The Doctor: “Space … the final frontier. Final because it wants to kill us. Sometimes we forget that, start taking it all for granted — the suits, the ships, the little bubbles of safety — as they protect us from the void. But the void is always waiting.”
Beginning with that darkly tongue-in-cheek voice over, the pre-credits sequence of “Oxygen” is quintessential Doctor Who. Two bodies eerily tumble through space. A massive space station is revealed. Both surrounded by the void and working outside, Ellie (Katie Brayben) confesses to Ivan (Kieran Bew): If they manage to escape their current predicament, she wants to have a baby with him. Unfortunately, there’s a com error and Ivan will never hear Ellie’s dream. Moments later, she’s attacked and killed by the two previously seen bodies, now upright and hulking forward. Is Ivan next? Cue credits. That mixture of the intimate alongside the vast and shocking is Doctor Who at its best.
Jamie Mathieson writes great, thought-provoking Doctor Who episodes and “Oxygen” is no exception. Here he has crafted a story about greed and selfishness, explored in two ways: The first is corporate and the second is personal, and there are consequences for both. Further, the production team steps up to the plate and delivers gorgeous imagery to complement the intense script.
In the classroom, the Doctor rants and raves about space to a room full of students. Bill sits in on the lecture, while Nardole stands in the back. He astutely picks up on the Doctor’s desire to travel into the void once again. Despite recent travels to the past and future, there’s a masterful quality to Matheison’s handling of the material as a means of exploring the Doctor’s psyche, as well as foreshadowing the events of the episode that we’ve yet to witness. Soon after, there’s a lovely moment of the Doctor staring longingly out of a window into the starry night sky.
The Doctor: “That is my theme tune … otherwise known as a distress call.”
Bill: “You like distress calls?”
The Doctor: “You only really see the true face of the universe when it’s asking for your help.”
Soon enough, a distress call drags the trio to mining station Chasm Forge in the far future, in the vastness of space. The station lacks breathable air, so the Doctor floods it with oxygen from the TARDIS. A warning signal (“unlicensed oxygen detected”) and a sign (“air costs — save your breath”) both go unseen by the time travelers. They find a dead man standing, asphyxiated, eyes bulging and blue-tinged skin, yet his oxygen tank is full and his field of oxygen breathable. Bill is unnerved upon discovering the suit keeps the man upright. When they hear noises coming from another area of the ship, both Bill and Nardole want to go back to the TARDIS. A responsible Doctor should probably listen to his friends, but his desire to be a savior and answer the distress call is more important to him than their wishes.
Logs reveal a crew of 40, with 36 records of life signs terminated. The last log entry declares the station non-profitable. The Doctor insists it’s their duty to respond to the four survivors. An empty smartsuit (a term surely coined with a wink at the computer in your pocket or purse) issues cold statements such as “oxygen is available for personal use only at competitive prices” and “any unlicensed oxygen will be expelled to protect market value,” a pair of chilling clues that this future does not look upon humankind with warmth. Alarms go off and the ship does exactly what it just threatened. Not only does the oxygen nearly run out, but the door between the trio and the TARDIS slams sealed shut. Soon after, the Doctor loses his beloved blue-hued sonic as well.
Another bleak order given to the suits: “Deactivate your organic component.” The Doctor reasons that “they” have filtered all of the oxygen out of the station so it can then be sold back to the wearers of the suits. “Capitalism in space,” he grimly jests. They’ve no choice but to slip into the suits, each of which are off-network. Nardole deduces that if 36 people are dead, then 36 suits are walking around. In an inspired means for Doctor Who to do zombies without even doing zombies, Nardole cranks up the outside lights to chillingly reveal the suits and bodies stumbling on the exterior of the ship.
With only 2,500 breaths available, the ability to keep cool while on the run is a necessity. Panic equals more breaths taken. With the dead stalking, the trio makes their way to the four survivors, Tasker (Justin Salinger), Ivan (who survived the opening scene), Abbi (Mimi Ndiweni), and Dahh-Ren (Peter Caulfield), a blue alien who, in one of the episode’s only light moments, has no patience for Bill’s casual shoe-on-the-other foot racism. Making a group run for the safety of the core, Tasker is killed.
The next option: Out the airlock, into the vacuum. Bill’s suit malfunctions and won’t allow for her helmet. The only thing she knows for sure? Don’t hold your breath or your lungs will explode. It’s a dizzyingly intense sequence in which everything goes whack from Bill’s POV, as we watch her skin ice over. Somewhere in between fading into unconsciousness and waking up, there was a battle and everyone’s made their way to an unmapped area of the station, which suits cannot access. (Why is it unmapped?) Most dramatically, the Doctor gave Bill his helmet, and was in the vacuum for so long that he’s gone blind and his eyes are stark white.
The Doctor: “I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about ten minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?”
The tension ratchets up to 11 (or perhaps in this Doctor’s case, 12). Dahh-Ren is killed and Bill is soon to follow when her suit malfunctions yet again; this time it’s static and won’t move at all. When the suit threatens a fine for tampering with its operation, the Doctor wonders if this is all business as usual. There’s only one choice — the Doctor must leave her behind. He promises her he’ll fix it, as she seemingly dies at the hands of the suits, screaming out to the mother she never knew. It’s a horrific moment that could have been avoided if they’d all left in the first place.
The Doctor confesses to Nardole that this is all on him, that this is his fault. His selfish need to be a savior of the unknown has led to the death of his new best friend. In a flash of inspiration, he realizes that the one thing he can do to stop a greedy corporation is to destroy their profits by destroying the station. They let the suits in the room, and upon realizing that the profits will go down the drain if they proceed, they stop their march and hand over their oxygen to the survivors. The Doctor brings Bill back from her zombie stupor, revealing he knew her suit battery was too low to kill her, but couldn’t say it aloud for the suits to hear.
The Doctor: “They’re not your rescuers. They’re your replacements. The end point of capitalism. The bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet … like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!”
Back on earth, after Nardole seemingly tends to the Doctor’s eyesight, in a shocking cliffhanger reveal, the Doctor admits he’s still blind. For a show that routinely fixes wounds and death, here’s something nobody saw coming. Will this Doctor be blind for the remainder of this life? That would certainly change the texture of the show.
Odds and Ends
• Next week, we’ll finally find out what’s inside that damn vault. Is it Michelle Gomez’s Missy? Is it John Simm’s Master? It’s almost certain to be one or the other, but wouldn’t it be nice to be surprised by someone else entirely? My vote goes to the next incarnation of the Doctor, though based on the clues we’ve been given, that seems entirely unlikely. But it’d be cool.
• The invisible force field enveloping the heads of each suit’s occupant were the only way to do this episode without entirely closing off each actor’s expressive face (not to mention the hideous zombies). I can’t decide if I liked that trick of shaking the helmets into shape or not, but it was flashy, no doubt.
• Finally Nardole gets a full adventure this season, however, he was only effectively used in his final scene when he chewed out the Doctor. Matt Lucas can do drama nicely, so there’s no need to always reduce him to comic relief. Remember how great he was in the Christmas special?