“Difference Inhabits Repetition . . . Difference Lies Between Two Repetitions,” Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express, 13/10/2014

After some weeks, I feel less like myself, and more like this.
I hope no one really minds that I never posted anything over Thanksgiving weekend. Quite frankly, I needed some time off from the school program at Sheridan, the production and promotion of You Were My Friend, the work I’m doing on the Alice script, reading the philosophy and fiction that I like to read for my future writing projects and for fun, and writing all this on the blog. It’s fun, but sometimes you just have to go to St Catharine’s and take a break.

I don’t even really think that I need the spoilers tag today, because I’m not really discussing any of plot-related details of Mummy on the Orient Express. Instead, the episode offers me the chance to discuss a concept that’s been running under this season quite a lot. At least it appears more explicitly than it usually does in Doctor Who, a show with an immense and complicated history, made by very talented people who have been longtime fans and know that history intimately. 


Phil Sandifer’s review of this episode did a fine job of identifying many of the common tropes that recur throughout the production of 21st century Doctor Who, but recursion occurs throughout this season with an intensity that I think is of a different quality than the usual tendency in any long-running television production of falling back on techniques that have worked well in the past. Mummy on the Orient Express finds new spins on each repetition, though, because that’s what repetition is.

Deleuze: An inspirational philosopher with whom
I share increasingly fragile lung health.
The kind of repetition I’m talking about isn’t the colloquial meaning of the term, the repetition of exactly that which has gone before, repetition of the same. I’m talking about the conception of repetition as the repetition of a creative moment, a concept that is pivotal in the philosophical writings of Gilles Deleuze. What repeats is the departure from what is the same. Time without this departure, at least at some minimal scale, is no time at all. Repetition is a reiteration that is also a change. You can recognize the new event as a development of what has come before, but it is also unique in its own right.

We should also be careful about what is a genuine repetition and what is a coincidental resemblance. One of the commenters on Phil’s review discussed how Clara’s being drawn to the danger and power of the Doctor’s life appears to echo that of the young Sarah Jane Smith, and Donna Noble. Yet this example also helps us figure out precisely what is a repetition.

We don’t really learn anything from pointing out this similarity. It is a similarity, but it doesn’t signify any meaning in the context of the episode itself. It’s a similar image in Doctor Who’s history to the current moment, but it doesn’t trace a causal path of signification or serve as a profound enough echo. To do that, the story element should either be the explicit product of the creators choosing an idea within the history of Doctor Who and reiterating it, either as a major or minor story element, or as a fleeting image. 

The most important fleeting images were callbacks to the Tom Baker era, which occur both here, and as a curious element of the art in a companion comic book. Peter Capaldi, in a scene where he talks to himself in his sleeper bunk, does an impression of Tom Baker, and he later offers a character a jelly baby from an ornamental cigarette case. As well, Capaldi’s Doctor as drawn in the companion comic strongly resembles former Doctor Who producer Phillip Hinchcliffe. 

This is all I need to post. Learn more about the comic here.
As this season is probably the most consistently horror-oriented of the 21st century series, to the point that my girlfriend no longer understands how Doctor Who in its current form can be a show that’s appropriate for children. My telling her that children enjoy having nightmares never really goes over that well. But these images are inserted intentionally, so that people who are similarly familiar with the history of the show will understand these signifiers as markers of success. A horror-oriented Doctor Who is undergoing a creative renaissance, its producers know it, and they’re using these signifiers to let the audience know.

A more substantial repetition is the setting, the Orient Express in space. Because Doctor Who is part of the centuries-long tradition of British popular narrative entertainment (stretching back as far as, since the medium is immaterial to narrativity itself, the sagas and The Canterbury Tales), it can engage in dialogue with elements of that tradition, including Agatha Christie novels.

A more immediate aspect of that repetition is that Doctor Who has already engaged with Agatha Christie explicitly in The Unicorn and the Wasp, which was, in the blurring of text and tongue-in-cheek meta-text typical (some would say definitive) of the Davies era, an adventure with, and commentary upon, the Christie model of mystery storytelling. 

Mummy on the Orient Express also reiterates Christie, but instead offers a commentary on its over-artificiality. The entire reason they’ve been thrown into this situation was for an unscrupulous businessman to reverse-engineer a terrible weapon.* The mummy being on board the train was itself used to call out the implausibility of the coincidence, which is that it was part of someone else’s plan. 

