Doctor Who: 10-05 “Oxygen” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Space. The Final Frontier. But also, In Space, No-One Can Hear You Scream. Star Trek’s most famous line may be the one that Peter Capaldi opens the episode with here, but horror masterpiece Alien’s tag-line is certainly more apt when describing Oxygen. Even if in fact it turns out that quite a lot of people can hear you scream when you’re being attacked by marauding re-animated space nasties and you’re fast running out of, well, oxygen. What better way to inject some fear back into the great unknown of the final frontier with a claustrophobic episode set aboard a doomed mining station the week the new film in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant, is released? Breath slowly.
After the breath-taking (I’m sorry) pre-titles sequence when two poor lovers are offed by the re-animated corpses outside the station, we’re back at St Luke’s University where The Doctor is giving us a lecture for the first time since The Pilot. He’s meant to be lecturing on crop rotation- but he’s gone off on a major tangent and started talking about space. You see, The Doc is missing space quite a bit. He hasn’t taken Bill to space yet, and what with being held to his oath to the Vault that has proved rather tricky (even if that hasn’t stopped them visiting future worlds or regency era London). Nardole notices The Doctor’s yearning for space, reminding him of his oath, but The Doctor is away in his mind, and we see this with a wonderful little scene with him day-dreaming through his office windows of star-filled space. Naturally this leads to him jumping in the TARDIS with Bill (“got any reviews?” She quips rather brilliantly- is there an outer-space TripAdvisor maybe?) and they’re off in chase of a distress call- except Nardole saw through The Doctor’s ruse to send him to get a packet of crisps from Birmingham (I mean, that’s just a fantastic diversion, isn’t it?). The Doctor isn’t deterred, and Team TARDIS are soon aboard a creaky, dimly-lit mining station where the dead are walking and, soon separated from the TARDIS and with the Sonic destroyed, every breath counts.
Doctor Who has certainly never shied away from the sometimes horrors of space, but sometimes the show has made it all a bit too fantastical, or cosy. Oxygen sees to that. It’s a sudden snap back to the reality that you’re just seconds from death in the wrong situation in the vastness of space, outlined by The Doctor’s opening monologue and lecture musings. And as soon as the TARDIS lands on Mining Station Chasm Forge with a claustrophobic long shot in a dark corridor, you get the sense almost instantly that you’ve landed in space at its most dangerous. There’s still time for wonder though, with Bill getting a lovely little moment where she’s disappointed at the lack of anti-gravity, remarking “it doesn’t feel like space”, before gawking out of one of the port-hole windows and getting her first glimpse. That’s about your lot in terms of wonder though, because the rest of the episode is a closed-in onslaught with our heroes in constant peril whether it by the monsters or space itself.
Director Charles Palmer, returning for the first time since 2007’s two-part Human Nature/The Family of Blood, makes almost pitch-perfect use of the set for this episode. We’re used to seeing our heroes leg it down corridors and through dark rooms, but rarely, certainly in recent memory, has a director made so much use of the space provided to him to add to the creeping horror, where death, or worse, is just around the corner. Ridley Scott himself would be proud of the way that Palmer uses the sense of space, with the corpses often surprising in their sudden appearances. That’s not the only way this episode evokes Scott’s magnum opus Alien either, with everything from the score to the production design echoing visions of a not-so shiny future. Murray Gold’s soundtrack here echoes Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien on more than one occasion, and is suitably subdued throughout before the bombastic resolution. The sound work for Oxygen is exceptional also, with rattling noises and other horrific sounds you can’t quite pin down as alive or just metal creaking. Chasm Forge is a dilapidated wreck of a space-station- shiny on the outside but creaky and broken inside. It’s a return to a grimier space locations like the Sanctuary Base from The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, and being locked in this death-trap only increases the terror- especially when you’re being chased by your former co-workers, re-animated, and your chance of death is even greater outside.
