Monday 15 May 2017

Doctor Who - Oxygen

It’s been a long time since I was last so pleased with a Doctor Who series. I was happy with much of Series 8 and 9, both of which I continue to feel were significant improvements over Series 5 through 7, but nevertheless, they had their ups and downs. There were some excellent episodes, like “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Heaven Sent”, but also some really bad ones, like “Kill the Moon” and “In the Forest of the Night”, along with more than a few mediocre ones. Series 10, however, has been the most consistently good series since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner.

It’s probably important that I clarify that last statement with so far. There’s still a little over half the series to go and it is entirely possible that the remainder could be horrible—but I don’t expect it to be. There may well be a weaker episode or two, but the strength of the episodes so far is very encouraging for those to come. I have high hopes that Series 10 will be a very strong series when looked at as a whole.

The fifth episode, “Oxygen”, perfectly demonstrates the qualities that have helped make this series so good: strong characterisation of the leads, better pacing that allows the stories to develop more organically (albeit with some slightly rushed endings), and not dwelling heavily on the show’s past. On top of that, it also throws in some very effective scares, has a nice political message, and also manages to be one of the most scientifically accurate Doctor Who episodes (Doctor Who will never be hard science fiction, but this episode edges closer than most). In true Doctor Who fashion, it even throws in some comedy along the way. It is, without a doubt, a great episode to watch, and I can easily watch it over and over.


The opening moments set the scene well. Narration is a difficult thing to use effectively, and indeed is often used very ineffectively in television and movies. It can be jarring and also fourth-wall breaking, actually taking viewers out of the scene rather than drawing them in as is its intention. But in the case of “Oxygen”, it works well. The narration is brief enough that it doesn’t overshadow what is happening in the scene, but also ominous enough to catch the viewers’ attentions. That it turns out to be part of the Doctor’s lecture at the university and not just the Doctor talking to the viewing audience is icing on the cake.

Of course, the opening words play a large part in grabbing the audience’s attention: “Space: the final frontier.” Ripped out of Star Trek, their seemingly incongruous presence in Doctor Who immediately gets people wondering what’s going on. Even the opening shots, with the planet and nearby star, are very Star Trek-like—until the drifting bodies show up, of course. Doctor Who has never had any shame at taking ideas from other sources and putting its own spin on them, and this is certainly no different.

But what makes this use of Star Trek narration work so well is the words that follow: “Final because it wants to kill us.” These words immediately show the fundamental difference between the two programmes. Whereas Star Trek tends towards a hopeful, even utopian view of the future, Doctor Who tends towards a much grimmer view, and it’s pretty clear that this episode is not an exception from that.

Oxygen” is written by Jamie Mathieson, who has had a good track record with Doctor Who so far. He wrote “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline”, two of Series 8’s best episodes, and also co-wrote the admittedly not-as-good “The Girl Who Died” (with Steven Moffat) in Series 9. Mathieson seems to have a very good understanding of how to blend together various elements into an excellent Doctor Who story. In particular, he has a very good handle on the fear factor.

And “Oxygen” is certainly not without its scares. The zombie-like bodies in space suits are not an entirely new idea. Doctor Who has used similar ideas in the past, notably in “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead”. Yet despite having their own scare factor, those space zombies had a cartoonish aspect to them as well with just a skeleton on the inside. In “Oxygen”, the script is helped by the visual appearance of the zombies. They’re not just skeletons; they’re walking corpses, and those corpses just happen to be some of the most realistic and unsettling ones seen on Doctor Who. They’re far more frightening than just a bleached-white classroom skeleton.

It’s not just the make-up that makes them frightening, though; it’s also the way they move and how they react (Charles Palmer’s direction is excellent), and the fact that there’s real peril. People die and actually stay dead. The Doctor goes blind in order to save Bill—and he’s still blind at the end (I honestly did not see that coming, either)! There’s actual consequence in this episode, and I can’t praise that enough. (I also can’t wait to see where they go with the Doctor’s blindness. Will he be cured in an episode or two, or will it continue on longer, possibly until his regeneration?)

The performances are an important part of selling the fear factor, as well. All three of the main cast are at the top of their game, and the guest cast is strong too. Once again we see why Bill is the best companion in recent years because she behaves in such a believable way. She shows real fear at the terrifying events around her, from being exposed to the vacuum of space to being left by the Doctor for the zombies to get her (and without knowing that the Doctor knows she will survive).

Series 10 continues to present a much more consistent and believable Doctor over Series 9. Mathieson really seems to “get” the twelfth Doctor, showing us both the Doctor’s crotchety side and his heroism. Peter Capaldi also continues to demonstrate why he’s such a great Doctor, moving effortlessly from melancholic (in the brief shot of the Doctor staring out his office window, he shows us the Doctor’s longing to travel with just a look), to cracking jokes, to weary and tired at the end.

