Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express - "People with guns to their heads cannot mourn."

Mummy on the Orient Express - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #253) | Previous - Next | Index

Mummy via Hartburn
A few too many elisions for my taste -- something "The Caretaker"'s opening montage handled better -- but apart from that, this story accomplished what it needed to: it effectively wove more detail into the soldier/officer thematic arc (I say "effectively" not knowing how it's all going to play out in the end, but in terms of this story standing on its own while fitting into what we've seen of Series 8 so far, it works); it gave Capaldi and Coleman moments to shine, together and apart, likewise their characters; the mystery was intriguing and did the thing you knew it had to do -- when we hear "... on the Orient Express," we know somehow every passenger is involved, but it can't be that they all did it (unless we're persuaded they weren't in collusion first); the aesthetic supported the story, and was well-executed -- this milieu is something we expect done well, a go-to era to recreate that's in the BBC's wheelhouse; and it delivered on it's Hammer-level horror aspirations.

The first review I read of this story called it the first dud of the season, I'm not finding that review again now so I can't pick at its reasons, but that's an assessment I find unconvincing. (I loved "Kill the Moon," but I can at least understand the cases people have made it against it. They didn't tank the story for me, but for someone more science-minded, it's transgressions against everything we know about how physics explains how things work are understandably more off-putting.)

The elisions that felt like cheats were: first, Clara popping out of the TARDIS in flapper garb without so much as a flashback to the moment the Doctor came back and she decided to step into the TARDIS again was too important not to see, or at least see how the two felt about that moment. Yes, there's a distance there now -- and we'll come back to what Clara's telling herself, the Doctor, and Danny to keep seeing wonders -- so we are seeing some of the emotional fallout, but curiosity about the how of them making up enough to travel together again feels like a loose thread; and second, the how of how they got off the train before it blew up. For the latter, I suspect that was for the dramatic purpose of putting weight on the Doctor's flip remark that he may have just lied to Clara about saving everyone, to make us wonder if really he didn't, but again that felt to me like a dramatic cheat. As a viewer, knowing whether he did or didn't already and then watching him test Clara's reaction by implying he may not have would have been just as a satisfying and a less gimmicky bit of storytelling.

Clara's "addiction" to travelling. I'm not sure I'm going to like how this plays out, bad decision-making and lying yourself and others to cover for addiction sure looks like the seed of her eventual doom. Or, her recovery with Danny down the line being her character's 'out' from travelling both feel like unnecessary and ill-advised forays into a theme of addiction. Hope to be proved wrong here. The one thing that gives me hope at this point that we're not going to descend into after-school special addiction is bad moralizing is that Clara didn't register as having a mental impairment that the mummy would sense as a weakness. Of course, that could be because she didn't succumb until after getting off the phone with Danny ... ?

For Classic and Nu Series fans, the Easter Eggs here were numerous (more than I list here)  and, I thought, just the right touch of fan service without killing the momentum. Jelly Babies in his cigarette case made me smile. Wearing One's outfit. The high tech sarcophagus and the mummy teased the possibility of the mummy being the ravaged, shambling remnant of Sutekh from "Pyramids of Mars". The call back to the phone call at the end of the "The Big Bang" on the other hand not only went straight over my head. When I read reactions from folks who picked up on Eleven talking to Gus there by the reference to an ancient Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient Express, in space," I just rolled my eyes. Happy to admit that may be more a problem with me than with the whole resolution of that arc, I just had no patience for it and find it frustratingly incoherent, if lovingly constructed. Why would Gus being talking about a goddess when that clearly wasn't the case? Lying to make the Doctor more interested? Fine, but we shouldn't have to patch over the inconsistencies to forgive too-clever-by-half allusions.

I don't grok the complaints we read about the Doctor being too cold, too alien, too pragmatic, too much of an asshole. In every instance of his being cold in the face of death, I believed he felt it, but was doing what he saw as his duty of care in the moment. People with guns to their hands can't mourn, after all. We know the Doctor doesn't see humans as puny and insignificant, that he values life and is trying to save the lives of everyone he can, but it pains him that he can't save them all. He's not just blustering or posturing when he says he wants to step in and see the mummy so he can take it on, he means it, and when he's ready, he does it, putting his own life on the line for the passengers.

What I'm not sure how to read is his lessening aversion to contact. In the first half the season, every touch seemed to pain him, now he's shaking hands, linking arms, etc. with folks left and right. I was never sure if the aversion to touch was post-regeneration driven, or meant to signify a process of withdrawing into himself. Now that it's stopped I think either reading is possible and suggests he's fully over the regeneration pangs now, or that he's stopped (or completed) withdrawing, and is fully comfortable in his own skin again.

Stray Thoughts:

When I watch Disney shows with my kids, I often find myself distracted by how many folks are standing around in scenes as window-dressing, never uttering a line even when one of the leads interacts with them. (Watch an episode of Mighty Med, if you can stomach it, and count how many people say nothing even when engaging with one of the leads. Once you start it becomes utterly distracting.) I've concluded that's Disney cost-cutting, not having to pay extras as actors by ensuring they don't do any line reading.  This episode made we wonder if the CGI train and city at the end made it necessary to cut costs by having a bunch of scientists stand around and contribute nothing to the investigation.

There's an interesting observation in the AV Club review of this story that rang true for me but hadn't bubbled up from my subconscious yet: " ... this season in general and this episode in particular feel like what the 80s production team were trying to pull off with Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor but did not have the skill or the vision to pull off". I don't go on and on every week about how brilliantly I think Capaldi is playing the Doctor, how he's weaving elements of past incarnations into his own, in part because I think it goes without saying, and partly because I'm conscious of the fact that if I say "OMG you guys Capaldi is fantastic in this one" every week, it loses its punch. The deviousness of Seven, the aristocratic arrogance of One, the monologuing and absurdist humor of Four, are all there, but as part of a coherent whole, a whole new Doctor we are still getting to know. To the extent he's Six though wasn't apparent to me, but puts his performance in the context of a production team doing what might have seemed both inadvisable and impossible, executing on the vision of an tremendously intelligent, brash Doctor that can rub viewers the wrong way yet still be recognized as a good man.

Frank Skinner & Foxes. I see myself as a litmus test here of whether these are stunt-casting distractions or instances of celebrity being successfully integrated into the Doctor Who story in which they're playing a role. I've heard of Foxes, but (I'm old) couldn't pick her out of a crowd before this episode. If I'd heard of Skinner, I've forgotten about it and where I may have seen him before. The singer in the train fit the atmosphere and I was impressed with how she sounded, not knowing she was celeb cameo, so if it bothered you, I take that to mean you couldn't shut off your "Look, it's Foxes, that's distracting!" knee-jerk reaction. (Is that rude of me to say? I'm prepared to accept criticism of my responses and reactions, I think the rest of you should be as well.) Ditto with Skinner, his Chief Engineer stood out from the rest of the cast, but if any failing there, it's that there were too many non-speaking characters churning through the scenes, and only Maisie and the Captain apart from Skinner's Perkins even got a chance to approach three-dimensionality.

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