The second block of Series 10 begins with this fifth episode, and what a strong beginning it is. “Oxygen” opens with a Twelfth Doctor voiceover that reminded me of “Heaven Sent”, and also of the fact that Capaldi’s voice is such a joy to listen to. He warns us of how dangerous space really is, and surely enough the first scene is two spacewalkers Ellie and Ivan trying to get back into their ship. Before they can do that, Ellie gets attacked by space zombies (aka other crew members dead in their suits) and is turned into a zombie herself.
Normally, when supporting characters die in the pre-title sequence it doesn’t affect me at all, as cruel as that sounds, because we know them for 3 whole seconds before they get killed off for the sake of the plot. But this time around Ellie pulled the “I want to have a baby card” before going, and even though Ivan didn’t hear her and he only gets to mourn her in one scene later on, this still showed that “Oxygen” would be a better than average story.
Back in 21st century Bristol, the Doctor is giving a lecture on space, because he misses it and who cares about the curriculum. Nardole nags him about his oath to stay on Earth and guard the Vault and even messes with the TARDIS so it won’t be able to take off in case the Doctor wants to take Bill somewhere again. His plan doesn’t work as the Doctor lied to him about how the TARDIS works, and so Nardole is onboard when the TARDIS takes off to answer a distress call. He might be an unwilling one, but Nardole finally acts like a companion and so we see the new Team TARDIS in action for the first time.
They land on the spaceship from earlier and it’s the good old sci-fi setting: semi-abandoned ship and strange details. The team finds out that 36 people died out of 40, that they have AI suits that function even after the person wearing them died, and that oxygen is a product that they have to buy. Because the TARDIS created an unauthorized oxygen bubble, the ship seals it in a vacuum (you can’t have a space ship adventure with an easily accessible TARDIS, after all) and so the team is forced to wear the suits in order to breathe. The suits were what killed those 36 people, but theirs didn’t get to command so they are safe, for now.
Bill and Nardole want to get off the ship and get home, but the Doctor wants to help those four surviving crew members. It was a tiny bit out of character that Bill wanted to run away when their reason for coming was to help, but I guess she’s brave, but not that brave. She’s allowed to be scared and I accept it as the exploration of another side of her.
The space zombies eventually find them and they get rescued by the remaining crew members, who are hiding in a secluded area of the ship. One of the survivors is Dahh-Ren, a blue-skinned person who calls Bill racist for being surprised about his appearance. They have a casual conversation about racism, but before Bill can explain why she’s usually on the receiving end, her suit malfunctions. Ivan, who survived Ellie wanting to attack him helps her, but this suit (”Velma”) is a quite obvious plot device.
Tasker, one of the four, dies as the space zombies break through. It was here that I noticed that they have a sort of Cybermen style to them: how they walk, how they sound, how they die and etc. Anyway, the others escape but they have to go outside to avoid the zombies, and surprise surprise, Bill’s suit rejects the helmet so she’ll be exposed to the vacuum of space. We have a nicely edited Bill’s point of view sequence, after which we find out that the six of them are still alive, but Bill only survived because the Doctor gave her his helmet. This meant that he was exposed to the vacuum, which he survived thanks to his Time Lord genes, but not without consequences. His sacrifice caused him to go blind, but he assures Bill that this is only temporary, since he can heal himself once they get back to the TARDIS.
They are hiding in a section that’s unexplored by the AIs so they are safe, but not for long and in need of a plan. Abby, the fourth crew member gets fed up with the Doctor, but in that moment the space zombies find them and kill Dahh-Ren in the process. The remaining five try to run, but Bill’s suit malfunctions and yet again and doesn’t let her go. The Doctor is forced to leave her with the promise of a plan and that she won’t die, but as she screams for her mum and the AI disables her central nervous system he’s understandably shaken up.
Once they are safe from the zombies again, the Doctor starts working on blowing the ship up. He convinces Ivan and Abby that this will be a good death, as it will be incredibly expensive for their company. Turns out, it wasn’t a hack that caused the AI suits to kill them and their company isn’t sending a rescue ship for them… It was the company itself that programmed the destruction of the crew of 40 because their work wasn’t profitable anymore (they’re miners). Killing them saves oxygen, which is money in this version of the future, and money is everything, apparently. Upset by this revelation, Ivan and Abby finally side with the Doctor.
