The Doctor and Clara enjoy one last outing together on a reproduction of the Orient Express in space. While everything seems fun and relaxing at first, it soon becomes apparent that there’s a mummy on board the train which can only be seen by the people who are about to die by its hand. Each victim has only sixty-six seconds from first seeing the mummy until the moment of their death. The Doctor and Clara must discover how to gather information and stop the mummy before it works its way through all the passengers.
An old woman is killed by a mysterious mummy that only she can see. Shortly afterwards, the Doctor and Clara arrive on the Orient Express wearing period fancy dress, each trying to make the most of what is meant to be a final outing for the duo. The trip is meant to be a fun and relaxing way to spend some time together and say goodbye, but they both quickly suspect that there’s more to the old woman’s death than meets the eye. The Doctor tries to ignore it, but talks himself into investigating. Not knowing how to approach Clara during this awkward time, he opts to investigate on his own. Clara is also intrigued by the situation and also sets out to investigate. Clara gets trapped in the baggage car with the old woman’s daughter, Maisy. Meanwhile, the Doctor meets Perkins, the train’s engineer and clever busy body, the Captain of the train, an ineffectual leader who turns a blind eye to the danger, and Professor Moorhouse, an expert on the legend of the Foretold. The Foretold is a mummy who can only been seen by its intended victims and takes sixty-six seconds between first appearing and finally killing its target. Legend says there is a mystery word or phrase one can use to stop it. While the Doctor finds this fascinating, what he finds more interesting is that Professor Moorhouse happened to be on board to witness the supposed appearance of the Foretold.
As the Foretold keeps racking up victims it is revealed that the train is a simulation and an excuse to gather experts together in order to analyze and stop the monster. They discover that the Foretold is picking off the most vulnerable first, so they are able to project the next victim with near certainty. The Doctor encourages the victims to give as much information about what they see as possible before they die, but otherwise can do nothing to help. He bemoans his inability to see the monster, claiming that if he could see it, he’d be able to solve the problem in a minute. The Doctor discovers that Maisy will be the next victim and tells Clara to bring her to him. She is vulnerable to the Foretold because of the emotional trauma of losing her mother earlier in the night. The Doctor takes all her grief and guilt and transfers it to himself, making the Foretold think that he’s Maisy and allowing him to see it. Finally able to see the Foretold he deduces that it’s an ancient soldier, kept alive by ancient tech, and unable to stop killing until his war is over. At the last minute the Doctor comes to the final answer and yells, “We surrender!” This stop the mummy in his tracks, finally becoming visible to everyone else. He salutes and disintegrates to dust.
The joy of victory is short lived, as the train’s computer finds the survival of its analytical team unnecessary. It starts venting the air from the cabin as the Doctor works to activate the Foretold’s transmat tech. He transports everyone to safety, saving the day. The Doctor explains that he couldn’t risk the Foretold guessing his plan, so he couldn’t tell Clara what he hoped would save Maisy and the rest of the passengers. Clara asks if he just pretends to be heartless. The Doctor clarifies that sometimes all you have are bad choices, but that you still have to choose. He may not have been able to save everyone, but the people who did die saved everyone else. The Doctor asks Perkins to join him on the TARDIS, but Perkins declines. Clara comes to the decision that she wants to continue traveling with the Doctor.
It was a surprise to see Clara turn up this episode, especially after the big fight that she and the Doctor had last time. It was a bit strange at first, both of them sort of pretending that nothing had changed, and it leaves you wondering if you missed something. It is quickly apparent that the two don’t know how to approach this trip or how to interact with each other. This outing is intended as a “last hurrah” for the pair. Clara is happy to be with the Doctor but also sad to know that she’s leaving him, which the Doctor finds difficult to understand – “It’s like you’re malfunctioning!” He complains. The Doctor, in turn, is desperate to make a good impression, to make this last trip special. As the episode continues, Clara becomes more and more unsure of her decision. As Clara talks with Maisy about her relationship with the Doctor, she comments that it would be nice if we liked who we were supposed to instead of the people we do – but if that were true, then there wouldn’t be fairytales. This obviously resonates with Clara, who feels like her life with the Doctor is a sort of real life fairytale, and that the Doctor is a mythic hero.
