“Doctor Who” does bottle episodes like “The Walking Dead” does zombies or the “Real Housewives of Insert City Here” does catfights. Enclosed space? Check. Minimal but high-caliber cast? Check. Monster menacing said cast in said enclosed space? Check.
It’s not the first time the Orient Express in space has been mentioned — there was an Egyptian goddess loose on the train during Matt Smith’s time, which we disappointingly never got to see — and here it lives up to its promise. (It’s a shame we didn’t get a shout out to the Doctor’s adventure with Agatha Christie in “The Unicorn and The Wasp,” but the pure Poirot-ness of the first two-thirds of the episode almost made up for it.)
Of course it isn’t a luxury train at all, just a lab with a restaurant car, and everyone there has been lured by the mysterious Gus to solve the mystery of a mummy that’s only visible to the person it’s going to kill in the next 66 seconds. One of my main complaints about this season is that the plot has come secondary to the wisecracking, but this is a chocolate box of an episode with so much to choose from.
The titular mummy is suitably terrifying, but it’s the disembodied voice of Gus who’s this episode’s real Big Bad and we’re left none the wiser about what he really wants. One thing remained unexplained — if everyone on the train was relevant to the experiment and the train was really a lab, what was Perkins the engineer doing there besides being an adorable reference to “The Railway Children”?
Perhaps it’s my innate mistrust of Frank Skinner — a British comedian who is unfunny at best and gleefully nasty at worst — but I think we might be seeing him again. Skinner’s cheeky chappie shtick has always grated, so if Perkins turning down his chance to travel with the Doctor is misdirection, he could make a very compelling villain. If not, I’ll just have to go back to assuming that Skinner is secretly evil in real life.
This is also Clara’s final fling with the Doctor before she settles down for a life of teaching and Danny Pink — not that Samuel Anderson is a bad second choice) and she can’t hide her wistfulness. Jenna Coleman is flawless in flapper gear, adding 1920s detective to the list of Parts Jenna Coleman Needs To Play After “Doctor Who,” and this episode gives her a chance to shine.
In the end, she isn’t any more ready to quit the Doctor than he is to quit her, but it’s all going to be fine… so long as he returns her to the right time and place. This has shades of Amy running away from her wedding in Season 6, but here Clara’s trying to have the best of both worlds and her eventual spectacular failure will make excellent but heartbreaking viewing.
Jamie Mathieson’s script references classic moments from the series’ past — jelly babies from Tom Baker’s tenure in the TARDIS, bubble wrap that’s actually used as bubble wrap instead of a budget-friendly monster costume, and they make the “are you my mummy?” reference from the Eccleston-era episode “The Doctor Dances” so Twitter doesn’t have to. Meanwhile, the mummy’s true identity is, at this point in the season, sadly predictable. I like a good theme as much as anyone, but the constant presence of soldiers, good and bad, is enough to make me go on a one woman peace protest outside the BBC.
Mathieson also wrote the next episode, “Flatline,” making me wonder if this is a two-parter in disguise. With four episodes to go if we’re going to hear from Gus again, time is running out like a old woman in front of a life-sucking mummy.
A hugely enjoyable return to form, but one that never explains the one big mystery — on a train full of archeologists and alien experts, where was River Song?