This week, Agatha Christie meets Leiji Matsumoto meets The Mummy. Spoiler: Everybody was the mummy.
A 66-second timer starts while a woman and her mother have dinner on a train. The mother suddenly sees a mummy approaching her, but no one else on the train can see it. Thinking she's off her meds, everyone ignores her until the timer runs out and the mummy reaches her, killing her.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and, strangely, Clara, arrive on the train as well. He informs her they're on the Orient Express... IN SPACE! Just as Clara starts to look like she's enjoying herself, the Doctor starts going off on her like an abusive partner about having conflicting emotions and how aggravating it is, and she demurely gives up smiling.
Seriously, why... why is she here? Especially if he's treating her like this right off the bat, it's like she has Battered Wife Syndrome or something and she's simply resigned herself to the fact that he's always going to be an ass to her and she can't escape it. While a look into the effects of psychological abuse can make a good story, that has never felt like where this series has been going with the Doctor and Clara's relationship, and plus... why the hell would we want to cast the Doctor in that role in the first place?
The only explanations I can think of is that the Doctor's abusive behavior is going to have some kind of massive comeuppance in the finale that will get him to change his mannerisms, or, more likely, is that Moffat simply doesn't recognize his behavior as abusive. At least other characters are finally starting to feebly call him out on it, but the question remains as to why he was characterized like this in the first place.
Clara then reveals that this is their last trip together, because, like some masochist, even after her rant at him in the previous episode she just had to come back and have one last go. She tells him that she thought she hated him, but she was wrong, and she's all better now. The Doctor ignores her and continues to talk about his own stuff while she continuously tries to tell him that she doesn't hate him, apparently testing just how much of a dick he can be to her and still have her latched onto him. The end result seeming to be that he can do pretty much whatever he wants and she'll still come crawling back.
Moffat's "Who" has continuously stomped all over every one of Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Basic Rules of Writing, but this entire season has been especially devoted to nuking Rule 2 from orbit: "Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for". The Doctor is so abusive that he's actively hated, and Clara is such a willing victim that all you can really do is feel sorry for her, which isn't really the same as "rooting". Thus we end up with a pair of lead characters that really feel like they're beyond help, thus the season progress with a constant overall feeling of hopelessness.
Clara shuts up about her needs to allow the Doctor to continue talking about stuff more interesting to him. The woman whose mummy was mummied calls him out on his stories, saying that the planet he was referencing was destroyed a thousand years ago. She then returns to her room. Thus we end up breaking Rule 4, in which this woman's accusation towards the Doctor was not meant to indicate she suspected him of being involved in her mother's murder, nor was it meant to indicate that she was a person of knowledge of planetary history, nor does this bit of information serve any future use in the story. This line existed simply so that she and the Doctor could be introduced to each other, even though the line had zero character or story relevance. Because the actual relevant information she has to share, that her mother was killed by an invisible mummy, ended up being related by the captain after she left.
Clara wonders if the Doctor is capable of going anywhere and not have monsters show up. The Doctor insists that the woman who died was old and was probably just having hallucinations before she died, and that there isn't necessarily anything nefarious going on. Clara decides she wants to have her cake and eat it, too, and acts surprised that even though this is their last trip together and she told the Doctor to go away and never come back that they won't see each other anymore after this. The Doctor goes back into his patronizing "I'm just doing what you wanted" tactic, and so thoroughly beaten down even by this at this point, Clara relents.
Later that night (although, since they're in space, isn't it always night?) the Doctor tries to convince himself there really is a monster, while Clara calls Mister Pink and tries to twist everything he says into meaning that he thinks she should stay with the Doctor. It's nice to see that their relationship is still unmarred by anything even resembling healthy communication.
The Doctor sneaks off without Clara to investigate the woman's murder and runs into the chief engineer who was loitering around the evidence. The two are immediately suspicious of each other, which apparently means they also instantly bond.
Meanwhile, Clara also sneaks off and runs into the woman who they were introduced to earlier, who now introduces herself as Macy. She says she wants to see her mother's body and smashes the control to the door to the room. Clara follows after her, and they end up getting locked inside.
Now that the companion is once again rendered conveniently out of the way, the Doctor finds a professor of alien mythology who just happens to be on board and quizzes him about a creature called the Foretold to pump out the necessary exposition surrounding this myth. To illustrate this, the mummy appears again in the kitchen and has a stern word with the chef.
