This week, we’re back in space for a ‘base under siege’ episode with a twist from Jamie Mathieson. What did our team make of it?
Ben (Assistant Editor)
The theme of Series 10 seems to be throwing the rule book out and challenging everything. Jamie Mathieson has continued this tradition as he adds another gem to his Doctor Who credits. One line from Oxygen sums up this feeling perfectly: “No TARDIS, no sonic screwdriver, 10 minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind.” Not only has the Doctor been stripped of his Time Lord treasures, but now he’s blind! Although it’s not really made clear how exposure to space made the Doctor blind, but seemingly this big twist is part of a grander scheme cooked up by Moffat, who is throwing everything at the Doctor before he goes.
The story itself is another of those simple ideas that just works so well because it highlights a relatively plausible future where capitalism has taken over to the point where we have to pay for oxygen. Whilst Mathieson’s agenda is none too subtle, it’s great for building tension and the counting in breaths instead of time was a great little touch.
Whilst Capaldi and Mackie continued to impress, Oxygen gave us a little more of Nardole, something that many fans have been looking forward to. Nardole is clearly the voice of reason, acting as the Doctor’s conscience and unwillingly going along with the adventure, making quips along the way. As funny and amiable as Matt Lucas is in the role, I do feel that the comedy could be turned down a little. Doctor Who has a history of making characters played by comedians too jokey – Catherine Tate, Mitchell & Webb, etc. – however, that’s an argument for another day.
So, back to the episode. The great ideas kept coming with the ‘living’ suits. In what looked like a cross between Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the idea of AI suits was wonderfully futuristic and well realised. I’ve always taken the directing of Doctor Who for granted, as it’s always at a very high standard, but occasionally there are moments that make me just stop and go ‘wow’. This episode had one such moment early on when the woman was killed, but rather than show the death, the silence and the helmet slowly floating past was so much more effective.
As the episode neared its end, the tension ramped up and we got a few big twists. With so much going on, we hardly had time to pause for breath (pun very much intended!) The Doctor’s sudden change of heart, apparently giving up on the situation and preparing for death, was a shocking moment that was wholly believable. Whilst we are usually privy to the Doctor’s plans – or have some sort of clue as to what he’s thinking – this time it really felt like the Doctor had lost it. This is what makes a good Doctor Who episode great. When we know for a fact that the Doctor will save the day and survive, but suspend disbelief in the moment.
Overall, this episode was another triumph for Jamie Mathieson and the whole of the Doctor Who team. Whilst it’s a little early to call it one of the best of Series 10, it’s certainly up there in my favourites at the moment.
With new companion Bill stepping on board the TARDIS at the beginning of this series, Doctor Who has so far felt like it has been inviting new viewers to do the same. The answers to Bill’s seemingly endless stream of questions have helped to re-establish the nature of the show, one which the stories themselves, whilst strong, have not yet strayed too far from. From the pen of the reliably excellent Jamie Mathieson, however, comes Oxygen, which plunges Doctor Who into entirely new territory by coming at the classic ‘base under siege’ premise from a whole new angle before tying it off with an absolute game changer of a twist.
And what a twist! To make the Doctor blind for the latter half of Oxygen is compelling in itself; with no TARDIS, no sonic and no sight the odds could not be stacked any higher against him, and it’s refreshing to have the Doctor have to get his way out of a situation without any reset buttons. To make the Doctor blind past this episode, however, is a bolder move still, and one which could very well have lasting ramifications for the rest of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor.
But first to the rest of Oxygen, which certainly doesn’t shy away from political commentary as the Doctor, plus two, answers a distress call from the mining station Chasm Forge. The idea of oxygen as a restricted, monetised commodity is novel, and whilst perhaps more could have been made of it at times, there are some nice details throughout the episode such as the concept of distances being measured in average breaths. The space station itself makes for a suitably claustrophobic setting, and the zombified crew a chilling threat. Charles Palmer’s direction ensures that we see both to their fullest effect, as well as giving us the stunning sequence where Bill is exposed to the vacuum of space.
