Mummy on the Orient Express

Blogging Doctor Who, New Series 8

 

 

Clara's Choice

How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm

(After They've Seen Paree?) — Joe Young & Sam M. Lewis

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"Who are they, and what are you talking about?"

"The Elves, sir [...] Wonderful folk, Elves, sir! Wonderful!"

"They are," said Frodo. "Do you like them still, now you have had a closer view?"

"They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak", answered Sam slowly. "It don't seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected — so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were." — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Image: Bodies float in space. Screenshot from 'Mummy on the Orient Express'.The Doctor sees the costs of his mistake. Screenshot from "Mummy on the Orient Express". Doctor Who copyright © 2014 BBC.

Does anybody remember the tenth Doctor's palpable disappointment when Rose Tyler, now trapped on the Earth of another dimension, told him, "Yeah, I'm — I'm back working in the shop."

"Oh," said Ten, tight smile belying baffled disappointment. "Well. Good for you."

When Rose laughed and told him to "Shut up!" we saw Ten's heart begin to mend as she explained she'd signed up with the local version of Torchwood. "I think I know a thing or two about aliens."

"Rose Tyler!" said Ten, as if witnessing the resurrection of a loved one, "defending the earth!"

Whatever his flaws, Russell T Davies' understood that basic human truth: that experience — any experience — changes a person; and understood its corollary, that an extraordinary experience must change a person irrevocably. Like an encounter with faerie, a run-in with the Tardis can be wonderful, but it is perilous. Many of those who see the blue box do not survive the meeting. Of those who do, none emerge unchanged.

(There are exceptions. The tragedy of Donna Noble was that she did emerge unchanged. Entirely against her will, the Doctor saved her physical life, but at the cost of all she had experienced in his company. We wept, because the Donna we knew was dead in every way that mattered, to us, and to the Donna that had been.)

Steven Moffat's Who is an entirely different animal. Just as it dispenses with science and morality, so too does it dispose of cause and effect when it comes to his characters. In Moffat's Who, only the Doctor matters. Companions are but symbols and props, and secondary players don't matter at all (need I bring up the girl in the refrigerator again?) As such they change from episode to episode according to the needs of the plot, then change back again when that exigency is served.

So Rory spent 2,000 years guarding a tomb as a plastic soldier? No worries! I'll be back to normal by next episode! What's a little immortality among friends?

Or take River Song. Introduced as a distaff Indiana Jones, she becomes the woman who waited — living out her days in a prison cell for the privilege of spending (some of?) her nights with her beloved husband.

So it is with this year's ostensible arc and its equally ostensible protagonist, Clara Oswald. For no discernible reason, the one-time Impossible Girl has settled down as a schoolmarm, romantically involved with the blandest man in the history of television. ("A train in space?" quoth Clara's Danny Pink when she tells him of it. "Sounds pretty cool." Get my defibrillator, Ma! I'm-a comin'!)

No wonder she can't give up her weekend adventure habit, as if the Tardis were a tour-bus for hire, and she a callow heiress playing at being a travel-writer on a part-time basis.

Still, the official series-long narrative insists Clara has found the Doctor off-putting this year. Last week she yelled at him and told him to go away and never return.

Clara's unease sounds plausible enough in synopsis, but until now has not been credible, just as her anger at the end of "Kill the Moon" made sense only if you could drown your disbelief in the nearest crater full of amniotic fluid. (In the same way, her romance with Danny might be a Good Idea, but what has appeared on screen lacks any hint of chemistry.)

But with one swell script, Jamie Mathieson threatens to redeem all the junk that came before. In "Mummy on the Orient Express", shit (as they say) suddenly gets real.

Yes, "Mummy" is marred by the pedestrian direction of Paul Wilmshurst, and by an all-too-familiar monster-of-the-week plot that is too easily resolved by a magic word to supplement the Doctor's magic screwdriver. But at least the solution doesn't directly contradict basic common sense nor any information we had been given earlier.

