The last time Charlie Palmer wrote for Doctor Who he produced two of the show’s best all-time episodes, the season 3 two-parter “Human Nature”/ “The Family of Blood.” It’s seven seasons later, and he’s finally back with “Oxygen,” a bad-shit-happens-on-a-space-station thriller which pushes Bill to the brink of death on more than one occasion and robs The Doctor of the one thing he’s never lost before. The episode’s conclusion is a tad hasty, and it all lacks the emotional depth of Palmer’s season 3 efforts. However, as a more classical running-away-from-baddies-in-empty-corridors Doctor Who episode “Oxygen” is a fine effort with a pretty pointed commentary on capitalism.
Here’s what I liked and didn’t like [spoilers ahead]:
What I Liked
–The cold open space walk. Of course the woman making a “life’s too short, let’s have a baby” speech to a spouse would be promptly killed off. If this was Star Trek, I’d be relatively certain those two crazy kids were going to lead long, happy lives together. But this is Doctor Who, dammit. Space-walking couples have to be killed by zombies. Them’s the rules.
–Space, the final frontier. The Doctor actually said “space, the final frontier.” OMG. I can’t handle it. This is nerd nirvana.
–The Doctor’s wanderlust. Then it turned out he said “space, the final frontier” in a speech about how it’s only the “final frontier” because space constantly wants to kill you. Of course, he was supposed to be delivering a class lecture about crop rotations, but he just couldn’t help himself. Poor little guy just really misses being out in space. It’s just a travesty, really, stranding the Doctor on Earth. As Mark Wahlberg might say, The Doctor’s a peacock, you gotta let him fly.
–Nardole’s continued attempts to go back to the Tardis. Really, it was the rational response. An oxygen-deprived space station full of dead people trapped in mechanical suits? Yeah, screw that. Time to haul ass to Lollapalooza. However, this made for a perfect dividing line between someone who might be rational in their self-interest and someone who’s selfless enough to travel with The Doctor. Bill’s initial agreement with Nardole followed by her pained, but eventual agreement with the Doctor to try to find and help the station’s 4 survivors further established her as a worthy companion. As the Doctor perfectly said, “The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. We show ours by how we respond.” Still, Bill’s slightly annoyed expression when The Doctor laid that down on her was pretty hilarious, perfectly communicating what she was probably thinking: “Oh, you’re right, but sometimes I hate when you’re right.”
–The Doctor on his own without the Tardis, sonic screwdriver or even eyesight. So, so man episodes of Doctor Who have attempted to up the narrative tension by stripping The Doctor of his usual go-to tools for problem solving. In fact, there was a while there where the writers simply did away with the sonic screwdriver entirely for that very reason. As such, it was easy to initially dismiss “Oxygen” as another example of “let’s see the Doctor get out of this one using just his wits” after he lost access to the Tardis and had his sonic screwdriver busted.
But then he lost his eyesight, calling on those with deep Doctor Who memories to ponder, “Hmm. Don’t think they’ve done that before. That might be a new one.” Capaldi played it both for comedy (e.g., confidently talking to someone despite unknowingly facing the complete opposite direction) and pathos. The fact that it took The Doctor losing his eyesight to truly see the situation clearly was perhaps a happy accident, or at least one which Palmer declined to point out. Either way, it was a clever, fun new wrinkle on a familiar Doctor Who situation.
–The “yeah, I could see that happening” notion of a future in which capitalism rises to the point of actually monetizing the distribution of oxygen. This felt like a classic Doctor Who conceit.
–The cliffhanger. I actually expected The Doctor to partially regenerate once he was back in the Tardis as an official way to fix his eyesight but to start the clock on a full-blown regeneration somewhere down the line. That still might be the ultimate solution to the problem, but the concept of a blind Doctor pretending he’s not adds a new layer of physical disability and deception which could turn the second half of season 10 into something truly unique.
What I Didn’t Like
–The overuse of the companion-in-peril trope. I don’t want Bill to die. I’m not rooting for her to face her own raven. On the flipside, I’m not opposed to her being placed in peril. “Oxygen” overdid it, though, giving us an act break where it seemed Bill’s exposure to outerspace might have done a real Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy number on her and then later allowing the zombies-in-space-suits to kill her. Both times The Doctor hastily saved or revived her, at the expense of his own eyesight. So, it’s not like there weren’t consequents. However, in practice it felt “Oxygen” flat out killed her not once but twice, but neither time took. It was one too many “she’s dead for real this time…just kidding, she’s fine” scenarios for me.
–The zombies. The make-up on the initial zombie they encountered was plenty spooky, and in certain lighting, the other zombies looked similarly intimidating. Plus, the mere concept of space suits killing their organic hosts and then carrying them around as literal dead weight is plenty creepy on its own. However, Doctor Who has done zombie-like monsters before which looked far more menacing, such as in “Waters of Mars.” I kept waiting for these zombies to simply announce themselves as early-stage Borg.
–The Blue Man jokes. Bill insisting she wasn’t being racist was fine, but Nardole’s little “some of my best friends are blue” aside drove the running joke a bit too far into the ground. However, if that’s what I’m objecting to then I’m clearly reaching for something to complain out in response to what was an ultimately solid hour of Doctor Who.
What We Learned About the Vault Mystery This Week: Whatever is in the vault will somehow sense if The Doctor goes off-world.
What about you? What did you think of “Oxygen”? Am I nitpicking with the things I didn’t like? Did the zombie make-up totally work for you? Or was the “he’s blind!” twist not enough to elevate this from being just another standard Doctor Who episode? Could you have done with way more vault-mystery hints? Let me know in the comments.