Doctor Who series 8, episode 8, “Mummy on the Orient Express,” by Paul Wilmshurst begins with a “WTF?” and ends with a “WTF?” Capaldi and Coleman (Clara Oswald) are fine as usual, but the episode left me so dissatisfied I had to rewatch it on Monday night to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I’m not one to rant about the problems of a tv show on my sister’s blog, but this review might come across as me doing just that. Fair warning.
The acting and production are fine. The part of the episode where the time travelers have an adventure was a workable monster-of-the-week affair. If I could strip away the problems and just talk about the Doctor as a character, I’d probably say I like him in “Mummy on the Orient Express” better than in any of the previous episodes this season. The Doctor-Clara relationship isn’t working, though. It’s skated into EPIC FAIL territory. It’s interfering with my enjoyment of the show, and I am not the only one who feels this way.
So. After Clara tells the Doctor not to come back at the end of “Kill the Moon,” some weeks pass and they get to be on speaking terms again. All this happens offscreen and the next thing we see is them visiting the interstellar version of the Orient Express as a “last hurrah.” Clara tells the Doctor early on “I just can’t do this any more. Not the way you do it.” Then they have an adventure. We get a couple of subtle clues during the episode to suggest that Clara has perhaps turned into a danger junkie. At an important moment in the episode, Clara does what the Doctor wants even though she thinks he’s lying about being able to save Maisie. She even goes so far as to agree that the Doctor is “a good man” to persuade Maisie to go along.
After the adventure, there’s a dramatic conversation about whether or not the Doctor was lying and about whether or not he’s addicted to “making the impossible choice,” meaning the decision to let one person die to save many more. Then Clara talks to Danny, and after the conversation, she tells the Doctor Danny doesn’t mind her continuing to travel with the Doctor. This is the part that confused me so much I had to rewatch.
On the first viewing I thought Clara did an about-face at the end because she was really just afraid Danny would break up with her and she needed his approval to continue. That would have been bad. As I read it after watching again, Danny still thinks Clara is done. So she just lied to Danny AND to the Doctor after having that conversation with the Doctor about his own dishonesty.
Now, let me be clear. Dishonest characters can work. So can hypocritical characters and characters who lack self-awareness. What doesn’t work is when you set a character up to be a genre-savvy, time traveling, Impossible Girl who knows every incarnation of a 2,000-year-old regenerating alien and then rob her of her self-awareness to serve the plot. Clara’s tone was too sincere and she was too distressed over the honesty issue during her conversation with the Doctor for her to lie to Danny minutes later. I believe a real character could do that, but I don’t believe Clara Oswald could do it without realizing what she just did. And I don’t think Clara, as she’s written in this episode, knows what she just did.
Clara Oswald, it seems, is doomed to be a plot device forever, and an impossible one at that.
The question for me now is whether or not the season arc turns out well enough to leave me more satisfied with this season than I was with the last two. If I weren’t blogging the season, these last few episodes would be on my “binge right before the next season” list instead of my “don’t miss” list. That’s unfortunate, because I am a devoted fan with fairly low expectations. I love the cast and I just want to enjoy my campy sci-fi. I wonder how casual viewers are feeling about it, and I am interested to see how this year’s ratings compare with 2013’s.
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