Zombies on a Spaceship

Review of Oxygen
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

You can't get much better for an American fan of my ilk than starting a Doctor Who episode with Star Trek's opening words. Unless, of course, you follow up with a clarification that space is "final" because it wants to kill us.

Oxygen combines some classic body horror with a commentary on the dangers of capitalism in an episode that looks like its sole story note from Moffat was "zombies in space," much like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship or Mummy on the Orient Express. Despite that dubious origin, in writer Jamie Mathieson's capable hands, we end up with a relatively strong story.

Among the facets that made this episode notable is the first full inclusion of Nardole as part of the TARDIS team. I've previously been less than complimentary to the Doctor's latest robot Companion (see also: K-9, Kamelion), but taking a reader's comments to heart, I've tried to set aside my pre-conceived notions about him (something in Husbands really set my teeth on edge) and look at him afresh. Judging purely on his appearances in Series Ten, then, I have to say I almost like him.

As a matter of fact, seeing Nardole in action for real—and most especially at the end of the episode when he confronts the Doctor with some actual fire in him—I've come around to what might even be considered fondness for the character. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that he got to be the bearer of an Easter egg for fans of the pre-Hiatus era or that he got to deliver the "as you know, Bob" dialog explaining to the audience why our heroes couldn't reach the TARDIS anymore.

Conversely, having Nardole along meant that there was necessarily less focus directly on Bill. In fact, she seemed to be relegated to a Companion's more typical plot-device role here, as the one stuck in the malfunctioning suit and needing rescue. The suit does allow for a couple of moments where we are probably meant to see character development, but those get lost in the noise of the larger action.

In particular, her near-fearful reaction to the necessity for using her helmet reads like something that made more sense with a line that got cut, perhaps something along the lines of feeling claustrophobic. Had that been in the final script, the Doctor's immediate assumption that Bill was the one removing that same helmet later would've made more sense.

I also feel like we were missing some larger context in the way Bill immediately called for her dead mother ("Mum! Answer me!") as her own (presumed) death approached. The closeness she feels to a parent she never knew strikes me as narratively notable, yet it has been largely unexplained. And it makes the (unrealistically unremarked) loss at the end of last episode of the photograph in her "dying" vision even more tragic.

Narratively, I was alternately pleased and eye-rolly about various story elements. For example, I was initially wary about accuracy of the Doctor's lecture on the effects of vacuum on the human body. Happily, it seems to check out, and I could relax on second viewing. However, after the TARDIS team discovers the suit with the dead crew member in it (again, shades of Rose in The Unquiet Dead as Bill exclaims about how disrespectful it is to leave the body standing there), we get some cartoon physics. Just as gravity only kicks in for Wile E. Coyote when he notices he's walking on air instead of rock, the station only expels the spare oxygen once our heroes have realized that's its usual procedure.

Similarly, there's some skillful misdirection. When the Doctor asks whether or not the suits can learn and then we see them bypassing the door mechanism, we are led to conclude that they are more than they seem, rather than that there is someone else behind their actions. And Nardole helps lead the audience (and the remaining crew) astray by assuming the Doctor is doing one thing, while he is really doing something different.

But there were some misses, too. Although I could see an attempt at the same kind of social awareness-raising that I loved so much in Thin Ice, for me it fell flat this time. Making Bill be the one to react with surprise to the alien crew member and thus be labeled a racist felt like forcing a white perspective onto her, shoving her into "not all men/white people/humans!" territory. Nardole's "Some of my best friends are Bluish" simply intensified the squick factor. The Doctor's "It's all your fault" speech near the end raised the tone of that aspect of the episode, but didn't make up for the previous missteps entirely.

As far as I could tell, though, the main point of the episode was to find a way to incapacitate the Doctor. It's really hard to tell, even on re-watch, how much the Doctor can see either before or after his treatment back on the TARDIS. Given how talented Capaldi is, I have to ascribe that to an acting choice on his part, but it's still a difficult read. At the station core, he seems to pinpoint everything a bit too easily, yet on the TARDIS there's not a single hint that he can't see perfectly. It makes for some difficulty suspending my disbelief on subsequent viewings, but doesn't alleviate the pain at seeing the Doctor so reduced.

And it is not the physical impairment that has really reduced him, but the knowledge that he has endangered the Earth. Somehow, in a way the audience does not yet know, being even slightly off his game lessens—or possibly even destroys—his ability to guard the vault effectively. He's been so cavalier about it up till now, it seems the audience couldn't help but share that laissez-faire attitude. Now, though, he's turned suddenly serious, and so have we.

How soon will we learn the depth of his folly?




Capaldi doesn't really make he contact with anyone in the TARDIS scene, and if you look closely, he's using his hand, on the TARDIS console, for example, to get his bearings. It's subtle, so as not to give the end away (and in-universe because he's trying to keep it a secret), but Capaldi's doing at least something with it.

By Random Comments (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I'll have to watch even more closely next time I see the episode. I was sure Capaldi was playing it purposefully, but I guess it was just too subtle for me even the second time through!

By mrfranklin
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