“We’re fighting an algorithm. A spreadsheet. Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!”
With returning writer Jamie Mathieson, rarely has Doctor Who been as hilarious, spine chilling, and – a little surprisingly – this unabashedly left wing. After the previously awesome episodes ‘The Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’ (a nu-Who highpoint) Mathieson is back with another excellent story. Through ‘Oxygen’ Mathieson gives us a clever take down on capitalist economics, a twisted look on the Doctor’s troublesome attitude towards death, and some genuinely frightening near-death experiences for certain characters. For a so-called ‘kid’s show’ it’s some heavy stuff.
First things first, the episode doesn’t achieve quite everything that I think Mathieson set out to accomplish. Bill’s ‘death’ for example is resolved so quickly I at first missed what the hell happened but as a whole it’s hard to really complain. It’s rare that a Who episode is this accomplished. From the set design (the Fallout style, faux cheerful instructional posters are a neat touch) to the series best direction, everything serves the episode’s space horror aesthetic. What could have been your standard Doctor Who corridor running episode was instead incredibly creative and unbelievably tense. Some people of course will argue it’s impossible to create tension in show where the main characters are wearing some of TV’s thickest plot armour but as Moffat and co. have shown repeatedly; they can still surprise you. I doubt anyone was expecting the Doctor’s prolonged blindness. And ask anyone to watch the scene with the characters in the air lock and see if they don’t hold their breath. Between Bill’s helmet not working and the Doctor bluntly explaining to her she’s going to be exposed to the vacuum of space (and their’s nothing he can do) I was literally on the edge of my seat (well, leaning forward at least). The following moments were as some of the most stomach clenching stuff Doctor Who has ever done, due in part to the episode’s fantastic direction by regular Doctor Who helmer, Charlie Palmer. Bill’s POV shots mixed with the screen draining of colour and repeatedly blacking out (mimicking Bill’s consciousness) was some of the most interesting direction I’ve seen from the show. Stuff like that elevates the show from the reliable Saturday night family entertainment to must watch TV.
The performances this episode were on point once again, especially Pearl Mackie as Bill. Her tearful last moment before her ‘death’ was one of the most convincing (and realistic) pieces of acting a companion has ever done. And maybe it’s just me but I don’t think I’ve ever been as invested in a companion as I am for Bill. I wouldn’t be fazed by an obvious fake-out death for Clara or Amy but with Bill I care. Through a combination of the improved writing and excellent acting, for the first time in a long while I’m actually wanting to watch the show for the companion. And don’t even get me started on how much I love Nardole, Matt Lucas’ fantastically deadpan alien hanger-on. His and the Doctor’s old married couple back-and-forth is hilarious and, despite the blunt talk to Bill, his façade of indifference is betrayed this episode by the little lip quiver at the thought of Bill’s imminent death via space exposure. The fact that Nardole of all characters is now the Doctor’s closest ally is a little strange but it’s a role Lucas inhabits perfectly. Capaldi is outstanding once again also, playing The Doctor as both wide-eyed lunatic and scarily calculating. For a scene demonstrating how good an actor Capaldi is just look a the close of the episode when The Doctor’s blindness is ‘fixed’. We soon realise that it hasn’t been and The Doctor is as still blind as a bat. Now re-watch that scene where the Doctor’s eyes are fixed. Capaldi doesn’t make it obvious he’s not OK (so as not to give away the twist), but notice he doesn’t really focus on anyone for the rest of the scene or his subtle grasping onto the TARDIS central console. Other actors would have oversold it but Capaldi handles it perfectly.
It’s almost frustrating to see the show being this good as it’s unfortunately going to be Capldi’s last. His first two seasons had high points of their own (‘Heaven Sent’ is best the Nu-Who has ever been) but it was slightly marred by Clara’s presence. Jenna Coleman was frequently wonderful (in ‘Flatline’ for example) but having spent so long in in the show already she brought a lot of baggage with her. Not to mention her storyline with the leaf and Trenzalore and Richard E Grant was needlessly complicated. You can’t but think that if Capaldi had a clean slate and new companion from the beginning we would have been on this seasons level of quality from the very beginning.
Regardless; we’re at a high point in Who right now and ‘Oxygen’ was another awesome episode. The cast were magnificent once again and I’m loved that Nardole’s screen time was upped. The direction was especially fun this week and director, Charlie Palmer, seemed to be having a lot of fun with different techniques. Jamie Mathieson’s background in stand up comedy obviously helped give the episode a few moments of levity but for the most part it was a dark and relevant morality tale about the dangers of capitalism. The show even managed to surprise me with the ending twist, something I thought impossible in the age of spoilers. It will be interesting to see where the continuing blindness plot line takes us next week for the Moffat scripted episode (yay?) ‘Extremis’. Missy’s back, there are some zombie monk dudes, and the Pope pops up (weirdly played by previous Doctor Who actor Joseph Long). And the icing on the cake is that it’s directed by The Hunter (2011) helmer Daniel Nettheim. It should be a good one.