Monday 15 May 2017

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 10x05 - Oxygen

Doctor Who 10x05 - Oxygen

If there’s been one thing wrong with series ten of Doctor Who so far it’s that there’s been a distinct lack of Nardole. Matt Lucas’ character from The Husbands of River Song becoming a series regular came as a surprise, but since then the mystery surrounding him has only heightened as we discovered he was tasked with keeping the Doctor grounded on Earth. Thankfully this time he’s joining the Doctor and Bill on their latest adventure, in the series’ fifth episode – Oxygen. This episode was written by new fan-favourite Jamie Mathieson, who previously penned Mummy on the Orient Express and the excellent Flatline as well as co-writing The Girl Who Died with Steven Moffat.

The Doctor gives a lectureInside the TARDIS

Much to Nardole’s frustration, the Doctor is missing his journeys into space and leaves to investigate a mining space station distress beacon – bringing both Bill and Nardole along for the ride. They arrive to find a time where oxygen is a commodity, with every action measured in breaths and the crew’s robotic “smart-suit” space suits the only source of air. However the suits have inexplicably begun to turn off their “organic” components, leaving them free to walk around with their dead occupant still inside. 36 of the 40 crew members have already been affected, leaving only four survivors left.

With time short and oxygen precious, the Doctor has to act fast to unravel why the spacesuits have malfunctioned in this universe of capitalism gone wrong. When Bill’s suit malfunctions and puts her in danger, sacrifices must be made.

The Space StationSpace zombies

Isn’t it nice to have a modern, set in space Doctor Who episode that doesn’t use those constantly recycled orange spacesuits from The Impossible Planet? Oxygen is yet another classic Doctor Who setting, with the TARDIS crew trapped inside a claustrophobic space station with plenty of corridors to run away from the legion of spacesuit zombies. While they might not be zombies by definition, that’s what they’re evoking visually and it works extremely well. But behind this atmospheric (or in the context of the story, atmosphere-less) setting is a rather blatant bit of social and political commentary – taking place in universe where people are taxed for the very air they breathe and live and die by their usefulness. Even without the real-world connotations it’s a pretty horrific thought, and makes the visuals of literal corpses stomping around completing the station’s work all the more powerful.

It’s the culmination of all of this that makes Oxygen the darkest episode of the series thus far, with some genuinely hairy moments and lasting consequences. Most viewers won’t have doubted for a second that Bill was going to make it out alive, but the scenes of her facing her “death” and then walking around with the rest of the crew are almost enough to dispel that notion. Even the largely forgettable guest cast (other than Dahh-Ren you’d be hard pressed to remember any of their names) don’t feel wasted in the grand scheme of things. Of course there’s the usual dash of goofy comedy charm and the Doctor’s cocky quips peppered throughout, but rather than throw the balance of an unrelentingly pessimistic story they help alleviate it from going too far in the opposite direction.

The Doctor goes blindBill in danger

Usually this point in these weekly reviews has been reserved to praise Bill, but while Pearl Mackie definitely puts in another strong performance here the real standout character here was Nardole. As stated previously we don’t really know much about him at all, but we do know that the Doctor “employed” him to keep him in check and grounded on Earth. Unsurprisingly Nardole’s pretty terrible at that job, but it’s great to see a companion actively challenging the Doctor and largely unimpressed by his displays of self-proclaimed genius. The other side is just as refreshing – a whimpering oaf who doesn’t want any part in these adventures and wanders through them without any signs of ever being particularly impressed. He’s quite unlike any companion the Doctor has ever had before and hopefully will stick around for more adventures, since the dynamic works even better as a threesome. Matt Lucas might be best known for his comedy roles and his early appearances in the show didn’t suggest Nardole would be much more than that, but that final scene of him scolding the Doctor displayed so much more from the actor and the character.

But the highest point of all for the episode was that ending, which completely flipped the seemingly neat resolution completely on its head. Making the Doctor blind for half the episode was gripping enough, but to suddenly reveal that he’s still blind and keeping it a secret? Brilliant stuff. The cliffhanger ending also adds some nice rewatch value to the episode’s closing scenes, as you begin to notice the Doctor trying to bluff having his sight back. The revelation is a strong hook for the series going forward, and it’ll be interesting to see if it carries on right up to the 12th Doctor’s regeneration. This series is already playing with a lot of first Doctor references (this week’s was the TARDIS fluid link), so having his body begin to fail him would go nicely with the “wearing a bit thin” aspect to the his very first regeneration.

Looking back on this week’s overarching themes it’s another threat that skirts the line of being “not inherently evil”, as the suits themselves were simply doing what they were programmed to do. There’s definitely room for debate when it comes to Head Office’s methods and the episode’s portrayal of capitalism in general, but there’s still a distinct absence of textbook definition villains thus far. Vault-watch hasn’t really advanced that much either, only now we know that whatever is in there not only poses a threat but is also someone who would immediately take advantage of the Doctor’s current ailment. At this point there shouldn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that it isn’t the Master, other than the possibility that Moffat is intentionally trying to trick viewers.

Nardole has a few stern wordsThat ending!

In my Knock Knock review I concluded that while thus far Doctor Who series ten had been consistently good, it still lacked an episode that truly stood out. Oxygen was that episode. With its great sci-fi setting, clever ideas, high stakes and brilliant characterisation Jamie Mathieson has set the bar high for the series going forward, ending on surprise repercussions that will hopefully carry on for a good few episodes before being inevitably resolved. Oxygen was Doctor Who at some of its best, and it coming only five weeks in means hopefully there’s still room for plenty more. Next week Doctor Who gets a bit Da Vinci Code as trio investigate some spooky going ons in Extremis, along with the return of Missy!


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