Doctor Who – Series 10 Episode 5: Oxygen – Reviewed

"Check out my Sandra Bullock impression."
The previous two episodes of Doctor Who series 10, Thin Ice and Knock Knock, both felt quite a bit like flashbacks to past eras of the show; Tom Baker and Matt Smith-style adventures that seemed to dial back the darkness of the previous two seasons and of Peter Capaldi's characterization. Both were quite good in their own right (Thin Ice more than Knock Knock) and saw the dynamic between The Doctor and Bill develop into something really fun and interesting, but I had hoped that they weren't a sign that the show wanted to altogether reverse the darker style that the 12th Doctor era had developed over the past two seasons. With Oxygen the show has proven that it has no such intentions. This is once again a much more grim, much harder-edged episode, with a biting social commentary just beneath its sci-fi/horror style. It is a very Capaldi-era story, which shows that while this season is having plenty of fun playing around with tone and style (to generally strong effect), it hasn't lost sight of this era's overarching identity. This is easily the best episode of series 10 so far.

Beginning with an almost existentially dark monologue about the black void of space and its desire to kill those who inhabit it, Oxygen plunges The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole into a Dead Space-esque nightmare environment on a dark, uninviting space station filled with walking corpses re-animated by technology. Thus begins a story that is half a horror tale of deep-space survival, and half a cynically satirical look at capitalism and corporate greed taken to its logical conclusion: oxygen as a commodity that is treated as a privilege for those who can afford it, rather than a right. This is dystopian science fiction for the Donald Trump era of corporate sleaziness creeping into politics, and for an era when it is considered up for debate whether poor people deserve access to clean, safe drinking water. It is the sort of story which holds a mirror up to the human right issues we face today by showing a future where those things have been taken to an extreme. Doctor Who really takes the gloves off with the concepts at work in this one. Of course, since this is Doctor Who and not Black Mirror, it isn't totally cynical: The Doctor's belief that people can fight through the problems and find a better way, and that revolution can always succeed against oppressive systems, certainly shows through. But this is a tougher fight than most.

"Ok, who put on The Blue Man Group? It's not funny."

As such, it is totally a fight for Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor. While we have seen a kinder, gentler side of him over the last couple episodes, Oxygen shows that his fierceness and sometimes-frightening take-no-prisoners attitude is still very much intact. This is the first time that Bill really sees this side of him, and it very clearly scares her, as it probably should. Things have gotten scary and dangerous on her travels with The Doctor so far, but this is the first time things have gotten really existentially grim, and Pearl Mackie does an excellent job of showing how uncomfortable and genuinely afraid this makes her. In fact, putting this episode after the last two probably just further accentuates this feeling.

"Make space great again..."
Oxygen is certainly the best-written episode of this season so far, which should come as no surprise, since it was written by Jamie Mathieson, who previously penned Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, and The Girl Who Died - all among Peter Capaldi's more memorable episodes. Mathieson is clearly a very good writer, and one who I hope sticks around to help bridge the gap between departing showrunner Steven Moffat and his replacement Chris Chibnall. It also shows that, while series 10 is clearly much more stylistically-varied than series 9, it isn't afraid to go to some pretty dark places, and it has some unexpected tricks up its sleeve. I can't wait to see what comes next.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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