Series Ten, Episode Five — “Oxygen”
By Brandy Dykhuizen. The only problem with knocking out three stellar episodes right off the bat is that you set yourself up for impossibly high expectations.
Last week’s episode of Doctor Who wasn’t terrible, but it did have just enough holes in its logic to leave us mildly unsettled (and not in the fun, murder-house kind of way). “Oxygen”, this week’s episode with a first-rate supporting cast and a massive surprise at the end, avoided the holes by stuffing the bejeezus out of every minute with wisecracks and plenty of social commentary.
While most of that commentary worked well enough, the episode certainly erred on the side of excess. Only Peter Capaldi’s phenomenal talent saved a few scenes from becoming downright preachy.
Space, The Doctor reminds us, is the final frontier. And like any other unknown expanse, Western civilization is hellbent on conquering it. Since there’s no native population to exploit, the ship’s crew will have to do. Enter: Space Capitalism — charged for their oxygen and forced to wear smartsuits (“Relax; your life is in our hands”), the crew’s very existence is used to pad the purses of the fat cats back on Earth. (Amidst the recent British and US healthcare reforms, being fined for dying feels like business as usual.)
As the smartsuits come to life in order to “deactivate [their] human component,” The Doctor makes the startling discovery that they aren’t dealing with an AI mutiny, but that this was the pre-programmed plan all along. While the Doctor, Bill, and the crew literally fight the suits in the ship, the real battle wages against the suits in comfortable conference rooms back home.
The show’s faith in humanity seems to have taken an even more cynical bent this season, and the lack of subtlety opens up space for a glut of one-liners. This is likely the reason Nardole was written into the adventure this time, and Matt Lucas provides slap-happy, Captain Obvious-esque narration throughout their plight.
Even Nardole’s gloves come off in the end, as he gives The Doctor a talking-to about once more abandoning the vault. We still don’t know who’s in there, but it’s someone powerful enough to flip Nardole’s switch from servile to seething, and now it appears The Doctor will likely face the foe sans sight. Bill’s gained enough experience by now to square up to the worst of them; I look forward to watching her take the lead as she helps The Doctor navigate what’s next.
Doctor: “What do you want from me?” Nardole: “The truth.” Doctor: “Don’t be unreasonable.”
“Do people ever hit you?” – Bill, to The Doctor.
“Great, we rescued a racist.” – Dahh-Ren, to Bill.
“The universe is your crustacean.” – The Doctor.
BEST MOMENT: Bill’s shocked happiness when she realizes Dahh-Ren doesn’t understand why people would be prejudiced towards her. Such a smile! The racial banter between a blue man, a black woman and Nardole (“Some of my friends are bluish.”) was priceless.
EPISODE’S MVP: This requires a rewatch to catch (or at least it did for me), but Peter Capaldi’s performance when his sight is allegedly repaired is marvelously nuanced. Pretending to be able to see after Nardole “fixes” his eyes, he looks just off to the side during conversations and quietly clutches the TARDIS console to get his bearings. So many of his lines would just sound silly spoken by anyone else. Sometimes he is just absolutely on fire.
– Dying in space sounds absolutely wretched, but The Doctor takes a gleeful pleasure in describing it.
– There were multiple allusions to Nardole’s employment by The Doctor (the subject of pay docks and getting sacked were broached). Any time The Doctor engages in actual, real-world systems I feel like a spell is broken.
– We’ve seen people die in every episode so far this season.
– I loved Bill’s panicked appeal to The Doctor to tell her a joke before she dies. It caught me off guard, but was a great human touch. Pearl Mackie does terror well.
– Why do I feel like Bill’s cry for her mom as she was dying is going to come up again?
– Why was Bill able to come back to life and not the others? They are really cherry-picking the regenerations this year.
– And speaking of regeneration, can’t The Doctor just grow new eyeballs?
7 out of 10
Next: “Extremis”, in one week.
Before: “Knock Knock”, here.