In space, no one can hear you… when you are chased by marauding zombies in the latest episode of Doctor Who…
Over the past few weeks, the Doctor’s latest companion Bill has travelled to the future, gone back to the past and survived the present – it’s about time she saw a bit of space. Unfortunately, she will find out that the cosmos can be a very scary space indeed.
‘Oxygen’ marks a return to form for writer Jamie Mathieson, as it is a step closer to his amazing double debut of ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’ from 2014 and stronger than his broadly comic ‘The Girl Who Died’ from 2015. The threat of space itself is handled very well and the corpses being animated by their spacesuits were genuinely chilling. I didn’t watch the episode with any children, but if I was under ten right now I wouldn’t have had any sleep since.
On the other hand, the episode wasn’t just a spook-fest as it actually had some very mature ideas on show as well. There was clearly an attempt to be more scientific than usual, with the explanations about what really happens when you are exposed to the vacuum of space. Likewise, things got very political in terms of the threat as the episode basically saw the Doctor defeat capitalism. It’s not quite the out-and-out monster I called for last week but I’ll happily take the novelty of the Time Lord defeating an entire crooked ideology.
The core trio were all terrific value this week, as always. Bill, in particular, is put through the ringer as she has to face a terrifying situation and put her faith in the Doctor to the limit. Pearl Mackie was tremendous, of course, but the reveal of her survival was a touch convenient. Thankfully, after a couple of weeks of being underused, Nardole came along for the trip this week and provided some much-needed levity throughout. Plus, it turns out he was a bit of a criminal and a lothario in a previous life!
Most notably of all, though, is what the Doctor goes through here. It’s so unnerving to see the Doctor injured but also heartening to see him still come out on top and shrug off his friends’ pity with his usual gruffness and flippancy. The final twist that he remains blind is a strong one, too. I have no doubt that he will soon see again and this isn’t a permanent thing until he regenerates, but it’s a nice bit of stretching of the formula. We are so used to the show hitting the reset button every week (when it’s not a two-parter, that is) that it’s genuinely shocking when something isn’t fixed in time for the next story.
There are negatives to be had here, however. Despite the pre-credits sequence, the supporting cast are hardly characterised, apart from some fun stuff with the blue-skinned Dah’Ren (pronounced Darren) thinking Bill is racist. Likewise, this is one of those episodes which is probably better if you aren’t a hardened Whovian. While I still enjoyed the claustrophobic setting and the ever-impending threat, I couldn’t help thinking how similar it was to several other ‘base under siege’ episodes e.g. ‘Sleep No More’, ‘Kill The Moon’, ‘Under The Lake’ ETC.
All in all, though, Oxygen is another intelligent, well-written, well-performed episode from the very sturdy Doctor Who season ten. And with the return of Missy next week, things only look to be getting better…