On the face of it, “Mummy on the Orient Express,” Jamie Mathieson’s debut Doctor Who story, reads like a standard episode: Paranormal monster explained as malfunctioning alien technology (the mummy), retro-futuristic setting (the Orient Express… in space), genre-savvy tropes (Agatha Christie-style murder mystery), humor, death, a little bit of corridor-running. This could have been another “Time Heist,” which keeps the focus on the surface plot and the fun of the adventure. It lacks the big emotional centerpieces of “Listen” and “Kill the Moon.”
Just below the surface, however, Mathieson fills in the episode with wonderfully deft little character moments, subtly repairing (or at least superficially papering over) the damage done last week in “Kill the Moon.” The one big misstep, I think, is that this is the very next episode. The forcefulness of Clara’s break-up with the Doctor at the end of the previous episode is somewhat undermined by the fact that we see them civil towards each other in the start of this one. We are told that Clara stayed angry for weeks and that this is meant to be the “last hurrah” before she quits the traveling lifestyle, but lacks the punch that a week with them apart might have had. I don’t think this kills the episode: We see enough of Clara’s indecision throughout the story to get away with it, plus Moffat has largely been more conscientious of this problem this season than in season seven. No longer are we getting huge, life-altering decisions playing off-screen a la Amy and Rory’s divorce. This is a slight wobble that jars the beginning of the episode, but doesn’t overturn the apple cart. After that, we spend the rest of the time with Clara justifying exactly why she reverses her previous decision.
In the meantime, what we get is a lovely little interrogation of why Clara might choose to stay with this man who consistently puts her in dangerous, compromising, and painful situations. Clara is a loving, compassionate, and judgmental person and (as self-described “bossy control freak”) she demands the Doctor be the same. When the Doctor was Matt Smith, this was easy. The Eleventh Doctor has always been extremely likeable, and more to point blatantly likes people. He enjoys them, wants to meet them, loves to save them. In return, he is easy to love. Having been privileged enough to travel with several Doctors, Clara’s other experiences bear this out: The Tenth Doctor is the tortured “man who regrets,” and the War Doctor clearly agonizes over his impossible choices even as his hand hovers over the proverbial Big Red Button. The Twelfth Doctor is something different. From the beginning of this season, the story has made it clear that Clara’s reservations are not with the Doctor’s appearance but with his character. He is rude and cranky. He doesn’t seem to like people much, and doesn’t much care whether they like him. The horrifying suggestion of “Kill the Moon” is that he may not even be all that interested in saving people.
What Clara discovers in “Mummy” is that the previous appearances of compassion and niceness, though genuine, cover the almost pathological drive underneath. The Doctor channels his titular roots as a man of healing in this episode. Bedside manner is all well and good when everyone is safe, but when death is at your door you want a healer first and a carer second. As the Mummy picks off its victims, the Doctor takes advantage of his available laboratory, ruthlessly interrogating the victims for usable data. He tells Clara to lie to Maisie to get her to him so that he can “observe it in action,” to not let her death go to waste. It’s cold and heartless and exactly what they need. As the Doctor tells Clara, in the face of bad choices you have to work with what you have: “I didn’t know if I could save [Maisie]. I couldn’t save Quell, I couldn’t save Moorhouse. There was a good chance that she’d die, too. At which point, I would have just moved onto the next, and the next, until I beat it.” The Twelfth Doctor approaches problems as a scientist and academic, as suggested by his frequent Socratic method-style question and answer monologues. This makes him an interesting partner for Clara who is also academically critical and inquisitive but also critical of his social interaction. She demands perfection, both in the outcome of his efforts and in his methods. The fact that he implicates her in his lies – or as she puts it “makes [her his] accomplice” – is significant, and will be followed up in the next episode. She has a taste of what being the Doctor means: To promise things she cannot promise, to hold lives and faith in her hands.
Critical though they both are, the Doctor and Clara are our heroes and they are compassionate. The Doctor violates his own scientific objectivity by sacrificing himself for Maisie, by making himself the victim. His earlier boast that “one minute with me and this thing, it would be over!” is brilliant because we know it’s true even before we see him do it. This is what separates the Doctor from the rest of the scientists and makes him a hero. Yes, he is brilliant and methodical and cold: But as “Listen” established, he is also kind. His compassion for Maisie compels him to make the self-sacrificial choice, which in turn is what defeats the monster. Indeed, it is his very compassion for the monster which presents the means of its defeat. Continuing the running theme of disillusioned soldiers (and the Doctor’s disillusionment with them), the Doctor identifies with and surrenders to the wounded warrior who is trapped in the nightmare of his own experiences. Embracing his own role as officer (and contrast that to his earlier scene with Danny Pink), the Doctor relieves the weary soldier and accepts his respectful salute.
The Doctor’s display of love allows Clara to show love in return. This Doctor may not always be easy to like, but she can still love him. The bigger question for Clara is not whether she can still love him but how he can fit into her life. We see her startled in the beginning of the episode by the reality that banishing the TARDIS from her life would mean banishing the Doctor:
Clara: I mean, it’s not like I’m never going to see you again.
Doctor: Isn’t it?
Clara: Is it?
Doctor: I thought that’s what you wanted.
Clara: No, what I mean, you’re going to come round for dinner or something, aren’t you? Do you, do you do that? Do you come round to people’s houses for dinner?
Doctor: Of course. Why wouldn’t I do that?
Clara: I don’t know. I thought you might find it boring.
Doctor: Is it boring?
The sad thing about endings is that it means things have to end. This is largely why, for me, goodbye scenes are sadder than death scenes. Death is final, the point at which things stop, without the possibility of continuation (in this life anyway, but you know what I mean). Goodbye doesn’t quite mean that. Goodbye means things carry on without you. It means that the Shire has been saved, but not for Frodo. It means generations of kids will board the Hogwarts Express, but not Harry. It means Peter has come back, but not for Wendy. It’s why every single Russell T. Davies finale could just as well be called “The Parting of the Ways,” and why they all destroy me. The Doctor knows this. It’s why he never reads the last page, why he “doesn’t like endings.” Clara hasn’t realized this yet. She still hopes to have her cake and eat it, too. She wants her double-life, like Oswin the souffle chef/communications officer (or girl/Dalek) or Clara the barmaid/governess. She wants all the millions of lives that have been scattered across the Doctor’s timeline. In the end, she is (as she notes) “addicted”: She wants to give him up and can’t. She thinks she can keep doing both. “As long as you get me home safe and on time, everything is great.” All of the risk, none of the consequence. The problem is that the Doctor often makes promises he’s not sure he can keep.