Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

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Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!

This episode, much like Thin Ice before it, feels very keenly relevant to 2017. Admittedly that’s perhaps more of a reflection of myself and my own perspective; the themes inherent to this episode are largely universal. But by the same token, an overtly political Doctor Who episode feels at home in 2017 – indeed, required in 2017 – in a way it wouldn’t necessarily have in the years prior. And, certainly, it’s something I’m more able to appreciate now than I would have previously.

Admittedly, there’s a part of me that almost has trouble calling Oxygen “overtly political”. Surely, it’s not, is it? It’s a well written and engaging thriller that also just so happens to make the point that capitalism is bad. There’s some nice incisive lines and so on, but it’s not exactly arguing a point. Right?

Except, actually, that’s why in the end I do feel right calling Oxygen “overtly political”. It’s not moralistic, it’s not a screed – it’s not even really an angry polemic, though it certainly had the potential to veer into one. It is, however, a story with a very specific ideological bent, one that informs every aspect of the episode that grows out from it.  The monsters are a metaphor for the dehumanisation of workers, and the lack of autonomy afforded to them by a capitalist system. The faceless, bureaucratic enemies are motivated by their bottom line. The dialogue has that fantastic, angry awareness of everything that’s fundamentally wrong with the system.

Oxygen feels like a masterclass in how to handle a Doctor Who story like this; it’s built out of an awareness. It’s not a very special episode, but one that reflects its themes across every aspect of the text. Of course, I say all of that; I could be wrong. It might just be that Oxygen demonstrates one very good way of going about this, rather than the best or only way to do it successfully. I’d probably quite enjoy an angry polemic – particularly if it’s one that advances that same (correct) general position as my own.

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There’s a worthwhile comparison to make with 42, Chris Chibnall’s episode from the 2007 series of Doctor Who. It’s on my mind a little bit, given that it was the most recent episode that I looked at as part of my Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor series. Broadly speaking, you can see a lot of similarities between Oxygen and 42 – they’re both high-octane thrillers, set in space, with something of a political bent. (In that the ‘villain’ of 42 is eventually revealed to be the victim of a capitalist mining process, though I don’t think anyone would be inclined to argue this is a particularly successful aspect of 42 in comparison to Oxygen.)

One of the big failings of that episode, highlighted in my review, was the relative anonymity of its supporting cast. Few of them made any particular impact, relegated largely to a series of stock characters to be picked off one by one, and occasionally filling in the plot mechanics to keep the story moving. Oxygen, for obvious reasons, faced similar issues – and, arguably, falls into the same pitfalls to an extent. (An issue with Oxygen was the fact that the two men playing Tasker and Ivan did look a little alike, meaning it was easy to confuse the two of them – losing some of the impact when one of them died and the other had an emotional moment towards the end.)

However, Oxygen does manage its supporting cast of characters far more adeptly than 42 ever did. Part of that is in having a smaller and more manageable cast – but another part of that is the fact that each of them got a moment of focus and some time to shine. Dahh-Ren had a great comedy moment, Abby fills the role of critical antagonist well, and Ivan’s emotional moment is actually very well constructed. His final meeting with Ellie is a great payoff to the pre-titles sequence, and gives the episode a really nice grace note at the end.

More than that, though, this is a very good episode in terms of characterisation in general. Bill is excellent, as is the Doctor; there are some absolutely fantastic interactions between the two of them. That the Doctor’s rendered blind trying to save Bill is really effective, and the way it impacts their dynamic across the episode is great to see. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes across the rest of the series, for however long that might last. I’d like to particularly highlight Nardole, though. I was hesitant about his inclusion when it was first announced, but it’s fast becoming clear that there wasn’t a particular need to – there’s a real steel to Matt Lucas’ performance, and the inclusion of Nardole genuinely does enhance the episode. I can’t wait to see where the character goes from here.

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It’s not just on this political angle where the episode succeeds, though. It’s a taut and well put together thriller that’s genuinely very tense in certain places.

Part of the reason for this success is the opening sequence with the Doctor’s lecture – it’s an expert piece of exposition, and right out of the gate it establishes exactly what the episode is setting out to do. “Make space scary again.” It’s an opening that pays dividends across the rest of the episode, because we’ve got a very immediate frame of reference as to what’s going to happen to Bill – helped, of course, by Charles Palmer’s long and lingering direction, that really lets the danger sink in. The risk posed to each of our characters is always at the forefront of the episode; the audience is never allowed to forget about that. There’s no moment space seems like anything less than a threat – the final frontier is trying to kill you. It’s a villain in and of itself; the very setting of the episode, out to get them.

In a sense, there’s a contrast that forms against Knock Knock the week before; even though that was the episode self-consciously styled as scary, Oxygen is far more successful at actually being scary. A lot of that is down to the fact that Jamie Mathieson is a very talented writer, with a great eye for what makes a successful monster. The suits have a fantastic visual design, and tie into the rest of the episode particularly effectively. We’ve not really had any outright zombies on Doctor Who before – they’re usually couched within some other twist to the premise – but Oxygen takes us quite close to that, and does so brilliantly.

Ultimately, then, Oxygen is a really strong episode. It’s another great instalment from Jamie Mathieson – and, while he’s clearly positioning himself as a possible replacement for Chris Chibnall one day, it’s an episode that really excites me to see where he might take the show in the future.

9/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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