“Shut up and give me some planets”
We jump into season eight with a semi-serialized, but fabulously creative monster of the week episode. In and of itself, that tentative mix of continuity and standalone was refreshing for the show, which had gotten rote on one side of the equation and ridiculous on the other since the beginning of Moffat’s tenure. Tethering the two arguably improved both and gave some sort of throughline to Clara’s emotional struggles. As a result, the plotting of these seasons morphed a bit, with relationship drama bleeding through between episodes more than usual.
This particular entry has a compelling angle for the sadly mishandled Clara, which is just to have a good time despite her reticence (hence the quote above). Her boyfriend Danny Pink is briefly shown, and as usual with companion SOs, after a charming romantic subplot, he gets sucked in to the whole shebang before too long. Mummy On the Orient Express is a continuation of earlier conflicts the Doctor, Clara and Danny have with one another, while also setting up story beats further down the line. And yet the main event makes for a fantastic standalone.
Doctor Who isn’t above referencing or even adapting classic British literature and storytelling. In fact, some of the show’s best episodes revolve around classic ensemble mysteries for the Doctor and his companions to piece together. This is a thrilling example in that vein, with a perception monster that seems like a tangible, despairing threat, allowing the Doctor to confront the existential dread that deeply informs his crisis management skills. But unlike some gloomier scripts, this one has a triumphant payoff and shows the Time Lord at his best.
Twelve (Peter Capaldi) is charmingly gruff, haunted and paternal, a contrast to Eleven’s adolescent antics. After the heightened nonsense of season seven (which sometimes worked, to be fair), Moffat’s last few years featured grounded characterization, a standoffish tone, and a true embrace of danger. This was reinforced when Twelve forgot a lot of the fireworks at the end of Smith’s reign, and had to be taken care of by Clara. Just goes to show how evergreen this show and its worldview are – no matter how long a fallow period lasts, a batch of great episodes could be right around the corner.