And in any case, the monster — the Foretold — is only a maguffin. The real story is Clara's.

Despite last week's blow-up, Clara has agreed to join the Doctor for a "last hurrah". In return, the Doctor has promised her an uneventful trip, a ride aboard the Orient Express (in SPACE!) during which Clara can say goodbye — to the Doctor's life, if not necessarily to the old Gallifreyan himself.

But the Doctor has lied to her; someone has been trying to get him to board that train for some time and so he has every reason to expect danger. And as it happens, the first body appears only minutes before the Tardis materializes aboard the train's baggage car. The elderly Mrs. Pitt has died while pointing at a mummy that no one else could see.

The Doctor shrugs it off. "Might be nothing. Old ladies die all the time. It's practically their job description."

Image: Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  Screenshot from 'Mummy on the Orient Express'.Peter Capaldi could have shot Liberty Valance.
Image: Photo of Jimmy Stewart in 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'Jimmy Steward would have made one hell of a Doctor.

Mathieson's story is dense with that kind of wit, and with delightful asides, from the tip of the engineer's cap to E. Nesbitt in Frank Skinner's Perkins, to Peter Capaldi's masterful homage to the Fourth Doctor.

Capaldi (who, apropos of nothing, here looks more like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than he does Tom Baker) offers a master class in how to impersonate another character without losing sight of your own. Twelve channels Four without distracting from the story at hand at all.

I digress.

Mathieson's script boasts a more or less creditable plot and almost entirely credible character development. (Danny Pink's bizarrely incurious former soldier is the exception. Whether Steven Moffat scribbled in Danny's lines after the fact or Mathieson just couldn't get a handle on that character's non-existent personality, I leave to others to judge.)

The important bits — the Doctor and Clara bits — have the uncomfortable ring of emotional truth.

Clara not only realizes that the Doctor lied to her about the train, but that he lies to her throughout the story. And more, that he able to callously use those around him to achieve what he deems the greater good.

The critic "Patches365, with whom I usually agree, certainly sees Clara as a victim in this episode, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. "If this season does NOT culminate in a recognition of Clara's emotional trauma due to the Doctor's behaviour and the Doctor requiring some kind of attitude adjustment because of it, then I'm done. I'm just done. This series is becoming way too uncomfortable to watch and the characters are too unlikable for me to give a damn what happens to them."

I'm won't argue the discomfort of another, but I don't share it. To my mind, "Mummy on the Orient Express" doesn't present an abusive relationship, but it does present a deeply unbalanced one.

Can Clara trust the Doctor? Should she trust him, even if — as he claims at the end — that he was making the best of a bad set of choices?

That's no easy question; travelling with the Doctor is dangerous.

Perkins makes the point explicitly, when he turns down the Doctor's offer of a long-term position aboard the Tardis. No thank you, says the engineer. "That job could change a man."

In "Mummy on the Orient Express", Twelve echoes not Four, but Seven, and his ruthless destruction of Ace's faith in him at the climax to "The Curse of Fenric". You're nothing but an emotional cripple! he told the teenager, taking her apart like a small child's puzzle.

Was Ace involved in an abusive relationship with a father-figure or was she freely choosing to swim in waters she could not fathom?

Of course, no relationship is completely equal. Each of us carries an ideosyncratic load of strengths and weaknesses. We can come close, but we can never have a perfect balance of power — not between friends and not between lovers. And if we can't do it among ourselves, how could a 30 year-old woman possibly enter into an equal relationship with a 2,000 year-old time lord?

"I don't age," Ten once told Rose. "I regenerate. But humans decay. You wither and you die [...] You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can't spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on."

Moffat has hinted at the conflict throughout this season, but only this episode is written well enough written that we can believe in it.

As Ace realized, so Clara finally sees: the Doctor may seem clown or bumbler, frenetic man-child or charismatic loner; but what he is, is alien, an ancient being of vast perspective. Not omnipotent, nor even omniscient, but very smart and very, very experienced.