* A plot device that was the motivating factor in the storyline of Aliens

You'd think there was only so much to be done with Agatha
Christie pastiche in Doctor Who. But to say that, shows
you don't know all that Doctor Who can do.
So instead of a retread of Murder on the Orient Express, we end up with a version of And Then There Were None, one Christie story turning into another. But that transformation only occurs through a narrative splice with another repetition of a Davies-era trope: the small-scale villain with epic-sized powers thanks to the sci-fi setting they operate in. Mme Karabraxos in Time Heist was the same type of figure, this story's mysterious GUS being a villain whose petty motivations, like weapons manufacturing, are even more criminal in the mythic and epic registers of the story. Here, not only does the setting evoke the trappings of the legendary Christie, but the narrative evokes the tradition of British horror films and, through their twisted mirrors, the Pharaonic culture of Egypt. 

Fleeting images in the narrative can be intentional, but they can also be unintentional, as I suspect this last repetition is. Their unplanned nature makes them particularly disturbing, as repetitions that emerge from the component activities of a narrative are uncontrolled, and perhaps uncontrollable. So I’m rather disturbed to see an unintentional fleeting image repeating, with variation, the Colin Baker era, a moment that finally does necessitate my 


tag for this review. As I discussed in my review of Deep Breath, the spectre of Doctor Who’s most intense moment of self-destruction haunts Capaldi’s first series. One of the most important aspects of this explosion, the near-suicide of the program itself, was the horrible way the character of Peri Brown, the Doctor’s main companion in the brief Colin Baker period, was treated.

Nicola Bryant as Peri doing what she was frequently
directed to do in her time on televised Doctor Who,
whimper with fear.
As I, and Phil, have said in our separate discussions, Peri was the living embodiment of rape culture paraded at the front of Doctor Who, not to be condemned, but to be celebrated as the essence of the Doctor-Companion relationship. Peri was constantly threatened with sexual violence, and victimized throughout her adventures from The Caves of Androzani to Timelash. She was rarely able to rise to the occasion, always a victim in need of rescue. 

After Peri laid bare the most unsavoury aspects of the Doctor-Companion relationship that had been lurking creepily in Doctor Who’s implicit text for decades, the companion could never really be treated in such a way again. The role began its period of experimentation: no character could ever be the generic companion again. Clara is probably the most radical experiment in the continuing process of finding new takes on the companion yet.

However, her hair here is precisely Peri’s haircut in Season 22. This is in no way intentional, as her hair was explicitly designed in this episode to evoke the 1920s flapper aesthetic of the Orient Express space train.** Yet the haircuts turned out to be hauntingly similar.

** However, when I think about it, there’s no way that, if we ever do go epically into space as Doctor Who prods us to do, any space-based tribute to the Orient Express will ever be so simple as a period piece. Thanks to the cultural power of Agatha Christie, the train is more famous for there having been a murder on it than anything else. So any Orient Express in space will probably end up being a murder mystery cruise.

Clara becomes a perfect inversion of Peri, linked only
through the unplanned repetition of the earlier actress's
haircut, shining through her flapper wardrobe.
And Clara, at the end of this episode, reveals that if she has any relationship to Peri, it is as the character’s total inversion. Jenna Coleman and the young Nicola Bryant physically resemble each other, here most explicitly, but the episode ends with Clara choosing to continue lying to Danny about her adventures. After she accuses the Doctor of addiction to taking upon himself those serious decisions where lives and worlds hang in the balance, she herself clearly displays that addiction. 

Upon facing the accusation, the Doctor is hesitant, perhaps seeing an edge of truth, but knowing that this is not the full story of why he lives as he does. But Clara, in speaking about the Doctor, reveals more about herself. Clara is a repetition of Peri not only in surface imagery, but in that her character is defined through her engagement with danger and threat. 

Peri cowers, and becomes a living embodiment of the sexism that had long infested Doctor Who without ever being dealt with. Clara embraces the danger and the power that danger offers, becoming a progressive figure for female characters in mainstream televised sci-fi. The challenge is whether the denouement of Clara’s arc will save this potential or squander it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to the cultural power of Agatha Christie, the train is more famous for there having been a murder on it than anything else.

    Actually my first association with the Orient Express is its actual history rather than the Christie fiction. And my second association is with a central-European-cuisine restaurant named "Orient Express" on a refurbished dining car in Chapel Hill (now long since out of business). But I may be an outlier.

    In any case, it's a good thing Christie's publisher made her change the title from her original Murder on the Calais Coach.