“Oxygen” was written by James Mathieson and directed by Charles Palmer - Saturday, May 13
Spoilers ahead for “Oxygen” because hey ... it's a TV Recap.
The Short Version: After getting chastised by Nardole for thinking about leaving the vault unguarded on Earth, the Doctor takes Bill and Nardole on a new space adventure to answer a distress call in the future. They land on the Chasm Forge mining space station, which has no oxygen and where most of the crew appear to be zombies in spacesuits. After the Doctor, Bill and Nardole are separated from the TARDIS and the Doctor sees his sonic screwdriver crushed, they are forced to put on the station's spacesuits and join the four living crew members in an attempt to survive. But with limited oxygen, a deadly corporate mandate and a faulty spacesuit, one of them just might not make it.
The Good: Capitalism, space zombies and the blind Doctor
BRAINS!!! Not! With capitalism, zombies in space and lethal spacesuits ... “Oxygen” adds up to another killer adventure that just might be the end for the Doctor, Bill or Nardole. The episode opens with two astronauts on a spacewalk attempting to fix something and about to run out of oxygen. Unfortunately, that's not the worst of their problems as zombies in spacesuits attack.
Back at the university, the Doctor is giving a lecture on the dangers of space. The problem is that his lecture is supposed to be on crop rotation. Nardole sees the writing on the Doctor Who wall and once again nags the Doctor about his oath to guard the vault and avoid off-Earth adventures. We also learn that the Doctor is the one who told Nardole to remind him of his duty when it came to vault protecting. But the Doctor, Bill and Nardole are soon off to answer a distress call in space in the far future.
They arrive on the Chasm Forge mining space station to discover that the station has no oxygen, and most of the crew are dead, with only four survivors. The Doctor uses the TARDIS to pump some air into a few areas of the station, but the station has other plans and vents the air, just as they are separated from the TARDIS. When one of the zombie crew comes to life, he crushes the Doctor's sonic screwdriver. What's a Doctor going to do without his TARDIS or his sonic?
The trio learn that the mining station is owned by a corporation that has decided the mining operation isn't profitable. The corporation is so concerned about profits they even charge the crew for the air they breathe in their spacesuits. The Doctor discovers the spacesuits actually killed most of the crew after being programmed to “Deactivate your organic component.” With oxygen vanishing the Doctor, Bill and Nardole are forced to put on the station's smart spacesuits which the Doctor believes are not connected to the network since they are being repaired. Unfortunately, they only have so many breaths before they run out of air even with the suits.
It's great to see the Doctor lose all his normal tools as he, Bill and Nardole battle to survive and save the remaining crew members. The other very interesting event is that Bill's spacesuit quickly becomes faulty and at one point the Doctor is forced to give her his helmet during a brief spacewalk outside the ship. It doesn't kill him, but it does blind him and Bill nearly dies. Again, it's fascinating to see him lose his sight and be forced to work around the things that he normally takes for granted.
“I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about 10 minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?” says the Doctor. The Doctor has to figure out other ways to survive and it almost costs Bill her life a second time. With Bill trapped in the faulty spacesuit and the zombie crew attacking, the Doctor has to leave Bill behind and she is zombie-fied.
While the zombie space people are a cool antagonist for the episode, we soon find out the suits are actually what's causing all the trouble with the people inside incidental. The corporation actually ordered the spacesuits to kill the crewmen because they were costing air, which means costing money and using resources the suits wouldn't need to use without an “organic component” inside them.
The rescue ship that the surviving crew believes is headed their way is not a rescue, the Doctor rails. “They’re not your rescuers. They’re your replacements. The end point of capitalism. The bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet … like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!”
It adds up to a riveting commentary at the core of “Oxygen,” especially given today's world. And it isn't the first time this season where the writers have addressed the value of human life.
The Doctor saves the day by attaching the survivors' life force to the core of the station. If the survivors die, so does the station, meaning lost profits. Clever boy!
Finally, during the shocking end of the episode, we discover that even though the Doctor pretends to get his sight back, he tells Nardole, “I can't look at anything ever again. I'm still blind!”
The Bad: Dead Bill, a close call, and Nardole
Bill nearly dies twice in this episode. While the near death during the space walk was very well done and exciting, I had more trouble with near death #2. The Doctor was forced to leave Bill and her faulty spacesuit behind. As the zombie suits attack, Bill sees flashes of her mother's picture before she joins the zombie spacesuit herd. Well, she's not really dead, but she's zombie-fied. Again, the scene was exciting and well done.
However, why is Bill the only one who gets to come back? The 36 dead crew members don't get to come back. But with Bill, the Doctor just hits a button and Bill's back with no ill effects. The Doctor spouts some mumbo jumbo about Bill's low battery on the suit, but it makes absolutely no sense. Like last week episode “Knock Knock,” the writer conveniently plays with death and then basically it's ... “Nevermind!” They did this with Clara too. She was dead and then she wasn't.
All they had to do in this episode is to also bring back the last two crewmen who were killed just before Bill while the Doctor was on board and give it some logical explanation. Then it wouldn't feel like such a cheat. We don't expect the Doctor, who regenerates into someone new once and a while, to actually die. But death doesn't mean anything if you just take it back whenever it's inconvenient. So, please, Doctor Who writers, don't kill off Bill or anyone else unless you mean it!
As for Bill's double near-death experience, didn't she seem a little bit too okay with almost dying twice? The pic of her mother even flashed before her eyes. Going on adventures with the Doctor is one thing. Actually almost dying is another. I would have liked Bill to take a moment to deal with it.
My other issue is with Nardole. The writers don't really seem to know what to do with him. Once again his main reason for being around is to be a nag to remind the Doctor of his vault duties. During the space adventure, he didn't seem to serve much of a purpose and I wouldn't have missed him if he wasn't there. Nardole needs more to do other than to regularly be insulted by the Doctor and nag the Doctor about the vault.
Lingering Questions: That vault and the Doctor's blindness
If Nardole is around to help the Doctor remain vigilant, and the Doctor asked him to do this over the decades, why does the Doctor treat him so badly?
Once again the vault is front and center as the main mystery. We did discover that the Doctor is the one who made Nardole promise to keep him from leaving the vault unguarded, a promise he's having a hard time keeping. So we know the Doctor took an oath to guard the vault and Nardole agreed to try to help the Doctor keep that oath. And we know someone or something very dangerous (as in maybe the Master?) is in the vault that might have an impact on the Earth. And we know the Doctor visits the vault prisoner. After weeks of teasing us about the vault, it better be good when we finally learn the answer.
The other major lingering question involves how the series will deal with the Doctor's blindness. I like this turn of events. While there's no chance the Doctor would be permanently blind past regeneration, an episode or two would offer interesting insight into the Doctor.
Lines of the Night:
“The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. And we show ours by how we respond.” - The Doctor
“The scareder you are, the faster you suffocate. So relax or die... Sorry. Probably not the most helpful thought.” - Nardole to Bill
“I try never to tell the enemy my secret plan,” - The Doctor
“We were so close to not making it back. Then what happens to the vault? You know what's at stake here... What if you got killed out there? Huh? What happens to your precious Earth then? You need to be here and you need to be ready if that door ever opens.” - Nardole
Best Line of the Night:
“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.” - The Doctor
Here's the trailer for next week's episode, “Extremis,” written by Steven Moffat: