Still excited about Doctor Who being back on air? Okay, well, good, but breathe. Slowly. Calm down.
Oxygen was Jamie Mathieson’s final script for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, and his first for Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts and Matt Lucas’ Nardole. In his review, James Lomond said:
“And what a creepy piece of genius Oxygen is. In the After Show, Mathieson explains that a single note from Moffat lead to the suits being the monsters with corpses inside. Their slow movements, not being able to enter an area without a floorplan and redundant, lolling human face made them all the more terrifying. This achieved the uncanny creepiness of the Borg from Star Trek which the Cybermen have sadly never managed to live up to in New Who.”
So what did the rest of the DWC team think…?
Oxygen is one of those ‘worthy’ episodes. You know, the sort where everyone talks about the message. It happens a lot, and it’s a problem. It’s nice that people care about things, but the earnestness with which throwaway lines of dialogue and supposedly grand speeches are adopted as profile signatures and – just occasionally – life mantras is something that puzzles me immensely. It’s as if Doctor Who is no longer allowed to be important unless it means something. Robert Holmes showed you can be political, and thus this is something you ought to do at every conceivable opportunity, with episodes that say Important Things left on a pedestal, while the more superficial, disposable stories (sit down, Planet of the Dead, your chops and gravy are in the microwave) are critically lambasted for being disposable candy floss. There is bugger all social commentary in The Invasion; it’s Cybermen running around London. It is also tremendous fun. That really ought to be enough.
Thankfully, Oxygen has the fun factor in spades, whether it’s the Doctor effectively kidnapping Nardole in the opening scene, or the mesmerising, wordless spacewalk (when people say things like “You’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space!” in Hollywood blockbusters it sounds corny as hell; Capaldi pulls it off); or the moment, just a short time later, when the Doctor abandons Bill in a corridor. It manages this despite a dearth of interesting supporting characters (indeed, the only one you notice is memorable precisely because he shouldn’t be) and a rather clumsy, overstated semi-cliffhanger. None of this matters when the rest of it is as good as it got this week. A triumph, from start to not-quite finish.
Coming off from, what I thought was, a weaker instalment the week previous with Knock Knock, Mathieson’s Oxygen is an inspired affair that sets the stage for a dark turn for Series 10 and the Twelfth Doctor in the twilight of his years. Oxygen balances social commentary with extraterrestrial horror and comedy expertly, reeling in the audience to believe the central threat of the episode might just do in the Doctor and his companies before the credits roll (truefully, there was a moment there where I wasn’t sure).
I thought Oxygen was really good! It could just be me, but it felt almost Kubrick-esque in its direction, somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. And as a confirmed fan of both those films, that was no bad thing. But why, oh why, is Nardole in there? In my head, he always causes an episode to lose a point or two. No reflection on Matt Lucas… I like Matt Lucas. I also like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street, but imagine how good The Talons of Weng-Chiang would have been if he’d been assisting Jago and Litefoot with their enquiries, (“Egads, a most circumspect consumer of confectionary if ever I saw one…!”) No, Jago. Just no. Still – I’ll give this one a solid 8. It certainly took my breath awa-ahh, never mind.
It may have had a little too much exposition, and the zombies were hardly essential, but underneath this was a very strong story. There were some powerful scenes and now we have moved on from Bill being the new kid on the block, Nardole injects a new dimension to the TARDIS, and reminds us just why we used to have more than one companion back when I were a lad. Bill’s death was dark, even if we didn’t believe it and the twist of blindness is clever, both in terms of Oxygen itself and the overall arc. Well done!
It was Jamie Mathieson’s Series 8 episodes that reassured me that Doctor Who was still the show I loved. His name is a sign of quality, so there was a lot of pressure – pun definitively intended – for Oxygen to deliver.
And it more than did.
It’s a rare episode that made me go “wow” afterwards. I was impressed after the first viewing and it remains a fantastic piece after rewatches. For me, it joins Under the Lake/ Before the Flood as a Twelfth Doctor instant classic.
I was incredibly impressed with its structure, and particularly how gutsy it is. Not only is the Doctor blinded, but Bill also seems to die, and it dares to show us that space is really an enemy. I’m catapulted back to those experimental, daring days of the First Doctor – look at the atmosphere in the first episode of The Sensorites for a good comparison. And I mean that as a compliment!
In fact, Oxygen was so tense, I found myself holding my breath quite a few times. Thank God I’m not in the vacuum of space…
When something is good, you overlook its faults. When it’s bad, you can’t help but point them out. Oxygen was not perfect. There was a lack of clarity and focus to the battery in Bill’s suit, making her “resurrection” a little confusing. Similarly, the realisation that the battle was literally against “the suits” and not some shady corporate type was good, but lacked punch thanks to everything else that was going on.
But it doesn’t matter. Doctor Who Series 10 has so far been a revelation. The Doctor is in charge again, finding solutions; his companion is a rounded character we care about, rather than a pretty plot device with smug dialogue. The result is a lightness to their relationship, a lack of the distracting intensity of previous companions.
Oxygen has everything: a space station, space suit zombies, mystery, peril, potential cataclysm for all. With a bad Doctor/companion dynamic muddying the episode, we’d have been unaware of just how good it is.
Doctor Who goes from strength to strength this series with last week’s offering bringing us some truly tense and creepy moments with a great supporting cast. I really enjoyed the not-zombies shambling around in their animated robosuits and the commentary that this story provides on capitalism gone mad. Mackie and Capaldi are a great pairing – if only we’d had her on board a year sooner. Less focus on the Impossible Girl who saves the universe in her spare time, and more Credible Girl who isn’t up herself would have made Series 9 much more palatable!
I’m a little surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to Oxygen. I can’t deny that it was tense and well-made, but I’m concerned about the dark road that the series seems to be slowly going down. I thought the first four episodes of Series 10 were delightfully back-to-basics, well-written, well-acted… and fun. The fun stopped with Oxygen, though, from Bill dying (twice!), to a blind Doctor, to a yelling Nardole… yep, not much fun. Upcoming episodes have me pretty worried that things are going to get really dark and serious really fast, especially with the appearance of the horrific-looking Monks. Maybe Missy or the Master won’t forget to bring the fun? I’m not going to hold my breath.
What a treat this season has been so far. Capaldi is on top form and suddenly, belatedly, his Doctor is never cruel or cowardly and all the better for it. Mackie is amazing. And Lucas is fab too! We’ve had good stories as well, at least as far as I’m concerned. The Pilot, Smile, Thin Ice, and Knock Knock were all great. Oxygen, though, took things to another level. It did what Doctor Who does really well, in my humble opinion: mixing thrills and spills with thought-provoking ideas. So, Oxygen was a tense disaster movie in space with (out of control) capitalism as the disaster, like a remake of The Poseidon Adventure with space zombies rather than water as the encroaching threat. It asked us, the audience, to ponder what happens when profit margins become more important than people. The answer, of course, is: nothing good!
Oxygen was truly great, mesmerising Doctor Who with a brilliant performance from the three leads and some cracking dialogue throughout.
Right up until the last eight minutes or so.
After a certain point, there seemed to be quite a rapid amount of info dumping and a brave, if slightly strange, end to the episode. It was at just about the point where the Doctor quickly explained Bill’s non-death where I struggled.
But let’s not be too mean – Oxygen may have its faults but it’s still a great slice of Doctor Who with a Twelfth Doctor I’ve longed for since he first appeared way back in 2013.
A near-perfect run so far, then? It seems so. Series 10 has been going down very well with the DWC crew, but what do you think, dear reader?