This has be a very strong season so far so when I say that I think that Oxygen is the weakest episode of the season so far please don’t mistake me for saying that it is bad. It is a perfectly enjoyable episode of Doctor Who but given the other episodes that have come before it feels more derivative of recent stories. While I thought Knock Knock took elements of the show’s past and blended them into something new Oxygen takes a elements from several new series stories and doesn’t quite manage to reinvigorate them enough to make the episode feel fresh.
I am a big fan of Jamie Mathieson. He wrote what I consider the the two stand-out episodes of season 8 with Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline. Last seasons The Girl Who Died introduced a character who would become integral to that season, had plenty of fun moments but felt less than the sum of its parts. Oxygen ranks above The Girl Who Died but beneath his first two episodes.
The problem comes from the basic plot being something that the new series has done at least once a season in some form. Somewhere in the future something has gone wrong and people are being picked off one by one. The Doctor does his best to try and stop it and his companion is put in danger because of it. Last seasons Under the Lake/Before the Flood walked pretty much the same path. In Oxygen instead of ghosts of the dead crew it’s their corpses in automated spacesuits making them appear like zombies. While this makes for a creepy image, spacesuits walking around with dead people in them is straight from Silence in the Library/Forests of the Dead. While it is visualised very differently the comparison is still very much there. Indeed if you’ve seen Into the Dalek, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People or Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone then you will probably get a feeling of deja-vu from watching Oxygen.
The concept of companies charging for oxygen by the breath is an interesting one that could have done with more exploration. It’s only really used as a way of ramping up tension because the need to count how many breaths they take on top of having to survive killer spacesuits. The episode has very little to say on the matter of corporations making a profit from people breathing and treating them as disposable. Ultimately it boils down to the Doctor metaphorically shaking his fist and saying “Grrrrr capitalism”. This isn’t helped by the fact that the company in question is faceless. There is no character representing them for the Doctor to rail against. This is an occasion where a “Burke” would have been a useful addition to the cast to put over the company’s point of view for the Doctor to rebut.
The guest cast all do a good job but they aren’t given much to work with. Compared to last week’s episode, where the guest cast were introduced swiftly and I cared about what happened to them, here they felt like they were just there. I couldn’t tell you what any of them were called and they were pretty thinly sketched. I know one of them was blue and that was only to make a rather clumsy commentary on race. Given how well the subject was handled in Thin Ice this felt like an unfortunate step backwards.
None of the above means that there isn’t a lot to enjoy with the episode as well. This is the most of Nardole we have seen so far this season and Matt Lucas gets to more than just fuss and nag the Doctor. He proves to be a useful bridge between the Doctor and Bill. He can do things to help that Bill can’t and he also does his best to calm Bill when she needs it. Pearl Mackie continues to shine with every episode asking something different of her. Here she shows Bill being scared to the point of abject terror but having to reign that fear in. Bill is thrust into several situations she is totally unprepared for outside of lecture from the Doctor. Her fear as her suit takes over and removes her helmet is pitched just right. If Mackie is only staying for the one season she is going to be sorely missed.
Peter Capaldi is also given something to get his teeth into. Rendered blind as a consequence of saving Bill from asphyxiation Capaldi expertly portrays the Doctor putting up a front when he is clearly feeling very vulnerable. The episode cliffhanger revealing that the Doctor is still blind adds some weight to what happens in the episode. It would be easy to have the Doctor just get his sight back, as the episode initially suggests, but having him blind for the next episode gives Oxygen more far reaching consequences that helps to make up for some of its shortcomings.
Oxygen is a fine episode. In another season it may have been one of the better instalments and it is to the credit of this season as a whole that it feels not quite up to the standard that has been set so far. I can’t help but feel that this style of story is something that needs to be moved away from for a while unless someone can bring a genuinely fresh take on it rather that just a new coat of paint on what has been done before.