Writer Jamie Mathieson’s “Oxygen” is a taut, gripping thrill ride. As in his previous three Doctor Who episodes, he shows a particular flair for coming up with both snappy dialogue and creepy monsters. This time he has the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie), and Nardole (Matt Lucas) facing what amounts to a zombie plague when the Doctor, once again chafing at his ongoing task of guarding the vault on Earth, receives a distress call in the TARDIS and promptly takes all three of them to a deep-space asteroid mining station whose crew of 40 has been reduced to four. As the episode’s bleak opening teaser makes clear, the dead are still walking or floating around the station, intent on killing the remaining personnel.
Mathieson’s adroit plotting keeps the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole feeling off balance from the moment they arrive. After discovering one of the corpses being kept in a standing position by its own spacesuit, they find an empty suit moving about by itself. The Doctor explains how these suits have a built-in artificial intelligence—which appears to have been hacked, causing the suits to kill their occupants. Then they realize there’s no breathable air in the station, and the oxygen they introduced from the TARDIS is being automatically filtered out by the system. The only oxygen permitted aboard the station is in the suits, and they’re cut off from the TARDIS and forced to climb into three empty suits in order to keep breathing. They meet up with the four survivors, one of whom is soon killed as the zombies attack and the whole group has to brave open space in order to get away from them .
For the four previous episodes while Bill was being established as a companion, Nardole was deliberately kept in the background. Here, however, he becomes a full member of the TARDIS team, and Lucas and Mackie work well together as Nardole is able to give Bill information and advice about how to cope with the situation. Lucas also excels at batting quick-fire banter back and forth with Capaldi (as they did in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” before Bill arrived on the scene) as Nardole reproaches the Doctor over his willingness to abandon his duty. In a nice in-joke, Nardole tries to immobilize the TARDIS by removing one of its fluid links (an homage to events in several stories back in the 1960s), but this time the Doctor is one step ahead of him.
After briefly enjoying the spectacle of being out in space, Bill finds herself in a suit prone to glitching and moving on its own. When its helmet malfunctions as they’re forced outside the station, Mackie ably conveys the terror of Bill’s brief exposure to the vacuum. Even worse, her suit later freezes as the zombies attack again (picking off another crewmember), and the others are forced to abandon her. It’s a harrowing moment as Bill joins the ranks of the zombies, and a corresponding relief when the Doctor later reveals that her suit only had enough power to knock her out rather than kill her.
Unfortunately, the episode takes a turn for the ludicrous as the explanation is revealed.
Director Charles Palmer, who returns to the series after a decade away (he helmed four well-regarded season-three episodes, including the “Human Nature” two-parter, a high point of the David Tennant era), makes the most of the station’s dark, silent corridors to maintain constant tension. Another clever touch is the idea that the spacesuits are capable of using force-field bubbles instead of helmets inside the station, which allows the actors’ faces to be unobscured for most of the episode. Meanwhile, as he did in “The Girl Who Died,” Mathieson takes care to remove the Doctor’s sonic device from his available resources: Much to the Doctor’s dismay, his sonic screwdriver gets crushed and destroyed when he uses it to take out an attacking zombie.
The Doctor’s delight at being away from Earth again isn’t reduced even after an unusually nasty twist, when he’s left blind after he gives up his own helmet to save Bill and spends too long in open space. Capaldi’s energetic performance is particularly compelling as the Doctor works out the real cause of all the deaths. Unfortunately, the episode takes a turn for the ludicrous as the explanation is revealed. As hinted by the draconian restrictions on oxygen usage, it seems that the company that runs the station regards the crewmembers as unimportant biological adjuncts of their suits, and its response to a recent drop in productivity is to simply kill the whole crew using the suits, then send in a bunch of replacements. Left unexplained is exactly how crewmembers are persuaded to take a job in the first place under these conditions—and what was wrong with a simple “You’re fired”?
Doctor Who’s writers have occasionally used the series for making political points in the past, though seldom as blatantly as this. Oddly, the example that most readily comes to mind is from the opposite end of the political spectrum: “The Dominators,” from 1968, attacked the then-topical targets of pacifism and the hippie movement using caricatures just as crude as the straw-man version of “capitalism” pictured here. As the Doctor proclaims that their deaths will be “expensive” and threatens to destroy the whole station, Capaldi tries valiantly to match his impressive anti-war oration in 2015’s “The Zygon Inversion,” but the situation is just too fundamentally unbelievable. (I’ll admit, though, that the line “We’re fighting the suits!” is an awesome pun.)
Still, even though the background motivation is preposterous, the action reaches a satisfying climax as the Doctor’s plan works, the zombies are halted, and the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole are able to escape to the TARDIS with the station’s remaining two survivors. The Doctor agrees to drop them off at the company’s head office, where (he later tells Bill) their loudly delivered complaint is destined to (somehow) bring down the whole corporate edifice. But more important is the final scene’s shockingly unexpected sting, with the revelation that Nardole’s attempt to repair the Doctor’s damaged eyes wasn’t successful. As a result of this adventure, the Doctor has been left blind—and at the worst possible moment, too, as the preview for the next episode shows us that the vault’s occupant is on its way out…
Next Week: The Doctor finds himself confronting Missy again, in “Extremis.”
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: Some equally blatant pot shots at capitalism and mining companies can be found in 1971’s “Colony in Space,” starring Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning.
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