and manipulative as she’s coming across at the moment? Any moral high ground she may once have occupied has slid out from under her feet, and it’s hard to see how she will be able to criticise the Doctor in future without seeming like a dreadful hypocrite. Still, I’d rather they made kick-Clara episodes than kick-the-Doctor ones, all things considered, and next week’s offering looks rather intriguing.

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