Frank Skinner’s been around for about as long as most of us can remember, first becoming known as the friendly face of Laddishness back in the 1990s. It was a time of football, fannishness and foxy ladies, epitomised by on the one hand Loaded Magazine, and on the other Nick Hornby’s call to arms Fever Pitch. Gladly, Skinner has transcended those tribal times to become a kind of elder statesman of the laid back twinkling variety. A kind of Britpop Terry Wogan. As a Doctor Who fan, he was never quite as much one of the lads as we probably assumed he was anyway, and it’s fortunate for us that when asked, he didn’t mind taking on the role of Kylie Minogue in a remake of Voyage of the Damned. He probably would have found the idea funny, had it been put to him like that.
This is nothing like a Russell T Davies Christmas Special, though, in spite of the cold open reinforcing the B-movie title’s indication that Episode 8 was going to be a mid-series romp. Far from it; as soon as the name Mummy on the Orient Express fades from the screen, we’re in post-breakup territory with the Doctor and Clara, and what follows is painful and sad in all the best ways. Jamie Mathieson’s script, while ostensibly similar in some respects to Time Heist, manages to invert some of what made that so good in a way that improves upon it; the episode also manages to address some of the core concerns of Series 8 without seeming to get remotely bogged down in its ongoing continuity.
We’ve never had an episode that begins with the companion saying goodbye before, a “last hurrah” for her journeys with the Doctor. And anyone who has ever been through a difficult situation like that in real life will recognise the emotions playing out in their opening conversations. Both the actors and the script judge the poignancy required perfectly, and it’s a real shock to realise where the story is going; almost as big a surprise to see Clara in the episode at all, given that we were expecting this to be the Clara-lite episode of the series (in truth, given how she’s removed from the action for a substantial portion of the episode, it probably was; and the Doctor’s presence will presumably be equally as diminished next week – although as both episodes are by Jamie Mathieson, it will doubtless be similarly as well disguised). Rather wonderfully, Capaldi’s Doctor never seems as alien as when he’s being humanised in this way. The bookending scene of the two travelling companions discussing how the Doctor works at the end of the episode are both gorgeously shot (Paul Wilmshurst’s direction is the equal of Douglas Mackinnon’s from earlier in the series), and as much a statement of this new Doctor’s character as similar scenes from The Power of Three were two years ago. At a point two-thirds of the way through the series, it’s a prudently placed re-evaluation of the characters we’re watching, smuggled as it is into the ongoing storyline, and a great reason to keep watching them too.
But we know this isn’t the end for Clara, and throughout Mummy on the Orient Express we’re given – aptly enough – clues and red herrings as to how this particular story will develop and resolve. In spite of seeding Clara’s change of mind throughout the 45 minutes (demonstrating well how difficult it would be for her to leave the Doctor and his adventures behind), Mathieson takes the unfolding themes both of Clara’s lies and of the Doctor’s deceitfulness, and ties them together in a fashion that leaves us with only one conclusion to expect – and then subverts that by having the characters finally be honest with one another. That the balance of Clara’s two lives can be painted so vividly and yet in such shades of grey as they are here is brilliant, and real, television.
As in Time Heist, there are a number of plot mysteries presented in Mummy on the Orient Express, and similarly, how successful the episode is depends upon whether the resolutions meet our expectations. That the Architect was the Doctor three weeks ago was not unexpected, but the question of who was controlling Gus was left unresolved, presumably to be picked up again in the two-part series finale; there are further clues as to what this year’s series arc will concern applied to the rationalisation of the Mummy, and it’s all heading somewhere impossible to predict. Let’s hope Moffat takes it somewhere worthwhile.
In the meantime, the plot of this week’s episode is being driven by the riddle of what the Mummy is and how it functions, and while some of the sci-fi might be gubbins, the explanations given are perfectly in keeping with a Doctor Who universe that includes Deep Breath’s candle-powered robots. The creature itself is quite a creation; swaddled in decaying bandages it is exactly what you’d expect, and yet far more horrific than we might have anticipated in Doctor Who. The mummies in Pyramids of Mars look pretty tame by comparison. But what is perhaps surprising concerning the revealing of the creature’s rationale is the way in which it mirrors Danny Pink’s situation, and more so how this point is left unexpressed. That the Mummy is a soldier, albeit a damaged one, is not a concern for the Doctor in and of itself – and that’s not unreasonable, given how his regard is for its wellbeing or lack thereof. Once again this year, we discover our antagonist is a pawn and an unwilling one, in someone else’s game.
The guest cast, music, cinematography and special effects all combine to provide a rich and entirely agreeable backdrop to the plot, and Mummy on the Orient Express evokes its characters and environment succinctly but effectively. Doctor Who has of late been a striking visual and visceral experience, and the palettes this year are elevating it beyond even recent achievements. This is now the fifth episode in a row to overachieve; it’s possible to have expectations – especially for Doctor Who – that are impossible to meet, but Series 8 has fallen into a groove not just of matching those expectations (often in spite of how high they are) but of exceeding them. Mathieson’s script is streamlined yet character-driven, and full of both scary thrills and indeed genuine pathos, even for characters like David Bamber’s officious but credible Captain Quell.
Steven Moffat has managed to take the unfolding chapter-work that he attempted with the Eleventh Doctor, and enthuse and involve his guest writers and directors to the extent that it’s fitting together and flowing beautifully, and this is another wonderful instalment in the Twelfth Doctor’s ongoing development.
As for Frank Skinner, every story – particularly a story dealing as equally in intellectual concerns as it is in emotional exigencies – needs a solid presence at its core, someone to ground the other characters and to lend a bit of warmth to the screen. He’s no actor, but you know exactly what you’re going to get with Skinner, and he fulfilled the requirements commendably. It was impossible to begrudge him his appearance in the show, and actually, come the end of the episode, it was a real disappointment not to see him take up the Doctor on his offer to stay on. We might have had him pop up once an episode from the bowels of the TARDIS, willing to offer his opinion on whatever plot the Doctor was currently engaged in. He’d have probably found that funny too.