Oxygen also sees a shift in the usual TARDIS dynamic as Nardole joins the Doctor and Bill for their first full adventure as a trio. It is gratifying to see Matt Lucas’ role expanded from the postscript it has been of late, and somewhat surprising that Nardole shines more in his dramatic moments than his comedic ones. Bill, meanwhile, feels the most passive she has been all series, but still supplies much of the episode’s emotional heart; the scene where the Doctor seemingly leaves her for dead and she pleads for a joke, before calling for her mum, is heart-breaking and played beautifully by Pearl Mackie. It is the Doctor, however, who decisively takes the lead in Oxygen, with another pitch-perfect performance from Peter Capaldi.
Tense, perfectly paced and with top-class acting and direction, Oxygen not only surely cements Jamie Mathieson’s place as part of Doctor Who’s writing team under Chris Chibnall, but presents us with real consequences that throws the rest of Series 10 into a completely unforeseen, yet totally exciting, new direction.
What makes Oxygen stand apart from an already superb Series 10 is a genuine sense of impact. Not just emotional impact, but story beats that have the potential to drastically alter the fabric of the series going forward, something Doctor Who can often lack. The core narrative of Oxygen is wrapped in one of the most visually stunning environments in the show’s history, brought to life with excellent cinematography and set design. Much credit to writer Jamie Mathieson for also creating a villain that is disposable for the right reasons, rather than a one trick pony. Here’s hoping Mathieson becomes a key part of the Chris Chibnall era.
This Series feels like it’s heading into the deep. Death is literally ‘in your face’ throughout this episode and it’s truly grim at times,.Nardole and Bill are naturally often freaked and sickened, whereas the Doctor sees more the fascination which drives his bravery as he is determined to save the four remaining lives existing on a desolate space station with 36 dead zombies roaming both outside and in the station within automated suits controlled by AI (all serving the purposes of inter galactic capitalism!)
There are some brilliant aspects to the script. I particularly loved the line ‘the universe shows it’s true face by asking for help, we show ours by how we respond’ – this spoken by The Doctor following his overriding Bill’s random choice of destination for the TARDIS and instead heading to what the Doctor calls his ‘theme tune’ – essentially a distress call. To turn capitalism on it’s head by setting the whole scenario to be spectacularly destroyed, the Doctor pulls off a fabulous bluff that saves the day for Bill, Nardole and The Doctor despite coming at great personal cost to the Doctor himself.
Peter Capaldi gave us a stunning performance in Oxygen, powering us through another thriller, also going down in history as the first Doctor to utter the cheekily borrowed words ‘Space, the final frontier!’ in the opening narrative. Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas and the rest of the supporting cast were on top form too and the combination of such a great all round effort gave us something dark, exhilarating, terrifying and definitely something to remember. Bill is clearly in awe of the Doctor, and the Doctor’s care for Bill is awe inspiring to us as viewers. She suffers greatly in this episode but is saved essentially by the Doctor choosing even greater suffering, physically and mentally.
I had hoped for an episode that had Nardole contributing throughout and was not disappointed. Nardole’s great comedy lines though were probably overwhelmed by the sinister atmosphere throughout as the Doctor furiously gets to work risking life and limb to defeat the corporate greed which has and is threatening everybody.
Oxygen was excruciating (in a good way) in terms of the adrenaline build as the drama builds and the Doctor shows us that in his beautiful madness he can create a plan the outwits and out moralises that which is wrong and causing harm to innocents. This episode was jam packed with twists, turns and plot enhancements one after the other. The visuals were sublime; the oscar winning film Gravity came to mind, as well as some Red Dwarf on a more light hearted note – if anything could be called light hearted in this episode!
Oxygen was another terrific episode which I can’t do enough justice to in a short amount of words, but certainly it seems like we are being prepared for something special.