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In “Mummy on the Orient Express” the Doctor and Clara take a farewell trip on the Orient Express… but since this is Doctor Who, it doesn’t go as well as anyone expects.

This week’s Doctor Who takes us to space again with a trip on the Orient Express… but in space. Sure, it’s a hokey concept, but it’s the kind of hokey concept Doctor Who has made an art of over the past 50 years, and this week’s episode is genuinely great.

There are a few small snags in the narrative, but, overall, they don’t hamper the enjoyment of it. If you’re a fan of the show, you’re likely to dig this episode. If you’re a fan who’s ready to give up on the Capaldi era, this episode is really a must-watch — and I suspect if it had been placed earlier in the season, fans (and Clara) wouldn’t have gotten to the breaking point with Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor as an ass all the time.

Want to catch up? You can see new episodes of Doctor Who on Saturday nights on BBC America — though cord-cutters will have to pick up the current season on iTunes or Amazon Instant. If you want to catch up on earlier seasons, they can be found on both Netflix and Hulu.

To get you up to speed for this episode, in the last episode we saw:

  • The Doctor take both Clara and Courtney, one of her students, on a trip to the moon.
  • The moon is actually a space-dragon egg that’s about to hatch. No, really.
  • The Doctor leaves Clara and Courtney alone to figure out what to do about this, because it’s a human problem. Kind of rude, Doctor, since they have no other way off this moon/egg.
  • Clara tells the Doctor, in no uncertain terms, that she’s tired of his crap. Teary-eyed, she tells him to go away…. which, considering Clara and the Doctor are together again in this episode, apparently doesn’t stick for long.

Now, on to the latest episode: Mummy on the Orient Express, which takes place three weeks (for Clara) after Kill the Moon. Spoilers follow!

The surprising part of this episode’s opening isn’t that the Doctor and Clara are on a space train: it’s that, after last episode, that Clara’s around at all. Fed up with how the Doctor was putting people at risk without any seeming concern, Clara had finally told him to get out of her life. She’s apparently back for one goodbye trip, but it does take some of the punch out of her standing up to the Doctor.

The trip is clearly planned: unlike so many adventures where they stumble into something, both Clara and the Doctor are dressed for the occasion. Though it’s a space train, it’s a space train that’s immaculately themed like the classic earth train… though while the Doctor is explaining this to Clara, we hear a jazz singer (a cameo by British musician Foxes) in the background doing a rendition of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. It’s shaping up to be a fun trip… except someone has already died on the train, and neither the Doctor nor Clara can leave well enough alone.

This is probably for the best as more victims follow, each seeing a mummy advancing towards them which isn’t visible to anyone else, and each dying after exactly 66 seconds (a timer appears on-screen every time there’s a new victim). The Doctor immediately leaps to the idea of the mythical creature The Foretold, and fortunately there’s an expert on the myth — and lots of other scientists — on the train for the Doctor to talk to about the monster of the week. (He offers Professor Moorhouse, the myth expert, a jelly baby… and unlike Tom Baker’s Doctor, Capaldi keeps his carefully organized in a cigarette case. Classy.)

But how did this train wind up so packed with scientists and experts in the first place? It’s by design: someone’s trying to figure out the nature of The Foretold by gathering everyone together. After the second death, the computer — Gus — turns the train car into an advanced laboratory and tells everyone they’re to research The Foretold and attempt to capture it. And if they don’t? It will kill them off one by one.

The Doctor’s uncaring nature is on full display here: when Moorhouse is targeted by the monster, the Doctor tells him he’s probably going to die but that he should “make it count” by telling them as many details of the monster’s appearance as possible. Bodies continue to drop, but the Doctor’s focused on solving the problem and doesn’t have time for sympathy. When he figures out the next probable victim and tells Clara to bring her to him, he encourages her to tell her anything that will work, even that he can save her, in order to get her there.

It reminds Clara — who’s spent a good part of the episode sounding like she’s trying to convince herself of why she doesn’t want to travel with the Doctor — of just why she doesn’t want to do this anymore. But as it turns out, the Doctor does manage to save the last victim and defeat the monster of the week. In a nice twist, the low-tech looking mummy is actually a high-tech soldier, kept alive and defending his flag — an artifact brought on the train to summon him — by a gadget implanted in his chest. When the Doctor surrenders, the mummy crumbles to dust, leaving only the gadget behind.

This is important, because Gus has decided that now that the mystery is solved, he doesn’t need the scientists anymore… and removes the air from the train compartment everyone is in. While everyone around him is collapsing, the Doctor fiddles with the gadget, thinking he can use it to teleport all of them to the TARDIS. He tells Clara he only needs “a couple of minutes” and not even seeming to notice when she passes out.

Is this the end for Clara… and the rest of the train’s passengers? No: Clara wakes on a beach, wrapped in a blanket, to see the Doctor scribbling in the sand with a stick. The danger’s passed: he saved everyone and dropped them off on the nearest planet. When she asks if he was just pretending to be heartless on the train, he counters with another question: would it make her feel better to think that?

He admits he didn’t know if he could save the woman on the train — and so he didn’t promise to. Sometimes the only choices there are to make are bad choices, “but you still have to choose.” It’s our first look into the reasoning behind the Doctor’s new behavior this season and it makes sense, especially in the context of this episode where there’s really no time to mourn over the dead if he’s going to save everyone else.

So the Doctor does care about the people around him, even if he doesn’t show it, and he tries to save them, even though he can’t always. This season has given very little time for character development for the Doctor, instead focusing heavily on Clara, but it’s still surprising that we’ve managed to hit the end of episode 8 before the show managed to address this question: one that both the audience and Clara have been struggling with. It’s a great character moment, but it does feel like it should have been slotted earlier on.

Still, the Doctor’s moment of honesty is apparently enough for Clara to forget her reservations about traveling with the Doctor — even though she’s told Danny she’s done, which is sure to become a problem later. But when she tells the Doctor, he lights up with such a bright smile, it’s kind of hard to blame her for making such a rash decision.

Bottom Line: “Mummy on the Orient Express” was a fun episode that mashed up sci-fi and historical drama in a way that really only Doctor Who can do. Add that to a great setting, a compelling mystery, and some good twists — both for the story and the characters — and you have a very solid episode.

Recommendation: Whatever your feelings about season 8 so far, this is a great episode of Doctor Who that’s well worth watching.

[rating=4.0]

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