Doctor Who has long presented space as a bastion of adventure and excitement, with strange turns around every corner. When penning this episode, Steven Moffat gave one instruction to Jamie Mathieson (who, after ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline,’ is establishing himself as one of the series’ best writers) – he was to make space scary again. And with ‘Oxygen,’ he has succeeded – the episode is one of Who’s most daring, with big consequences for the future.
The Doctor longs for the stars, and so the TARDIS takes him, Bill and Nardole to an abandoned space station. Following a distress signal, the trio soon learn that the station’s space suits are killing off the crew, their corpses still walking. The Doctor races to save the few survivors, battling the technology as the oxygen available steadily decreases.
The episode is one of Who’s most daring, with big consequences for the future.
It almost goes without saying now that Capaldi and Mackie are excellent on screen together – Mackie still gets tons of great lines (putting on her helmet, she is concerned about what happens if she needs to vomit), and Capaldi holds your attention throughout. He has suffered some poor stories, but he’s shaping up to be one of the definitive Doctors. However, Matt Lucas now gets a bit more to do too – there are hints of an interesting character there, and I hope the series will delve a bit more into it.
This season of Doctor Who has been a treat so far, with no duds, and ‘Oxygen’ continues on that vain. The episode is crispy written and clever, and it has a point to make – it’s rare (although not unheard of) for the show to be quite as political as it was. It transpires that, even with a terrifying space zombie army, the real enemy of ‘Oxygen’ is capitalism.
Oxygen has become a commodity, and the suits are eliminating the crew because their survival is no longer cost efficient. When the Doctor says that he is ‘fighting against the suits,’ the double meaning is a clear one. This is not the first time the show has tackled this this series (in ‘Thin Ice,’ the villain was an evil businessman driven by profit)
We also treated (I say treated) to the first Who is a while that actually has consequences. At one point, the suits open the airlock to take out the survivors – the Doctor gives his helmet to Bill to save her, and is rendered blind for the rest of the episode. Although he tells Bill that he can recover his sight, the episode ends on the revelation that he is still blind, and there’s not going to be a quick fix. Some fans have posited that the whole season will be a long regeneration as the Doctor succumbs to age and illness – if so, this could be the start of it.
Not everything was perfect here – none of the survivors were particularly sketched-out or interesting, with a blue character introduced seemingly for a quick gag about racism. The episode also took pains to destroy the sonic screwdriver early on, and blind the Doctor, but it still concluded as easily as usual (if a touch much cleverly than with the customary ‘fix-all’ device).
Next week looks to stay on the series’ promising trajectory. The Doctor heads to the Vatican, dealing with monstrous monks and the return of Michelle Gomez’s Missy, in the first multipart story of the season.