Doctor Who Oxygen review: “the lumbering cadavers guarantee creepy visuals but the basic premise is absurd”

The Doctor, Bill and Nardole take on the terrors of Space – and a critical lack of oxygen…

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★★★ “Space – the final frontier…” Well, there’s a cheeky start. It’s the phrase that launched a hundred Star Treks, but the austere speech that follows has none of that show’s optimism. Peter Capaldi’s narration is steeped in foreboding: “Final… because it wants to kill us… The void is always waiting.”

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That’s Doctor Who for you. Shamelessly borrowing from other fiction and giving its own wry twist – and, very often, the more flagrant the plundering, the richer the rewards. 

Here we have spacewalking astronauts repairing a damaged vessel… Hello, Gravity! An interstellar mining company that regards its personnel as expendable… Oh, that’s Alien(s). Pretty obvious, really. Doubtless there are many other sci-fi allusions I’m missing. 

Oxygen also blithely remints ideas from bygone Who. A faceless company disposing of organic matter recalls The Rebel Flesh from 2011. Silence in the Library may be nine years ago, but many viewers will remember Dave, the corpse staggering about in a spacesuit. Zombies are a penchant of this week’s writer Jamie Mathieson – in series eight he gave us the Boneless in Flatline and the eponymous scare in Mummy on the Orient Express. The milieu, peril and distress call at this mining station, Chasm Forge, aren’t light years away from Le Verrier space station in Mark Gatiss’s Sleep No More from 2015. 

This wave of familiarity is more an observation than a grumble. (I’ll get to those.) After 12 years of new Who – 54 since the series started – it’s hard to keep cranking out novelty. Some tales are worth retelling, spinning anew and, with any luck, feel fresh to modern audiences.

Jamie Mathieson is one of the most arresting writers currently working on the programme. I do hope he’ll be nurtured by Chris Chibnall’s new regime. In Flatline (one of my top Capaldi episodes) he cleverly explored Dimension. In The Girl Who Died he introduced a Viking who transcended Time. Is he working his way through Time and Relative Dimension in Space? Because, yes, in Oxygen, Mathieson goes out of his way to expose the dangers of Space. 

Space can still inspire awe (Bill’s reaction when she looks out of the station’s window) or hold irresistible allure (the Doctor gazing up at the stars from a college window, yearning to get back out there). But we must heed those warnings. There’s Capaldi’s monitory introduction, which elides with the Doctor’s university lecture about the damage that the vacuum would wreak on human tissue. Space equals asphyxiation, boiling body fluids and poached eyeballs… 

So we’ve been prepped for what is to come – Bill’s near-death experience in the void and the ravaging effect it has on the Time Lord as he sacrifices himself to save her. That whole sequence – distorted, muffled, confused, conveying her failing senses – is cleverly structured by Mathieson to delay the revelation that the Doctor is blind. And it’s well directed by Charles Palmer.

Son of the famous actor Geoffrey, he’s back on Who for the first time in a decade. He directed four episodes in 2007 (including Human Nature/The Family of Blood). We’ll see his name again on episode ten, The Eaters of Light. In Oxygen, he pulls off convincing space walks and space tumbles, some sharp shocks and disconcerting angles. 

It’s not all praise for this episode, however. I want to get sucked along by Oxygen. For long tracts I am. But I struggle with the central conceit that in the future, in space, oxygen will be a commodity that you pay for dearly, even with your life. It lends a wry, more literal meaning to such everyday phrases as “Save your breath” and “You’re wasting your breath”. But I don’t really believe it. 

Aboard Chasm Forge, the robotic spacesuits are more valued than their human occupants, the dispensable “organic component”, employees of the company. This allows the Doctor the smart line, “Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.” But really… why is this happening? Why do the astronauts go along with oxygen rationing? Surely such tasks could be fulfilled by robots – maybe those terraforming bots we saw only three weeks ago in Smile. The lumbering cadavers guarantee creepy visuals but the basic premise is absurd. 

Among other gripes is the silly explanation that Bill doesn’t quite die when left behind and attacked – because her spacesuit is faulty. Right…! Also the four survivors on the station have few or no character notes to distinguish them. One chap, Dahh-Ren, is blue. That’s your lot. 

Dahh-ren says, “Great, we’ve rescued a racist,” when Bill reacts in surprise to his skin tone. So the race issue is banged on the nose again. Maybe in 2017 it is worth sending a thought-provoking message to young (even old) viewers, but it would be a relief if Bill could just get on with her adventures without any reference being made to “race”, just as no big deal has been made about her liking other women. Later, Nardole’s line “Some of my best friends are blue-ish” [substitute “black/gay/Venusian”] falls flat. 

Nardole is something of a spare part in Oxygen (I could do without the blather about his automated girlfriend, Velma), but it’s good to see him in the thick of the action. Kudos to Matt Lucas: despite mere slivers of screen time in recent weeks, his name has remained up in lights in the opening titles. Nardole is a benign presence. I enjoy his remonstrations with the Doctor and the fact that he’s starting to show a glimmer of concern for “the human”, Bill. At the end he moves in for a group hug with the simple word “Cuddle”. Terribly endearing.

They make quite a trio. Pearl Mackie is extraordinarily natural and believable as Bill, transmitting as a fully rounded person that you would like to know. Peter Capaldi plays “blind” with subtlety, and those scenes bring home how much he normally conveys with his eyes. It’s a condition the Doctor isn’t going to cure any time soon… 

Deep breath then for next week, folks, as we prepare to read the Veritas…

Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide

Series ten reviews: 

Episode one: The Pilot ★★★★

Episode two: Smile ★★

Episode three: Thin Ice ★★★★★

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Episode four: Knock Knock ★★★★