This week saw the release of Alien: Isolation. A first-person survival horror experience where you can bizarrely see your feet when you look down, it casts you as Amanda (daughter of Ellen) Ripley, exploring a ravaged space station at the back of beyond in search of your mother’s black box. The success of the game is rooted in its threatening atmosphere and its use of a single, apparently invulnerable Alien. You cannot destroy it: you can only run from it, hide from it and occasionally outmanoeuvre it.
The nature of the omnipresent xenomorph also affects how you actually look at it, in a quite literal sense. If you can actually see the alien, it in all likelihood can also see you. This tempers your visual exposure of the creature down to brief glances and occasional, leering full body shots, which usually happen when you are about to die. In other words, Alien: Isolation works as a survival horror experience (irrespective of its other shortcomings) because you are discouraged from looking too hard at the thing that’s chasing you. Curiously, this also mirrors the stylistic approach to the films, which – as any fan will tell you – generally decrease in effectiveness over the course of the series, the more we see of the Alien. Aliens is off the hook in this respect because it’s stylistically a very different film, but it’s generally taken as read that Alien: Resurrection is a low point.
‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, last night’s episode of Doctor Who, suffered from much the same problem. A monster that is visible only to those it is about to kill is an intriguing concept, rooted as it is in folklore. Visually, also, the Mummy (I really don’t want to have to call it the Foretold) was a treat – elegantly realised with grubby, crumbling bandages loosely wrapped over disintegrating flesh, and a toothy, blank-eyed stare. It’s usually seen from the perspective of its victims, stumbling towards camera as that face gets closer and closer, arms outstretched, ready to pounce.
The first time we see this – in the episode’s pre-credits teaser – it’s extremely effective. The effectiveness wanes, however, with the fact that every single encounter with the mummy (and there are several) is more or less identical. Shots of the Foretold are borderline gratuitous – the BBC are clearly proud of the job their costume department has done this week, as well they should be, but I can’t help feeling that the sort of brief, angled approach that Nick Hurran took to directing the Minotaur in ‘The God Complex’ would have worked better here. The Minotaur is a creature we only saw in detail in its final scenes, and it was all the more effective as a result. A similarly tempered methodology would have worked wonders here, whereas Paul Wilmshurt’s overexposure of the creature simply means that we become bored of it very, very quickly.
Structurally, ‘Mummy…’ loosely resembles a murder mystery, as well as serving as a last hurrah for the Doctor and for Clara, who spends most of the episode in denial. That Jamie Mathieson – writing his first Who story – has been saddled with the emotional fallout from ‘Kill the Moon’ is somewhat unfortunate, as it essentially means that Clara has to spend most of this week locked in a storage room brooding about her double life. Meanwhile, the Doctor paces about the train trying to work out what’s going on, while the Mummy singles out and dispatches its next victim, in precisely the same way. There is more angst from Clara, and more puzzling from the Doctor, and then another murder – repeat more or less ad nauseum until the last act when it all comes together.
It’s not that the setting doesn’t work. The train’s claustrophobic interiors are successfully realised – one would take a guess that this was the cheap episode in the series, but that isn’t a bad thing – and the obvious resemblance to ‘Voyage of the Damned’ isn’t to the story’s detriment. Supporting characters, with one exception, are mostly effective, even though the appearance (and media saturation) of Foxes is brief and pointless, and seems to be there to reference both Shaun of the Dead and The Great Gatsby within the same scene.
However, the revelation that the villain of the week is the ship’s computer, and that the whole thing has been set up as a scientific experiment, is a colossal disappointment. The nods to Murder on the Orient Express (which I won’t spoil) are understandable, but the execution sucks a lot of life out of the story. We spend much of the final reel trying to determine who is pulling the strings, wondering if Gus is actually speaking his lines aloud or whether there’s a Man Behind That Curtain, and frankly this makes it harder to concentrate on (or care about) what’s happening onscreen. It feels as if Mathieson came up with an idea and was ordered to work in the arc, and the episode suffers as a result. What’s worse, the most interesting stuff – teleportation, frantic bomb rewiring – happens off screen, neatly summarised during the Doctor’s monologue to Clara, in a scene that screams “we ran out of cash, but here’s a CG backdrop that’ll have all the fans speculating as to whether it’s New New Earth”.
It’s a shame, also, that Clara’s role in this story has been reduced to that of Waif on the Phone, stuck in a locked room with Daisy Beaumont, a character seemingly written exclusively as a plot device. Maisie has nothing interesting to contribute, and is in the locker simply so that Clara doesn’t spend twenty minutes talking to herself, before she’s allowed into the research lab in order to serve as the Doctor’s source of redemption. The reversal scene, in which we believe he’s luring her to her death, is effective in how it manages to add another layer to his character, but it would have worked much better if Mathieson had used someone that we actually found interesting or had time to care about. As it stands, watching Maisie is like watching Rory, condensed into three quarters of an hour – plots once again driving characters, rather than the other way round.
If Coleman’s role is largely pointless, Capaldi at least is generally on fine form throughout, taking charge of proceedings with the same sort of brash authoritativeness that we’ve come to expect from his Doctor, and approaching the mystery with the cold objective mind of a scientist rather than the empathetic tact of an investigating police officer. He spars well with Professor Moorhouse (Christopher Villiers) and with Captain Quell (David Bamber), neither of whom make it to the end credits – but he is most effective in his scenes with Frank Skinner, playing Perkins the engineer. Skinner himself is a revelation, a fan who has been given the chance to fulfil a boyhood dream and – crucially – doesn’t blow it, playing the character utterly straight rather than lapsing into the sort of misplaced comedy I had feared. Perkins’ decision not to join the TARDIS crew, reasoning that “That job could change a man”, smacks of disappointment on behalf of Skinner himself, never mind the character he’s playing, and the wistful look on his face doesn’t feel like acting.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the story is such a disappointment, albeit one we can’t wholly blame on the writer. ‘Mummy’ really does feel like a good idea for an episode that had a lot of overarching plot ideas unnecessarily crammed in – exactly the same thing happened in ‘The God Complex’, which changed into something else entirely in its closing ten minutes, but here the whiny pathos punctuates the entire narrative from the moment Clara and the Doctor step onboard the train. The use of the clock is effective, but the Mummy’s appeal is long gone before we find out what it is, and Paul Wilmhurst’s direction seldom rises above pedestrian. Even several amusing nods to the original – Clara’s bubble wrap joke, and the jelly babies in the cigar tin – aren’t quite enough. ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ is a story about two travellers solving a mystery while working out their own problems, and in the right hands this could have worked very well. As it stands, it takes a good idea and wraps it in excess baggage. Consistent with the rest of the series, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that this is a good thing.