Reviewed by John Hussey
I will happily admit that Doctor Who hasn’t felt this strong in such a long time. Series 10 has so far had a consistent run of episodes (though “The Pilot” was clearly quite weak) with each narrative demonstrating well thought-out ideas, vivid imagery, and distinctive identities, allowing this series to feel very diverse with its tone and storytelling.
Continuing the ideas and imagery displayed in “Knock Knock”, returning writer Jamie Mathieson conjures up one hell of an idea for his latest script. “Oxygen” takes the Horror genre into space, developing a narrative that rivals the likes of Alien in having a tense plot that constantly keeps you on your toes through isolation and repeated near death situations.
Mathieson has certainly proven to be a fan-favourite after his debut in Series 8, writing one of the best New Who narratives of the lot, i.e. “Mummy on the Orient Express”. Though I will admit that his contribution for Series 9 was underwhelming, but that wasn’t helped by his episode being co-written with Steven Moffat (so chances are his incredible talent and ideas were supressed). So it was good to hear he was allowed free-reigns for his fourth script, which promised to be his darkest tale to date. And for once the build-up didn’t lie.
What is most interesting about this episode is its themes. Mathieson creates a sinister future where corporations are corrupt enough to charge for oxygen (something I have joked about could possibly happen because of how greedy officials are when it comes to making profit from their consumers). And so a poor team aboard a mining station have to endure the terrible task of counting their breathes in order to maintain their existence (let alone their job). It’s a rather unsettling set-up, made only worse by the presence of fucking zombies (which are made even more unsettling by the production team’s fantastic design).
Doctor Who certainly hasn’t been completely shy from incorporating zombies within its narratives, with the first major attempt being “The Unquiet Dead” written by Mark Gatiss, though I doubt we’ll ever get the real thing, i.e. flesh-eating creatures of instinct. But I’m not going to lie and say the zombies in this tale aren’t scary. Although the more interesting thing about “Oxygen” is your fear of the suits the characters are forced to wear. They quickly become a means of both salvation and damnation.
Mathieson neatly ties our beloved protagonist into the stations plotline by having The Twelfth Doctor become space-sick (as it were). This shows through him diverting teaching about crop rotation and instead talking about the vacuum of space and how extensive exposure will kill you in a horrific manner. This statement (alone) made the episode feel very realistic, and gritty, almost as if it wanted to be more scientifically accurate, thus creating an episode where travelling in space was a terrifying experience instead of a adventurous journey as seen before in Doctor Who.
Of course Nardole (played by Matt Lucas) sees this as The Twelfth Doctor wanting to escape his duties again by sneaking off on another trip in the TARDIS. Again we see Nardole taking the more adult position by trying to put The Twelfth Doctor in his place (like he were a whiny child who didn’t fully understand the concept of responsibility) and in many ways made him feel like the more mature character in the trio. We even have him attempting to stop The Twelfth Doctor (after the Time Lord tries to trick him into going to Birmingham to fetch a packet of crisps) by removing the fluid link (a nice little nod to “The Daleks”).
But of course we all know by now that The Doctor lies, and Nardole is quick to learn that trusting the crafty Time Lord leads to deception. Continuing the story-arc of The Twelfth Doctor teaching his student Bill he takes her into space to learn its beautiful (and yet terrifying) capabilities. Bill is very wowed by the idea of being in space, but Nardole (on the other-hand) is extremely cross with The Twelfth Doctor for his childish nature. It was rather interesting finally seeing Nardole take a more prominent role within the show (given he has been credited as a companion since “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” and not really done anything, thus only really performing the role of a supporting character [at best]).
I suppose we did get to see more of him in “The Pilot”, particularly when they travelled across Earth, space, and time, in order to escape Heather, but his more insightful moments have come from his cameo appearances in consecutive episodes. “Oxygen” allows Nardole to expand further as a character (and honestly) he becomes a really good companion. I never really minded Nardole up until this point but I’m glad Mathieson granted him a reason to be cared about by the fandom (who have mostly not taken a shine to him because of his unimportance and blatant comedic values).
