Where last week’s ‘Knock Knock’ creeped us out with creaky floorboards and flesh-eating termites, this week’s episode delivered a downright terrifying concept that it’s hard to believe Doctor Who hasn’t used more often. The encroaching empty void of space is an omnipresent threat throughout ‘Oxygen’, and it succeeds on many levels as both a standalone story and as one that ties into the larger story arc.
Firstly, it does great service to Jamie Mathieson’s impeccable track record of writing for Doctor Who. His previous episodes (‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, ‘Flatline’, and ‘The Girl Who Died’) exemplified the show’s versatility, but he is really at his most comfortable when given the reigns to terrify his audience.
This week Nardole is along for the adventure with the Doctor and Bill (albeit against his will), and the trio find themselves on a copper-mining space station with 40 crew members – 36 of whom are dead and roaming the station in their robot-like space suits.
We also find out that oxygen is a valuable commodity in this futuristic era, and purchasing it is essential to survive in space. This creates a real sense of urgency, as our main trio realise that they have roughly 2500 breaths left before suffocating. Putting a vacuum between them and the TARDIS also prevents the story from taking an easy way out – a smart move that always works well in ‘base under siege’ stories like these.
It also turns out that the crew’s recent mission to mine copper was unsuccessful, and so their employers consider them expendable. Why waste oxygen on workers who aren’t effective? The bosses turn the spacesuits against their users, quickly and efficiently ending their lives. But much like the series 4 Vashta Nerada, the suits are still moving around with their dead occupants inside, slowly picking off the remaining crew members one by one.
This week’s supporting cast are mostly cannon fodder for the space zombies, and all but Dahh-Ren fade into the background of characters we don’t really care for.
Dahh-Ren is the blue-skinned crew member who berates Bill for rudely staring – a subtly amusing flip on Bill’s own experiences of racism. Other than this, Dahh-Ren serves little other purpose in the episode and eventually becomes one of the space zombies’ victims.
Perhaps the most engaging and thrilling scene in ‘Oxygen’ is Bill’s spacesuit glitch just before they enter the vacuum of space. Just as the air in the room starts to decompress, her helmet is automatically removed from the body and the tension becomes almost unbearable as she is on the verge of one of the worst imaginable deaths – suffocating in space.
Bill passes out and what happens next is initially unclear as we start to perceive the events through Bill’s own blurry, half-conscious mind. Ultimately she pulls through, as the Doctor gave her his own helmet to survive. This is a beautiful moment for the Doctor and is perhaps a key moment of series 10, as he demonstrates the duty of care for his companions he holds himself to. Perhaps this responsibility derives from some of the lingering memories of Clara’s demise?
However, the Doctor’s great sacrifice comes with a cost. He is now blind.
For the first time in quite a long time, there are some real personal consequences for the Doctor’s actions. In a show where the main character cheats death frequently and is essentially immortal, it is difficult to impose lasting consequences upon him. But it seems like this will be a fairly permanent thing (at least for the next few episodes), so I am genuinely excited to see where they will be going with this. It certainly paves the way for some exciting potential storylines.
On the other hand, it is a little disappointing how his blindness was underused in the rest of this episode. It feels a little shoehorned in to fit some future plot point, but this can easily be forgiven due to the sheer number of exciting possibilities of what this future plot point might be.
Not long after Bill recovers from her near death experience, she is put through yet another traumatic experience that ultimately culminates in the Doctor leaving her to the mercy of the space zombies. Bill’s glitching spacesuit ultimately stops the space zombies from delivering a fatal dose of whatever it is that is killing everyone, and so she escapes by the skin of her teeth.
Finally, the Doctor saves the day as he realises that by connecting the space station’s reactor settings to everyone’s suits, he can guarantee that the whole station will explode if they die. The company hiring the crew members aren’t keen to waste valuable oxygen on a crew who isn’t productive, but if their deaths lead to the destruction of the entire station, then they are more valuable alive than dead.
It’s a conceit that smartly uses the Doctor’s most powerful tool – not his sonic screwdriver or TARDIS, but his sharp, clever mind. These resolutions tend to be the most effective ones, since they give us the opportunity to marvel at the Doctor’s pure, unique brand logic instead of just relying on his nonsensical technobabble to be convinced of his intellect.
‘Oxygen’ raises the stakes dramatically for our main characters, and this is perhaps one of the episode’s strongest aspects. By removing the Doctor’s hi-tech tools, taking his companion away from him, and making him blind, Mathieson creates a gripping story with truly horrific imagery. The Doctor’s blindness will apparently hold some significance in next week’s story, where Missy is making her Series 10 debut!
Next Week: An ancient text that makes people commit suicide, the Pope drops into the TARDIS, and River’s diary is back.
What did you think of this week’s episode of Doctor Who? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!