You could’ve called it ‘Deep Breath’, but it turns out that was taken, so ‘Oxygen’ is a satisfactory title for a blindingly good episode.
The Venn Diagram of Doctor Who fans who watch ‘Oxygen’ and fans who enjoy breathing the said same gas will be pretty darn tight.
Basically, everyone should enjoy it.
The reasons are twofold. Reason one, it’s a creepy, corridors n’ chases slice of Doctor Who, and perhaps the strongest episode of an already strong season (up there with ‘Thin Ice’). And Reason b), or Two, or those little i’s they put in brackets…well, let’s just say that stuff happens in the architecture of the season and it matters. Vault, what Vault?
So, without skirting any closer to the immense gravity of a spoiler that’ll have folk talking after airing, let’s just focus on Reason 1.
Jamie Mathieson (who’s previously brought us gems like ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’) delivers an episode that feels like Classic Who on a Nu-Who budget. One with the kind of vague hand wave to the same kind of sociopolitical commentary that you’d have seen in something like Robert Holmes’ ‘The Sun Makers’ or Graeme Curry’s ‘The Happiness Patrol’.
Most importantly though, it’s the first episode of this run where Bill and The Doctor’s relationship feels cemented enough that the show can add Nardole into the mix and also do more than one unexpected thing to affect the dynamic between the Time Lord and his tutee. Four episodes of setting up their wonderful dynamic pays off here in allowing wild things to happen and for us to care about them.
This is an episode that strips The Doctor of everything he needs. E-ve-ry-thing. Well, except his clothes. He’s still in them (Capaldi is the only 21st century Doctor we’ve yet to see shirtless, trivia/Poldark fans), and also in a robot suit.
The mining space station he, Bill, and Nardole land on is Chasm Forge (it mines copper ore but for the strong Capitalist theme running throughout you may as well imagine they’re mining a mineral called ‘Thatcherite’), with its corridors and exterior crawling with dead bodies in deadly robot suits.
Think undead Iron Man, except without the helmet. Instead there’s a snazzy bit of CG to indicate an ‘oxygen field’. At this point in the future, oxygen is like top-up mobile data, if you had to rely on 4G to live and your lungs just loved streaming high res cat vids (presumably you buy the oxygen and you get the nitrogen and trace gasses for free). Want to breathe? Put on a suit and inhale the evils of a monopoly over your lungs.
The commodification of air for profit is a fine piece of subtext, and a Douglas Adams-ish extrapolation of human progress, but it’s neither quite quirky or quite serious enough to land with the punch you suspect Jamie Mathieson wants it to have. Even to an adult the walking corpses are still way scarier than the abuse of free market economics. As complaints go however, it’s a minor one.
Following the pattern of the season so far, it’s another piece of simple sci-fi told with clarity and precision. There’s a problem and The Doctor tries to help.
Five weeks in, it’s still really great to see the show boil back down to that simple premise. The dialogue continues to ricochet between actors in the way we’ve come to expect ever since ‘The Pilot’. Bill is wonderful, Capaldi is wonderful. Nardole is there.
But fair play to him, Matt Lucas works well here with what he has to work with. Well enough for someone who actually doesn’t need to be there. Much in the same way your appendix works and is only noticeable when it suddenly doesn’t.
You wouldn’t miss Nardole if he was back on Earth making the tea (with a bit of coffee in) instead of shovelling bits of his own backstory at you like so much coal. If any of it turns out to be important then at least we can’t plead we weren’t warned and I’ll apologise for that appendix remark.
To say any more about ‘Oxygen’ would be to interfere with your viewing of an episode that hits all the right beats for Doctor Who and continues the quality of the run. It’s fun, scary, and makes enough sense that it won’t spoil your enjoyment. There may even be a moment or two when you find you’re holding your own breath.
That said, there still might be a big gasp at the end. Good job we’ve got plenty of breaths left for the rest of the season. Looks like we’ll need ’em.
Airs at 7.15pm on Saturday 13 May 2017 on BBC One.
Are you looking forward to ‘Oxygen’? Let us know below…