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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Doctor Who blogging: “Mummy on the Orient Express”


[previous: “Kill the Moon”]

warning: spoilers!

I’m about to say the saddest thing I can imagine saying about Doctor Who: I just don’t think I care anymore.

I have never felt like this before. Of course a show that has run for this long will have its ups and downs. But now that every episode is apparently meant to be epic and every season has a big arc, it’s tough to say, after a crappy episode, “Well, next week’s will be better.” This is no longer a guarantee. Next week’s episode might be completely awesome. But I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that.

Sure, this episode was better than last week’s abomination, but not by a lot. We’ve had the Titanic in space, so now we get the Orient Express in space… inhabited by another gimmicky monster. The Weeping Angels, say, might be gimmicky, but there is something elemental about their gimmick, about the fact that you cannot ever look away from them if you want to live, for all sorts of reasons (statues aren’t supposed to move; looking away from monsters or shutting our eyes in terror is the natural instinct in such a situation). But, you die 66 seconds after you see the mummy? That’s not particularly scary. It’s not even particularly interesting. And there’s no even halfhearted attempt to technobabble it away that arouses anything like an elemental fear in us.


So we’re left with the Doctor running around in a place he cannot leave solving a problem no one else can solve — a pretty traditional format for the show, and that’s fine. But there is little resolution here. The Doctor stops the mummy that is killing people for no apparent reason, and there’s no explanation for why it has been doing this for 5,000 years, and it’s not even an especially compelling process involved in stopping the rampage. Oh, I know it’s all going to be down to Missy and her Heaven somehow — because everything is epic now, and “someone of immense power and influence has orchestrated this whole trip” — but if I end up not caring what Missy is up to, does it make a sound? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with an overall arc, but each episode should stand on its own, too.


Once upon a time, it didn’t matter if the monster was cheesy and made of garbage bags and didn’t have a decent motivation, because the Doctor was fun to be around. Now, he suddenly has no understanding of emotion — Clara’s “sad smile” throws him for a loop? — which he never had any trouble understanding before. And he is wildly inconsistent, again in no way that is absorbing: after all his ragging on soldiers, suddenly he’s sympathetic to the plight of an old soldier? The Doctor may have been less of a jerk this week than he has been recently, but he still doesn’t feel like the Doctor. He barely feels like a reasonably well-written character of any description.

And then there’s Clara. After she told the Doctor, at the end of the last episode, to fuck off, and she did not appear in the trailer for this episode, I thought maybe we’d get an episode with the Doctor on his own. He could certainly use the breathing room — maybe even find a new companion who would actually enjoy life in the TARDIS! (Though those are rare on the ground lately: the chief engineer, Perkins, declines an invite. What is wrong with these people?!) It almost seems as if Clara was shoehorned in here: she spends a lot time on the phone with Danny or locked in a room away from the action — while the Doctor has plenty of people to bounce exposition off anyway, including the one scene in which he has a conversation with himself — so it’s not like she was needed, in the sense of helping to advance the narrative.

So why is Clara here (apart from contractual obligations on the part of Jenna Coleman)? To rehash the debate the show has been having this whole season about whether the Doctor is a good man and whether Clara wants to travel with him anymore, and coming to conclusions about these things based on absolutely nothing we can see. If the season wants to be about that, then we just skipped over what could be the most important chunk of it in between the previous episode and this one, the bit in which Clara decides that she doesn’t hate the Doctor but isn’t able to travel with him anymore (even though traveling with him was “good times”). I mean, we didn’t need an episode in which Clara mopes around and can’t get out of bed because she misses the Doctor, or whatever. And even though it’s clear that the Doctor has been off doing stuff on his own, we didn’t necessarily need an entire episode with him on his own. But the time apart and how it impacts them does need some dramatization, I think. Without that, Clara’s changes of heart are coming out of nowhere… and they are giving me whiplash. And we get another one at the end of the episode, when even though she’s angry — again! — at the Doctor for lying to her about what he’s gotten them in to, and even though he basically tells her that yes, he is “heartless” (even though his follow-on about hard choices is far from the definition of that), she changes her mind again and announces that she’s cool to keep hanging out with the Doctor.

And she lies to Danny about it. I guess having access to a time machine makes that an easy lie to get away with… or so she hopes, perhaps. I hope that comes back to bite her on the ass.

But, you know, I’m not sure if I care what happens to her at all at this point.

Random thoughts on “Mummy on the Orient Express”:

• Would you like a jelly baby?


At this point, though, nods to the past are not doing the show any favors.

• So, Clara was sleeping and the Doctor didn’t want to disturb her so he just scooped her up and carried her hundreds of feet away from the TARDIS and deposited her on some rocks to continue her nap?



[next: “Flatline”]

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