Posts Tagged With: mummy on the orient express

Creative Thinking

I’m in Cambridge with no access to my files, so God is in the Detail will have to wait until next week. Instead, I bring you this leftover from the Orient Express episode.

 

Thomas had a school garden project to complete before half term. If you’ve been here a while you may recall that Joshua had something similar a couple of years back, and that we did it with Lego, and then had the Cybermen trash the place. This time, Emily produced a quite wonderful winter-themed garden in about five minutes flat (winter’s always popular; I blame Frozen) rendered in cotton wool and filled with stuff they’d found out the back, to add a touch of authenticity.

Then I undid all the authenticity by adding a TARDIS.

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I’m no good with cotton wool, but I manage in other ways. The week before, Edward and I had gone to the local children’s centre for our weekly play session. On this occasion they’d got out the Stickle Bricks – toys I remember from my childhood and never really liked. The meshing system never works symmetrically, because the interlocking fingers never quite match up, so that if you try and jam a selection of bricks together it just looks uneven (this is impossible to explain, but if you’ve ever done it you’ll know exactly what I mean). What’s more, the gaps between the fingers get filthy, like the teeth of a comb, gripped by small hands who haven’t washed, and eventually they break off completely, leaving ugly edges that don’t stick together nearly as well as they do in the commercials, where bright and shiny children with perfect teeth produce immaculate, intricate models that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern art gallery.

Anyway, we made the best of things, and on this particular morning we built a stickle brick Ice Warrior, and also a Dalek. As you do.

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God is in the detail (part xix)

Jelly babies.

They’re not just delicious confectionary, you know. Jelly babies have layers of importance. And as we saw in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, which we’ll be talking about today, even the most innocent looking sweet can be charged with hidden meaning and THINGS THAT WILL BECOME VERY IMPORTANT LATER.

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You’ll observe, in the first instance, the presence of ten jelly babies in the tin, an UNAMBIGUOUS reference to the first ten Doctors, as presented in chronological order and discounting the War Doctor. We know this to be so because Moorhouse – whose hand you can see reaching into the tin – is clearly about to take the fourth jelly baby in the sequence, thus establishing the link between the bag of sweets and the Fourth Doctor, who used them more than any other, even when his efforts were rebuffed.

You will also notice the use of yellow to indicate the Ninth Doctor’s conviction that he is a “coward, any day”, but it is the Fifth Doctor I want you to be looking at, because Moffat’s decision to use a black jelly baby here is almost certainly a link to the Black Guardian, and his IMMINENT RETURN. I will throw out a curveball here and point out that Missy is always seen in black, and that she is apparently a gatekeeper. (Presumably Rick Moranis is already weighing up his options.)

But it’s not just the Black Guardian we need to be thinking about, because the presence of the Fourth Doctor (which I’ve covered in various other posts in this series) extends far beyond a cigar tin full of jelly babies. The beach is significant, but colours are also important here, so the best way to explain is visually. For instance –

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And

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And

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And – I don’t think we need to go on, do we?

The kitchen next. Have a look at this.

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The clock on the wall, as you’ll have guessed, is the focus of our attention. That’s meant in a literal sense, because the screen grab I have taken is from when it is at its clearest throughout the Foretold’s kitchen stalk – i.e. the moment we’re supposed to be looking at it. You will note that it reads 10:11 precisely, which is a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference to both Tennant (who spent time on another iconic mode of transport that happened to be floating in space) and Smith (who frequently dressed as if he was about to). The countdown clock in the corner is at 50.1 seconds – or, to put another way, 50+1, i.e. the year after the anniversary. This year, in other words. THIS IS HAPPENING IN THE SERIES FINALE.

Also note the second hand, which is at fifty-nine seconds, thus providing the year in which the Seventh Doctor and Mel visited Shangri-La in Wales, the setting for ‘Delta and the Bannermen’. It is also the year Paul McGann was born, but I think that’s a step too far.

OR IS IT? In order to explore this further, I bring you the Excelsior Life Extender.

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Excelsior, as any true fan knows, is the villain in ‘The Last‘, a 2004 Big Finish drama starring – yes, you guessed it – the Eighth Doctor. Set in a war-ravaged apocalyptic wasteland, the Doctor, Charlie and C’Rizz come face to face with a despotic power-crazed dictator doomed to subject her people to approximately the same dismal scenario over and over until she gets it right. Never mind the fact that this sounds like the past three series: we are clearly about to see the return of the Divergent universe and Rassilon.

Additionally, the homophonic doppelganger for ‘Excelsior’ is ‘Ex sells Eeyore’, and in the next Eighth Doctor audio adventure, ‘Caerdroia‘, the Doctor is split into three differently-faceted components – his measured, intellectual side, as well as an excitable eccentric and grumpy cynic whom Charlie (a former, or ex-companion of the Doctor) names Tigger and Eeyore respectively. NONE OF THIS IS A COINCIDENCE.

Moving on: here’s this week’s episode numbers roundup.

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Cast your mind back to my review of ‘The Caretaker’, if you bothered to read it, and you may recall a brief conversation about the eyebrows – a gag which had already worn out its welcome the second time it was used, and which, we’d thought, had escaped inclusion this week. But a closer inspection reveals that this is CLEARLY not the case.

Look at the numbers in the image above. Episode 255 is part two of ‘Spearhead from Space’, in which this happens.

DOCTOR: My dear Brigadier, it’s no earthly good asking me a lot of questions. I’ve lost my memory, you see?

BRIGADIER: How do I know that you’re not an imposter?

DOCTOR: Ah, but you don’t, you don’t. Only I know that. What do you think of my new face, by the way? I wasn’t too sure about it myself to begin with. But it sort of grows on you. Very flexible, you know. Could be useful on the planet Delphon, where they communicate with their eyebrows.

“But why is it listed twice?” I don’t hear you ask. Well, HOW MANY EYEBROWS DO YOU HAVE?

Both the Tenth Doctor and the Third Doctor turn up covertly when we look at some of the other numbers. 098, for instance, refers to ‘Volcano’, from ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’. You will recall the scene in ‘Deep Breath’ in which the Doctor accosts a homeless man on the streets of London, asking about the significance of both his eyebrows and also the face he had – alluding to ‘Fires of Pompeii’, and its climactic volcano.

To the left of ‘Gus’, you’ll see 349 and 259, which refer to episodes from the Third Doctor’s run (‘Planet of the Daleks’ and ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ respectively). If I were to say that this refers to the IMMINENT RETURN OF JO GRANT, you’d probably think this required a greater leap of faith than you were able to muster. However, have a look at this:

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Which, as you’ll remember, is the flag upon the wall in the science lab where the second half of the episode takes place. The alien symbols that the Doctor successfully decodes when he manages to deactivate the Foretold may look like innocent runes, until you twist them.

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The resulting acronym – TDFF, obviously – can mean a number of things, but is likely to refer to Third Derivative Functional Form, which CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY refers to the Pertwee era, as extensively referenced in the numbers breakdown. This still applies even if you choose to read TDFF as TOFF instead, for reasons that should be fairly obvious if you’ve ever seen the Third Doctor swish his cape.

(Incidentally, other entries for TDFF include the Tracy Demonstration Fish Facility and the Toronto Dog Film Festival. I swear, I’m not making this up. Truth is always stranger than fiction, unless you’re reading Valis…)

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Review: ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’

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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.

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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.

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