Stylish, intelligent and literate, Capaldi's eighth story is one of his best so far.
|Start the clock. (Image: BBC)|
Rip-off or homage? That depends what Doctor Who stories we're talking about. For the ones everybody likes that borrow excessively from other fictional sources, such as 'Planet of Evil', 'The Brain of Morbius', 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' and 'The Unicorn and the Wasp' – it's homage; for the ones people don't like – 'The Invisible Enemy', 'The Androids of Tara', 'Fear Her', 'The Lazarus Experiment' – it's rip-off.
I've got no objection to Doctor Who – or anything else – doing this if it results in something new, interesting and entertaining. There's no denying that the starting point for 'Mummy on the Orient Express' is the old Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas-starring chiller Horror Express (1972). That featured an extra-terrestrial creature, buried in prehistory, coming back to life during a train journey and slowly wiping out the crew and passengers.
Boy, did new writer Jamie Mathieson and director Paul Wilmshurst come up with the new, interesting and entertaining goods. Despite the thumpingly literal title, this was a story full of wonderful dialogue, well-defined characters, surprising twists in the plot – the decompression of the kitchen carriage to force the Doctor to stop talking to Clara was especially effective – and gripping jeopardy. In short, this story was the complete opposite of last week's.
At its best, Doctor Who has always made its fictional worlds believably real. Classic series writer Robert Holmes used to do it with the detail and colour in the lines for his characters, and Mathieson has clearly learned from the master. A whole future Earth civilization was sketched in via conversations with Maisie, Perkins, Captain Quell and Professor Moorhouse. And it was memorable dialogue, too – a real joy to listen to. Apart from 'Midnight' (2009), I can't remember a modern Doctor Who story that's had so much for its actors to say.
What I also loved about this story was that the Doctor could only get the information to beat the mummy, 'the Foretold', through people dying as the creature attacked them. That steadily ratcheted up the tension – the killing sequences where the seconds counted to zero were a stylish, heart-in-mouth touch – and exposed the Doctor's callous side as Perkins (Frank Skinner, playing himself very well) pointed out. It was also great to see the Time Lord working out the nature of the Foretold from the clues he gathered. Last year, the Doctor would have just glanced at the sonic screwdriver, neatly undercutting the suspense, any need for ingenuity on the writer's part and shortening the episode by two minutes.
The terrific cast were all on side with the idea of 'the 1920s in space'. The production was like a 1960s or 1970s story, as character actors rather than big names (apart from Skinner, and John Sessions as the unctuous computer Gus) were cast, with versatile performers such as David Bamber, Christopher Villiers and Daisy Beaumont rising to the occasion so well, that you cared what happened to each and every one of them. No small feat in just under forty-five minutes.
People will moan about Clara's about-face to travelling with the Doctor but I think her change of heart is realistic: we've all been in relationships with the wrong person and wanted to end it, then talked ourselves into giving it another go. The scenes on the beach and in the TARDIS at the end between the two old friends were subtly and sensitively directed, emphasising just how good Capaldi and Coleman are together.
How this all pans out will depend on whether or not the Doctor's 'cover story' about rescuing everyone from the Orient Express is true or not – Clara and Perkins were both unconscious so he could just have saved them... after what happened to the Half-Face Man, nothing's certain. Clara's comment about the Doctor being addicted to time travel is especially illuminating, as I'm starting to think it isn't the Time Lord who's got a problem. Tantalisingly, there were other unanswered questions: the Foretold was another 'soldier' (tying in with one of this year's running themes) and just who got all those experts together to study it? My money's on a certain Mary Poppins lookalike.
Next to 'Deep Breath', 'Mummy on the Orient Express' is my favourite Capaldi story so far. It's positive proof that the standard of script writing on this series – though it might wobble from time to time – is still a quantum leap on in quality from last year. Mathieson is a real find and I'm really looking forward to 'Flatline' next week, which looks like a particularly psychedelic adventure in the style of Sapphire and Steel (1979-82).
And finally, having the pop singer Foxes on board the Orient Express crooning her way through Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' would, in my day, have been like having Kate Bush (ask your mum) pop up in 1979's 'City of Death' singing 'Can't Buy Me Love'.
It's good to see that Doctor Who can still get down with The Kids.