Let’s face it, Doctor Who works better when it tells a story over two episodes. Sure, there are some episodes that fit a breezy, 45 minute runtime perfectly, but the weakest episodes of Series 10 thus far (Smile, Knock Knock) have each suffered from squeezed plots and rushed resolutions. The variable this week though is scribe Jamie Mathieson, whose previous Who episodes have each been textbook examples of how to tell a brilliant, well-paced and exciting adventure in just 45 minutes. Oxygen is no exception.
The Doctor, Bill and Nardole find themselves on space station Chasm Forge, a mining station where oxygen isn’t free – the workers onboard have to pay for their oxygen supply! Worse still, the smart spacesuits the crew wear are killing their occupants and turning them into zombies!
As concepts go, Oxygen is superb. Plunging our heroes into a terrifying, claustrophobic, inescapable death trap where even breathing heavily or hyperventilating out of fear can hasten your death is genius – as Nardole points out to Bill – “relax or die”. It really ups the stakes.
The opening really sells the idea of space itself as a threat- whereas in the past, Doctor Who has often taken a wide-eyed, wondrous view towards space travel, here we see it utilised as a force of terror, no better encapsulated then the haunting opening shot of two lifeless bodies floating in space, or later, when Bill’s faulty spacesuit fails just as the airlock door opens.
Oxygen also takes a stab at political commentary, exploring how profit over human life could well become a reality in a bleak, ultra-capitalist future. Human beings are tools to be used and thrown away when used, oxygen is sold as a commodity, and a simple business algorithm decides who lives and who dies. It’s a clever idea, well executed and gritty from the off. Even the monsters of the week are dubbed ‘Suits’, a less-subtle but still genius idea that hammers home the episode’s point.
Director Charles Palmer, returning to the show for the first time since 2007, layers on the scares, utilising the small, claustrophobic and isolated setting to good effect. The Suits themselves are imposing and terrifying enough to give the kids watching nightmares, whilst the lead characters are really put through the ringer.
After a run of mostly light episodes, Oxygen tests Bill and the Doctor in ways we haven’t seen before. We see them at their most vulnerable, their most scared, their most desperate. The Doctor’s blindness as a result of his self-sacrifice for Bill gives the story real weight, upping the aforementioned stakes even further. That said-blindness isn’t cured by the end of the episode is a huge shock, setting up plenty of potential drama for the Doctor and Bill in the coming weeks.
It’s welcome then that Matt Lucas is relegated to full companion status this week, after a few minor appearances in previous episodes. Many fans have questioned the casting of Lucas as a main cast-member, but here there’s no doubt that he’s pivotal to proceedings as Nardole, offering a cutting wit to an otherwise grim episode. Like a space-age Jeeves to the Doctor’s Bertie Wooster, Nardole cuts the Doctor down a peg or two, scolding him often yet being supportive and valuable at the same time. It also helps that Lucas and Peter Capaldi‘s performances compliment each other’s perfectly. No doubt, his role will have even more importance in the coming weeks.
Overstretched into a two-parter, Oxygen would likely not deliver as well as it ultimately does. Its a testament to Jamie Mathieson’s excellent writing that the story never drags, nor does it feel rushed or overdone, even with big series-wide revelations and important character arcs thrown in for good measure. Overall, Oxygen weaves a tense, intelligent and scare-inducing tale that never lets up, yet remembers to give the smaller, more intimate moments plenty of room to breathe!
Doctor Who returns to BBC One next Saturday. Join us for our review of Episode 6 next week.