In what’s becoming a trend this season, “Oxygen” again presents a fairly standard type of Doctor Who story but elevates it with sterling character work and a strong theme. Arriving on Chasm Forge, a disaster struck space station mining copper from an asteroid belt, our trio find most of the forty strong crew dead and only four survivors. But the dead walk, passengers in their artificially intelligent motorized space suits; an apparent malfunction causing the technology to turn on its own masters. They kill with a touch by transmitting the infection to the victim’s own space suit. It’s all relatively familiar from episodes as diverse as “Silence in the Library,” “Rise of the Cybermen,” “The Empty Child” and even this season’s “The Pilot” and “Smile” (both of which featured different types of technology innocently muddling its directives in dangerous ways). But the story here is told with a visceral horror and doom laden atmosphere that marks it out as uniquely itself.
But more than that, it’s unusual to see the Doctor’s lifestyle so critically examined, and the dark side of his wanderlust so exposed. The core of “Oxygen” is that conflict between the Doctor and his long suffering assistant and its triumph is in subverting our expectations in magnificent fashion.
In a lot of TV shows there’s a character who could be called the Wet Blanket, the one whose function is to slow down the action and either beg our hero not to do their awesome heroic stuff or to force them to keep the whole concept of the series secret for fear of their disapproval. A terribly thankless character to play, it sets them against the audience themselves – a living hurdle for the lead to overcome before we can get to the action we tuned in to see. That’s Nardole all over.
Nardole’s growing concern about his boss’s itchy feet has by now boiled over into outrage. He castigates the Time Lord for his recklessness and suggests that should the Doctor fail to return from a trip to his post at the Vault it would, quite literally, be the end of the world. It’s Lucas’ largest role in an episode to date and a deft performance as he moves from chastising the Doctor, to unexpected kindness to Bill, to backseat driving of the Doctor’s plan to save the day. The Doctor, for his part, is infuriated by his half century of exile on Earth and increasingly desperate for a taste of his old life. This should place us firmly on the older man’s side – after all, this is Doctor Who; we tune in for adventures that take us anywhere in space and time – and, initially, it does. But as events unravel in spectacular fashion, it’s hard not to shift to Nardole’s point of view.
This is Nardole’s disapproving face. Expect to see a lot of it this week.
This is a Twelfth Doctor more out of control and reckless than he’s been since Series Eight’s “Listen” and the recurring motif of the script is his thirst for danger and his placing that that before the safety of his companions. He gives Bill a variant on his well worn ‘anywhere in time and space, where do you want to start?’ speech but then vetoes her choice as not dangerous enough and intentionally picks a more hazardous destination. He abducts Nardole into the adventure against his will, and later refuses to bring his two charges home when both get very strong bad feelings about the situation. It’s skillfully done – the reveal that he’s been lying to Nardole about how to disable the TARDIS is played for humour (as is his initial attempt to sidetrack his assistant by “sending him to Birmingham for a packet of crisps,”) while he covers his desire to stay in the lethally dangerous space station with a very Doctorish speech about helping people. But it’s twisted just enough from the norm, and Peter Capaldi performs it so well, that the selfishness of his true motives shows through.
“I’m here to save [your] lives. Anyone who doesn’t want me to, raise your hand now.”
The sense is that the Doctor’s extended sojourn at St. Luke’s has left him with a strong idea of his own myth, but faded memories of just how much hard work it all is. “I’m the Doctor, I will save all your lives, and when I do you will spend the rest of them wondering who I was,” sums up the arrogance and swagger he starts with, but the episode progresses in a series of knock backs and failures as things get worse and worse and the Doctor grasps around for solutions but can’t find any answers. Chasm Forge has no air of its own, so the Doctor confidently extends the shell of air around the TARDIS to fill it, only for the station’s computer to register the “unlicensed oxygen” and expel it. He can use his sonic screwdriver to remotely control at least some of the station’s systems, but it’s immediately crushed by one of the spacesuit zombies. He makes everyone get into damaged suits from the repair shop so they can keep breathing without the suits killing them – but Bill winds up with one which is glitching so badly that it may well kill her by accident long before it decides to kill her on purpose. He comes up with a daring plan involving a space walk, but Bill’s helmet breaks – exposing her to the vacuum of space. He gives up his own helmet to solve that problem but there’s no handwaved, conveniently unmentioned Time Lord superpower to save the day this time – he pays a severe price. Bill’s suit seizes up again and he… well, he leaves her to die. He leaves her to die and her zombiefied corpse is added to the host of problems he has. By the end he’s reduced to turning the entire station into a nuclear bomb because “all we’ve got left is a good death.”
Except, of course, the Doctor does win through. He saves Bill, he saves the station, he saves 50% of the people he’d promised to help (which, let’s face it, is actually above par by his standards). Yet this is undeniably a case where the Doctor got a little more thrill than he was seeking. A time he plays fast and loose with other people’s lives and has to pay a price for his hubris. Earlier in the episode he promises to be “unbearable” if he manages to pull it off this time, but in the final event, underneath his attempted good humour, he’s bitter and frustrated at his own failings and the resulting consequences. It’s strong stuff for a character almost defined by constantly moving on from his successes and losses alike.
The Doctor’s under pressure
There’s a vaguely political element again this week, that broadly satirizes runaway capitalism and more specifically skewers the American health care system. Set in a future the faceless ‘Company’ sells oxygen to its own employees “for personal use only, at competitive prices,” it’s a world where breathing is a pre-existing condition and you need to pay through the nose just to stay alive. So it’s not much a surprise when the Doctor uncovers that the “malfunction” is nothing of the kind – but a corporation responding to falling profits from Chasm Forge by finding the crew superfluous to requirements. While some may inevitably grump about that, as with “Thin Ice”’s vile racist, it shouldn’t really be that controversial to say that runaway greed valuing human lives purely by their utility is bad. And the Doctor even notes that when, in the far future, humanity finally shakes off capitalism as an engine for our societies it’s simply replaced by “a whole new mistake.” “Oxygen” isn’t so much a diatribe against capitalism, but against the human tendency to take any given ideology to lunatic extremes given enough time.
The dead are walking at Chasm Forge
“Oxygen” itself is a story of extremes. It pushes the horror and grotesque elements of Doctor Who to their absolute limits. The dead crew, bloated from their exposure to vacuum, sightless eyes bulging horribly, are genuinely unsettling and may stay with you for a while after the episode ends. Pearl Mackie’s performance deeply enhances the atmosphere of dread. We’ve seen the Doctor very much through Bill’s eyes this year and this time it’s her mounting terror and faltering faith in him that sets the tone. It pushes the concept of the show to its extreme conclusion too. The Tenth Doctor declared once that the near death experiences and world saving shenanigans that get shown on TV are “just the bits inbetween,” but this episode suggests that for this Doctor they’re the entire point. The notion of his being a lunatic with a death wish, placing his friends in danger to satisfy it, is fantastically dark but utterly earned both by the set up of the Doctor’s exile and by the ultimate price he pays.
Add to this some superb visuals and bravura direction from Charles Palmer (the disorientating scramble of the spacewalk sequence is a particular stand out), yet more of the brilliant photography that’s typified this season and you have an outstanding episode that marks one of the high points for the season and the Twelfth Doctor’s era.
[Five TARDISes Out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan