This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
“Space. The Final Frontier. Final, because it wants to kill us”
It started with a Star Trek line. It ended with a hell of a cliffhanger. It left us hoping that Chris Chibnall has already signed up writer Jamie Mathieson – returning to Doctor Who writing following the likes of Flatline and Mummy On The Orient Express – for series 11. It would be fair to say that Oxygen was something of a triumph.
And I’m going to start at the end.
Notwithstanding the next time trailer, that I won’t go through as I appreciate many chose to avoid it (and it certainly has things in it that spoiler-phobes would want to steer clear of), we now have a Doctor who’s physically damaged. Who hasn’t, this time, managed to survive a deadly situation with no more required than a trip to the intergalactic dry cleaners.
There’s a running theory that series 10 is about a long, slow demise for Capaldi’s Doctor, that it’s the most prolonged regeneration we’ll have seen for a Time Lord (early teaser trailers helped fuel this, notwithstanding Steven Moffat’s past form in misdirection). We’re not even half way through the series, and the Doctor now can’t see, with seven episodes left to go. Is this a temporary, episode-long thing that’ll be utterly cured by the end of next week? My guess would be no. That we’re going to see a Doctor take more damage, until regeneration is his only option. But then that’s a guess. Yet the only tangible option for a Time Lord with a failing body, long term, is to regenerate. And this Doctor’s body may well be on the way out sooner than expected.
That’s only a part of the ongoing mystery, too. The other part is that vault. The Doctor is guarding it, and if whatever’s in there gets out, then the Earth is in danger. Nardole makes this very clear. With every conversation the stakes get a little higher. “You need to be ready when that door opens”, Nardole says. The clues suggest we’re not going to have long to wait.
“All we’ve got left is a good death”
All that’s just the stuff from the end of the episode.
The first 40 minutes of Oxygen, though, is just as worthy of praise. I’d argue it was as good a standalone episode of Who as we’ve had this run. Given that there’s not been a duffer, that’s no small feat or backhanded compliment, either. It benefits from bringing Matt Lucas’ Nardole along for his first proper adventure of the series, as he, the Doctor and Bill end up on a space station. Bill’s excitement at heading properly into space naturally leads to her nearly dying. But then that’s Doctor Who for you.
Anyway: regular Who fans know the basics here straight away, and you get no bonus points for calling out the words ‘base under siege’ once the foundations are put in place. And that’s the framework the story wraps around, certainly, but with a more mysterious edge. It is a base of sorts we all find ourselves at. They are most certainly under siege. And people seem to have disappeared.
But what Mathieson does is wrap this, echoing the skill of a good McCoy-era Who story, with an underpinning – eventually overpinning – political message. About the commoditisation of the basics human beings need to exist. In this case, it’s oxygen. Oxygen that’s calculated as a resource, where efficiencies have to be made, and basically where Microsoft Excel seems to have conquered the world.
Mathieson realises this with some genuinely creepy monsters, and unlike the creatures that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole have faced this series, they’re not ones who have a moment of redemption. They’re here to scare the bejesus out of you.
For it’s not the people that are the foes: it’s the suits. The literal suits, and the suits who run corporations. In both cases, the suits that are designed to mine every efficiency, to pinch every penny, to conserve every bit of oxygen, to toss human beings aside. As such, the suits come marching, with the dead bodies inside them, and it’s a genuinely chilling sight.
There’s a feel of a zombie movie at times, one mixed with the thump against metal as if the Cybermen were coming to get you. The slumped heads, the dead eyes… these were effective foes, who I’d happily believe the Doctor and co would brave the outside of the space station to try and get away from. Believing the characters actions was certainly not a problem here.
“At current levels of exertion, you have two and a half thousand breaths available”
Production-wise, the sound design is something I rarely cite in these reviews, and I really should. The moment outside the space station, with oxygen depleting and Bill deteriorating was done in such as disorientating, unsettling way that I couldn’t help but applaud. The uneasy sound mix matched the visuals step for step. I suspect that director Charlie Palmer, who’s previously been working away on the likes of Poirot and Lark Rise To Candleford, has an impressive horror movie in him, waiting to be made. Actually, a Poirot zombie movie. Can I have that please? You’re not telling me David Suchet wouldn’t be interested.
Back to Mathieson’s script, though. Doctor Who stories often spend 40 minutes putting the lead characters in deadly peril, before then engineering a way out. Yet that didn’t happen here. The Doctor has taken real damage. It took sacrifice to keep Bill alive. The internal logic of the story stood, there was no undue haste. Peter Capaldi, in the midst of it all, gives his acting masterclass that we take for granted. “The only way to argue with a ‘suit’, and save your life, is to reason on a case of expense”, he said, with an opposite dose of cold calculation. “About it’ll cost more if people die”.
No wonder Nardole asked for a cuddle at the end of it all.
I’d suggest there have to be ramifications for Bill after all of this, too. As the Doctor promised, he put her through hell so she could survive the episode. Then we kept getting flashbacks to the pictures of her mother. Is there something going on there? Have we ever discovered exactly what happened to her mum? Given how much has to be crammed into the edit of a Doctor Who episode, leaving those little touches in is clearly deliberate, be they red herrings, character-deepening moments, or something story-vital. I’d expect the second half of the series to investigate Bill’s backstory a little more, at least.
“What’s this got to do with crop rotation?”
But then Oxygen has unsettled everything just a little. Plus it still found time to slot in a blue-ish spin on discrimination, and a reference to Birmingham. You don’t get that in Star Trek.
It’d be remiss too to overlook the ice cold opening, too. We’ve had Bill quizzing the Doctor about people dying in past weeks, and seen, for instance, a child sent to their doom in Thin Ice. But don’t let the ending of Oxygen take away from the pre-credits sequence. A couple, on the outside of the space station, clearly in love. She reveals she wants to have a baby, and confesses it for the first time, not knowing he can’t hear. They have a happy life ahead of them. And then, with a stroke of Mathieson’s pen, they’re both dead. Only then do the opening titles roll, some 43 minutes before Eurovision was due to start. Happy Saturday night, folks!
Back at the start of this series of Doctor Who, I wrote this piece, suggesting that the run ahead was the closest the show could get to a ‘free hit’. I said at the time that it was a phrase that vastly simplified matters, but I wondered if, liberated from threading plotlines into future series, that a straight 13-episode run (including Christmas) centred on a clear story could be to the benefit of the show. Five episodes in, I’d very much argue it is. Oxygen has raised the bar again.
One last thing: to those who ran spoiler-free pieces ahead of this episode, declaring there’s a big cliffhanger? That’s still a spoiler. See you next week.
Read our review of last week’s episode, Knock Knock, here…
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