I’ll admit it. I was worried there for a while.
I feared that Series Eight would be when Doctor Who finally lost its magic for me. But after a shaky start, Capaldi’s Doctor has finally come into his own in this genuinely thrilling episode.
It’s not that this series has been terrible. Time Heist was good fun. And Listen was whirring along quite nicely, sticking to the trend of Doctor Who being at its best with a low budget and a cracking script, though the resolution really let things down. So, while the first few episodes have been alright, they have lacked that certain something that distinguishes good from great.
That all changed with ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ which, naff title aside, was a classy, well-paced piece of work. A rich old lady on a luxury train is killed just 66 seconds after encountering a creepy Egyptian mummy. However, she was the only one who could see him. A hallucination produced by her oxygen-deprived brain, perhaps? Well, the train is actually a space ship and this is Doctor Who, so my money would be on no.
First praise has to go to writer Jaime Mathieson, who has done a superb job helming his first episode. (I can’t help but feel relieved this was a Moffat-free zone.) Putting a time limit on events can seem a cheap way of creating tension, but here it worked really well, with how different people reacted to their final countdown giving neat little insights into their character. The whole episode was well structured, and the resolution was both clever and just a little bit affecting. I especially enjoyed the Doctor’s conversation with Clara on the beach, and the Captain’s shock at learning that his best waiter was, in fact, a hologram.
The performances were uniformly excellent, with GUS proving to be the most effective villain we’ve encountered for a while. Frank Skinner also pops up as an engineer who knows more than he’s telling. Some have criticised his acting, but I honestly thought he was fine. Though, I’ll admit, I was relieved when he declined to take a trip on the TARDIS. Capaldi has been solid all series, but was on particularly cracking form here, and seemed to relish the opportunity to finally take centre stage.
The production values were excellent. I loved the Bioshock-esque 1920s feel and the attention to detail. The costumes were also great, particularly Clara’s stunning black and gold beaded dress. The Doctor’s outfit was beautifully balanced: genuinely smart evening suit teamed with an anachronistic and slightly silly neck tie. Also thought the jelly babies in a cigarette case was a lovely touch.
Issues? Well… Clara is still annoying. Seriously, woman, are you staying or going? And, fundamentally, I just don’t know how we’re supposed to feel about her. I assume we’re meant to sympathise at the human cost of being a Companion. But to be honest, I’m finding all that to be just a little bit tedious. I want all of time and space, and thrills, and (yeah) a bit of whimsy. Instead I’ve got a Guardian-reading schoolmarm telling snide jokes and stopping to give a lecture every 15 minutes. She started off as plot device, and for me, that is precisely how she’s stayed. Just a few episodes ago, Clara was willing to annihilate her very existence to save the Doctor. But we’re now meant to believe that she – for, as far as I can tell, no real reason – is angry enough with the Doctor to contemplate leaving for good? It just doesn’t ring true.
I can cope with wonky sets and wonkier science, but I need characters I care about. Preferably flawed, likable and occasionally brilliant. But, most of all, they have to be capable of growth, and I don’t think Clara is. Every companion I’ve met has been forced to grow up by their time on the TARDIS. Rose fell in love, and then lost it. Martha matured enough to walk away from a situation that could only cause her pain. Donna saved the universe and paid a terrible price. The Ponds love for each other was tested, and found to be true. But has Clara grown at all? She has met the Doctor as a child. She has told Danny she loves him. She has seen a T-Rex in the Thames, and an alien hatch from the Moon. But, for all her fine speeches, I’m not convinced that Clara has changed at all. Which, for me, is a problem. And it could also be the reason that, rumour has it, this is to be her final series.
However, whatever my reservations about Clara, they were nowhere near enough to detract from what was real return to form for the Doctor. With my faith restored, and Mathieson penning next week’s episode as well, I will most definitely be tuning in again.
PS. Frank Skinner as the almost-companion made me wonder…
As a child of the 90s, all the Companions I’ve seen have been female (Rory only stayed for Amy, so he doesn’t count). How do how do you think a male Companion would get on? Has it worked in the past? What would the dynamic be? And am I on the money about Clara, or just writing nonsense? Do let me know your thoughts!