Doctor Who tells a terrifying space tale this week, as Twelve, Bill and Nardole visit a mining station where oxygen is sold by the breath.
Those of us who love Doctor Who, obviously love science-fiction as a genre. So it seems like a pretty safe guess that we probably also love space stories too. To put it another way, there’s a reason this episode kicks off with a Star Trek shoutout. Sci-fi fans love the idea of space – the vastness of it, the promise it contains. But we oftentimes forget one key fact. Space is terrifying. For the most part, it’s empty and dark and cold. And it can kill you in a dozen different ways at once. A fact which “Oxygen” is here to remind us all of. Repeatedly.
This episode offers a different kind of scary story than last week’s “Knock Knock” did. For starters, “Oxygen” features an exclusively human monster at the heart of its narrative, and one that’s driven by much darker things than grief. But, as an episode, it’s just as tense and frightening – probably more so, honestly. And unlike its predecessor, “Oxygen” promises long-lasting consequences for everyone involved, in ways this show has never attempted before.
"The Doctor: Space. The final frontier. Final because it wants to kill us. Sometimes we forget that; start taking it all for granted. The suits, the ships, the little bubbles of safety, as they protect us from the void. But the void is always waiting."
Space is Terrifying
The premise of this episode is simple. Bill wants to see space. Remember – she, like all of us watching, is a sci-fi fan. As such, she possesses a few preconceptions about what it’s like. But instead of a fun outing to the see the stars, she ends up in a nightmare with zombies. The Doctor, Bill and Nardole answer a distress call on a mining station, where many of the crew are dead, but still stalking about. (Thanks to the mechanized super spacesuits carrying their bodies around.) And they must escape before their air runs out.
On the whole, “Oxygen” is a dark, claustrophobic terror, where both humanity and technology turn against you and the very act of breathing is fraught. Oxygen is treated as a finite resource, sold to the workers through their spacesuits in “credits” that can easily run out. Counting your breaths – or staying calm so that you take fewer of them – can mean the difference between life and death. The dark corridors, shuffling dead miners, and constantly failing technology all add a constant layer of tension throughout. There are several solid scares at various points, and the danger coms from all directions. From the dead miners, from the threat of space, and even from humanity itself, which has programmed the station to expel excess oxygen, rather than let its workers breathe for free for a single moment.
As far as first journeys into space go, this is a pretty rough one for Bill. And though this episode also marks Nardole’s first official outing as part of Team TARDIS, it’s not a particularly great one for him. His presence is not by his own choice, and he doesn’t get much to do in his own right. Besides serve as general comic relief, making fairly irritating jokes about an old girlfriend. But at least he made it out of the Doctor’s office this week. Nowhere to go but up.
"The Doctor: The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. We show ours by how we respond."
The Doctor, In Trouble
Bill’s constantly malfunctioning becomes an issue at several points in this episode, freezing up at various points and removing her helmet just before she and the rest of the crew are about to be discharged into space. Bill skirts death several times this week, including at this moment. Nardole reminds her the rules for surviving in the vacuum of space (don’t hold your breath, lest your lungs explode). But it’s the Doctor who saves the day. At what turns out to be great personal cost. Because Twelve, in order to save Bill, gave up his own helmet during their journey outside the station. And it turns out that even his Time Lord physiology can’t quite handle the pressure of a vacuum. The Doctor survives his jaunt through open space. But he is blind afterward.
Of course, a blind Twelve is terrifying, for many reasons. Not for the least of which reason that suddenly being able to not see is, in and of itself, a really scary thing. But for a character like Twelve, it’s horrific. He loves to solve problems, to show off, to save the day. But he lives to wonder at things. To be awed by the scope of the universe, all its inhabitants and the worlds they have created. And now, after 2,000 years of traveling around and looking at things, he can’t see them anymore. To say that’s a crushing blow is probably the understatement of forever.
As for us – well, we’ve never seen a Doctor incapacitated in this way. Doctor Who has never actually injured the Doctor in such a serious way before. Any other time we’ve seen a Time Lord sustain a particularly bad injury, regeneration of some sort has never been that far behind. (Remember when a Dalek shot Ten in Season 4? If he hadn’t had a spare hand to siphon off all that regeneration energy into, we’d have met Eleven a lot sooner.) But we’ve never watched a Doctor struggle with a real disability for any significant length of time. What will happen to him? We none of us know, really. And that’s almost as scary as the space zombies.
The Doctor, of course, does his best to downplay the situation. He blathers along at his typical mile-a-minute verbal pace. There are dazzling tricks to try and save the day. And he makes brave speeches about a good death, and calculated ones about the economic value of human life. But by the end of the episode, it’s obvious that, despite his bravado, despite the fact that he did save the day, he’s struggling. And, perhaps more importantly, he’s afraid.
"Bill: Don’t do this. You always do this. The Doctor: Do what?Bill: Make jokes to distract me from whatever’s about to kill us. The Doctor: What else are jokes for?"
As an Ending, It’s a Bit Simplistic. But as a Beginning…
“Oxygen’s” resolution is, like several other episodes this season, a bit overly pat. The Doctor realizes that the mining station’s corporate overlords will murder their own employees because the oxygen to keep them alive is too expensive. And of course, he saves the day by threatening an explosion that will ruin the station and cost even more. This is, on its face, pretty ridiculous. Wouldn’t the corporate masters lose more money once it came out that they killed their own workers? Perhaps that’s actually the case, given that we found out in a quick note that “corporate dominance in space is history” a mere six months later. But the ending mostly feels like a set-up so that the Doctor can shout off a few pointed lines about the dangers of capitalism. Yeah, it’s definitely one of those endings you shouldn’t look at too closely, probably.
Particularly when it comes to Bill. Because, of course, Doctor Who can’t kill off its brand new companion in Episode 5. So, Bill finds herself ham-fistedly resurrected, via the same malfunctioning suit that almost did kill her before.
According to the Doctor, Bill’s spacesuit was so broken that it couldn’t even manage to kill her correctly. We all knew she’d come back somehow. But by being so lazy about it, the episode really undercuts the fairly fantastic death scene Pearl Mackie got to play earlier on. Watching Bill cry and call out for her mother was gut-wrenching, even if we knew it wasn’t for keeps. It would feel less like a cheat if the Doctor’s method of saving her wasn’t quite so … anticlimactic. So let’s hope the fact that the Doctor literally put Bill through hell (twice!) to save her life is not a dropped plot thread going forward. (His still missing vision certainly won’t be.)
But despite its less-than-completely satisfying ending, “Oxygen” is a pretty great ride. As an episode its tense, emotional, unsettling and frightening. It changed the stakes for everyone going forward. Possibly for the entirety of this season of Doctor Who at the moment, if we’re honest. And even if certain ending beats could have been more cleanly handled, you can’t ask for a lot more of 40 minutes of television than that.