As the zombies approach them, the Doctor reveals one more twist: they don’t need to die as that would be expensive for the company, since the Doctor ensured that their death means the destruction of the ship. The AI zombies, seeing his logic, give the survivors the rest of their oxygen, since now their objective is to keep them alive. Bill is revived, turns out that the Doctor knew her suit didn’t have enough energy to actually kill her, so the grand total of five people survive. The Doctor gets his eyesight fixed in the TARDIS and he takes Ivan and Abby to the head office of the company they work for. They make a complaint, and as the Doctor tells Bill later in Bristol, that marked the beginning of the end of capitalism, then the human race came up with another mistake.
The episode ends with Nardole telling the Doctor off again for having left the Vault unguarded. He says that anything could have happened, that the Doctor could have been injured and then what. The twist at the very end is that something did happen, as the Doctor failed to heal himself and he’s still blind.
I’ve been waiting for the first proper Team TARDIS episode and here we have it. Although Nardole wasn’t exactly a willing companion, he still joined the Doctor and Bill and I have to say I’m satisfied with how the character was handled. So far his two roles were the comic relief and the one having to nag the Doctor about his oath, and both sides were present in “Oxygen” as well, at least he got his moments. I especially liked how he seemed to show genuine concern for Bill and knew how to talk to the Doctor when he thought she was dead. There’s the hidden depth to the character that we’ve all been anxiously waiting for, Nardole can be a good companion just yet. It’s only episode 5 so he’s not behind with character development, but then again it’s been 7 episodes since he first appeared, so it was about time Matt Lucas got something substantial to work with. He’s yet to have a shining moment of any kind, but this Nardole was a decent member of Team TARDIS and I can finally see that there is potential here.
As for Bill, she continues to be amazing and asking just the right questions. In this episode we saw how scared she can get, which is fair enough, she was about to die several times and all she wanted was to space camp. Pearl Mackie nailed the panic and the heartbreak of the scene where the Doctor leaves her, although the photograph of Bill’s mum was a tad bit too much. We only saw it last episode, we still remember what she looks like and what she means to her daughter. Regardless, I’m glad the writers are using this lost connection and showing these so incredibly human moments of Bill. The character wasn’t as much in the focus this time around but she still shined. Bill Potts is the lesbian daughter we deserve on TV.
Okay, so let’s talk about the elephant in the TARDIS: the Twelfth Doctor is blind now. I’m actually glad that he couldn’t heal himself, otherwise his sacrifice for Bill would have felt cheap. It’s not really a sacrifice if he survives without a scratch, now, is it? I wholeheartedly approve of Doctor Who introducing consequences, and this is a risky but impressive move. I’m hoping Twelve is going to spend the rest of this regeneration blind, as cruel as that might sound. I’m sure regeneration could help with this problem and we know Capaldi is leaving soon anyway, so why not have the last couple of episodes with the Twelfth Doctor exploring this? The Doctor being blind opens the door to an incredible opportunity, there’s an inspiring story to be told here and I hope Steven Moffat, as the showrunner, is brave enough to go through with it. It’s different but it could work, and Capaldi could play it, so go for it. It also presents an interesting situation with the Vault and the Master, considering the fact that Nardole has already been hinting at it and that Missy is returning next week.
“Oxygen” works well as its own episode, even though I’m normally not a big fan of spaceship stories they can be amazing. Maybe it wasn’t on the level of the Series 2 two-parter “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit”, but “Oxygen” still had its own decent story and eerie atmosphere. Just as strong as the rest of the series so far and carrying the same message. The tone was darker, even darker than last week’s “Knock Knock”, where all the kids survived but here 38 out of the 40 miners died. This, along with the Doctor’s own blindness shows that not every adventure has a happy ending without great losses. Episode 5 also delivered a not so subtle at capitalism, just like “Thin Ice” did, but the message wasn’t so much that capitalism sucks. As the Doctor said, humanity just came up with another mistake, so it’s more about human nature and the “it’s not my fault” mentality that he also talked about. Series 10 is doing well in terms of undertones and “Oxygen” is no exception. After all, Doctor Who is about humanity, with all its brilliant moments and ugliness.
Next week it’s “Extremis”, where the truth is revealed, Missy returns, the Doctor is still blind, the Pope shows up, and Bill is just trying to have a date.