At last Nardole gets to do something this episode! Nardole has felt very much like an add-on in the previous episodes, like he was included at the last-minute (which might possibly be the case), but here, he feels like a full-fledged member of the cast, and we finally start to get some development of him as a character beyond just the comic relief. His anger at the Doctor’s behaviour is very pronounced and believable. He is a beleaguered soul who, in order to follow the Doctor’s instructions, has to actually oppose the Doctor—a task not easily accomplished, and yet he pushes on despite the difficulty.

I love the bit with Nardole and the fluid link—a great call-back to the 1963 story, “The Daleks”, but without requiring the audience to be familiar with that much earlier story. It effectively makes its point about how unreliable the Doctor can be, whilst being hilarious at the same time.

The guest characters in “Oxygen” are not as strong, though not bad. They are presented in broad strokes, giving them a couple identifiable characteristics, but they don’t really show much beyond those. I found Ivan somewhat forgettable, even though he featured more than the others (I even had to look up his name for this review because I couldn’t remember it). That said, I’ve seen far worse character development on Doctor Who, and on the whole, my issues here are pretty small. The actors’ performances are also very good.

One of the things I like most about “Oxygen” is its realistic presentation of outer space. As I mentioned earlier, this is about the closest Doctor Who ever gets to hard science fiction. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the science fantasy space opera the show usually provides, but here the realism adds to the fear factor. Surviving in space is not easy, and this episode uses that fact to great effect.

In particular, the episode gives a very realistic presentation of the effects of vacuum on human bodies. There’s a myth perpetuated by a lot of science fiction that bodies will literally explode in vacuum and so it’s nice not to see that here. Indeed, the actual way someone dies in vacuum is quite a bit worse than just exploding, and the Doctor’s loss of vision drives home the realities of such exposure. (I suppose it does create a continuity issue with the Doctor space-walking without a suit and suffering no consequences in the fifth Doctor story “Four to Doomsday”, but Doctor Who’s rife with continuity errors anyway and that story was a long time ago, and this story is a lot better than that one too, but I digress...)

There are a few scientific errors here and there. We still hear sound effects in space, such as the magnetic boots attaching to the outside of the station. Yet even though we, the audience, hear the sound of Ivan and Ellie moving along the surface of the station in the opening moments, Ivan remains completely oblivious of the zombies attacking Ellie, so maybe the sound effects are just for the audience and the implication is the more accurate fact that there is no sound in space. It’s a bit unclear.

The later sequence on the outside of the station is wonderfully shot. Only getting to see bits and pieces of it as Bill gains and loses consciousness masterfully increases the tension of the moment. Doctor Who doesn’t do this style of presentation very often, making it a little extra special when it does (and does it well).

Oxygen” also touches on the topic of racism again, but gives it a little spin by making Bill the instigator of the racism (albeit unwittingly) against Dahh-Ren. The fact that Dahh-Ren doesn’t understand why Bill my be the victim of prejudice implies a future where humans have moved past their own racism—but alas, have replaced it with racism against other species. The topic is played more for comedy than it was in “Thin Ice”, but either way, I’m glad to see Doctor Who tackling these more sensitive topics. That said, Nardole’s line, “Some of my best friends are bluish,” feels unnecessary.

Of course, the part of “Oxygen” that is likely to cause the most talk/debate/argument is its rather overt message against unchecked capitalism. Some people may lament the lack of subtlety to the message, but that misses the point. Satire isn’t supposed to be subtle, and this is very much satire. The is a world where the lure of money and the power of corporations has resulted in people being charged for the very oxygen they breathe. It may seem absurd because it’s meant to be absurd. Yet it’s also a logical extension of the abuse of corporate power taken to its most extreme (not to mention that there are a number of things that are happening and have happened in the world that at one time might have seemed absurd).

But for those looking for subtlety, “Oxygen” has that too. The use of exploited workers on a remote space station echoes the very real practice that many actual companies have of locating warehouses in parts of the world with more lax human rights laws, and the general populace back in the home countries just turning a blind eye.

I like the fact that we never really meet the villains of “Oxygen”, just see the villains’ effects (and the wonderful pun from the Doctor, “Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits”). The unnamed company that runs the station is the villain, in effect making the villain capitalism itself. It also allows for the Doctor's extremely clever solution. (Though I do wonder just what Abby and Ivan are expecting in response to their complaint to head office. After all, head office was willing to kill them. Are they likely to sit back and accept complaints?)

There are some similarities between this company and the one in the fourth Doctor story “The Sunmakers”, and I’ve seen it suggested that “Oxygen” could be a kind of prequel to that one. It’s an idea that I rather like. Both stories definitely having similar political messages.

And for people who say that Doctor Who shouldn’t be political, all I can say is, Doctor Who has always been political—less so in the Steven Moffat years, to be fair, but it’s still been there to some extent. All fiction is political to some extent, and always has been. Even the act of being non-political is itself a political act. Besides, Doctor Who is often at its best when it’s at its most political.

And there’s no doubt that “Oxygen” is very much Doctor Who at its best. It’s got everything a great Doctor Who story needs: genuine scares, good characters, great lines, wonderful performances, some nice comedy touches, and a dose of political commentary. Series 10 continues to be the best Doctor Who series in quite some time. I can’t wait to see more.

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