In space, no one can breathe.
Okay, not a great tagline. Pretty self-evident. But, it does effectively communicate the central menace of the latest Doctor Who episode.
So, is it a good story? Well…
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
…it’s not bad. But it’s probably the weakest episode of this season so far. It spends far too much time making political statements and not nearly enough time telling an actual story. That being said, the end cliffhanger is amazing, and provides a great set-up for the epic three-parter that starts this Saturday.
Despite the fact that roughly fifty percent of Doctor Who is about traveling around in space, we don’t actually see many stories that are…well, in space. Mostly it’s spaceships, space stations, and alien planets. Space is the background, not the center of the story. The nitty-gritty consequences and inconveniences of space travel are usually just hand-waved away. So it’s nice to see a Doctor Who episode built entirely around these elements—airlocks, oxygen tanks, space suits, and so on. “Oxygen” largely does a great job unpacking the theme of space itself as the enemy.
Sadly, space does not prove to be the episode’s true villain. More on that later.
I’ll refrain from gushing about Capaldi and Mackie’s performances, as that’s starting to become a habit. Instead, let’s give the applause to Matt Lucas this week. Nardole’s role in the season has become more clearly defined with each episode, and he really comes into his own with “Oxygen.” In the pilot, he felt superfluous; in this episode, he actually had an important part to play and a lot of great lines to deliver. I’m getting more and more interested in finding out where he came from and how he became the Doctor’s bodyguard/babysitter.
Also worth mentioning are the scary visuals and the rather brilliant concept behind the “space zombies.” They turned out to be something quite different from what I’d expected after watching the trailer. They behave like stereotypical zombies—but there’s actually a very good reason for that. And they’re downright freaky. Or at least they start out that way…
…until the episode’s political bias robs them of their teeth. Science fiction, and British science fiction in particular, has always had a thing about free market capitalism. “Oxygen” goes after it with both barrels. Capitalism, in the form of charging for each breath of air, is what drives the conflict of this story. As such, the ending becomes very predictable. I had figured out what was going on and how the Doctor was going to deal with it about halfway through the episode. I’m not bragging; it wasn’t difficult to guess. I’m sure Jamie Mathieson thought it would be a brilliant twist to unveil the free market as the enemy, but for me it made the whole story—including the clever and scary parts of it—fall flat. Maybe that's just because I’m American, who knows. But “Oxygen” felt like it was written by a typical young adult novelist who takes some hot-button issue, blows it out of proportion to create an unlikely dystopia, and then sits back to wait for the applause. It’s lazy storytelling. After his stellar earlier contributions to Doctor Who, I expected better from Mathieson.
The Final Word
The ending of “Oxygen” did, to some degree, make up for its disappointing elements. It had consequences—one really big one in particular. The Doctor is at a considerable disadvantage. The Vault is opening. Missy is returning. John Simm lurks somewhere in the background. The Tenth Doctor and Rose are returning in audio dramas in November…
Breathe, Kyle. Breathe.