No matter how much we — or Clara — might wish it, there can be no equality between Doctor and Companion. There can be affection, there can be respect, there can even be love, but the greater knowledge, perspective and power, always belongs to the Doctor.

Mathieson's story allows us to believe in Clara's crisis of comprehension. And, if we believe, we care. If we care, me must wonder: should Clara keep travelling with the Doctor? If it is our judgement she should not, then what does it say about her that she decides to go on? Can she freely choose?

I believe that she can and that she does. Whether she makes the right decision is not so clear — the lies she tells in declaring it suggest it is not.

Patches365 sees in "Mummy on the Orient Express" a metaphor for a "battered wife", and has no faith that Steven Moffat can bring that metaphor to a redemptive conclusion. I see an attempt to ask whether attempting greatness is worth the risks of failure. And I share Patches365's doubts that Moffat can complete that story properly.

Image: Photo of Clara and the Doctor on rocky beach, with Tardis and alien city in the background."Weren't we just on a train?" Screenshot from "Mummy on the Orient Express". Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by BBC.

I never believed in the Impossible Girl, nor do I believe in this series' Normal Girl With An Addiction. But, for 45 minutes, I did (and do) believe in a pretty good story about a young woman confronting the fact that her travelling companion is, simply put, beyond her capacity to judge.

Before Clara makes her choice, she awakens outside of a city on an alien world. The Doctor tells her that the others are safe, that he has saved everyone he could. Clara clutches at that straw. "So you were pretending to be heartless."

"Would you like to think that about me? Would that make it easier?" the Doctor counters. "I didn't know if I could save her. I couldn't save Quail, I couldn't save Moorehouse, there was a good chance that she would die too. At which point, I would have just moved on to the next, and the next, until I beat it. Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose."

"Mummy on the Orient Express" offers no comforting moral nor satisfying comeuppance. Jamie Mathieson's tale is a good one in large part because it is just a tale: a story about one woman and a choice she must make. Judgements are left to the freedom of the viewer and I, for one, am grateful for that liberty.

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Edit, 2014-12-10: "Curse of Fenric" originally read "Curse of Fenwick". Thanks to Kit for taking the time to point out the error. Pedants are always welcome at ed-rex.com.

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I'm going to sound like an

I'm going to sound like an Internet Pedant, but it's the Curse of Fenric, not Fenwick.

(It was my first exposure to Doctor Who, and it's still one of my favorites.)

Welcome, pedant!

You're quite right and I appreciate the correction. (I swear, I didn't have The Mouse That Roared in mind! At least, I don't think I did ...)

Meanwhile, I'm more than a little impressed by how right you were when you identified this series' Big Villain as "Evil Mary Poppins". How (sadly) right you were!

Yay you liked a thing. (I

Yay you liked a thing.

(I have, of course, loved everything this season, but this episode was probably the strongest.)

My one disappointment was Clara's line at the end that Danny is okay with her travelling with the Doctor. If anything, it suggests an even more toxic relationship than the one she has with Twelve—honey, if your boyfriend is not okay with you saving the world on a regular basis, he is not a good boyfriend. Also he gets zero say in the matter. I was reading it as her making an obviously lame excuse for changing her mind, but given that we find out in the next episode that she's been lying to him and he actually is a factor, ugh ugh ugh.

But the rest of it, loved, loved, loved.

"Yay" is right

Liking the thing is a fucking relief, is what it is. Though I'm backpedalling just a little in terms of its precise level of goodness. "Flatline" is making me re-evaluate.

On the other hand, "Flatline" dealt expanded on Clara's lying rather nicely. Leaving aside the fact that her dishonesty (along with her job and her boyfriend) came out of nowhere and don't make any sense in terms of her previous stories, I have no doubt that, now Jamie Mathieson's off the case, that Steven Moffat will fuck up all the decent characterization Mathiesson handed to him on a silver platter.

Ahem. But I'll always have Twelve's fingers as he channelled Four.

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