Saturday, 13 May 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who takes on space zombies and future capitalism, nails both

S10E05 - "Oxygen"

Contains spoilers.

I'm going to dive straight into this one: Jamie Mathieson is Doctor Who's strongest guest writer of the Peter Capaldi era. Premiering with the superb "Mummy on the Orient Express," Mathieson demonstrated an uncanny understanding of how Doctor Who works and how to exploit that within a script. He then served up the frighteningly good "Flatline" followed by the sensational "The Girl Who Died," and now he gives us "Oxygen" - which is ironic in a way, as I'm fairly certain I didn't breathe for most of this episode.

"Oxygen" is without question the best episode of Series 10 so far for a plethora of reasons, which we'll come to shortly. The episode's premise is standard Doctor Who: the Doctor, Bill and Nardole respond to a distress call from a mining facility deep in space. When they arrive they discover that a crew of forty has been reduced down to just four, but the dearly departed haven't been laid to rest - instead, they're still strolling around the station.

What seems like a gimmicky "zombies in space" premise soon unfolds into something strikingly innovative, a story unlike any Doctor Who has told in years. Capitalism as a theme isn't something Doctor Who normally associates with, but it's one that really works within the context of "Oxygen" - what better way to land a futuristic political theme than by tying it into something we all need but rarely consider. The mere concept of oxygen becoming a monetisable entity is tough to buy into, but Mathieson's script is clever in the way it tackles such an idea.

Quite simply, he never gives us time to properly think it through. "Oxygen" leaps from one tense set piece to the next with incredible efficiency - one moment the dead are approaching from all angles, and it doesn't take long until Bill's suit locks her into the ground with her helmet removed while the station depressurises to prepare for a vacuum. Every set piece works, too. There's not a single false alarm or fake out, and the episode paces itself masterfully so that each action or horror sequence is stronger than the last.

But even with the episode's structure somewhat masking the thematic work, "Oxygen" never feels thin or half baked. While the concept is tricky to accept, the episode handles it admirably. You could make a case for Mathieson's script spelling its themes out loud when the Doctor audibly remarks "Capitalism in space" but the moment just about escapes awkwardness through Capaldi's conviction to his character. "Oxygen" may not dive head first into capitalism as a theme, but it allows it to surface enough for the idea to resonate and applies just the right amount of focus on it during the conclusion to prevent it from feeling tacked on. In other words it's a light thematic touch, but a respectable one.

"Oxygen" is on remarkable form for its first two acts, but it's the final third in which the episode finally comes into its own. The Doctor saves Bill from death by removing his own helmet and attaching it to her suit, the ensuing vacuum rendering him blind. Mathieson refuses to bind his episode by convention, consistently finding new angles to take the story - we've never had a Doctor without his vision before, and it throws the entire final act into a terrifying state of unpredictability.

The episode's strongest moment comes after even this, though, as the Doctor begins to understand the real story unfolding before him and is forced to leave Bill under the assumption that death is coming for her too. The Doctor's pleas with her spark some kind of faith within Bill - she trusts him, we know that. Earlier in the episode, Bill asks the Doctor why he always tells jokes in serious moments, and the two mutually agree that it serves as a distraction from potentially nasty results. When the Doctor leaves Bill with an army of the dead approaching, she asks him to tell her a joke, but he simply walks away.

It's a deeply moving moment, and it's terrifically performed by Pearl Mackie. The cutaways to the images of Bill's mum feel a bit forced, but the episode earns the right to do so from the strength of Mackie's performance here. There's genuine fear in Bill's eyes when her suit locks down, followed by devastation when the Doctor tells her what will happen, resulting in heartbreak when he walks away from her. Mackie has often struggled with the heavier moments this season, but she nails this one beautifully.

After a conclusion that makes sense and doesn't feel rushed - a first for this season - "Oxygen" seems to tie itself up too nicely, but then Mathieson throws us his final curve ball: the Doctor is still blind. The trick in the TARDIS didn't work. Not only is it brutally effective in the moment, but it throws the remainder of the season into uncertainty - I have legitimately no idea how long this will last. Doctor Who has been on terrific form for the past two seasons, but I can't remember the last time the show felt as unpredictable as it does now. This is shaping up to be yet another superb run for the show - its third great season in a row, perhaps, which would be a record - and with a three part story kicking off next week, the stakes truly feel higher than ever.

  • Anyone worried by Nardole's presence this season should have been silenced by tonight. Matt Lucas is effortlessly brilliant in the role, his one liners land naturally and with precision all while he serves as an efficient character within the story itself.
  • Capaldi was also finally given some meatier stuff to play with tonight, chewing it all up wonderfully as is expected. He is so fitting with this role, the show seems to improve its understand of his Doctor which each passing season and Capaldi simply adapts and grows. It's a real pleasure to watch.
  • The supporting cast were all great tonight, too. Doctor Who is often plagued by weak supporting performances, but this season hasn't fallen victim to that once so far.
  • The Doctor sent Nardole to Birmingham for a packet of crisps, but Nardole saw through that cunning ruse. The chemistry between these two is delightful.
  • Missy's back next week. Yay!

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