Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 8 “Mummy on the Orient Express”
October 11, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
“Hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like.”
Every relationship is a collective delusion (which is not, it should be clarified, the same thing as a shared delusion). The idea that you know where you stand with anyone, that you know what they think of you, or even for sure what you think of them, is a nebulous one, the sort of bedtime story we tell ourselves to make falling asleep easier. A breakup is, on one level, a process of waking up from that collective delusion. In any relationship, but especially in one with romantic dimensions, there exists an idealized picture of the other person in your mind. If you’re clever, you know intellectually that picture rarely bears any strong resemblance to the real human you know, and yet, there’s always some slippage. It’s easy to forget someone else is more than a collection of your ideas about who they are, and that sometimes, your ideas are entirely wrong.
“Mummy on the Orient Express” touches on all of series eight’s major themes, to the point where it may just contain the best encapsulation of many of this season’s ideas. That it does so while also telling a classic Doctor Who story that tweaks several different genres and let’s our madman with a box loose to play with them all makes it a great episode, another in a long line of superior stories in what is shaping up to be an all-time great season of the show (it’s early yet to definitively call it my favorite, but if the next four episodes are all terrible, I think it would still be in the top three). The Doctor and Clara are on a train in space trying to stop a Mummy that kills people 66 seconds after they see it. They are also in the middle of a break up, even if neither one of them will call it that, and even if they aren’t quite ready to admit it.
One of this season’s major themes is Clara’s evolution on The Doctor, the way she develops to understand his morality and viewpoint well enough to see that she cannot abide by it in the long term. This also underscores the shift in characterization the show has been pulling off with The Twelfth Doctor, who is more alien and more impenetrable than his immediate predecessors. There’s a moment, early in the episode, where The Doctor chooses not to knock on Clara’s door when he is about to go monster hunting, although inside Clara is wishing to do just that. It’s a small moment, but it is basically the whole season in miniature. The Doctor doesn’t understand Clara, not really. And despite his greatest affectation—the way he pretends not to notice or care about anyone around him—The Doctor has really been trying to understand Clara. He asks a lot of questions, he tries to do what he thinks she wants; this is a man who is fighting to make a relationship work, even as it has gone far outside his depth. The Doctor’s tools fail him tonight, at least in part because you can’t sonic a human being, and psychic paper is a delusion it is possible to wake up from. The Doctor can’t make this work, and he’s giving it as much effort as we’ve seen him give anything.
The season has also returned, again and again, to the concept of soldiers and The Doctor’s hatred of them. At first, it came across as a pretty glib and deeply unfair characterization of military life (as well as a very deep conviction for a man who has worked quite frequently with UNIT, even after they’ve committed genocides), but the deeper we get into the season, the more depth and nuance this idea has accumulated. Danny pointed out that The Doctor is an officer back in “The Caretaker,” and Clara by analogy one of his soldiers. There are two soldiers in tonight’s episode (and a brief appearance from Danny, of course), and each of them gives us a better idea of what the show is getting at. Captain Quell asks “What kind of soldier would I be, dying with bullets in my gun?” and unconsciously underlines something about soldiers The Doctor hates. Because Quell has a weapon, he will use it, and to its utmost. The resource he has is a recourse to violence, and he’s well trained to go there first, and go there often. What lurks beneath this, though, is the idea that Quell is using whatever tools are available to him to survive, regardless of the cost. And that doesn’t sound like something The Doctor is opposed to. It sounds like exactly what he spends “Mummy on the Orient Express” doing.
The second soldier is the titular Mummy, who is a slave to the tech implanted in him thousands of years ago, a tool that has continued to persist even after its function has ceased. The Mummy lurks on the edges of this episode because Doctor Who needs monsters, but it serves a more important purpose: The Mummy is every companion The Doctor eventually abandons. “A job like that changes a man,” Perkins says when The Doctor offers to take him on as a companion, and The Doctor agrees. He fashions his companions into perfectly efficient tools for whatever task he has before him in the moment, but eventually he discards them. And though he might claim otherwise, The Doctor very rarely comes ‘round for dinner. Just ask Sarah Jane Smith.
