Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Infinite-Narrative Sand-Pit: On "Mummy on the Orient Express" by Jamie Mathieson (2014)

By way of introduction, this piece was originally published in 2015 in the book Outside In: 125 Unique Perspectives on 125 New Series Doctor Who Stories by 125 Writers, from ATB Publishing, covering the new series of the show from 2005-2014. If you're interested in buying it, you can do so here. Right now it's on sale for $24.95, and includes many more fantastic essays than mine by luminaries like Kate Orman, Jon Blum, Steve Lyons, Lance Parkin, and Phil Sandifer, so why not give it a try?

You don’t forget the first time you die.
Between my fourth and fifth ribs was the carved callous barb of a fire-spear, jutting out of my stomach like an arrow in a boar. I gaped at the sharpshooter on the other side of the Redswamps. Back to my chest in bemusement. Back to my killer. Back to my chest.
They say you have only a second before the napalm catches. I squandered a slack-jawed eternity.
And then I was alight, the rivulets of flame tonguing my limbs and my face, embers burrowing into my clothes. However much I struggled, and fell upon the marsh, and clawed at my melting eyes, the foul black smoke wafted and drifted away oh so serenely, oh so mockingly. To hear the blistering of one’s own skin and the crackle of one’s own hair, to feel the flames’ greed and to smoulder under the purple twilight…
And my killer watched. The blaze in my own ears must have been music to his.
I recall one more thing from the Redswamps: after the pain, serenity; after the scorching, coolness.

Had Mummy on the Orient Express been a novel, it might have begun in such a manner. As an attention-grabbing exercise at the start of a critical analysis, it has worth because it illustrates how much there is to Jamie Mathieson’s script, not just in terms of what’s explicitly presented on-screen – though he does a fine job juggling all the traditional Doctor Who staples of comedy, horror, adventure, atmosphere, characterisation and science-fiction – but in terms of what lies beyond the story as broadcast. Mummy on the Orient Express is a wonderful story not just because of what we see, but because of what is hidden, assumed, or alluded to. To whit:

(1) A soldier of unknown alien origin is killed in a primeval war thousands of years ago, resurrected by alien technology and kept alive by the same such that he has unnatural long life. His duty is to continue protecting the flag in his possession, an emblem of the army for which he has been fighting, because that’s what he has been programmed to do.
(2)  At some point, this creature passes into legend in an unknown culture and becomes referred to as the Foretold. Universities and research institutes devote whole departments to the study of similar creatures.
(3) Maisie’s grandmother, a malicious woman, brings up her granddaughter for unknown reasons, and torments, bullies and oppresses her child to the extent that she even goes as far as poisoning her pony.
(4)  In an unknown war, thousands of years after that which killed the soldier which became the Foretold, Captain Quell’s entire platoon is wiped out and he spends his convalescence suffering from PTSD. He takes on the role of captain of the Orient Express expecting it to be a cushy desk job. Part of the voyage of the Orient Express involves visiting the Seven Wonders of the Universe.
(5)  A computer programmed to answer to the name of Gus, sadistic for reasons unknown, brings together experts of alien biology, mythology and science on several vessels including the Gloriana, the Valiant Heart and the Orient Express, and forces said experts to ascertain the creature’s nature whilst in fear of their lives at the creature’s hands.
(6) On the Orient Express during the Foretold’s attack, a number of passengers light candles and leave them near the mythical scroll, along with trinkets and oblations, as if it were a shrine. The Doctor perceives this as superstition and rants about gods versus science.
(7) After teleporting the surviving passengers off the Orient Express and taking them to the nearest inhabited planet, it emerges that the Doctor has cured Maisie of her pain and trauma as part of the process of implanting her feelings into himself to distract the Foretold.
(8) Between the end of Kill the Moon and this story, the Doctor and Clara have decided it would be best to cease travelling together, and resolve to have ‘one last hurrah’.

This is a phenomenal number of individual story threads, each of them fascinating, each of them worthy of a major part of a Doctor Who episode, and yet Mathieson chooses to blend them in this script for Series 8. Let us be clear: there is enough material here for a full-length science-fiction novel, beginning with the soldier’s first death and culminating in a show-down with the forces behind Gus. And yet what we get is 45 minutes of television. Why, then, is this still effective, and why does it rank as one of the strongest episodes of the series? The answer is because allusion, if done correctly, is as powerful as direct presentation. Mathieson’s script leaves us with a fuller comprehension of the universe as much bigger and broader than we can really comprehend. Answers are not always given, threads are not always tied up, in space as in our daily grind.
This is no cop-out. It’s a stunning depiction of Doctor Who as a narrative vehicle which takes the literal Vastness – for what better noun is there for a universe as large as ours – and hones it, focalises it, into a tight and claustrophobic thriller which nonetheless gestures towards the grandiose horror of wars, the miserable isolation of an unhappy childhood, the drifting apart of two best friends, the tendency among species of various sorts to mythologise and develop supernatural explanations for the rational and the sadism that is present in any world or universe, however large or small. In other words, Mathieson has made the inconceivable conceivable, and that is what good science-fiction, and certainly good Doctor Who, should always do. When he was first announced as writing for the series, Mathieson referred to the show as an ‘infinite narrative sand-pit’. The phrase is a beautifully apt one, its terminology encapsulating all at once Doctor Who’s enormous, unfettered potential, its ability to relate to our mundane lives whether of work or play, and the sheer joyous fun of it all, however dark it can get.
Because that’s what Doctor Who is. It is an infinity of possibilities, but no one can put an infinity of possibilities on Saturday night prime-time drama. We can only see the light of the sun reflected off the moon, never directly. We can only look at the shadows on the cave wall, never the shapes which cast the shadows themselves. And thus Doctor Who takes the mad, bold, terrifying, hilarious universe and cuts it right down to size and streamlines its horror and its beauty into 45 minutes of television for children. For my money there is no finer calling for a writer for television today, or indeed at any point in the last 51 years. And here is one of its finest showcases – a story that is self-contained and relies on no set continuity but which gestures towards a broader universe about which we can only dream. We may never see Thedion Four or Obsidian, but we can hear the Doctor rhapsodize about them, and sometimes, the shadow can be more powerful than the shape.


“Yes, Professor Webster. They found it drifting in the Lambrecht Cluster. It’s from one of the old mock-up space liners.” The research assistant handed over the tiny contraption.

TODAY’S DATE: 199,457
FINAL TRANSMITTED MESSAGE: So, well, the others are dying. Yes. Not great. I blame the insane computer, personally. If the company gets its hands on this, please do check your software, because this delightful specimen has killed half the crew and overseen the deaths of several passengers. I’m rewiring an alien life support system that kept aside a half-dead soldier for thousands of years, so that we can all teleport to the nearest civilised planet. Yes, I’m typing this at the same time. No, that’s not especially difficult. 2 minutes till complete vacuum is a doddle, I needed something else to do. Anyway, final message: whoever did this, I will find you and I will know what you have done here. You’ll never do it again. The Doctor

“What do you suppose that means, Professor?”

“The Doctor?” said Webster, turning the voyage data recorder in his hands. “I don’t know. Some sort of saint, by the looks of things. Or an emergency rescue worker. Or a warrior. It was millennia ago, mind. I suppose – when it comes to it, we’ll only ever know those two words, and we’ll die without knowing what they mean. But that’s academia for you! I can still write a paper on him. We can still imagine.”

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