Back in the locked room, Clara and Macy talk about how difficult people can make you wish bad things upon them, but that doesn't necessarily make you responsible if bad things do end up happening to them. Though she said she came in here to see her mother's body, it doesn't actually seem to be in here, but there does seem to be a sarcophagus. Maybe that's where her mummy's body is.
The Doctor confronts the captain and berates him for not doing anything and instead is just letting people die to allow the evidence to slowly manifest itself. Surely this will not come across as hypocritical later. The engineer, though, had already been looking into it, and gives the Doctor a pile of information on the passengers and the train.
Meanwhile, Clara and Macy realize that since they've already passed the Bechdel Test by talking about Macy's mother, they're free to spend the rest of their time together talking about the Doctor. Clara says that she's here with the Doctor now on one last trip because she couldn't let their relationship end on a sour note. Macy says that there's nothing wrong with just ending it, unless she physically can't. At which point remaining in an abusive relationship is noble because suffering gives rise to fanciful dreams.
To illustrate this point, the Doctor calls Clara and continuously talks over her as she tries to tell him she's trapped. He comes to the locked room where the sonic screwdriver conveniently doesn't work, but it does open up the sarcophagus inside the room. A sarcophagus containing... bubble wrap. ... Oh god, it's the return of the bubble wrap monster from "Ark in Space".
But, no, the mummy actually just appeared somewhere else and picks off another one of the train's staff. The Doctor notices that everyone on the train is some kind of alien specialist and someone must have intentionally gathered them all here to study the mummy. Sure enough, the train car transforms into a laboratory and the computer tells them to analyze the mummy so it can be captured and reverse-engineered.
The mummy appears again for the professor and the Doctor tells him to tell him everything he can see in the 66 seconds that he has, so that maybe they can save "the next one". Yes, the professor is just being used as a guinea pig to gather evidence; the same thing the Doctor berated the captain for earlier. But the captain was just passively letting people die while the Doctor is actively using them for evidence-collection, and as the previous episode showed us, active participation is more morally justified than passive allowance. Or, wait, no.
The computer happily informs them that grief counseling will be available upon request. What about cake? No, seriously, a friendly-sounding sadistic AI that has gathered a bunch of people for testing purposes? The computer keeps telling people to call it "Gus", but it seems to actually be GuSDOS.
Clara and Macy happen to find some records in the room they're locked in and call up the Doctor to relay the information. The computer tells them to terminate the call, which is an odd thing for it to want to do if its primary purpose is to gather information. Although, the information that Clara is giving seems to be information on GuSDOS and his prior experiments. GuSDOS kills the remainder of the kitchen staff, depriving them of their pudding until they finish their work.
The Doctor concludes that the mummy is choosing its victims by picking off the weakest amongst them first by sensing their physical or psychological handicaps. Well, that leads one to wonder why Clara and her Doctor-induced trauma hasn't been a target yet.
But, no, it's the captain and his PTSD that draws the mummy next. The Doctor is excited again to use his death for research purposes, but once again, they can't do anything about it. The other researchers just stand around doing nothing because that's all they've done the entire episode while the Doctor pieces together that the mummy is technologically-driven because it can teleport, and sucking the life energy out of people is what has kept it alive for so long. The mummy is also out of phase which is why only its target can see it, but if that's the case, why doesn't the person its targeting disappear, too?
They determine that Macy with her lifetime of abuse by her mother will be the next victim and the Doctor calls Clara to convince Macy to come to them and get killed by the mummy so they can observe it again. Clara, completely mentally broken but somehow not moreso than Macy, complies and tells her that the Doctor can help her if they go to him. So, they just... walk right out of the room that they've been locked in this entire time. I guess it can be argued that the computer let them out if they were going to be used as test subjects, but it's never said.
Clara notices there's a forcefield around the TARDIS and deduces that it means GuSDOS knows what it is and who the Doctor is, and the Doctor admits that GuSDOS has been calling him for a while trying to get him on board. Clara berates him again for lying to her and making her his accomplice, but again, because she won't actually follow through with her complaints, the Doctor knows that he can just keep doing this.
The mummy appears in front of Macy, and he uses a plot device to suck out all her trauma and give it to himself so that the mummy will target him instead of her. He greets the mummy with "Are you my mummy?", and that was admittedly cute.