There is a moment where her worst feelings about the Doctor appear to be confirmed, when he makes her lie to Maisy – telling her that the Doctor can help her – in order to get her to come to him. Clara is outraged at his callousness and his apparent foreknowledge of the danger on the train. Then, of course, he does something unexpected and takes the danger away from Maisy and transfers it to himself. Like the Doctor of old, the one that Clara knows him to be but fears he isn’t, he puts his life at risk to help those around him. Clara had come to think that the Doctor is heartless, when really he’s just faced with bad choices that need to be made. There’s a pragmatism about him that really quite efficiently saves lives, but that makes him seem manipulative and uncaring.
Clara very nearly makes the decision to leave the Doctor like she intended, a choice which probably would have been the best for everyone, but she decides to stay. And I’m not at all certain she made that decision for the best of reasons. They speak of addiction to a way of life, and the desperate mania in Clara’s eyes as she giddily jumps straight from one adventure to another is a little disturbing.
Sad to say, but the Doctor is pretty used to leaving his companions behind and getting left by them. He knows it’s inevitable, that one day he’ll be left alone again, so his farewell trip with Clara is pretty par for the course. Clara, on the other hand, is somewhat taken aback by his resignation and by his assumption that he’ll never see her again after this trip. It hadn’t occurred to Clara that leaving the Doctor would mean a permanent goodbye, while the Doctor takes this for granted. After all, when had he ever left a companion behind and seen them ever again? Not all that often, and really only in the most extreme of circumstances. Just as the Doctor is ready to let her go, Clara does a complete turn around. He is completely thrown off, but overjoyed by her decision.
There were a lot of throw backs to old episodes this week as well. From “Are you my mummy?” to a cigarette case filled with jelly babies, there’s no doubt that this episode was a lot of fun for Doctor Who fans. As the season goes on, more and more about this new Doctor comes to light and about the kind of man he is now. Having recently watched a lot of the old William Hartnell episodes, I can see a lot of that original Doctor in what Capaldi is doing and in what Moffat and others are writing. Hartnell’s Doctor evolved over time to become more charismatic and mischievous, but originally was rather foul-tempered and unpleasant in a lot of ways. He would often play tricks and tell lies in order to get his own way, with complete disregard for the safety of others or for what anyone else wanted. In this Doctor’s choice of location for his last outing with Clara, he shows a lot of that selfishness. What was supposed to be a quiet time spent saying goodbye to Clara turned out to be another one of his life-threatening adventures, because that’s what he wanted – never mind what Clara wants.
It’s not often you get to see the Doctor have a significant interaction with another male character, particularly one for which he has admiration. It was great to see the Doctor and Perkins play off each other for partly this reason, but also because they just went well together. Perkins, played by Whovian Frank Skinner, was clever and quick thinking and just a little bit cheeky. He could play off anything the Doctor threw at him and had a sense of active curiosity that the Doctor appreciated. In the end, the Doctor asked Perkins to come with him and travel in the TARDIS, but Perkins ultimately declined, saying a life like that could “change a man.”
I always love seeing the Doctor have male companions. It’s a dynamic that you don’t usually get to see because there’s a belief that male/female relationships are more compelling for mainstream audiences. Put a girl and a boy in a box and see what happens. I happen to think some of the most dynamic and compelling episodes of Doctor Who involved the Doctor and a male companion. I would watch the heck out of a season of the Doctor travelling the universe with Perkins. There’s an idea floating around out there that the next companion should be a human from another planet other than Earth. Let’s shake it up a little more and have the next companion be a man – just for a change.
Also, can I just say that I didn’t know I was waiting for this cover of one of my favorite Queen songs until this episode. There’s something so fitting about a jazz age swing cover of “Don’t Stop Me Now” that makes so much sense that it’s hard to believe no one thought of it until now. If you haven’t heard it, there’s a great music video with Foxes and featuring clips from this season on the BBC Doctor Who website. It’s my new favorite thing.