Contains some spoilers for aired episodes
Given that I tipped my hand last week and declared myself a fan of the scarier side of Doctor Who, you’d probably expect me to wax lyrical over the latest episode “Oxygen” and say how utterly brilliant and fantastic it was. And just to defuse any potential anxiety in the minds of readers of this article, I’ll cut to the chase and admit that yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
In terms of the spectrum of scariness, last week’s “Knock Knock” was a familiar, cosy haunted house story with a happy ending; but “Oxygen” is a desperately chilling story in which everything we thought we could rely on is systematically taken away or turned against us. It is unsettling from the very beginning, and only gets worse as the story goes on. The demise of the sonic screwdriver is painful enough, even before the killer punch in the final scene that we simply don’t see coming and which has big implications for the rest of season 10.
Having brought us a “Mummy on the Orient Express” in his first contribution to the show in 2014, writer Jamie Mathieson this time offers up zombies on a space station. At least, that’s the ‘high concept’ pitch for the episode suggested by the publicity stills. In fact, there are no zombies here – the 36 terminated workers on the Chasm Forge (a brilliant name for an asteroid mining station) aren’t supernaturally reanimated, but are just literally dead weight strapped into their still-operating smart space suits. The question is: what happened to them, and why?
The thing that really stands out about “Oxygen” is how sharply written it is. Every single line is precision-crafted to an ultimate purpose and destination. The structure and logic of the narrative is impeccable, and the wider themes so tightly connected to the plot that they become symbiotic. We haven’t seen writing this sharp all season, and arguably not since Steven Moffat’s most artful timey-wimey stories of season 6. By comparison, “Smile” had that really messy ending which made no sense, “Thin Ice” had some great aspects but a hollow centre where the story should have been, and even “Knock Knock” added an unnecessary final twist and imposed a happy ending which blunted some of the success of the previous 40 minutes.
There were no such mistakes here. The story was desperately bleak so there were no out-of-the-blue happy endings (yes, Bill survives seeming inevitable death; but the Doctor tells her beforehand that she will, if only she trusts him.) And having got the Doctor into a certain death situation, the story then uses everything that’s been set up beforehand to produce a completely logical solution, albeit a brilliant one that we never see coming and that only the Doctor – or a writer of Mathieson’s calibre – could possibly have thought of.
Behind the science fiction and horror, the main concept behind “Oxygen” is an overt attack on the excesses and evils of capitalism, which is taken to its logical extreme in this story. Every human life has been given a net worth by a computer algorithm, and that is weighed up in terms of the cost of the oxygen that they need to survive. The owners of the space station would rather vent excess oxygen into space rather than risk disrupting the price of their principle consumable, and if a crew member hasn’t earned their keep in term of air supply then they’re just as disposable. Given that we’re already living in a world where international conglomerates say that humans have no right to expect any water unless it’s bought and paid for, this concept feels more like the very near future than far-off distant dystopia. It should make everyone stop and think, before it comes painfully true. As a result, “Oxygen” is a surprisingly political story, echoing sharp anti-capitalism themes that had been touched upon more subtly in “Thin Ice” two weeks ago.
The net result is that this was a truly satisfying episode of Doctor Who working successfully and cohesively on multiple levels for different types of viewer. It’s quite possibly the best story of season 10 so far, which has already been consistently very strong. Once again a lot of credit goes to Pearl Mackie for making Bill feel the most authentic, relatable companion that the Doctor has had since Donna Noble. She reacts as we would react, she asks the questions we would ask, and she is as terrified as we would be in these situations. She’s not perfect and she makes mistakes – her little ‘racist’ aside with the bright blue Dahh-Ren (Peter Caulfield) is a rare moment of humour in a generally dark episode, and also of deeper character insight – but once again, that just makes her like the rest of us, warts and all.
If there’s a criticism to be made of the script, then the supporting characters – the remaining four living astronauts – get too little time to really develop individual personalities. Dahh-Ren stands out for obvious chromatic reasons but Tasker (Justin Salinger) dies almost before we’ve connected with him, and Ivan (Kieran Bew) seems oddly estranged from having lost Ellie (Katie Brayben) in the teaser. Only Abbie (Mimi Ndiweni) really shows any character development, and it’s rather obvious having been compressed for lack of screen time.