Indeed, the monsters of this episode are completely and certainly monsters, and not misunderstood or sympathetic antagonists. The antagonists of Oxygen are your classic marauding creatures. The make-up of the “zombies” is one of the highlights of the episode, with the effects of space exposure brought to rather graphic life, with prominent veins on their faces, pale skin and bulging eyes. It’s a superb credit to the make-up team that they’ve brought the monsters to such grotesque life here. While they very much are completely nefarious, the monsters only came about because of Oxygen’s theme of the week- rampant capitalism. The team at the mining station are being offed because they’ve been underperforming, and as such they’re being replaced. As The Doctor so expertly points out at the terrifically written episode’s close, they’re fighting a spreadsheet, they’re quite literally fighting the suits.
The capitalist themes in Oxygen are dealt with in a quite skin-crawling way, where oxygen is valued more than human life. All the company behind Chasm Forge care about is their station and their suits, hence why they terminate the “organic component” AKA the people, when they under-perform. It’s a grim reality in this future, and to see the cast of characters here so casually treat in that way is highly unnerving, more so even than the monsters themselves. The episode leads its way to the resolution where The Doctor encourages the survivors to “die well” (throwback to Class?), instead becoming this episode’s “Jamie Mathieson writes an amazing Peter Capaldi moment”, where after messing around with the station’s wiring he reveals to the company listening through the suits that it’s more expensive to kill them than let them live. When the suits give their oxygen to the survivors its darkly comic in the best way, with the final shot of Chasm Forge showing that capitalism is just going to keep spinning on anyway.
Even though The Doctor does save the day in the end, Oxygen is an episode all about The Doctor’s folly and just what happens when he gets too confident or full of himself. He’s blinded by the episode’s close, and it’s the classic case of curiosity killed the cat- his desperate desire to be back amongst the stars cost him his sight and almost Bill’s life as well. Bill certainly goes through the ringer this week, the standout sequence of the episode coming when The Doctor must leave her with just his trust when her suit malfunctions. Bill naturally panics and screams for her mum. It’s the most harrowing situation Bill has been in so far, and you really feel her terror here. Bill gets a nice little moment early on as well when she bumps into the blue-skinned Dahh-Ren, and is assumed to be a racist when she’s naturally taken a little aback by him, telling him she’s usually the one on the receiving end. Dahh-Ren is curious as to why, showing us there’s at least social equality in this capitalist ridden future!
Even though we got that epic Doctor moment as is becoming the course for Jamie Mathieson, it came at a bitter price. The Doctor gives a speech all about how smug he’ll be when he saves the day despite his lack of tools, but he’s just too cocky- Nardole brings him up on it, and Bill does too. His cocksure attitude is ultimately what kicks the episode off- with his curiosity and drive to help, he almost killed his friends. Will he take any lessons from this? It’s an interesting development, almost as much as losing his sight is. The Doctor started the episode over excited about how much space is like camping, making it sound like an exciting day out. The Doctor’s over-confidence and carelessness is what drives them into the nightmare, where the outdoors is about as safe as the indoors. For all how clever the resolution is, it’s still all The Doctor’s fault they started into this mess, and Nardole lets him have it when they arrive back home. Which brings me nicely to the episode’s standout- Matt Lucas, Nardole. He’s been kept in the background since the beginning, with small but well-done scenes, usually revolving around the vault. Now though, he’s finally unleashed, and he seems like he’ll be a fascinating character in weeks to come. He’s resourceful and intelligent, despite being an utter coward, and he’s a great contrast as the “experienced” companion to Bill’s newer one. This dynamic is going to work wonders, I hope!
Ultimately, Oxygen is another belter of a script from Jamie Mathieson, with some terrific world-building and a well-set pace that keeps proceedings tense for the duration, not least without the help of director Charles Palmer and his production team. There may be nobody able to hear your screams in space, but down here, it’s a different story!
Nb: So, next week, there’s a book that kills you if you read it, and the Pope wants a now-blind Doctor to help him decipher it. Oh, and Missy’s back. This is going to be interesting!