Per the title, Doctor Who again tackles Agatha Christie, placing The Doctor in the role of Hercule Poirot. It’s framed as a bittersweet adventure since Clara (looking quite amazing in her flapper attire) makes it clear to The Doctor from the get-go that this will be their last “hurrah.” She’ll be leaving the TARDIS for good once they return to Earth. This makes for an even more intense emotional ride as, in the course of the episode, her fears about The Doctor’s worst tendencies are assuaged then confirmed, then subsequently subverted.
In any case, this seemingly relaxing adventure becomes (predictably) yet another life-and-death scenario when The Doctor and Clara discover that someone or something has been killing train passengers. Yes indeed, even as an advanced space train, The Orient Express can’t escape its destiny as a place where people seem to find themselves bereft of life.
That being said, this set up is less of a “whodunit”—we know from the beginning that a mysterious mummy figure is killing the victims—and more of a “whatisit.” The mummy creature is unique in that it appears only to a specific person—and only them, no one else can see it—then proceeds to kill them in exactly 66 seconds. Here again, we have another high-concept monster that’s become synonymous with the Moffat era (though, it should be noted, this particular episode was penned by Jamie Mathieson).
As The Doctor tries to figure out the situation by interrogating the train’s crew (including a highly intelligent, if slightly malevolent-seeming engineer named Perkins), Clara finds herself helping out a traumatized passenger named Maisie, whose grandmother was the mummy’s first victim.
As with “Kill the Moon,” this entry makes an abrupt left turn halfway through the runtime. The Doctor eventually deduces that, far from being a luxurious means of travel, The Orient Express is some kind of experiment designed by an unseen being named GUS to determine the exact nature of the mummy and how to stop it. Whatever the creature is, it appears to have something to do with an old, burnt scroll that hangs at the end of one train car. Also, it seems to target its victims based on their health, whether it be physical ailments (diseases, organ transplants) or psychological ones (trauma, stress, etc.).
With the situation out of his hands, the only thing The Doctor can do is have each of the mummy’s victims relay details about the monster in the 66 seconds before they are killed. Were this David Tennant’s Doctor, one could hear him whispering, “I am so sorry…” to the passengers as they look to him, desperate for help in the moments before death. However, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, as pointed out by one of the victims, has little time for such beside manner. Thus, when The Doctor orders Maisie to the main train car under the guise that he knows how to save her, one could legitimately believe that The Doctor would let her die, simply to get more information.
Instead, once the mummy appears to Maisie, The Doctor captures her fear and transports it into his mind so that the creature will appear to him. Now face-to-face, The Doctor quickly figures out the truth—the “scroll” is actually a burnt flag and the mummy is actual a former soldier who has never allowed to be laid to rest. The Doctor proclaims, “we surrender,” and the creature stops, gives him a salute and dissipates, leaving behind the alien technology that allowed him to transport and appear only to specific people.
In the end, this fantastic, suspenseful premise can’t help but then feel somewhat undermined by this underwhelming ending. Rather than being related to the situation at hand, the solution comes so out of left field that it’s hard to walk away with a satisfied feeling. It almost feels as though, much like with the conclusion of “Robot of Sherwood,” the writers ran out of time and had to concoct a half-baked conclusion to wrap up the mystery. And while with “Robot” it was somewhat acceptable, given that the episode was a light-hearted lark, “Mummy on the Orient Express” seems to demand something a bit cleverer.
One plotline the episode gets right is Clara’s gradual change-of-heart when it comes to leaving The Doctor. It starts towards the beginning of the episode when she realizes that, after leaving his orbit, she won’t ever be seeing The Doctor again, not even for occasional meals or visits. The kicker, however, comes near the end when she is able to reconcile the Time Lord’s gruff exterior with his well-meaning intentions. While he may not exactly have the boyish charm of Matt Smith, it doesn’t mean that he cares any less about saving the greatest amount of people he can. “Mummy on the Orient Express” finds The Doctor in a near impossible situation, where he is struggling to find the best route, none of which comes without sacrifice.
There’s also, of course, the fact that traveling with The Doctor, as hinted at in the duo’s final exchange, is just an addictive experience. As past companions have relayed, when you go on an adventure with The Doctor, going back to a normal life is almost impossible. Granted, I’m not quite sure that Clara’s overly enthused declaration that she will stay with The Doctor was the most appropriate way of staging that scene, but it remains to be seen whether this decision is one she will later come to regret.
On top of the general plot, this installment also incorporates some fantastic, fan-friendly references, including Peter Capaldi offering jelly bellies (a la Tom Baker’s Doctor), asking the mummy, “are you my mummy?” (a la the phenomenal Moffat-scripted two-parter “An Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”) and clarification that GUS was the one calling The Doctor about “an Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient Express” back in “The Big Bang.”
Even if its ending is somewhat of a letdown, “Mummy on the Orient Express” represents another fun, classic outing for the 12th Doctor. The fact that I found it to be one of the season’s weaker installments, therefore, should say a lot about how well this season has progressed. Not only has it succeeded in reviving my once-waning interest in the series, but it’s yet another step in cementing Peter Capaldi’s brief tenure as one to be reckoned with.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.