Doctor Who #987: Oxygen

"Space, the final frontier. Final, because it wants to kill us."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 13 2017.

IN THIS ONE... Oxygen is precious on a space station beset by spacesuit zombies.

REVIEW: So another one where the monsters are just the products of human evil... and it's an evil we know quite well. Greed. Capitalism running rampant and trampling the proletariat. Though it's impossible for writer Jamie Mathieson to have been aware of it, I am reminded of the man who recently took down his House representative in the States for attacking his family's health insurance. "I'm drowning and you're asking me to pay before you save me," said the man. But in Doctor Who fashion, the satirical extremes of the future we're presented with does exactly that. In space, there's literally a breath economy. A basic need as luxury. It's a strong premise, and generally well implemented. I'll even allow the cutesy "fighting the suits" pun, a joke with a great big long set-up.

The theme carries over into a most desperate storyline. The characters need precious air to survive the episode, but the Doctor also loses access to the TARDIS, his sonic screwdriver, and eventually, his sight. Worse, he has to sacrifice Bill on what might possibly be a hunch, leaving her to the space zombies when her malfunctioning spacesuit throws her an umpteenth curve ball. At what point can he no longer function as the Doctor? No point, as it turns out, but I'm sure even he wasn't sure about that. In Oxygen, all resources can run out; human resources too. Seeing Bill exposed to the vacuum of space without protection is harrowing, and though the Doctor's respiratory bypass system isn't referenced, he can better survive it and makes a willing sacrifice. The moment is nevertheless played to hide just what happens and make us bite one nail more. Even Nardole shows a more human side in these circumstances, for the first time showing real concern for Bill. I'd even say he was despondent over her fate. Not that he doesn't nag the Doctor about his mysterious oath re: the Vault, but the extra layers are a welcome change.

In addition to essentially killing/not killing Bill twice in the episode, the writing does her no favors. Her imagination for a vacation is surprisingly lacking, and once they board the station (and can I say that the outer space effects are all quite gorgeous), she's reticent to lend a hand, just as Nardole is. Is accidentally racist to a blue-skinned alien (not sure if I like Nardole's Blueish/Jewish joke there), though I do like that his not seeing her color makes her smile; wanting a better future is part of her character. But overall, we should be expecting more from her by this point. The Doctor is in exceptional form however. Not only does he solve the problem ingeniously without his usual tools (or his sight!), but he' also made fluid links unnecessary and fooled Nardole (and those of us who remember all the way back to "The Daleks"), is self-sacrificing, makes some nice speeches, and real moments of seriousness, and gets a university lecture the students find completely mystifying, but that serves as a useful voice-over to spell out later stakes.

The episode has its problems, namely the Doctor hiding his plans and not explaining the reasons for this very well (there's a script problem if he thinks he said what he says he said), and the epilogue, recounted like a history, is a bit glib and overly easy. But we certainly can't say Oxygen has no consequences for the (at least immediate) future.

- The satire is on point in what has to be one of the most desperate episodes of Doctor Who ever taped.


Anonymous said...

"consequences for the (at least immediate) future."

Admit it, you wanted to type "foreseeable" instead of "immediate", but thought better of it.

I predicted the bit about saving money from a mile away, and I felt the episode was overestimating its cleverness. But then I didn't anticipate the Doctor's solution, and was thus put in my place. It was a good solution, a consistent solution with all that had come to pass; the episode played fair.


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