After last week’s episode, aspects of which seemingly half of Whoville had big problems accepting, it must be reassuring for disgruntled fans to get back to the basics with the far more plausible idea of an invisible mummy stalking people on a flying space train. What’s been so wonderful about this season so far is that no matter how outlandish the plots have been, the emotion-driven, personal aspects have been thoroughly down to earth and relatable. A communication breakdown — the inability for two people to understand each other’s position — must be one of the most common causes of emotional stress and pain, and Doctor Who is seemingly devoting an entire season to exploring it through the lens of the fantastic.
After Clara’s blowup, there was every reason to assume she might not feature in “Mummy,” and all of the publicity over the past week seemed to confirm that. Shrewd marketing from the BBC and BBC America folk, who kept Clara entirely out of the picture, right up until the episode aired and she stepped from the TARDIS alongside the Doctor, both dressed to the nines. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, can somebody please release some proper publicity shots of Jenna looking so magnificent and classy in her flapper garb? We want those to make memes we can share back and forth on Facebook. The silver PJs were pretty keen, too. I should go ahead and say this if it isn’t already obvious: I am in companion love with Clara, which hasn’t happened for me since Rose Tyler (and long before her, Sarah Jane Smith). Companion love is potentially dangerous, because you become so invested in the fate of the character, that you begin finding it difficult to imagine the show without her, which is never a reasonable place to be as a Doctor Who fan.
Though some weeks have passed for Clara since the events of “Kill the Moon,” and she’s putting her best foot forward, it’s clear that not only are things not entirely right between her and the Doctor, but that they’re both actively considering this their final adventure together. The Doctor makes note of her “sad smile,” which confuses him. All he wants to do is discuss the universe, yet she needs to get all of this off her chest. He squirms and tries to play it as cool as possible given that he’s ill-equipped to deal with this sort of talk, yet on some level he recognizes how important this is for her. She explains, “I can’t do this anymore. Not the way you do it” with an emphasis on "you," at which point Smith’s amiable face leaps to mind. Subsequently, she recognizes how difficult it is for him to talk about these sorts of things and lets him educate, right up until they learn of the aforementioned invisible mummy and the deceased Mrs. Pitt.
Doctor Who takes another stab at Agatha Christie after the fourth season’s weak celebrity historical, “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” and while this is far superior to that offering, it doesn’t quite reach the towering classic series heights of 1977’s “The Robots of Death,” a serial by which so many others are measured. But “Robots,” with its 90-minute running time, had the ability to flesh out its many characters, whereas “Mummy” doesn’t quite have that luxury, and yet the episode does a decent job of imbuing Captain Quell, Professor Moorhouse, Maisie, and Perkins with just enough character to make it count. Frank Skinner’s Perkins in particular is a guy I’d really like to see again, and as an actor he’d jump at returning; he’s apparently been angling for years to get on this show. John Sessions, as the voice of Gus the computer, seemingly channeled Eddie from Hitchiker’s and HAL from 2001 simultaneously, which is no mean feat.
A mere murder mystery would not be Doctor Who, so, obviously, this episode has a mummy, which is so much more effective than a giant CGI wasp. It’s also more era-appropriate; though it’s set in space, the episode is supposed to evoke the late '20s or early '30s — the latter time period being the one that produced the classic Universal horror film starring Boris Karloff. A lumbering, lurching retro-mummy is the perfect creature for this story, as it needs no explanation, until at the very end when it does. The 66-second rule and the onscreen countdown clock ultimately pay off because they don’t allow the episode to cheat, and every single kill sequence is ripe with the tension of expectation. Yet the deaths appear quick and painless; the “family” aspect of the series kicking in just in time.
Clara’s burgeoning friendship with Maisie becomes central to the plot when the Doctor realizes the woman’s to be the mummy’s next victim, and he insists that Clara lure her to him so he can observe her death at the hands of the mummy, which requires uneasy subterfuge on her part. Upon the realization that the Doctor knew all along that this jaunt would be “a thing,” Clara calmly tears into him, and this is surely the final straw. But the Doctor is clever, and in a moment of inspiration he takes on Maisie’s memories so that the mummy goes after him instead. The Doctor surrenders to this ancient soldier (that’s right, yet another soldier), and it salutes him and crumples to dust, not long after which the entire train explodes. The Doctor cleverly saves everyone, except for those who died at the hand of the mummy along the way to his eventual deduction of the situation’s mechanics.
The powerful scene on the alien beach, in which the Doctor explains to Clara that “sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose,” appears to contain the answers to some of the issues that have been plaguing her. It’s the calm, flip side to last week’s meltdown. “Mummy” then puts some serious distance between Clara and Danny, both literally and metaphorically. At the close, upon her apology and subsequent declaration that she actually isn’t finished adventuring, she begins lying to Danny again (and to the Doctor about Danny, as well); again with the breakdown of communication. This can’t go anywhere positive, and might even be serious breakup fodder. Danny’s “guy sitting at home on the couch” routine is starting to wear thin, and not just for viewers, but seemingly for Clara, too. If Danny is to be a part of Clara’s life, he’s going to have to be a part of the Doctor’s as well.
Odds and ends
- This episode was seeded all the way back in the final moments of season five (“The Big Bang”), when the Eleventh Doctor answered the TARDIS phone and replied to the voice on the other end, “An Egyptian goddess, loose on the Orient Express, in space?” Of course, it wasn’t an Egyptian goddess, which makes for some slightly awkward continuity; I am reminded of the discrepancies between the end of Evil Dead II and the start of Army of Darkness.
- This is the second episode in two weeks directed by Paul Wilmshurst, who’s clearly helmed quite the important one-two punch for our lead characters. The script was written by Jamie Mathieson (Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel), who’s also written next week’s episode.
- It was unclear exactly whom Clara was saying “I love you” to on the phone at the end. She was talking to Danny, but looking at the Doctor. There was a peculiar tension between the two leads on this outing, though much of it may have been rooted in the romantic train setting.
- “Well, frankly that would be an absolutely astonishing guess if I did know.” —The Doctor
- That was English pop star Foxes covering Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” at the top of the episode.
- At one point, in a scene between Clara and Maisie, the script acknowledges its own inability to pass the Bechdel test.
- The Twelfth Doctor offers up a cigarette case filled with jelly babies, the Fourth Doctor’s favorite treat.
- The Doctor asks the mummy, “Are you my mummy?” — a reference to Steven Moffat’s first-season script, “The Empty Child.”
- This wasn’t Who’s first foray into mummies; check out 1975’s “Pyramids of Mars,” which is as much of a classic as “The Robots of Death.” Indeed, between the pair, fans of producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s era of the series should have much to appreciate about this episode.