We are huge Christie fans at Tor Towers and thoroughly enjoyed this week's episode of Doctor Who, Mummy on the Orient Express. This homage to the undisputed Queen of Crime opened with a murder, and several followed onboard the claustrophobic Orient Express, in this case a sleeper train travelling through deep space. Though at times Capaldi felt more Sherlock than Poirot, we enjoyed his gathering together of the suspects in a drawing room denouement.
Our resident Whovian Paul Cornell is in NYC this week, but author Adrian Tchaikovsky has kindly stepped into the breech. Here are his five brilliant things about this week's episode.
- I like Capaldi’s irascible Who very much, but there have been times when his outbursts of temper have seemed to exist more to remind you he has them, set pieces apart from the action. Here, I felt the episode and the man fit perfectly. He got to be Good Doctor and Bad Doctor in a way that entirely complemented his situation. The dialogue was clever and fun (“I remember when this was all planets,” while looking out over a black hole) and - my word! - wasn’t there more than a shadow of Tom Baker in there, in his little monologue before he goes off to investigate the first death. The tension between him and Clara, their on-again/off-again friendship, which had promised to be somewhat forced, had a natural and believable feel to it, and Clara’s indecision came over well. Clara’s moment of choice when she’s asked to lie to Maisie was a powerful one. Good to see Frank Skinner turning up, and the cast as a whole was excellent.
- The Orient Express, a train in space, everyone dolled up in their roaring twenties get-up. The trailer for this episode made me cringe. What a daft idea, however is that going to work? And yet it did – what should have been corny was a fascinating setting – precisely because of where the 20th century simulation left off – the unnervingly cheery computer, the little half-hidden pieces of high-tech like the door locks, the singer performing Queen because someone’s got their space-age historical research wrong…
- There are many ways to make a mummy. The monster, as a trope, is now overly familiar to us, to the point of becoming a figure of comedy. It is an easy monster to throw out lightly, as “just one of the Universal Monsters”, its scariness diluted by endless repetition. But that was a scary mummy. The technical wizards behind the creature deserve a solid slap on the back. It was genuinely nasty in look and manner – the real inexorable curse-summoned killer. “That’s hide-behind-the-sofa-horrible,” my wife says, when we get a look at it. And it was.
- But most of all, it wasn’t what the monster looked like that made the episode work. The whole idea of the mummy, how it worked, the mythology built about it, and the final denouement of what it was – that brought the episode to life. Horror is all about isolation from any form of help, and this was a monster which pushed that idea a long way: a creature only you can see, so that even in a crowd, the victim is instantly isolated and alone. There was an almost M.R. James sense (aside from the fact that the train was full of nervous 1920s-looking academics) to the disconnect between the experience of the victims and of the onlookers. And the final resolution was very satisfying. It made sense, both in a solid SF way, but also in a “lifting the curse/laying to rest” way.
- And last of all, a mystery. Who was behind it all? Who made Gus (whose menacing cheer had a real Douglas Adams vibe)? Tune in next week? I will!