Finally, we arrive at The Doctor’s existential crisis. This season has been about The Twelfth Doctor learning who he is, and he encapsulates perfectly a point I made back in my review of “Deep Breath.” The Doctor becomes who he is by acting in the world, by moving through it and having effects on others. One of the core tenants of existentialism as peddled by Sartre is the idea that “existence precedes essence”—you are not a good person because you think nice thoughts and feel nice feelings, you are a good person once you have done good, and once you continue to do that. Being is acting, and we become by taking action. The Doctor tells Clara, in a moment of seemingly unvarnished honesty, “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.” Every conversation you’ve ever had about the futility of free will melts away when you’re standing at the ice cream counter, picking chocolate or vanilla. You can think yourself to death about how whatever you want has already been decided for you and you can’t even effectively rebel against it, but eventually, the people behind you in line are going to start eyeing their pitchforks. You’ve got to make a call. You have to choose. You’re not a chocolate person until you order the chocolate. When you pick the vanilla to prove you’re unpredictable, that too effects the way you would view the choice in the future. The Twelfth Doctor is many things, some good, and some bad, but he is definitely an existentialist.
All of these are little details peppered throughout the episode, adding serious thematic depth to a story that really probably could have gotten away with just having Peter Capaldi deliver monologues full of hairpin emotional turns and get excited about there being a mummy around. Capaldi’a joy is contagious in a very different way than Matt Smith or David Tennant’s (seriously, I can’t get the way he delivered “The moon’s an egg” out of my head over a week later), and the way he tears into the rollercoaster that is The Doctor’s thought process is just phenomenal. He makes the moments when The Doctor is alone, just arguing with himself absolutely electric to watch, and given a few different stimuli at the same time, The Twelfth Doctor just tries to check things off in whatever order they come to him. It’s an “I’ll respond to your fourth point, but first, here’s an idea on your seventh and some thoughts on the second” style that fits The Doctor’s manic genius to a tee.
Yet though “Mummy on the Orient Express” explores a lot of major themes and has a blast with its premise, this is fundamentally an episode about a relationship coming to an end, but not quite yet. Danny pointed out to Clara last week that she wasn’t done with The Doctor yet because she was still angry, and she slowly learns that lesson over the course of this story. Clara doesn’t choose to stay with The Doctor because he’s changed or redeemed himself. She chooses to stay because she wants to, and because she wants to be with the man in her head, the idealized version of The Doctor, the one that doesn’t really exist. Last week, Clara woke up to the delusion she has been living in. At the end of “Mummy on the Orient Express,” she willfully chooses to close her eyes to the truths she has learned. She wants to want this, and she lets herself, even though it is a bad thing, even though it is toxic, even though it is likely to destroy her. Clara and The Doctor are breaking each other’s hearts in slow motion; they just refuse to admit it and don’t want it to stop quite yet. Delusions are fun. They make you think the world can be a certain way, that everything can click into place just how you’d like it. Delusions are neat. They comport with your vision of the world completely and don’t make you do any of the hard work. Reality is messy, full of people who aren’t quite what you want and never will be. Reality is full of pain, heartbreak, and difficult compromises to make. Delusions make the choices for you. Reality makes you choose. And we all have to wake up eventually. Pretty soon, it’ll be morning in the TARDIS.
- “The sad smile. It’s like a smile, but you’re sad. It’s two emotions at once. It’s like you’re malfunctioning.”
- “I remember when this was all planets as far as the eye could see…”
- “She said ‘Hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like.’” “Were people really confused? Because I’m confused…”
- “People do just die sometimes. She was over 100 years old.” “Says the 2,000 year old man.”
- “I’m not a passenger. I’m your worst nightmare.” “A mystery shopper. Oh great!” “Really? That’s your worst nightmare…Ok, I’m a mystery shopper. I could do with an extra pillow and I’m very disappointed with your breakfast bar. And all of the dying.”
- “Seriously, we’re stuck in this carriage, probably all night, and all we can talk about is some man?” Oh look, Doctor Who acknowledges its Bechdel problem, only to pretty much not do anything about it. Also, when they were not talking about The Doctor, they were talking about shoes, so…yeah, I am just going to let that one lie there for a while.
- “It’s immortal. Unstoppable. Unkillable.” “Could we get a new expert?”
- “You can’t end on a slammed door.” “Yes you can. Of course you can. People do it all the time. Except of course when they can’t. Life would be so much simpler if you liked the right people. The people you’re supposed to like. But then I guess there’d be no fairytales.”
- “That was my best guard.” I love this joke. It’s such a small moment, but played perfectly.
- “You know Doctor, I can’t tell if you’re a genius or just incredibly arrogant.” “Well, on a good day, I’m both.”
- “You sir, are a genius. That explains everything! Apart from it is and how it’s doing it. Sorry, I jumped the gun there with the ‘you’re a genius, that explains everything’ remark.”
- “I’m the Doctor and I will be your victim this evening. Are you my mummy?”
- “So you were pretending to be heartless?” “Would you like to think that of me? Would that make it easier?”
“Mummy on the Orient Express” touches on all of series eight’s major themes, to the point where it may just contain the best encapsulation of many of this season’s ideas.