Nardole was made useful in this story, not only to be the adult in the room, but to also offer some genuine help (given he is also an intelligent alien). Lucas really does well at playing the different personality traits that Nardole offers, from his quick comedy, to his caring nature. Considering he didn’t really take a shine to Bill at first, he really comes to care for her in this tale, constantly looking out for her and being generally supportive (particularly in trying to compensate for The Twelfth Doctor’s somewhat questionable decisions, thus roasting him later on about the possibility of not returning back to Earth to guard the Vault, a mission he swore to undertake).
As for Bill, Pearl Mackie once again pulls off a great performance as you feel her character really being tested. Despite facing a few darker moments on her travels Bill has mostly been offered fun adventures with fantastical elements for her to explore. “Oxygen” turns the fun on its head completely by placing her in a “life or death” situation which honestly makes you feel sorry for her. It’s hard to really think of an occasion when a companion had to suffer as much shock and trauma as Bill did within these intense 45 minutes.
“Oxygen” constantly throws danger at our protagonists, and the supporting cast, and it’s hard to comprehend a positive resolution because the stakes are so high. What makes the episode even scarier is the limitation of oxygen. At the beginning of the episode The Twelfth Doctor and his companions are safe due to the TARDIS’ extended oxygen field across the station, but as soon as the greedy corporation removes that factor (due to bullshit protocols) they are forced to place their lives with the suits (which are evidentially being programmed to terminate the crew).
The clock is really ticking (and like with “Deep Breath”) you feel forced to count your breaths as you try to imagine what it must be like to have to count each breath until there’s no more oxygen left. It’s pure genius which keeps the tension flowing perfectly. Having something that is vital to your very existence being turned against you is pure terror at his finest, added by the suits (and their zombie occupants) constantly chasing them down to cut off their oxygen.
Tension rises further when Bill’s suit is seen to constantly malfunction, placing her in further danger as it turns against her in the most desperate of situations, starting with her helmet being forcefully removed as she is about to be exposed to the vacuum of space. You literally feel helpless watching her as the air is ripped from her very lungs, forcing her to face the terrors of space in the most vicious way possible. Bit of a good job she’d already seen the wonders of The Doctor’s universe before being subdued to this horrific experience.
This then brought on another unexpected, and shocking, moment. The Twelfth Doctor is now blind! Fucking hell, just when I thought Mathieson couldn’t possibly throw anything else into my face and then, TWAT!, he makes our beloved Time Lord blind. What’s made worse is Nardole’s ominous build-up to the reveal, which made me literally shit my pants in blind-panic (no pun intended [mostly]) when I thought that his heroic actions to save Bill from death was the cause of his regeneration.
I mean, Peter Capaldi and Moffat had indicated in the build-up to Series 10 that the regeneration this year would be different to the usual formula (and considering we’d already seen the start of the regeneration through teasers, and Capaldi isn’t scheduled to leave until Christmas, perhaps we’d be experiencing a prolonged regeneration, which would incidentally be more tragic to view, particularly for my partner who is incredibly shook-up by his approaching exit).
Luckily there was no early regeneration, but it was still saddening to see The Twelfth Doctor in such a state of vulnerability. But rest assured it doesn’t stop him and merely makes him more determined to save the day (pushing Capaldi’s performance to the max). Just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse Bill’s suit malfunctions again, and with The Twelfth Doctor now blind, and time being viciously against them, she is forced to face the terrible fate of succumbing to the approaching horde of zombies. Okay, seriously now Mathieson, “what the fuck is wrong with you?” Evil bastard!