Overall the episode lays itself open to accusations of being a little too derivative – starting from its clear co-opting and subversion of the zombie genre. Some of this is evidently entirely intended, such as starting the episode with the Doctor’s voiceover intoning “Space, the final frontier.” In some ways it’s trying to inoculate itself from accusations of riffing on multiple science fiction tropes: the scenes of the astronauts using magnetic boots to walk on the outside of the space station is straight out of Star Trek: First Contact and the deceased astronauts themselves visually resemble the Borg; the way that the smartsuits’ artificial intelligence uses a big red-lit camera lens to lip-read the humans is straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the commodification of oxygen in an alien environment was old long before it became a plot beat in Total Recall. I could go on, but I think the point is made.
Within the universe of Doctor Who, this was also a clear reuse of the ‘base under siege’ story. The series stayed clear of this approach when it was rebooted in 2005 with perhaps only “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” and “42” arguably veering into that sort of territory under Russell T Davies; but “Last Christmas”, “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood” and “Sleep No More” have come thick and fast in the last three years. It’s an effective format but also one that needs using sparingly, and we’re probably starting to get a little too familiar with it now. Unless I’m mistaken, “Oxygen” even reuses the same basic set as the last two 2015 stories to save some money.
In fact, to me there seemed clear suggestions of cost-cutting in this story – not just in relation to the possible reuse of the Le Verrier set for Chasm Forge, but also that it looked plainer and less interesting this time around than it did with rather ordinary photography, lighting and set dressing compared to its previous appearances. The scenes set outside the station also looked like they were shot under bright spotlights and against a black backdrop on a rather uninspired basic white set. In some ways the zero gravity wire work was not a million miles away from that used by Jon Pertwee in “The Ambassadors of Death”. Even the main FX visual of the station looked more like a 1970s model shot than a 21st century CGI effort. As for the dead astronauts, while they certainly looked horrific enough – especially for a pre-watershed show – the make-up was quite basic and straightforward. The uncanny aspect was principally created by the simple yet undeniably disturbing addition of gluing artificial eyeballs in place over the actors’ own. Perhaps all this down-to-earth ‘plainness’ was all completely intentional rather than financial, part of an artistic mise-en-scene aimed for by the production team and by returning director Charles Palmer (who last worked on the show back in season 3.) His handling of the group scenes within the station was certainly as strong as ever; open to question is whether his impressionistic handling of the group’s spacewalk seen through the abstracted point of view of Bill’s intermittent flashes of consciousness was a stylistic triumph, or merely a cheap way of short-cutting a potentially long and costly sequence which the episode probably didn’t have either the time or money to complete. Maybe all the money had to go on creating a dozen smartsuits for the cast to wear.
All these points are nit-picking, however. The point is that the script was so strong that it made the episode a success regardless, even before we get to the final scene which is genuinely shocking. After 54 years of Doctor Who, we know one thing is certain: that at the end of an adventure, the Doctor and his companions will be safe, restored and ready for their next outing in seven days time. It’s one of the fundamental tenants of the show – even the Doctor believes it to be true, which is why he thinks nothing of taking a quick jaunt off-world despite his sworn duty to guard the contents of the mysterious vault below St Luke’s University. Only this time his impetuosity has terrible consequences after he ignores Nardole’s dire warnings of the risks, Matt Lucas getting his first full outing of season 10 and doing particularly good work with the more serious aspects of his character.
When the Doctor reassures us that the blindness caused by his exposure to the vacuum of space is temporary and can be quickly healed in the Tardis, we believe him completely because that’s always been the case in the series in the past. We think nothing more of it once his eyes look back to normal. Even though the Doctor has already warned his companions that he doesn’t tell the truth – River Song herself told us years ago that the first rule is that the Doctor lies – we don’t see what is right in front of us, despite an inspired, subtle altered performance by Peter Capaldi. When the other shoe does finally drop and he tells Nardole that he still can’t see, we are rocked by the revelation as the end credits kick in leaving us wondering where this leaves us, with the show in unexpectedly brand new territory. If you can’t wait a whole week to see where things go from here, then you’re are not alone – now that’s what I call a genuine cliffhanger. The fact that it doesn’t even say “to be continued” at the end of the episode is just another extra unnerving element to an instalment that filled us with dread from the start and refused to give any respite even at the very end.
The first line of the episode might have been “Space, the final frontier”; but it ends in a place “where no Doctor has gone before.”
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 29 2017, with the second half of the season following on July 17.