Another Saturday, another episode of Doctor Who, another review of Doctor Who. This week’s episode was Oxygen, written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Charles Palmer. In this episode, Bill (Pearl Mackie), Nardole (Matt Lucas), and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) respond to a distress signal from a mining post somewhere in space in the future. On the post, the workers have begun to die, being killed by the very suits designed to protect them. Can the Doctor save the remaining crew in an environment where oxygen is limited and charged by the breath? Like all reviews, this one will contain spoilers – and, man, there are some spoilers to look out for this week. So, seriously, if you haven’t seen the episode yet, watch it before you read this review. You do not want the ending spoiled for you.
This is a pretty action-packed episode. It’s probably the most blatantly horror-inspired episode this season has had. It’s very similar to Alien in a way, with the crew of a spaceship trapped on the ship while murderous “monsters” track them down to try and kill them. In this case, it’s a space station and the monsters are just dead humans in spacesuits, it’s still the same kind of atmosphere. And it’s an exciting and tense one. While at first glance, it appeared that was going to be just another stand-alone episode, that turned out to not quite be true. Sure, for the most part, the episode is your standard stand-alone Doctor Who episode. There’s the cold open that sets up the mystery/problem for the episode, the Doctor and Companion(s) (Bill and Nardole) arrive, shenanigans ensue, the mystery gets solved, the episode ends. All of that happens. But the character moments throughout the episode, as well as the ending, are what elevates it from standard stand-alone episode into something that feels vitally important to the episode.
Before we get to those vital elements, let’s discuss how the episode fared as a self-contained story. Long story short, it’s good. It’s not amazing, but it’s good. It’s high on tension, which is always a fun time. It’s another episode that doesn’t contain any kind of extraterrestrial threat. This time, it’s just dead people and “evil” spacesuits and heartless capitalist companies. It’s an interesting concept, taking the idea that capitalism, and companies that thrive from capitalistic ideals, don’t care about humans and hypothesizing that in the future, they’d care so little about humans that they’d literally kill them off when they stopped being financially productive is an interesting one. It feels appropriate in this day and age of increased distrust in capitalistic principles and the dangers of mega corporations. It’s executed pretty well in the episode, especially how the Doctor resolves it.
The guest actors aren’t given a whole lot to do, which is about normal for a 45-minute stand-alone episode of Doctor Who. They all exist to pretty much further the plot along as needed, which tends to be the case with most shows that have a fairly large procedural element. Charles Palmer’s directing is really nice. I appreciate the exterior shots of the space station that are scattered throughout the episode. They often appear right after something tense happens inside the station, as though to emphasize how comparatively unimportant all this is. The space station – and everyone inside it – is so isolated from the outside world; nobody is going to save them. I think Palmer really executes this concept well with his camera shots and editing choices. It’s a really well-executed episode. It’s also a well-written episode. Even the best directors can’t make something good unless the script is also good. Jamie Mathieson wrote a strong script. It’s well paced, well thought out, with a pretty strong beginning, middle, and end.
On to the elements that make it more than a stand-alone story. A lot happens in this episode that will have an impact on future episodes, for sure. On the one hand, the Doctor allows Bill to nearly get killed – a necessary evil in order to execute his plan to save everyone. He doesn’t actually let her die; turns out her spacesuit didn’t have enough energy to actually kill her. But it’s the thought where the most danger lies. Bill now has to live with the fact that the Doctor appeared to be willing to let her die. Yes, he couldn’t tell her the truth because the suits would have overheard it. But that doesn’t negate the emotions she would have felt right before she “died”. There’s no way that concept won’t come up again sometime in the future.
The other big thing that happened involves the Doctor and his mission to protect the vault. Throughout the episode, Nardole berates the Doctor for flaunting his responsibilities in relation to his mission and promise to guard the vault that resides beneath St. Luke’s. This plot thread culminates in a scene towards the end. Earlier in the episode, the Doctor has to give up his helmet in order to save Bill during a space-walk, and as a result, he temporarily loses his eyesight. As the episode ends, it appears his eyesight has returned. But, in the final scene, Nardole is lecturing the Doctor about how they all almost died, which resulted in the vault nearly being left unguarded, and how that can’t happen again. Nardole is getting frustrated with the Doctor refusing to look at him, so he commands the Doctor to look at him. The Doctor responds with, “I can’t. I can never look at anything again.” He’s blind. The trailer for next week’s episode references this fact, so it’s obviously going to be a big deal moving forward. This fact alone makes this episode important. You can’t skip this episode, otherwise, you’ll be wondering why/how the Doctor is blind. It’s a clever way to make what would otherwise be a potentially forgettable, skippable stand-alone episode into a vitally important one. This is possible the episode’s strongest aspect. It’s a solid episode on its own, but it’s connection to the overarching theme is the bit that makes it essential viewing.
All in all, Oxygen, is a good, solid episode. It’s a well-written mystery/horror episode, with a strong plot, decent characters, and a smart resolution. Its importance is elevated by the episode’s connection to future episodes and the overarching series plot. Because of this, Oxygen is required viewing for anybody watching this season of Doctor Who or is interested in seeing how the season-long arc is going to play out.
I give Oxygen four out of five wands.
Doctor Who continues next week with Extremis, airing at 7:25 pm on BBC One and 9 pm on BBC America.