I’ve been genuinely loving this series of Doctor Who thus far. It’s almost as if Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi, both in their final full series, are taking the approach that this last hurrah is going to be a greatest hits tour, crafting stories that feel as archetypal as possible. “Oxygen” is no different in this ambition from the previous episodes of the series; it’s clearly tapping into the scarier side of Doctor Who, exemplified by classics from “The Ark in Space” to “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”. The episode is also thematically interesting, concerning itself with the threat of all-encroaching overwhelming capitalism taken to its most horrific extremes. Writer Jamie Mathieson and director Charles Palmer certainly give it all they got, but the episode doesn’t quite land, rendering “Oxygen” the weakest episode of the series this far.
The episode opens with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) lecturing on the dangers of the vacuum of space, a timely lesson given that he immediately decides to take Bill (Pearl Mackie) on a journey to a space station in trouble, over the strong objections of Nardole (Matt Lucas), who insists the Doctor must honor his duty to remain on Earth and guard the unknown occupant of the mysterious vault, aka the overarching plot point of the tenth series. Once on board the station, the travellers find themselves under assault from what appears to be undead people in space suits, but that’s only one threat, as they face an even bigger threat in the form of a dwindling oxygen supply. The Doctor must find a way to save his friends and his survivors not just from the monsters pursuing them, but also from the vacuum of space. But are the threats in fact, connected?
You can’t fault this episode for its ambition or its timeliness, thematically speaking. Mathieson’s script places the desire for profit and the guiding principles of capitalism squarely against a humanist approach to life. The story asks what happens when a society begins to weigh human life itself against the needs of industry, which is of course both an ever-green concern even as it feels hugely relevant to today’s world, with our current focus on healthcare and prioritizing corporate interests over human rights. Science fiction rises above space opera and melodrama when it tries to discuss these bigger ideas, and while “Oxygen” wears its heart fairly obviously on its sleeve, it does so not without some elegance.
The early going of the episode, when it features our trio from the TARDIS, is paced much like the other episodes of the series, and in that way is the more successful part. The three main cast members interact with each other in a enjoyable way, with Nardole’s scold providing anise counter-point to the genuine friendship and trust now firmly established between the Doctor and Bill. Capaldi’s Doctor is now such a joy to watch (Capaldi is is too brilliant to be anything less than captivating, but it’s nice to see his Doctor finally in place to have this much fun and goofy charm), and even the sevens of them dodging danger together has a verve and energy that is fun to watch.
But once the other survivors enter the story, that’s when the issues started for me. First off the survivors themselves are sketchily defined at best. Now, I don’t need these kinds of supporting characters to be super well-developed, but I found these people barely resonated at all after being introduced, and other Doctor Who stories have made less important characters with smaller screen time land much better. Bill gets a great moment with an alien character that allows for a brief and funny examination of space racism (spacism?), but this element is largely discarded. Some of the characters get nice moments and defining traits, but the plot immediately kicks into overdrive and the pace starts to whirl by, and the result is that the characters become little more than the providers of a body count. It’s too bad, because I can see elements of deeper characterization here and there, but there simply isn’t enough time in the episode’s shape to make them come truly alive in the same way that the characters in other episodes manage to.
There are a few developments in the story that I won’t spoil here, including one shocking development that appears final but turns out to be temporary, while another appears temporary but seems to be final. I didn’t love either twist, frankly, with the temporary one being resolved in a tossed-off way that makes the development a bit cheap and arbitrary. Meanwhile the final one, although an interesting twist to be sure, can’t possibly be permanent, so it’s hard to really be invested. If the series does make this seemingly permanent change to the Doctor’s world stick around for a while, then I’ll applaud it, but I have a feeling it’ll be reversed or corrected before too long, so it didn’t resonate for me the way the story obviously wanted it to.
Charles Palmer returns to the series for the first time since directing the brilliant two-parter “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” way back during the third series. He definitely makes the most of the story he’s given, milking every bit of atmosphere and sense of scale from the cosmic setting. The episode looks great, and the performances are all solid. I mentioned that the pace gets rushed in the second half, and things speed by perhaps too quickly to land as effectively as they should, but the story never lacks for stakes or energy or thrills and chills, it’s more that the density of the script is the problem. At the end of the day, there’s just a lot crammed in to this episode (not the worst flaw to have, really), and that means that the competition between the thematic ideas Mathieson wants to examine and the needs of the plot wind up squeezing too much into its run time for everything to land as well as it should.
Still, this merely means that the episode is less successful than its predecessors in the series. All things considered, this is still a macabre, exciting and enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. It has the benefit of a timely theme, and some very good performances, particularly from the main cast. And owing to the director’s skill, it was among the most visually accomplished episodes of the season so far. It might have benefitted form a longer run time or a second part, frankly, but “Oxygen” is still an enjoyably scary and fun slice of Doctor Who. 7.5/10