Aired 13 May 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW
‘Space: the final frontier’ is, of course, the phrase that opens countless episodes of Star Trek, and Doctor Who confidently begins ‘Oxygen’ with that same line followed not by glimmering optimism but instead by an ominous sense of warning. As the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole answer a distress signal coming from a mining space station, the grave tone is instantly set as Peter Capaldi’s voice warns that the void is always waiting and ready to kill.
Although the Doctor’s lecturing and the university setting have by necessity moved to the background since the series opener, it’s refreshing to see both come into prominence for the opening scenes, allowing the Doctor to lecture Bill and her class about dying in space rather than crop rotations and also for Nardole to join the adventure after again exclaiming about the importance of the Doctor’s oath to protect the mysterious vault and its contents. The action quickly shifts to the strangely-empty Chasm Forge mining station, though, and the unfettered progression of capitalism quickly rears its head as the TARDIS trio soon finds that even access to oxygen is monetized. With the TARDIS out of reach and the sonic screwdriver out of commission, Bill’s wide-eyed wonder about her first trip in proper space quickly turns to fear as the three must resort to wearing the station’s smart suits to have any chance of staying alive as deceased members of the crew close in on them.
The claustrophobic corridors of the space station provide a wonderful setting for the pseudo-zombified siege, and the truth behind the threat provides an incredibly satisfying twist on expectations. Doctor Who has never been one to shy away from the politics and hot button issues of its time, and the fact that human beings in a workspace have been reduced to an algorithm in which death can become the more profitable option is a scathing indictment on the bottom line mentality becoming ever more prevalent in business and life alike. Realizing that corporate greed is never the most exciting force for the Doctor to go up against, the dead crewmembers successfully add a physical presence and tangible menace to that more oblique threat, and the Doctor’s psychic paper suggesting that he belongs to the mythical Union is a nice nod to at least some vestiges of current labour conditions endure.
It’s a rarity in the modern series of Doctor Who to feature the Doctor without the sonic screwdriver at his side, and writer Jamie Mathieson does well in maintaining a heightened sense of danger from beginning to end. With Bill trapped in a malfunctioning smart suit both as the survivors face the threat of exposure to the vacuum and as the dead crewmembers converge upon her, Pearl Mackie does superb work as she channels the intrinsic and base fear of imminent death wonderfully. Of course, the Doctor is anything but helpless, and he takes on a much more physical role in trying to save the lives around him as he tries to defy the odds, first by giving his own helmet to Bill to face the expanse of the void unprotected himself and later as he puts the entire station at risk to create precious oxygen molecules as the basis of an ultimatum that proves just how far this incarnation is willing to go to do what is right.
Truthfully, ‘Oxygen’ could have done with another few moments to slow down the resolution and to better develop its supporting characters who here fill a necessary role rather than show any true degree of individuality, but otherwise this serial is a fantastic look at a future driven by the bottom line that uses an immense environment to create a strong sense of tension and danger. With the Doctor not immune to the consequences of his well-meaning actions as he succumbs to blindness that will at the very least carry into the next episode as well, ‘Oxygen’ hits all of the right notes and creates a strong sense of momentum as the mystery of who or what is in the vault again comes into focus.