Doctor Who S10E5: “Oxygen”
Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
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‘Oxygen’ is, at its core, a zombie movie for an all-ages audience.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and a reluctant Nardole (Matt Lucas) travel to a deep space mining station. All but four of the crew are dead, killed by their own robotic space suits. The company that controls the station also controls the oxygen – charged by the breath – and as each member of the crew suffocates their corpse joins the marching legion of robot suits that are hunting the survivors down.
One of the most common narratives of Doctor Who is the ‘base under siege’: a small group of desperate humans in a confined space, holding off against a relentless alien invasion. With this current season forming something of a greatest hits package – creepy gothic horror, historical adventure, robots in the far future, and so on – it is no surprise to find one of the most common forms of Doctor Who adventure making its return. It also keeps up the series’ long-running penchant for pastiche: “Oxygen” is, at its core, a zombie movie for an all-ages audience.
One significant drawback to the episode is Nardole, the Doctor’s strange cyborg assistant played by comic actor Matt Lucas. Since debuting back in 2015’s “The Husbands of River Song” he has vacillated between charmingly odd and actively annoying. He definitely fits into the latter category here, piping in at every possible moment with a random and ill-fitting quip, joke or witty remark. After about two minutes it becomes tiresome, and the episode is 45 minutes long.
Writer Jamie Mathieson, who in recent years has contributed to the series the scripts for “Mummy on the Orient Express”, “Flatline” and “The Girl Who Died”, delivers his most conventional story so far. While the episode does run a nice line in condemning late-stage capitalism, the bulk of its running time concerns fleeing from one section of a space station to another with shambling corpses in hot pursuit. It is staged well enough by director Charles Palmer, a Doctor Who veteran returning after a solid ten years away from the franchise. The design is solid, particularly the plot-critical robot space suits. A late plot development leads to an unexpected cliffhanger, but that seems more to the benefit of the next episode than this one. Ultimately it all feels like a very worn path getting run over one too many times. The new angles and elements simply do not feel new enough to justify revisiting the tropes. It is not a bad episode by any stretch, but it does feel like a thoroughly redundant one.
Then again, I have been avidly watching Doctor Who since 1980. For the eight year-old viewers catching the series for the first time, “Oxygen” may well sit in their memories for the rest of their lives. As adults we may enjoy Doctor Who, but it’s always important to remember who the most important segment of the audience actually are.