Jamie Mathieson’s fourth Doctor Who story brings us an adventure unlike any of his previous ideas. ‘Oxygen’ takes a traditional base-under-siege format and crafts a clever economic allegory around it.
Bill, Nardole and the Doctor find themselves on the Chasm Forge, a derelict space station where oxygen comes at a price. Murderous space-suits run amok. The sonic screwdriver is broken, the TARDIS is lost, Bill almost dies and the Doctor is blind. Not exactly a day at space Vegas.
The trio stumble across four survivors of the originally forty-strong crew. A software patch in their space-suits gave the order to kill all operators. The suits still move with the bodies of the crew still strapped inside. But the patch hasn’t passed on to the survivors or our heroes. Yet. It’s a race against time to escape the zombified crew and get off the station before they run out of air. The only problem? Air costs a bundle and they’re all out of dosh!
For such a simple idea, the automated spacesuits dragging around their corpsified operators made for a surprisingly unsettling monster. An excellent blend of horror and science-fiction that has become Mathieson’s calling card since his first two stories. We’ll get into the themes later but something tells me calling them “suits” was no accident. They’re a little reminiscent of the Cybermen with their marching gait and recognisably human parts.
The story moves with excellent pacing, breaking up the escape sequences with moments of calm. The concept that suits could only follow them into rooms if they were on the map was a clever idea on Mathieson’s part. It gave the story and characters time to breathe without dampening the threat. Lurking zombies just outside the room are just as scary as the attacking kind. Having the crew apportion their escape route by how many breaths it’ll take was a really inventive way to escalate the tension.
The guest cast were great, even if they were only really there to die or run away. Dahh-Ren was a nice touch and I wish he’d been around longer. The idea of the companion coming across as a space-racist would have been a great thing to expand on.
The opening scene established the threat well, but I would have preferred to see Ivan escape onscreen. With Ivan barely mentioning Ellie for the rest of the episode, her reappearance missed an emotional weight that would have worked well.
Go Through Hell
Bill and the Doctor share more of the great chemistry they’ve built up. Mathieson clearly has a grasped a sense of Bill’s character from the very beginning. They’re a great pairing in this episode and having Nardole in the mix makes them into a great trio. That three-way hug at the end was a touching moment.
Admittedly, the Doctor allowing Bill to seemingly die was a bit of a dark moment. It highlights a key distinction between Bill and Clara. Both had moments where the Doctor seemed to abandon them to their fate. Clara got angry at the Doctor and resented him for it, even when he explained his reasons. Bill understands but is a little too accepting of the Doctor allowing her to get a near-fatal electric shock to the spine. I’m not sure which is the better character trait but it’s an interesting difference.
‘Oxygen’ includes the first major involvement of Nardole in the main story. We’ve always known Matt Lucas was a varied comedic performer but whodathunk he could do dramatic? Though he appears to defer to the Doctor, it’s clear in their private moments that Nardole and the Doctor are on more of an equal footing. It’s obvious he has just as much a stake in the Vault staying closed as the Doctor does. That said, he felt a bit underused here. With Bill “dead” and the Doctor blind, this would have been a great opportunity to have Nardole save the day.
In the process of escaping the suits with Bill’s malfunctioning helmet, the Doctor is blinded. This was effective to show consequences for the story but it seems more like setup for the next episode than a vital element of this one. Being blind barely slowed the Doctor down, besides the odd bump and didn’t really tie into anything. That said, kudos to the BBC on keeping that under wraps. Altered trailer clips to maintain surprise makes it hard to predict where this will go.
How the Doctor’s blindness affects the rest of the series will be really exciting, even if it only lasts for an episode or two. It’s bound to have implications later on if his impairment gives whoever’s in the vault time to escape. Personally, I think it would be interesting to maintain this for the rest of the Twelfth Doctor’s life and see how it affects him. Though, with seven episodes and a Christmas special still to go, the practicalities make it unlikely.
“Capitalism is rife”
The “suits” as a socio-economic metaphor and the heavily anti-capitalist rhetoric adds an allegorical element to the story. While this is something that sci-fi does regularly, it’s rare to see it done so overtly in Doctor Who. It’s even rarer from Mathieson when this sort of thing usually comes from the likes of Peter Harness (for good or ill). Though I appreciate Doctor Who doing this more often, this episode’s message felt a bit heavy handed. It was very ‘Black Mirror’ like in its execution, but having the Doctor state the problem was eye-rolling.