‘Doctor Who’ review: ‘Oxygen’ has relentlessly high stakes

Space: the final frontier.

Doctor Who has always had an interesting relationship with the darker parts of our universe. Given a chance to sketch out humanity’s future, it will likely come down on something that’s flawed, but ultimately optimistic, with many of the societal issues that plague us here on Earth in 2017 stamped out by the progress of centuries.

But what if humanity didn’t learn? What if it just kept repeating the same mistakes again and again, only on a bigger canvas and with greater damage? What if it became worse, doubling down on all of its addictions and leaving behind the compassion and empathy that can counterbalance all of that?

What if the future is a nightmare?

These are dark questions for a Saturday evening show that’s on while the sun’s still blazing outside to ask. But then again, ‘Oxygen’ is a dark episode. Startlingly so, in fact, after the jaunty and light-hearted feel of the first four episodes that saw the Doctor and Bill grow to respect one another as they hopped from adventure to adventure.

Ironically, for an episode that takes us into space, this is the first time that the TARDIS crew have been brought back down to Earth (don’t blame me, the metaphor was there for the taking) and forced to face the cold, hard truth that the universe can sometimes be a hellscape.

It’s been a lot of fun to return to the easy and breezy days of the Doctor and his companion in the TARDIS, but ‘Oxygen’ is an ideal advertisement for the stories that Doctor Who can tell when it gets dark.

The tone here, and the thematic ambition, is much more akin to an episode from 2014 or 2015’s seasons. That’s not a huge surprise, given the episode comes from the pen of Jamie Mathieson, who cut his teeth on two of Season 8’s defining episodes in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’, which both had the horror-ish slant and simplicity of plot of ‘Oxygen’.

The Doctor, for instance, is brought to his knees and forced to make agonising decisions that determine the survival or loss of his friends, reducing the all-conquering hero to someone who ends the episode frailer and vulnerable than he’s ever been.

While past episodes looked at the universe with wonder, this looks at it with fear and cynicism of what it could unleash. The monsters, too, are genuinely unsettling in their grotesque design.

Perhaps for obvious reasons, Doctor Who has never really done real zombies, but it commits here to the uncanny valley chills of shuffling corpses reduced to a singular, bloodthirsty purpose.

Yet to term ‘Oxygen’ as just a Season 8 throwback would be misleading, and reductive. While it’s far more plot-driven than past episodes, which predicated themselves on the fun of character interactions, there’s still a strong emphasis on the burgeoning new TARDIS team dynamic.

For Bill, it’s a chance to tackle a genuinely unsettling and almost lethal experience for the very first time. ‘Oxygen’ puts Bill right into the line of fire with the conceit of her malfunctioning suit, and her utter powerlessness in the face of a terrifying situation is communicated in a way that allows the viewer to really experience her own frenzied disorientation.

It’s a chance for Pearl Mackie to play a new side of Bill, and she does an excellent job of selling the way in which Bill is woefully underprepared for the onslaught of panic-inducing challenges that she faces aboard the space station.

‘Oxygen’ maintains Bill as our eyes and ears into the Doctor’s world, and as such, her reactions become an important reminder of just how dire the situation is aboard the space station long before the Doctor’s ability to affect the situation is diminished, too.

One of this episode’s key strengths is the relentlessly high stakes of it all – the feeling that something shocking is just around the corner at any given moment – and it’s difficult to imagine that the stakes would feel quite as tangible without Bill to illustrate the emotional cost of it all throughout.

But the most impactful character moment of the episode doesn’t come with Bill – it comes with the Doctor, whose status as the compassionate, wise and empathetic hero whom Bill looks up to is severely challenged for the first time this season as he’s temporarily afflicted with blindness.

It’s fitting that the Doctor accrues this disability while displaying all of the above characteristics in walking through a vacuum to save Bill at the expense of his own body – a powerful reminder of the bond that the Doctor and Bill have already formed after just five episodes.

The Doctor’s blindness is an interesting, unusual aspect of ‘Oxygen’ to talk about, because it’s easy just to skip to the ending and ignore the fact that the Doctor can’t see for a good chunk of the episode’s second half. Peter Capaldi is terrific in this section of the episode, in a way that should surprise absolutely no-one.

It’s a classic hero’s act where the Doctor concocts an ingenuous plan and saves the day in spite of his blindness, but Capaldi makes the Doctor’s strenuous efforts to act normally, as the Doctor ‘should’ do feel quietly sad with the smallest of character touches that remind us of his new vulnerability.

