The first thing I did after watching Mummy on the Orient Express was rewatch Mummy on the Orient Express. I know, in terms of endorsements that one’s a proper cliché – so good I sat through it twice! – but it’s true, and I just want to get it out there plainly and simply that I loved this story. Jamie Mathieson’s tale is the most delicious Doctor Who so far this year. So rich, so plush an experience, you can almost feel its velvety drag on your skin. And all under the banner of a terribly wonky name, the worst ever parody of the Agatha Christie title – a particularly hard-won accolade when that field also includes the 1985 ITV Christmas special Minder on the Orient Express.
So great were the excitements I found therein, I didn’t even care when the titular terror was revealed to be yet another piece of computer hardware gone wrong. That’s become such a go-to plot point for latter day Doctor Who that when our hero was required to talk us through this mechanic yet again, he did so as if hashtagging it. Okay, everyone, from hereon in it’s #MalfunctioningTech.
There we have it, probably the last thing you’re going to read here that’s at all snippy about this train ride. And so would those not wishing to travel on board today’s service to Giddy Praise, calling at Over-Thought Character Analysis and Listy-Bit-Near-The-End, please alight now.
Of the many, many elements that enchanted me about Mummy we’ll start with the greatest of all: The rehabilitation of the Doctor. Over the preceding three episodes I’ve felt a creeping disillusionment with how the programme’s been portraying the character. This, it must be emphasised, is something separate from Peter Capaldi’s performance, which has been dynamic and true to his scripts. But increasingly we’ve been learning that his incarnation is grumpy, remote. Disdainful. Prejudiced? There have been one too many times where the Doctor’s stepped over a dead body with just a tart line to mark the person’s passing, as if this kind of callousness is appealing to we viewers. It’s easy to equate that kind of insouciance with cool (in the aesthetic sense). It requires far more invention to make someone who’s good-hearted and optimistic also seem charismatic. But that had always been one of the core joys of Doctor Who.
Thankfully Mummy puts those pieces back together again. Not only do we see the Doctor being massively Doctorish – looking like season seven Jon, sounding like season 14 Tom, thoroughly commanding the room and… jelly babies! – but, following the blow-out in last week’s episode, he’s finally given space to account for himself.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a Doctor who’s desperate to repent, and when Clara first goes there, saying how she felt she hated him, he just wants to natter on about planets. It’s later, as they talk more calmly, that it finally comes out. “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones,” he reveals, elucidating a little on the huge burden that comes with walking in eternity. For me – for Clara too – it makes sense. I get him now. I hope, however, that this exchange will also serve to humanise the Time Lord a little more. The smile he flashes when his companion reveals she’s going to stick with him (“Really?!”) is a promising start.
So here he is, like the Doctor again, delighting when Captain Quell wonders what he’s a doctor of (“Now there’s a question that’s never asked often enough!”) and really pumping the story. “What’s the most interesting thing about the Foretold?” he asks Professor Moorhouse, without any preamble. Alongside that he’s also getting to be very much his own man. Addressing the monster as “son” – “They’ve worked on you, haven’t they, son?” – may seem a tiny detail, but I can’t imagine any other incarnation doing it. It’s a bit of a Glaswegian idiom anyway, but it also speaks of Capaldi’s portrayal, of his Time Lord being the patriarch at the head of the table.
Around him fits the kind of environment that just works so well for this show, an abstruse setting with a recognisable hierarchy, where everyone’s locked up together and quickly going mad. Lurching through that comes another genre entirely in the form of the mummy, realised in commendably meaty form. The thing is terrifying. It’s probably that detail of its gammy leg, foot dragging, that seals it. Whenever the creature appears, up pops the onscreen clock, a gear-change in the music and it’s not long before the flickering lights that precede it all become positively Pavlovian.
Believe me, I could keep going. Like the clappers. Murray’s Gold score is exquisite, the kind of journey around the woodwind section that was quite the thing for zhooshy TV dramas back in the 1980s. There’s a sublime cast, blessed with the most characterful of faces, from the wonderful Janet Henfrey as Mrs Pitt, who somehow seems to have the countenance of a woman with evil in her heart, to David Bamber, whose puckish ears and nose are semaphore for ‘redoubtable’. And the jokes! “Are you my mummy?” asks the Doctor with maximum naughtiness, and then Frank Skinner (his Perkins joins the rarefied list of should-be companions) performs a lovely little rug-pull following our hero’s dismissal of the Foretold: “You’re relieved soldier!”/”Phew! He’s not the only one!”
I’m sorry. I realise I’m now just listing things, desperately trying to cram in as many of the pleasures from Mummy on the Orient Express as possible. That’s because, some hours later and 900 words on, I still feel excited by this yarn. What a wonderful journey for all of us. Do you know, I think I might just slip back on board for another spin around the tracks…