“Oxygen” is just like a roller-coaster ride, and I don’t mean it’s got its ups and down, I mean it makes you feel on edge as the narrative twists and turns violently to the point where you think you’re going to die (or at least throw-up violently all over the screen). I suppose for the purposes of this episode it’s a good sensation. “Oxygen” does really well at bringing you suspense and terror, and making you constantly question how The Twelfth Doctor will save everyone around him, especially when the few survivors start dropping like flies, he goes blind, and Bill is also murdered and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
Literally the only possible conclusion is The Twelfth Doctor winning the day by dying… Okay then? I kind of get that The Twelfth Doctor is now blind, lacking a companion, and is pretty much without any other clear options, but to literally come to the conclusion that dying and taking the station with him (thereby being a massive “fuck you” to the company trying to kill them) is quite a depressing ending. But, of course, this is The Doctor we’re talking about. He’s always one step ahead of the game.
We are given the twisted revelation that the company the crew works for has in fact orchestrated the reprogramming of the suits (thereby setting them to kill their wearer) in an attempt to regain their oxygen after they detect that the crew are no longer profitable. This really demonstrates a clever description of capitalism and how capitalised governments are evil bastards without souls, and ones that definitely don’t give a fuck about their people. Therefore I have to give Mathieson credit for such a ballsy move, particularly since science-fiction is a great way to establish political views.
Though, to be fair, this isn’t a political episode (per se) and the evil corporation is more of a background element to add to the horrific setting, making things far more sinister and seemingly without hope because of the corrupt future The Twelfth Doctor has thrown his companions into. I guess that’s another factor you can throw onto the table. The Twelfth Doctor’s desperate attempts to return to his adventures pushed him back into the selfish territory we’d come to expect from his younger incarnations (particularly The First Doctor) in which he’d freely place his companions in danger to satisfy his morbid curiosity.
But, having said that, he does further into the station for good enough reasoning, i.e. rescue the few survivors, to which he does continue to follow through throughout the narrative. And in the end (through clever thinking) The Twelfth Doctor manages to ward off the suits by making their deaths too expensive. It is utter brilliance because the crew’s deaths were carried out to save money, but after The Twelfth Doctor wires himself, Nardole, and the remaining two survivors to the station’s systems (thus causing the station to explode should the suits carry out their orders) they are forced to disengage with their programming, resulting in them giving the survivors oxygen to keep them alive.
And, on another happy note, Bill turns out to be safe and sound due to the fact that her suits power supply was low, meaning when the zombies tried electrifying her the suit she was wearing was too inefficient to carry out the kill, thus merely knocking her out. With all these things considered “Oxygen” was certainly a rough instalment to get your head around, one that packed a lot of punches, and certainly left you gasping for air due to all the shit it threw at you and expected you to just be fine with.
Plus it was (sort of) fascinating to see a future where greedy corporations literally find obscene ways to charge us for necessities (just when we thought they couldn’t steep any lower than taxing women for tampons). At least they got their just deserts in the end after a few well constructed complaints were received from the survivors. What else is there to say than, “fucking well done Mathieson for producing another exciting, thrilling, and memorable tale!” Keep this up and you’re episodes will without a doubt go down in history as classics.
Continuing the running theme of Series 10, i.e. ending each episode on a neatly constructed cliff-hanger that leads into the next episode, we have the shocking (and I mean shocking) revelation that despite Nardole supposedly fixing The Twelfth Doctor’s eye-sight aboard the TARDIS, he is still in fact blind. Shit the fucking bed!! What a fucking brilliant cliff-hanger to end a fucking brilliant episode on. This is up there with the revelation that Amy Pond was a ganger throughout the first half of Series 6, and upon waking up she found herself a prisoner and about to give birth. But unlike “The Almost People”, “Oxygen” stands (overall) as an amazing experience from start-to-finish and won’t just be remembered because it had a “fuck me” cliff-hanger.
If you hadn’t have guessed by now I really loved “Oxygen”. Thank you Moffat for giving Capaldi such a solid last run of episodes. Keep this up and I might not hate you anymore. Also, what the fuck is going to happen next? With The Twelfth Doctor blind who knows what’s going to happen, especially concerning the mysterious entity in the Vault and what it will do upon realising that its guard is in a vulnerable state? Plus, what can we expect from the upcoming three-parter (dubbed The Monk Trilogy). And how does Missy fit into all of this? Needless to say I’m keen for the next few week’s to whiz by so I can find out the answers.