For once, the Doctor isn’t the all-knowing hero who can constantly keep his friends from danger. In a poignant recall of an exchange early in the episode, he can’t form the flippant joke that Bill desperately asks for as she’s overwhelmed by the spacesuits.

Season 10 has had its fun exploring the Doctor as the archetypal hero who will swoop in and save everyone with a wink and a joke, but the flipside, a weak and diminished Doctor who has to work ten times as hard for the same result, is genuinely compelling to watch, and a really interesting development from the early episodes.

It’ll be fascinating to see how the later episodes pull on that thread as circumstances become direr for him.

An interesting quirk of Season 10 is that, intentionally or unintentionally, its episodes seem to echo each other at times like different stanzas of the same poem. ‘Oxygen’, for instance, tells a story of AI overruling their human masters in a certain sense, which was the essential twist of ‘Smile’.

These, I don’t think, aren’t examples of unoriginality – ‘Oxygen’ is light years away in tone and plot from the sunny sci-fi of ‘Smile’, but they prove to be interesting examples of the way in which the same ideas are attacked from different angles across episodes. Perhaps the most important example of this is the way in which ‘Oxygen’ recalls the social criticism of industrialism and dehumanisation in ‘Thin Ice’.

While that story left its metaphors to play out mainly in the subtext of what was a more straightforward romp, ‘Oxygen’ is the metaphor. Its tale of oxygen made into a commodity and sold back to the people is a classic sci-fi skewing of capitalism taken to its greediest and most ludicrous extreme, and it provides an interesting wrinkle to the episode as the restricted breaths of the suits exacerbate a situation that already happens to involve a horde of intelligent zombies.

What’s interesting is that ‘Oxygen’ doesn’t just use that capitalist metaphor for flavour – it doubles down on it in the final act to make it the point of the story it’s telling. The final twist that the suits are accomplishing their purpose of increasing efficiency is a simple yet very effective extension of the themes laid out in the first act of the episode.

There’s something uniquely cruel about a dire situation provoked by a clinical algorithm that some anonymous suit cooked up to improve the numbers – shocking in its incredible mundanity – and ‘Oxygen’ doesn’t hold back from pouring scorn on the ethics of this idea.

It’s another brief chance for Peter Capaldi to play the righteous indignation that worked so brilliantly in ‘The Zygon Inversion’ – and in these troubled times, it feels just right that the Doctor has been repositioned as a passionate advocate of social justice who often finds himself up against cruelties that are far more powerful than any monster.

‘Oxygen’ doesn’t achieve all of this without racking up a few flaws in the process. For an episode that’s so solid elsewhere, it does occasionally opt for the easy way out – the way in which Bill is revived rests on information that’s established earlier in the episode, but it still feels like a bit of a fake-out given how much the episode pins on the moment where the Doctor abandons her.

Equally, it’s another episode where the Doctor and co find themselves alongside a group of plucky survivors without any real distinguishing characteristics. The gag about Bill’s ‘racism’ towards blue-skinned alien Dahh-Ren (not Darren) is a great one, but that’s about it for effort placed into these guest characters, who are just there because there needs to be someone to explain the situation on Chasm Forge to the audience.

None of the episode’s themes or character arcs require fleshed-out guest characters, but it’s a disappointing recurring misstep nonetheless.

Ultimately, this does feel like a substantial step up for the season, blending a solid understanding of the nuts and bolts of a classic episode with an impressive ambition – the best episode of a season that’s logged some good entries thus far. It helps that ‘Oxygen’ ends with a bit more kick than most episodes.

It’s a very cleverly-executed twist, because the episode conditions us to expect that this is just a standard handicap for the Doctor that will make the story of the week a little bit more challenging for him.

We expect stories to be standalone, picking up indeterminate periods after the next with the Doctor and his companion in roughly the same place where we left them, so the revelation of such lasting consequences to this adventure in the Doctor’s permanent blindness is a powerful inversion of that norm.

The manner in which it’s revealed is impressive, too – the first chance for Matt Lucas to show off his dramatic skills as Nardole finally draws a red line against the Doctor’s behaviour, and a fitting encapsulation of the Doctor’s uneasy new state wherein he must hide the fact that he’s become weakened at any cost.

Just how the Doctor’s blindness plays into things is unclear. It seems that he’s going to stay that way, and we know that next episode will see the Vault finally crack open. Are those two events connected? Just what events are around the corner?

If ‘Oxygen’ is any indication, whatever comes next is sure to be the last thing you’d expect.

Aired at 7.15pm on Saturday 13 May 2017 on BBC One.

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