NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review
Doctor Who made an anticipated return to space in this week’s episode, even if it didn’t totally manage to keep pace with the rest of Series Ten so far. “Oxygen” introduced another spooky mystery for The Doctor and Bill to discover, this time with Nardole thankfully in tow! It’s about time that the show properly incorporated Nardole into a storyline, since it’s been irritating to see Matt Lucas constantly benched in the current season of Doctor Who so far, despite his outstanding rapport with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
After The Doctor brings Bill and Nardole to space, upon beginning to miss it, they land on a creepy space station that appears to be uninhabited. Apparently though, the space workers in the area are still moving about, since their spacesuits have re-animated them and made them stand up again. Once the suits start targeting The Doctor and co. to disable their, “Organic components” though (i.e. kill the people inside them), they’re cut off from the TARDIS, and have to find another means of escape, even with very limited breaths that give them another race against time to stop the oncoming threat. Making matters worse is that The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver is destroyed almost immediately when the group arrives, forcing them to improvise in their fight for survival.
The overall storytelling device of this episode was great. The capitalist space economy selling oxygen being used as a means of giving The Doctor, Bill and Nardole a constrained time limit to survive and escape was very inspired, even if they never truly ran into danger of low oxygen by the end of the episode. Still, the capitalist themes of the episode in general were very bold and inspired, as oxygen itself becomes sold as a commodity to space workers, with organic life now being fully inconsequential to a company’s bottom line. This is a great idea for a Doctor Who episode, and fits well into a season that’s especially heavy on tension and spookiness so far.
The execution however does run into a few problems here and there. Chief among these is the fact that Bill’s spacesuit glitches out, seemingly at random, leading to her constantly having mechanical problems to contrive more issues for the survivors to struggle with, as they become chased by the slow-moving spacesuit zombies. This is a bit annoying, since it stinks a bit of the episode not being better able to come up with organic obstacles for The Doctor and the survivors, instead having to force the danger by making Bill a frustrating liability. The not one, but multiple death fake-outs for Bill were especially frustrating. These could have worked if there was just one, and Bill had been around for a while, but she’s too new as a companion for the belief that she’s died to carry any weight. Moreover, there’s no way that Bill would be killed off this early anyway, if ever, further deflating these scenes where Bill conveniently has to ‘die’ to move the plot along.
There is an interesting consequence to The Doctor having to save Bill the first time however, and that’s that he has to give her his space helmet, meaning that he wanders around for a while in the vacuum of space without head protection. This logically should have killed him right away, but these events happen off-screen, so it’s tough to gauge the length of time that The Doctor was unprotected in space. When Bill regains consciousness and we do see The Doctor again though, he’s gone blind. This is actually a really interesting idea, not to mention a rare long-term consequence for The Doctor trying to save someone, one that isn’t a full regeneration. Disappointingly though, The Doctor’s blindness doesn’t seem to slow him down at all in this particular episode, so it might as well not have happened.
I say in this particular episode, because, despite Nardole trying to use the TARDIS to fix The Doctor’s sight, it doesn’t work, despite colour returning to The Doctor’s eyes. The Doctor then decides to lie about having sight, not wanting to tell Bill the truth. This was one part of another somewhat shaky resolution to the episode, after The Doctor also saves the space crew by telling the zombie suits that the survivors will be expensive to kill, and the overseeing corporation doesn’t want to take that kind of loss. This is a little more believable than, say, the really contrived conclusion of, “Smile” from a few weeks ago (especially since The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver is destroyed around the start of the episode, preventing him from just stopping the suits immediately a la the Vardy from, “Smile”), but are we really supposed to believe that some nebulous space corporation is just watching their employees die, and The Doctor was able to rig an explosion so that this was no longer a good idea? Had no one else seriously ever thought of sabotaging their space stations to save their lives? The capitalist cautionary themes of the episode are still great, but they don’t resonate as much as they could have when this mysterious corporate outfit is portrayed as being quite this careless.
Even if it’s a bit of a lesser episode for Series Ten though, “Oxygen” is still pretty good overall. It just doesn’t fully compare to the season’s previous episodes. The danger had to be forced to an extent, especially with Bill’s conveniently malfunctioning spacesuit, and while rendering The Doctor blind is a bold and risky story choice, it didn’t really offer any substantial new developments in this episode by itself. The quick, easy story solutions are becoming a recurring issue in Series Ten of New Who overall for now, and sadly, this episode didn’t change that, but at least the founding idea of a corporate menace in the context of space was a great one. Now that it looks like The Doctor’s sight isn’t going to return in the short-term though, I’m looking forward to seeing some potential proper consequences to The Doctor not being able to see, and keeping this from Bill in turn. At the very least, the Sonic Screwdriver’s destruction will also hopefully cut down on story contrivance a tad in the weeks to come.
- Strong concept of out-of-control space capitalism
- Oxygen as a commodity creates a great tension device
- Nardole finally being allowed to tag along
- Bill being made into a forced liability, especially with her fake deaths
- The Doctor's blindness isn't a real obstacle for him yet
- Story resolution still feels too contrived and easy