Doctor Who – Oxygen Review

The Doctor and Bill head out on a rescue mission, which is something we’ve not seen for a while. Nardole tags along, somewhat inadvertently, and we are plunged into a ‘zombies in space’ adventure.

What’s more, it ended on a dramatic cliffhanger, a twist that could change the dynamic of the show. At least for the rest of the series, anyway. But did it all stack up? We’ve had a lot of character development and expectations will be high. Does Oxygen deliver?

Bill

Our heroine, Bill, has gone through a lot already in her travels with the Doctor. We’ve seen her react to death in a variety of ways, and this episode may have been the hardest one so far. She’s seen the death of love interests, and has stumbled upon piles of corpses. She’s seen complete strangers and close friends killed before her eyes. But this week she had to deal with the prospect of her own death.

Pearl Mackie continues to showcase what a phenomenally talented actress she is. Bringing a level of believability the show desperately needs, as well as being eternally relatable. Her infectious excitement about going to space, along with her wide-eyed reaction remind us just how human she is. When that wonder turns to terror, it jarrs at first, perhaps, but given how often her adventures have gone wrong so far, it makes sense.

Her genuine fear and existential dread are painted on her face as she faces her own mortality. This is, in many ways, an episode all about how we deal with death. I suspect it will develop into a wider theme and an arc for Bill. Right now, for her, death is a scary thing, and she has seen too much of it. How she will develop going forward will, I hope, be an emotional trip.

The Doctor

One of the Doctor’s eternal qualities is his deep and unshakable desire to save people at any cost. Here, he puts himself through pain and suffering, sacrificing his eyesight to make sure Bill can survive. This cements much of their relationship and reassures us that yes, he does care, and he can be trusted.

When the moment comes where Bill must trust the Doctor, it is poignant and painful, but we have been given good enough reasons to trust him. This kind of build up and pay off has been lacking in Doctor Who for a few years now. Having the story earn its emotional resonance is refreshing and makes the whole experience so much more worthwhile.

We know the Doctor will do whatever he can to save Bill, and everyone on the station. Also, we know that he is not afraid to manipulate and lie to do it. The duality of the Twelfth Doctor is where much of the conflict arises between him and his companion. That’s not to say there aren’t issues here, and I will get to those later on. But, in terms of characterisation and storytelling, Oxygen gives us plenty to feel for in Bill and the Doctor.

Nardole

Matt Lucas finally gets a more active role! This is a treat for those of us who know of him and his work, but I do worry if casual viewers will be confused by his presence. In terms of how he relates to the story there isn’t much to say. The sad thing is, the character seems to exist solely to tie the Doctor to the Vault arc. And nag him about it.

It feels like something of a waste of his talents. There are a few moments of comic relief from him, which is fine, but Oxygen could have been a perfectly serviceable episode without him. Indeed, there might even have been more time to let us get to know the crew before they were offed one-by-one. Again, I get the feeling he has been somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into the series for the sake of star power.

Story

This episode harkens back to a few other Doctor Who stories of the past. Many will be reminded of The Ambassadors of Death, a Jon Pertwee story that featured kill spacesuits. It also brings back memories of The Sun Makers, and other Robert Holmes scripts that took a harsh eye to government or capitalism.

The atmosphere was compelling and fairly creepy. Although, like last week, there were a few missed opportunities. We might have benefitted from a bit more of a build up on the spacesuit zombies – perhaps having them come in ones, then two, and slowly build up to the crowds. More sudden appearances would have worked, too; a frightening monster suddenly lurching around a corner is often a good way to keep the audience on edge.

The fact that the true enemy was the company in charge of the mining ship was a nice twist, though not unexpected. Which isn’t a bad thing, I hasten to point out. A twist you can work out for yourself often means you’re much more engaged in the show. It would have been nice to have the crew feel more betrayed by their employers, though. Perhaps if there had been some conflict between those who trusted the company, and those who were skeptical.

Trust

The Doctor does a lot to earn Bill’s trust. Sacrificing his eyesight so that she could live certainly gave him a big bargaining chip and as a story point it works well. However, in the larger context of the series, and in the larger context of society, there are some troubling points.

The writers go to great lengths to set up a situation where the Doctor will not (or cannot) tell Bill the truth. So, she is left completely at his mercy, and even suffers near death as a result of trusting him. There are tears, there is fear, and there is no way out for her, except to put her faith in the Doctor.

This made me incredibly uncomfortable. Within the story, in isolation, it makes sense, no doubt. But there are so many stories out there of women who are forced into situations where they must trust men completely. What’s more, there have been far too many times where the Doctor withholds vital information from his companions. This creates a very unbalanced power dynamic. Whatever the reasons within the story, it cannot escape the wider implications. And it happens too often.

The fact that the writers take such care to craft a situation where the Doctor leaves Bill for dead – apparently – only to later reveal it was all part of the plan, made me incredibly uncomfortable. This is a choice the writers made, and one has to wonder why.

Bill and the Doctor’s relationship has been at its best when it has been amicable, and they have worked together. The teacher-student dynamic already creates a power divide, but adding the life threatening withholding of information is unsettling.

The Vault

Few clues were given this time, and the vault has again become much less interesting to me. A few lines here and there and a general sense of the Doctor’s fleeting sense of responsibility may become larger themes, sure. But right now, it’s not a particularly engaging mystery as there’s very little for the viewers to latch on to.

Last week, we at least had some new information to go on. This week, nothing much. Theorising at this point can’t get us very far expect to speculate based on what would make a dramatic reveal. Since we have virtually no clues, we can only say “wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Oxygen

Ultimately, this is a fairly well put together episode. An improvement on last week, for sure, and hopefully a sign of things to come. The writing was well developed and the characters had plenty to do. A cliffhanger ending and a new struggle for the Doctor will, hopefully, keep the audiences on board!

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Oxygen
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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.