So, now that he's able to see the mummy, the Doctor uses his 66 seconds to deduce everything about it (at least I think so, the music was so loud here it was hard to hear him), that it's a soldier kept alive with technology and is unable to stop fighting until the war ends, so the magic words are: "We surrender!".
That works, and the mummy crumbles to dust. GuSDOS informs them that now that they have obtained the information, their continued survival is not required. Rest assured, that there is absolutely no chance of a dangerous equipment malfunction prior to your victory candescence. Thank you for participating in this Aperture Science Enrichment activity. Goodbye!
The train blows up, and the next thing they know, Clara and the Doctor are on a beach somewhere. The Doctor says he used the mummy's teleportation device to teleport everyone to safety, and Clara congratulates him for not being as big a jerk as he could have been. The Doctor admits that if his plan to save Macy hadn't worked, he would have just moved on to the next person on the train until he finally beat it. That sometimes all you have are bad choices but you still have to choose.
Coincidentally, that would have been a good moral for the previous episode, but where the previous episode messed up was by making the choice they did end up with 100% consequence-free. At least in this episode the Doctor had to choose between ignoring the mummy and letting people die, or actively using people as test subjects on the mummy so that he could learn from it and stop it from killing. And at least this episode made his choice actually have consequences.
Clara decides that the Doctor is only pretending to be heartless, and that all the abuse he lays on her is for some greater purpose, and my god she is so broken. Get out. Now.
The Doctor offers the engineer a place on his crew since he's already whipped Clara so much that there's not much left he can do to her. The engineer smartly refuses and leaves.
Clara admits that she's addicted to the Doctor's abuse and him making decisions for her, so when Mister Pink calls, she tells him that she's done with the Doctor and will see him in a bit...
Buuut then comes running back to the Doctor and tells him that it was all Danny's idea that she stop traveling and she doesn't want to stop, and Danny's fine with her leaving and she's so sorry she ever said that she'd stop, so let's go.
Next time: If only these walls could talk.
You know, the point of this season had BETTER be Clara's trauma and her descent into madness, because this is just becoming much too uncomfortable to watch. It's gotten to the point that the writers HAVE to be self-aware of how they're depicting this relationship, even if they're not explicitly acknowledging it onscreen. Clara is exhibiting all the signs of someone locked in an abusive relationship, and the Doctor is simply exploiting it, or at the very least enabling it. And while this is something that happens in real life, this is NOT really the kinds of characteristics you want in your two lead characters. Give us someone to root for!
Not to mention that this episode laid out yet ANOTHER mystery in the identity of GuSDOS that it never resolved, thus breaking Rule 8: "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."
Also, the writers seem to have gotten stuck on the exact same monster for the past few seasons and have simply superficially changed its details: The mindless killing machine that chases you around and kills you when it catches you and can be defeated by exploiting a highly-specific weak point that it has due to having no mind or motive of its own. Literally every monster this season has been a non-sentient automaton of some sort. When was the last time we had a monster like the Slitheen or the Family of Blood that actually had its own motives and ability to control its actions rather than being some unthinking, pre-programmed killbot? Oh, but if the Doctor is to defeat something like that, he'd actually have to do something more clever than figure out its species-specific "off" button, and that's too hard.
I did think the mummy design and execution was really good, at least.
But the rest of it... ugh. If this season does NOT culminate in a recognition of Clara's emotional trauma due to the Doctor's behavior and the Doctor requiring some kind of attitude adjustment because of it, then I'm done. I'm just done. This series is becoming way too uncomfortable to watch and the characters are too unlikable for me to give a damn what happens to them. But my guess is that Moffat is taking Rule 7 much too close to heart: "Write to please just one person." The problem is that he's writing only to please himself, and this entire series has become his own personal sock to wank into. So if this season ends indicating that it really is just some crusty stocking, then I will treat it as such and discard it until someone else comes along who knows what a sock is for.
(And, yes, I know Moffat did not write this or the previous episode, but as head writer, he still has executive control over how the characters are portrayed and what overall themes need to be present in the other writers' stories, so while he's not necessarily responsible for writing all the episodes, he is responsible for approving their content. So I'm not necessarily blaming him for writing Clara and the Doctor like this, but blaming him for implicitly acknowledging, "I approve of how Clara and the Doctor are being written because it aligns with my vision for the show.")