The Good: Some of the acting is all right
The Bad: Another simple problem, complex solution episode, No real character development (until the last moment), Awkward direction, Dull pacing
The Basics: "Oxygen" is a Doctor Who episode built around its final reversal and it does not entertain, excite, or even make much sense.
It has been a while since Doctor Who did an episode set on a space station. In fact, Capaldi's Doctor has only been on a space station in "Kill The Moon" (reviewed here!) and Matt Smith's incarnation of The Doctor only briefly appeared on the occasional space station ("Asylum Of The Daleks" is the only one that comes to mind for Smith's Doctor, with other vessels being only debatable as space stations). But for a proper episode where the setting is a space station for the bulk of the episode, it has been quite a while. Doctor Who is about due for a space station episode and writer Jamie Mathieson delivers one in "Oxygen."
"Oxygen" picks up the adventures of The Doctor, Nardole and Bill following "Knock Knock" (reviewed here!), but does not reveal what is going on in the vault The Doctor has established on Earth. Instead, The Doctor starts to feel the pull to go back to space and in the process, he, Bill, and Nardole end up in a painfully contrived episode. When we were done watching "Oxygen," my wife likened it to the Frasier episode "Enemy At The Gate." And she's right; the anaology is a solid one. "Enemy At The Gate" is an episode that features Frasier and Niles stuck in their car at a parking garage where Frasier is taking a moral stand against paying the parking fee for just entering the garage and turning around. In the process, Frasier misses the beginning of his radio show and Roz has to go on the air. The episode keeps Fraiser off the air until he bursts into the show and, unprepared for what Roz has been saying, makes a hilarious confession about his experience that had a double entendre for what Roz has been going through. In other words, the entire episode is a twenty-one minute set-up for a one minute punchline. The episode works the first few times because the punchline is absolutely hilarious, but the more one watches it, the more it might seem like a long way to go for a single joke (no matter how funny that joke is).
"Oxygen" is just like that for Doctor Who.
In fact, just like the situation Niles and Frasier are in in "Enemy At The Gate" would have been quickly resolved if Frasier had just paid the $2.00, "Oxygen" has a painfully simple solution. Instead of executing that solution, though, The Doctor makes a grand statement that costs him dearly.
When The Doctor starts feeling the pull to go into space, he encourages Bill to pick a place and time and space to visit. The Doctor sees a distress call on the monitor and he, Bill, and Nardole go to that point in time and space. That places them on a space station that is devoid of oxygen. Cut off from the TARDIS, The Doctor realizes that the miners on the space station only receive oxygen through their space suits. The space suits have killed thirty-six of the forty people aboard the station and the corpse-filled space suits are not hunting the four survivors and three visitors. The Doctor comes to realize that the station is galactic capitalism at its most extreme and as he and the others flee through the station, The Doctor recognizes that Bill's defective space suit might be her undoing. As he works to save lives, The Doctor is forced to make a real sacrifice.
"Oxygen" is written to be much smarter than it ends up being and directed to be unfortunately dumber. The smart aspect of "Oxygen" comes when the corpses begin to attack the survivors on the space station. Astute viewers will note that the suits "deactivate" the central nervous system of the people they attack. So, when The Doctor begins to correlate that the suits are money-driven and he gets control of the station's computer system, the solution seems like it would be obvious; The Doctor is going to convince the suits that the station is profitable again, fool them into believing there is money in everyone's accounts to pay and then the suits will simply reactivate the nervous systems of all the people they have deactivated.
But no, that's not how it goes. "Oxygen" is not that smart, it's just vamping for time until the last two minutes of the episode.
And, sadly, in those last two minutes, the writing is minimal, but the direction is terrible. The direction in the last few moments of the episode makes an implication that it quickly contradicted by The Doctor and his dialogue. Without spoiling the episode's resolution, "Oxygen's" penultimate moment is directed to imply that the viewer is seeing out of The Doctor's eyes, when that is not the case.
Matt Lucas is fairly good as Nardole in "Oxygen;" Pearl Mackie is not given anything truly substantive to do. Peter Capaldi is set up to fail in "Oxygen." In his performance, Capaldi does not significantly differentiate between The Doctor sighted and blind. That undermines the magnitude of The Doctor being blinded in "Oxygen."
Moreover, Capaldi is set-up to fail by the writing in "Oxygen." In "The Angels Take Manhattan," River breaks her own wrist to escape a Weeping Angel and she is healed by The Doctor, who utilizes some of his regeneration energy. Unlike other times when The Doctor seems to only have some regenerative ability proximate to his recent Regeneration, The Doctor is able to provide limited healing power by tapping into his regeneration energies. So, why is The Doctor temporarily blinded to save Bill in "Oxygen?" According to the mythos created in "The Angels Take Manhattan," The Doctor should be able to use some of his regeneration energy to fix his own eyes while the team waits for Bill to regain consciousness . . . or the viewer deserves a satisfactory answer as to why that is not the case in "Oxygen."
"Oxygen" is initially creepy, but while the viewer waits for a satisfactory explanation to the original set-up, they are strung along to a disappointing punchline that fails to land . . . even on the first viewing.
For other Doctor Who episodes set on space stations or space ships, please check out my reviews of:
"The Waters Of Mars"
"The Long Game"
For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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