Dear Steven Moffat: Mummy on the Orient Express

DW MOTOE

Dear Steven,

When I imagine the Doctor Who writers’ room I see a tiny office, about the size of a centenarian’s prostate, with a couple of wretched chairs; torn seat covers and wine stains. On one side of the room there’s a stand with a giant writing pad affixed with a saltire bulldog clip, on the other a tombola. I see you with a cigarette filter and a worm of ash hanging from your trap, while your collaborator anxiously tries to brainstorm the best ideas he can (there’s a ‘no feminoids allowed’ sign on the door) using whatever three things he’s plucked from the revolving drum of damnation. Last week Peter Harness got “moon”, “spiders” and “abortion”. This week Jamie Mathieson pulled “Poirot”, “Egyptian Mummy” and “Outer Space”. When he begged you for a forth spin you gave in and he was relieved. Then he got “Frank Skinner”. I suppose you should be careful what you wish for.

I’ve heard it said, and I’m sure you have too, that genre splicing is one of the show’s strengths, after all the sky’s the limit, right? But watching “Mummy on the Orient Express”, I did wonder if Mathieson struggled just a little bit, as he tried to cobble together a story using his four plucks from the drum. I couldn’t help but think that if he’d written the episode the other way round – you know, thought of a compelling story first then grafted on genre elements afterwards, it might have felt more substantial.

Look, I like Poirot, okay? I enjoy an arrogant older man questioning a group of ciphers in period dress, solving a mystery and unmasking a killer. I like mummies, though not the one from those Stephen Sommers’ movies obviously. I like space. And yes, I can even admit to a closet appreciation for Frank Skinner, who was so dry in this story that my lip cracked watching him. All the elements were fine, yet the episode was no greater than the sum of its highly familiar parts. Instead of an involving horror story we got something that resembled ITV’s Sunday night schedule hijacked by the staff of Forbidden Planet.

I don’t want to sound like one of the records you’ve broken when tossed at the heads of those unfortunate scribes that questioned why they had to use the tombola, but I think this was the latest exhibit in the ever-building case against 45 minute episodes. What a shame, thought I, trying to work out where I’d seen David Bamber before, going on to realise that he was your Matalan version of Basil Fawlty in Chalk, that the fallout from last week’s breakdown in Doctor-Clara relations wasn’t explored in greater depth. When you get the monster of the week out of the way, plus the supporting characters we care nothing about, and factor in the exposition, there’s about 5 minutes left for the stuff that matters.

Poor Jamie Mathieson had no choice but to use great economy in trying to unpick why Clara Oswald, the world’s luckiest school teacher, with all of time and space at her fingertips and a legitimate excuse to spend time away from her grey sky boyfriend – a woman with 12 weeks holiday a year from the obnoxious, impertinent kids she’s forced to teach as it is, with an exclusive option to extend her breaks indefinitely, would consider giving that up because the Doctor had forced her to take on a little responsibility.

We got something about him having been “high handed” and “arrogant”, and she was quick to point out that she didn’t hate him, which was big of her when he’d liberated her from that impossibly dull existence, but I have to say I still didn’t get it. Yes, the new Doctor’s a callous pragmatist that’s decided at 2,000 that he no longer has the inclination to sugarcoat bad news and play the matinee hero, but that makes him enigmatic, surely? Isn’t this a guy you’d want to be around, if only to study? Alright, she doesn’t feel a hundred percent safe around him anymore, but one’s tempted to say, “grow up Clara – the universe is fucking dangerous. If you want a life without risk, guaranteed to calcify the soul, bed in with Danny and spend your weekends visiting the Tate Modern, listening to his hollow pronouncements on art, reading the Guardian to one another and drinking cocktails from old jam jars at a North London gastropub decked out in fairy lights.”

Even at the end, when the Doctor had once again treated Clara to, what from her perspective would be a thrilling adventure, full of novelty, awe and intrigue, she was still labouring under the impression that she was in a position to dictate the terms of the gig. The Doctor had to keep her safe and get her home on time, she said. He agreed, because he didn’t want to hand her over to the man who’s fast becoming the Yoko Ono of this band, but he secretly must have been thinking, ‘no problem, Clara – I’ll tell all my enemies and the as yet unknown horrors of the cosmos to take it easy on us as I wouldn’t want you to miss sex and pudding night with your yawn of a boyfriend.’

I like Clara, Steven. She’s alright. But as we’ve discussed in previous weeks, she is indulged beyond belief. When I hear she has expectations of the Doctor coming round to dinner from time to time, should they part company, and watch as she makes it clear that her ongoing participation in the Doctor’s adventures is conditional on him fitting whatever he’s got in the pipeline around her social life, I long for the days when the TARDIS’s navigation systems were shot, when the Doctor had no fucking idea where he’d end up week to week, and a companion got on board with the understanding that getting back to where they were picked up was a matter of luck rather than choice, and in all likelihood they’d part company with the Doctor a trillion miles and a thousand years from where they started. When it was over, no, they wouldn’t be seeing him again (probably) and no, he absolutely would not, and would not even contemplate, popping round for dinner from time to bastard time. He’s a crusading Time Lord not Joanne from teacher training college.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: “Our Last Hurrah” would have been a better title for this episode.

P.P.S: I hate the fact that Clara can call Danny from any time and place in the universe on her mobile. I know the RTD era established this was possible, because apparently the TARDIS has better network connectivity than all earthbound providers combined, but it’s stupid and it takes something away from the closed world of the Doctor and his companion. When they’re away I want them to be fully away – isolated and divorced from the mundane realities of the audience. Can you imagine a companion picking up a phone in the classic series and placing a reverse charge call to their mother in Eastbourne from the Cornubula Mines on Xendaris? No, me neither.

P.P.P.S: Jelly Babies in a classic cigarette case. Nice touch.

P.P.P.P.S: “I’m disappointed by your breakfast bar…and all of the dying.” My priorities would be in that order too.

P.P.P.P.P.S: A couple of nice call backs this week, one to “The Doctor Dances”, ‘are you my Mummy?’ and the other to Red Dwarf. It’s about time we saw more hard light holograms.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S: For all its dramatic weaknesses, I thought this was Capaldi’s best airing of the new Doctor’s character yet. He’s a bit of a cold fish but there’s more flavour in the meat than we’ve had for some time.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S: Who sent him those free tickets, Steven? Missy? I’d never accept a freebie from a stranger. Well, not unless it was something I really wanted to do, like take a trip on a vintage train hurtling through space.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S: Hang on, hold everything – stop the clocks: was this the episode when the, I thought we’d all agreed, sacrosanct rule that there’d be no unspoken sexual tension between the Doctor and Clara got blown out into space? Was she looking at the Doctor when she told earthbound bore Danny that she loved him? Why all the relationship innuendo in this episode, did Mathieson not get the memo? And now Clara’s lying to her beige beau, are we hurtling inextricably toward our ultimate nightmare: a love triangle finale?

The Adventures of Clara and her Geriatric Pal:

Doctor Who: The Youthful Years

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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