We’re approaching the halfway mark of Peter Capaldi’s final season in Doctor Who, and so far the season has been pretty strong. “Oxygen,” the fifth episode, is quite good, but it could have been great except for the fact that, like “Knock Knock” before it, it suffers from not having the courage of its convictions.
A hypercapitalist future where oxygen is sold to space workers instead of freely provided leads to a lot of great worldbuilding: space stations where there’s no oxygen except for what’s provided by the automated company space suits you’re forced to wear; distances measured not in meters but in how many expensive breaths would be used up on the journey; what human labor (and life) means to an emotionless bottom line when people can be replaced by automation. We’ve had episodes featuring the walking dead in space suits before, of course (the two-parter “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” springs immediately to mind), but this is handled in an original enough way not to feel repetitive. There’s a lot of great character work going on in “Oxygen”: the discussion of prejudice with the blue-skinned alien, Bill asking what happens if you throw up inside a space helmet, Nardole getting to be a part of the action (although I’m still not liking what a nag they’ve made him), the Doctor and Nardole arguing the proper sound a space door should make, and of course the Doctor’s sacrifice to save Bill’s life in the vacuum of space. His blindness, presented as a temporary side-effect, is played in a very understated and organic fashion, at least until the end when it is revealed somewhat over-dramatically that the treatment hasn’t worked and he’s still blind, a fact he’s hiding from everyone but Nardole. It’s interesting stuff, and it will be interesting to see where it goes. Doctor Who has never tried something like this before.
We also get some more tantalizing clues as to who is in the vault. Thanks to Nardole’s dialogue at the end of the episode, we know that they will be able to sense and exploit the Doctor’s condition, and somehow they pose a threat to, as Nardole puts it, the Doctor’s “precious Earth.” I still think it’s the Master/Missy, but I’m more than willing to be surprised.
So it’s generally a good episode, but, in my opinion, “Oxygen” does something so egregious it’s hard to forgive. It kills Bill in the same manner that the rest of the station’s crew was killed, through the suit she’s forced to wear, but then, through some handwaving nonsense about her suit’s low battery power, brings her back again none the worse for wear. And of course the Doctor claims he knew she wouldn’t really die — although the other crewmembers really are dead, so it’s just Bill who is somehow only fake dead, despite looking and acting exactly like the other bodies. Was she only unconscious? Was she in a coma? Was she hanging on to life by a thread? The script doesn’t bother to explain or elucidate. It’s such a bullshit move it very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the episode as a whole. Either have the courage of your convictions to actually kill her off (which I don’t want them to do, I’m liking Bill) or do something else altogether. But relying “she’s not really dead because of [handwave]” is frustrating and ridiculous.
And now, some Doctor Who neepery! In this episode, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is destroyed by one of the space suits. The screwdriver was destroyed by the baddies before in the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “The Visitation.” A Terileptil blasts it with a weapon, upon which the Doctor states, “I feel as though you’ve just killed an old friend.” In fact, that was the last time we saw the sonic screwdriver during the classic series. After “The Visitation,” the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors all traveled without it. It wouldn’t make a reappearance until the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. We also know from the classic series that Time Lords can survive in the vacuum of space longer than humans can, thanks to the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “Four to Doomsday,” in with the Doctor gets stranded briefly in space between an Urbankan spaceship and the TARDIS. (Astonishingly, he bounces a cricket ball off the side of the spaceship, then catches it and uses its momentum to push him the rest of the way to the TARDIS!)
The next episode, “Extremis,” looks interesting, with its Da Vinci Code setup involving Vatican secrets, a book that kills everyone who reads it, the Doctor’s continued blindness, and the possible return of Missy.