I’m always a little conflicted about voiceover narration in “Doctor Who” but it’s hard to complain here when it’s used to such cheeky effect, having Capaldi solemnly intone ‘Space: the final frontier…’.
The Doctor’s feeling space sick, you see. Not in a nauseous way, but in a longing to sway amongst the stars once again, no matter how sternly Nardole (Matt Lucas) reminds him of his vow to protect the vault. But after a bit of fluid link flimflam, Nardole finds himself overruled and onboard for a trip to a space station to investigate a distress call.
First off, this is dark “Doctor Who”. In fact, this may be the darkest the series has ever dared to get and it really pushes the boundaries of what’s permissible for a Saturday evening family show. Not just in the terrifyingly realised spacesuit ‘zombies’ (the cold open is as horrifying as anything “Event Horizon” has to offer), but in its willingness to put the Doctor and Bill through the wringer, with real consequences.
The story of “Oxygen” is one in the grand tradition of Whovian capitalist critique as the mystery unravels to reveal a heartless corporation has been balancing the profitability of mining operations, oxygen and human resources in a dispassionately pragmatic and callous manner. But there’s a nihilism running through the episode which creates an oppressively doom-laden atmosphere. As heavy-handed as the capitalist-bashing is, it’s nothing compared to what the story has in store for our noble Time Lord and his plucky protégé. Even the brief moments of levity have an edge, such as Bill’s role reversal experience with accidental racism.
The spacesuit zombies are a deliciously macabre addition to the Doctor’s rogue’s gallery, all the more gruesome thanks to their HAL-like indifference to the consequences of following their programming. It’s quite a shock, therefore, when events force the Doctor, Nardole (who’s much more fun along for the ride than he is when bookending the story) and Bill to put their faith in the spacesuits to survive. Everything is made tenser by the early disposal of the sonic screwdriver, which shows just how ubiquitous it’s become and how much we the audience have come to rely on it to get our heroes out of trouble.
While the zombie suits are creepy as hell, it’s the very real effects of exposure to the vacuum of space which first signals that this is no ordinary episode of “Doctor Who”. Bill’s apparent death at the hands of the suits is also breathtakingly effective and even the fact it’s revealed to be a sort of deception does little to lessen the impact, thanks to the sensational and cinematic direction by Charles Palmer and another cracking story from one of the best writers currently working on “Doctor Who”, Jamie Mathieson.
In the resolution of the main story, it feels like a bit of a cheat for the Doctor to simply drop the miners off at ‘Head Office’ to pursue justice rather than seeing it through himself (a la “The Sunmakers”) but then as we learn in a devastating cliffhanger, ‘seeing’ things through is going to be a problem for the Doctor going forward. This season of “Doctor Who” shows that even after ten seasons, (and fifty-odd years), the programme still has the power to surprise and shock. Next Saturday can’t come quickly enough.