[The Following Review Contains SPOILERS!]
Many of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time have functioned as both parables for social issues and straight science-fiction. Oxygen now joins the peerage of that pantheon. This is not merely the best episode of Series Ten. This is a strong contender for the best episode yet for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
Our story opens with The Doctor giving a lecture on the nature of space. Inspired to travel, The Doctor takes his current companion and pupil, Bill, on a quick rescue mission into deep space to answer a distress call… despite the objections of The Doctor’s TA, Nardole.
The trio arrive on a remote space station completely devoid of oxygen. A quick examination of the station’s computers reveals that this is by design rather than the result of a disaster, the company apparently charging their workers for the continued privilege of breathing. Forced into space-suits once the ship computer notices The TARDIS and the free oxygen bubble it is creating, our heroes must face another horror besides their rapidly dwindling supply of breathable air – death has not stopped the dead space station workers from working!
On the surface, Oxygen seems to be based around a ridiculous premise. If it’s so unprofitable to employ living, breathing people in deep space, then surely robots – like the suits – could be used in their place? And surely some corporate lawyer would have pointed out the expenses incurred by the lawsuits filed by the families of those workers who were killed by the company because it was more efficient for them to be dead than alive? (Insert “wrongful termination” joke here.)
Then again, in a world where government budget directors defend not covering diabetics under a national health-care plan or cutting funding for programs to feed senior citizens and poor students due to the cost issues, this sort of low-grade evil seems almost mundane. As it is, the script by Jamie Mathieson does put a unique twist on the “zombies in space” and “base under siege” tropes that are almost a cliche in Doctor Who stories. There’s also a technology theme at play, with more subtle commentary on our dependence on technology in modern life when Bill finds herself stuck in a malfunctioning space-suit.
This brings us to the most startling and effective moment of the episode – the sequences in which Bill experiences vacuum exposure. The direction by Charles Palmer is astonishing, alternating between close-ups as Bill’s skin begins to ice-over and point-of-view shots as Bill’s perceptions are altered by the lack of oxygen reaching her brain. Pearl Mackie’s fearful performance here proves equally phenomenal.
There is far more at play in this episode than this critic can discuss openly. Suffice it to say that if you have a friend who has yet to experience the wonders of Doctor Who, this episode, like Blink, may be a fine one to start them off with.