“Oxygen” Review

This has to be the best directed episode of Doctor Who that I have seen.

How do I love this episode? Let me count the ways. (This may be a bit of a long one…)

Marry, sir, the direction is incredible. Every single line, every reaction shot, is dramatic and surprising. It helps that the material is good (this is Jamie Mathieson, of the superlative Mummy on the Orient Express) but sequence where Bill is exposed to space is just flawless. Charles Palmer has a good track record (the wonderful Human Nature and Family of Blood) were his – and we’ve had some great direction this series already – but this is a huge step up. Incidentally, Wikipedia informs me that he is married to the lovely Claire Skinner (Life Is Sweet) who was rather wasted on The Doctor The Widow and the Wardrobe.

Moreover, and I have mentioned this already, but Jamie Mathieson really is a terrific writer. It’s not just the superb one-liners, or the superb speeches he gives the Doctor.

“That is my theme tune, otherwise known as a distress call. You only really see the true face of the universe when it’s asking for your help… we show ours by how we respond.”

It’s the fact that, like Mummy, he manages to write 45 minutes of Doctor Who that is more Doctor Who-ey than any other Doctor Who. It has the horribly scary corpse horror, and the sci-fi stuff; the Rose-like ‘it doesn’t feel like space’ moment. We get the Doctor’s sense of duty, and his wanderlust.

“What’s this got to do with crop rotation?”
“Ah, I don’t know, space is great, isn’t it?”

It harks right back to the Doctor’s exile days; echoing in the ‘vault’ setup Three’s repeated attempts to thwart the Time Lords and get off-planet when he was unable to.

It also has the Doctor at his cleverest and most insightful, and his most selfless.

“Who put you in charge?”
“I’m here to save your lives, but if you don’t want me to, just raise your hands.”

While the Doctor gives his best ever response to that question, this isn’t the over-smug Doctor either, his intelligence is sometimes revealed through his reactions to other’s (look at his expression when Ivan describes boosting a suit radio through the dish aerial). He’s flippant, yes, but he’s not so omnipotent as to make us feel the threat is nullified. He takes risks because the odds are better than doing nothing.

“What if you’re wrong?”
“Well, we’ll be horribly murdered. Let’s say I’m right.”

He jokes but he doesn’t sugar coat anything. It’s very Doctor. It’s very Twelve.

“Don’t stress early. it’s a waste of energy.”

And when it comes down to it, we see the Doctor puts his companion’s welfare above his own in a most costly and shocking way.

Secondarily, it’s political. And not just a little bit. This is not at all subtle: it is Robert Holmes grade satire. But it is barbed. At first I thought it was going to miss its mark – it seemed to be using privatised oxygen to have a poke at the free market. But this doesn’t really work on a spaceship where, although there is scarcity, the demand is both finite and predictable. Also, Ben Elton did this better in his 1990 play Gasping. But in fact, Mathieson’s target is more ambitious – he’s taking a pop at private property and worker exploitation (the crew believe the very existence of a Trade Union is a myth). I love the fact that this is broadcast during an election campaign (though I am sure it will have little effect), something that the producers could not possible have known about while making the episode.

Sixth and lastly, we have the perils of Bill. The level of jeopard shoots up when Tasker, who has been built up as the leader and given the most development of any of the supporting characters, is the first to be unceremoniously (and horrifyingly) killed. Shortly after, Bill finds herself betrayed by her malfunction suit.

“Bill, you’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space.”

The Doctor has been lecturing, from before the titles even began, on how space is trying to kill us. We know from the Doctor’s reaction how dreadful this is. Then we get the most incredible sequence – the reactions, the make-up, the special effects… the dream-like space walk. It has to have a consequence – and yet, when it’s over, Bill wakes up. But it does have a consequence, just not for Bill.

But, the danger’s not over.

“Don’t do this. You always do this.”
“Do what?”
“Make jokes to distract us from whatever’s going to kill us.”

Despite all that’s going on, we’re right back into exploring the developing Doctor/Bill relationship. She thinks she knows him; she is trying to read him.

“Bill, do you trust me?”
“Why are you saying that?”

She wants to trust him, but she is genuinely scared for her life. When her suit fails a second time, once again the panic of both Bill and the Doctor is conspicuous.

“Just tell me a joke before you go. Just tell me a joke! He didn’t tell me a joke. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

Bill doesn’t scream Melanie Bush style. She starts screaming for her mother.


Thirdly, Capaldi’s sacrifice. He gives Bill his helmet; he is exposed to space for too long. It’s not just that he takes a risk for his companion – he takes a risk and pays the price. The Doctor gives his sight, and does so willingly, to save Bill, without question or complaint. We often see the Doctor willing to make such a sacrifice, but we rarely actually see him do it (this surely is the reason above all its other strengths that The Caves of Androzani is rated so highly among 20th century Who).

I do dislike the idea of the TARDIS being able to fix anything, although it has precedence e.g. The Shadow of the Scourge (like the omnipotent Doctor, it trivialises all consequences). However, with the TARDIS unavailable and less than ten minutes oxygen, I’m willing to accept there’s threat enough here. I should have had faith though; this is setting up the superb twist ending.

I’m not a huge fan of the Doctor using his reputation as a threat – as in Demon’s Run or The Pandorica – precisely because it relies on a show of strength and the terror that engenders (like Shakespeare’s Henry V). It’s not true strength – I’m reminded of President Bartlett’s threat to “blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder” before being talked round by his counsellors. So I’m a little wary of the idea that the Doctor will now have to keep his blindness secret – although the context with the vault motivates a genuine purpose for this, so I’ll await developments with interest

After four episodes on the bench, Nardole is back in play (actually earning his credit this time) and after some slightly painful ‘banter’ early on, Lucas’ performance contributes enormously to the dramatic tension. Having spend most of his recent screen time scolding the Doctor, he slips back into his role as confidant and protector. There are so many lovely moments – when he’s preparing Bill for seeing the Doctor’s injury, or consoling the Doctor for Bill’s death. Even when he is remonstrating with the Doctor over his carelessness, it’s no longer a sulky strop; he really genuinely fears for the consequences of what the Doctor might have done. Or, as he suddenly finds out, what the Doctor has done.

To conclude, this has already been a strong run of episodes, and largely due to the writing for and performances of the lead duo. The best of these stories have given that relationship space to develop and it’s been magnificent to watch. But in this fast-moving story, under pressure and stress, Palmer and Capaldi and Mackie still make room to explore these wonderful characters further; while giving us one of the most tense, dramatic, and politically charged stories we’ve had in the show’s run.

And while killing the sonic is always welcome (screwicide?) this episode not only does it, but does it with the most spectacular sonic screwdriver destruction so far!

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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