Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mummy On the Orient Express / Flatline

Although these don’t represent a two-part episode, Mummy On the Orient Express and Flatline combined are the debut of writer Jamie Mathieson, who I’d be willing to bet will become a regular writer for the show. After all, Flatline, which he wrote first, shows everything you expect out of a new writer - refreshingly blasting through wild ideas, full of all the headlong energy and excitement you’d expect. And it’s executed so well he was immediately tapped to write Mummy, based on a pitch by Moffat that was literally the title with IN SPACE! tacked onto the end, and while it’s not quite as good, it’s a damn entertaining yarn. Combined, it’s probably the most exciting debut for a writer since Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife.

Both overflow with a love for the series, not only full of elements reminiscent of RTD’s era (particularly the prominent and hilarious usages of the psychic paper), but especially of the classic series. Mummy feels remarkably like a Hinchcliffe/Holmes era episode; it’s pretty easy to see how a four-part Four and Sarah Jane version would go. The half Victorian-Edwardian/half-Sci-Fi setting is about the most Doctor Who setting there is, and adds an easy atmosphere to the whole thing. Even its references to older episodes are classy and clever, like the brilliant bit with the jelly babies in the cigarette case.

Yet it’s unmistakably a Moffat-era story. The pace is lightning quick, which, on the upside, makes for a hugely energetic and exciting yarn, and Mathieson skillfully develops a thoroughly enjoyable cast of characters with remarkable efficiency. On the downside, it means, inevitably, that it feels underdeveloped in places. The setting, in particular, for all its imagination and atmosphere, feels completely wasted; this could have all happened in a hotel room without a significant change to the story. And while it goes through a solid number of permutations of the concept, it still feels like more could have been done, and the hanging thread of the identity of Gus makes it feel incomplete. (Since I mentioned it, I imagine the climax as it is would be the cliffhanger of Episode 3 and resolution of Episode 4 in that theoretical four-part classic version, with the Doctor and Sarah going after Gus for the finale. Maybe swordfighting him on top of the train [in Space]?)

On the other hand, it has the two great advantages of Moffat’s era, both his expanding and deepening the emotional depth that RTD brought to the show. First, the story resolves in short but thoughtful and quietly moving fashion that also works nicely as a variation on the season’s soldier theme (while, admittedly, not quite making sense logically). Second, it shows how superbly Moffat has handled the character arcs, especially this season. Even if Clara’s explosion at the Doctor in Kill The Moon didn’t entirely come off, this plays with the consequences beautifully. The arc of her increasing hints at an underlying darkness and her emotionally-charged relationship with the Doctor continues to be compelling, and never moves so fast as to strain credibility. Mathieson does it so well that he actually carries the flawed set-up from Kill the Moon and redeems one of its flaws. (Also, Clara rocks that Flapper costume.)

He also gives Capaldi some magnificent material, which Capaldi actually elevates. His Doctor remains outwardly cold, but inwardly compassionate, and has all manner of great Doctorish moments, both funny and dramatic.

It’s not perfect - in addition to the flaws mentioned above, the resolution of the 66 seconds detail is anticlimactically a bit of meaningless technobabble. But it’s a solidly entertaining episode, full of humor, characterization, atmosphere, and heart.

But Flatline is even better.

Where Mummy feels reminiscent of Hinchcliffe-era Who, Flatline feels like the Cartmel / McCoy era in its humanistic, whimsical approach. It’s particularly concerned with teens, and especially troubled lower-class youth, and manages to paint a compelling portrait of the nature of their lives through Rigsy, graffiti artist, well played by Jovian Wade. Wade not only makes him appealing in his own right, but pulls off being Doctor Clara's companion for the episode, and it's almost a disappointment he doesn't join on at the end.

Its central concept - two-dimensional creatures trying to break into our dimension - is fascinating in itself, and the long-simmering ambiguity over whether they’re evil or just don’t realize what they’re doing actually adds to the horror. By the time they are confirmed to be evil, they begin to appear in the form of truly brilliant special effects showing their chaotic, 2D attempts to be 3D. It’s a rare case where a CGI monster is genuinely frightening visually.

The episode’s two gimmicks for the Doctor and Clara are terrific as well, and probably could have carried their own episodes on their own at a stretch, but combined with the monsters, creates an exhilarating yarn. The Doctor stuck in the ever-shrinking TARDIS makes for all manner of lovely visual gags, climaxing in the hilarious sequence of the Doctor’s hand desperately trying to crawl away from a train, with Murray Gold rightly playing it as the most dramatic action scene ever.

Even better is Clara’s plot of being the Doctor for an episode. She takes on the role brilliantly, managing to be Doctorish without losing her Claraishness along the way. On the other hand, she turns out to be a little too good at the coldly moving on part, reminding the Doctor too much of his own self-loathing, which makes for a compellingly frustrated final scene. Jenna Coleman, as always, takes what she’s given and runs with it, making already great material sing. 

Director Douglas MacKinnon, in his third contribution this year (after Listen and Time Heist) again excels, playing the atmosphere and every scene dead-on. If it weren't for the two episodes following this, he'd be the clear choice for best Who director of the season.

The only part of the episode that really doesn’t work is the Doctor’s big speech about being the Doctor who kills the monsters and protects this planet and so on and so forth. To be fair, I’m rarely a fan of these speeches. For instance, that part in Voyage of the Damned where the Doctor basically announces his name, age, and place of birth, and everyone listening (and even the music) orgasms on the spot never did it for me. It just feels like the character showboating, and doesn’t really earn the dramatic point that everyone suddenly decides to follow him. But even that at least had Tennant playing it for all it was worth; this is probably the only time post-Sherwood that Capaldi doesn’t quite pull off a scene. And the underlying problem is the same; the part of the speech that isn’t “I am the Doctor” bit works nicely, but once he’s just bragging about his name, it falls completely flat.

But, really, that’s the only significant bit that isn’t great here. Flatline is fantastic; in Series 7, it would have been the clear highlight of the season, and a contender in almost any other. Series 8 is actually so good that it will have to settle for third or fourth, but that’s no fault of its own. On its own, it would be a promising start for a new writer, but combined, it’s a stunning debut, and a damned fine pair of Who stories.


Mummy On the Orient Express: * * *
Flatline: * * * ½

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