Doctor Who S10E05 “Oxygen” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- Nardole notices that the Doctor is getting restless about going into space again and knobbles the TARDIS to prevent the Doctor from abandoning his duties as regards guarding the vault.
- Or rather, tries to knobble the TARDIS; the Doctor has been feeding him misinformation about which parts he needs to remove to ground the old girl.
- And so the Doctor, Bill and a reluctant Nardole wind up on a space station in the far future which has sent out a distress signal.
- All the crew except four have been killed by their own automated spacesuits, which have been infected by some kind of computer virus which is passed from suit to suit via touch.
- The spacesuits now roam the station in search of the survivors carrying their dead occupants inside them.
- There is no actual oxygen in the space station; rather, each person has their own personal supply held in place around them by an invisible force field.
- Finding the survivors, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole – who have donned unaffected spacesuits – help them fight the zombie spacesuits.
- But Bill’s spacesuit is faulty, so when the fight spreads to the space station’s exterior, she is exposed to a the vacuum of space… and falls unconscious.
- She awakes back on the station.
- The Doctor gave her his helmet to save her. And although his Time Lord body chemistry gives him some defence against the vacuum, he was out there so long that he has sustained one lasting injury – he’s gone blind.
- He says the TARDIS can repair his eyesight but they are now trapped in a section of the station far from the trusty time ship.
- When Doctor, Bill, Nardole and the ever-decreasing number of survivors go on the run from the zombie spacesuits again, Bill’s spacesuit glitches again and refuses to move or let her out.
- The Doctor tells her to be brave and reluctantly leaves her behind, saying she will go through hell, but she will not die.
- The zombie spacesuits catch up with her and infect her suit. Her suit appears to kill her.
- In a control room, the Doctor rigs the space station to blow up; the survivors think he’s mad.
- But the Doctor’s worked out why the spacesuits are killing their occupants; because they’ve been deemed uneconomical.
- When the zombie spacesuits enter the control room, the Doctor reveals what he’s done to them. The spacesuits deem the destruction of the space station even more uneconomical and admit defeat. They hand control of the station back to the survivors.
- They also release Bill, who is not actually dead (thank heavens for faulty spacesuits, eh?).
- In the TARDIS the Doctor’s eyes are apparently fixed.
- But back the the university, when Bill has left his office, the Doctor reveals to Nardole that the fix didn’t work and he’s still blind.
Wow, “Oxygen” really puts the audience through the ringer. This must rate as one of the hardest-edged episodes of Doctor Who ever. It’s still huge fun and frothily silly in places but these moments are like little oases in a desert of harrowing grim. But boy, does it work. And work powerfully.
Structurally, it’s classic Who: The Doctor and co stuck in a confined environment with a few survivors fighting multiplying monsters. And the space suits zombies make great monsters; the images of them as the stomp around the space station with dead bodies inside of them are shockingly memorable.
But the addition of a little bit of politics (will the BBC be accused of an anti-Conservative bias in the run up to the election?) and the horrifying concept of having to pay for the very air that you breath give the episode more depth. While the fate of the Doctor – and the incredible scene in which it looks like they might actually be killing Bill off – raise the human (or Time Lords) stakes as well. You truly do care about what’s happening to Bill and the Doctor.
In fact the blinding of the Doctor is a really gutsy blindsider; the double bluff – in which it initially looks like it’s a one-episode deal then at the cliffhanger we learn he was lying about getting his eyes fixed – works incredibly effectively to increase the impact. How many episode will they carry this on for? Could the Twelfth Doctor be blind until his regeneration? We doubt it, but we hope Moffat keeps it as a thing for a few episodes at least. This is exactly the kind of acting challenge Capaldi can relish.
It’s weird that this, the most serious episode we’ve had this season, is also the first one to feature Nardole heavily, as his comedy shtick grates at times, especially the whimpering. But he’s not a major annoyance and Matt Lucas has a chance to shine late in the episode when he gives the Doctor a truly harsh tongue-lashing. It’s impressively strong stuff.
With a pacy, action-packed and tension-filled script, pitch-perfect direction and some stunningly good performances, “Oxygen” is exactly what certain Doctor Who fans wanted new Doctor Who to be when it came back in 2005 – classic Doctor Who with an Alien overhaul. We wouldn’t like the show to be like this every week, but it’s great to see this formula done so well every now and again.
- The basic concept – zombie spacesuits turned evil by capitalism in a future where you are literally required to pay for the air that you breath – is great science fiction.
- While there are lots of great trad horror moments, the most horrific sequence of all is the Doctor’s lecture about the horrors of being exposed to the vacuum of space.
- All the shots of spacesuited crew (dead or alive) on the exterior of the space station are exceptionally well achieved.
- The moment when it looks like Bill is going to die is downright nightmarish.
- Excellent direction from Charles Palmer, who injects copious amounts of shocks, tension and atmosphere into the snappy script.
- The first reveal that the Doctor’s gone blind is immensely powerful. Then he says don’t worry, it’s only temporary, and you think, well, yeah, that’s a bit of a cop out, but hey, the initial shock was still good. THEN THEY TURN IT ROUND AGAIN AND THE DOCTOR REALLY IS BLIND! There’s some seriously evil blind man’s double bluffing going on here.
- Peter Capaldi is rather excellent, isn’t he?
- Nardole’s comedy whimpering occasionally grates in such a “grim and gritty” episode, but he moment of righteous anger at the Doctor at the end is so powerful, we’ll forgive him.
- It seems a bit old-fashioned sci-fi for the suits to need to make physical contact to spread their virus. Surely they’d all be wirelessly networked?
And The Random:
- THIS WEEK’S FIRST DOCTOR REFERENCE: Nardole removes a fluid link in an attempt to ground the TARDIS, but the Doctor says the TARDIS doesn’t need fluid links to work. So he’s clearly updated the systems since the First Doctor story, “The Daleks” (1963-4), in which the Doctor secretly removed a fluid link to prevent the TARDIS from dematerialising and so forcing his companions to explore the Dalek city with him.
- The very first line is, of course, the start of the opening narration for the opening credits of classic Star Trek.
- The pre-opening titles sequence also gives a literal example of the poster tag line for the original Alien film: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
- Presumably a little bit more of the human Nardole survives than just his head if he needs oxygen – he must have lungs too.
Review by Dave Golder