I WAS really excited to do this episode. The beauty of Doctor Who is that it isn’t afraid to deviate from a simple sci-fi plot. Whilst retaining its sci-fi trappings the show has done horror, psychological thriller, political satire and even Westerns; this episode was this year’s whodunnit (pardon the pun). I think this goes without saying but this was a straight-up homage to Agatha Christie inspired TV dramas, if you hadn’t guessed by the title, this is Murder on the Orient Express but in space. This was first shown as a throwaway line during The Big Bang, the series finale of the first Matt Smith series. This is referenced in this episode for those nit-pickers out there and I would’ve been happy if it had remained a throwaway line. The whole thing seemed a little too high concept, a little too “Snakes on a Plane” to work properly as a Doctor Who episode. They have done Agatha Christie before, even featuring the author “herself” in The Unicorn and the Wasp during the Tennant era and it didn’t really work then because the villain had very little motivation beyond “I’m evil grrr”. This episode works better not because the monster is more fleshed out than the Tennant one, it isn’t particularly, it’s more the episode’s content surrounding the central monster that I found problematic.
The continually fantastic performance from Capaldi as The Doctor is still a delight even eight episodes into the series, he’s clearly having a ball with the role and it shows in this episode with many little touches and flourishes. A moment where he is talking to himself shows how he would be without a companion, an increasingly apparent reality of late (his second voice even sounds a little like Tom Baker’s Doctor). The relationship between The Doctor and Clara is splintering. After the conclusion of last week’s episode we’re seeing them on what they refer to as their “last hurrah” and the The Doctor is reluctant to include Clara in the events of this episode. Even walking away without telling her that he’s going off to investigate, a thing he would never have done before. Whilst splitting the two of them up for a large portion of this episode works as a way to keep someone we care about in the scene, it also works in showing us their reluctance to be around each other. When they are together the tension is palpable and it’s almost a relief when they’re not together this time around. It’s good to see that the characters are still treated with this much respect this far into the series and that there is still some reluctance on the part of Clara to accept this new Doctor as The Doctor. Even the guest Frank Skinner’s character, Perkins, is given enough characterisation that we are drawn to him. The engineer cum super genius is funny and useful enough that this new, harsher Doctor welcomes him with open arms I was happy to see a super intelligent character with a West Midlands accent on the screen.
This episode does, however, feel too much like filler at some points. There are still connections with the rest of the series, every episode so far has had a connection with the overarching series plot points and that has been a welcome relief. The problem lies with the fact that very little is added to the relationship between Clara and The Doctor. With the exception of the very end of the episode there’s no high or low point with the two, it just follows a bland line through this week’s installment. I’m sure I could look back after the whole series is over and retrospectively think that this episode was crucial to the development of The Doctor and Clara’s story this series but without that hindsight this episode feels as if it could have been reduced to just the final few minutes and the necessary points would have been retained. The promise of a new companion is even dangled in front of us but that is quickly quashed. This could be a good decision that pays off later on in the series because if it goes the way I think it’s going, we’re going to want to focus on the characters we have at the moment. The main reason why this felt like filler for me is because nothing really happens with The Doctor. Everything he does in this episode is something he has done before, there’s no shocking or revelatory moment about the new Doctor in this episode. He’s a harsher Doctor with a kind gooey centre, yes we get it. This episode doesn’t really give us anything we haven’t seen before in the previous episodes and it worked better in those ones because it was quite shocking to see The Doctor being so completely different to his previous incarnation. Even the Robin Hood episode, detractors aside, was able to show how he was different to Matt Smith’s Doctor, in that he didn’t jump gleefully into a possible meeting with Robin Hood. This episode is by no means a step backwards for the series, I still love the direction it’s taking, but it just feels a little stagnant when compared to the ones we have seen so far.
Filler episodes are a natural part of TV. Most series’ have those episodes that don’t really go anywhere but just allow us to have a buffer between the über shocking episodes so we don’t get overwhelmed. They perform a valuable service but they often get forgotten or left by the wayside when compared to the big shock episodes and I think this episode is one of them. This was a good episode but it wasn’t a great episode. There have been, and will be, better ones even in just this series. But who knows, as I said before, maybe when the series is done we will look back at this episode and think of it as a crucial turning point or one of the better episodes of the series. At the moment, though, this episode doesn’t stand well on its own. Bring on next week.