It’s becoming a bit of a cliché now for me to start these weekly reviews by stating that this series of Doctor Who is the show’s strongest run in years. This time around, I’m pleased to report that not only has the quality of the series remained incredibly high, but this might be the highest it has yet been. ‘Oxygen’ is a compelling episode of television, structured around a compelling premise and a lacerating critique of capitalism that, in the midst of an election campaign, feels far more prescient than it would have been when Jamie Mathieson originally wrote it.
Mathieson is becoming one of the more reliable writers in modern Doctor Who, having turned in a succession of solid episodes including ‘Flatline’ and the genuinely horrifying ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’. This time around, his tale sees a reluctant Nardole (Matt Lucas) accompanying the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) as they answer a distress call from a mining station in space. The trio soon realise that the occupants of the ship are being killed off by their spacesuits, which are their only source of oxygen as a result of the penny-pinching firm running the station. What follows is, on paper, a very standard ‘ship under siege’ tale as the TARDIS crew attempt to save the remaining crew, and themselves.
The genius of Mathieson’s script is in how it balances three very important issues – the space adventure, the capitalist critique and the ongoing tale of the vault the Doctor has sworn to protect. ‘Oxygen’ is perhaps the first episode of the series in which events have real, wide-ranging consequences for the future and it’s pulled off very nicely. The revelation is played very well and it never overwhelms the wider story, which is a genuinely tense tale of triumph by the smaller man against the enormous juggernaut of capitalism.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about ‘Oxygen’ from a storytelling point of views is that it represents perhaps the first time during her Doctor Who tenure that Pearl Mackie’s Bill has had a genuinely close brush with death. The scene in which the Doctor tells her that she is going to have to accept her fate and trust him is a touching one that provides the next step for the burgeoning relationship between the two. Bill continues to challenge the Doctor’s approach to what he does and the scene in which she questions his propensity for joking at times of crisis feels potent and insightful.
Yet again, Doctor Who has produced another story that seems to suit the 45-minute rhythm of a television episode. There’s no sense that we’re rushing to a resolution in the final third and there’s plenty of time for an epilogue that tees up the upcoming three-parter. The show this year has seemed almost effortless in its building of standalone stories while hinting at the wider story that’s developing in the background. It seems we’re on the brink of that wider story but, for the first time in years, I’m confident that Steven Moffat knows what he’s doing.
Next week: For the avoidance of major spoilers, I won’t say much about the trailer below, but suffice to say that we are about to head into a three-parter from the pen of Moffat himself. Will this be the end of the fun, standalone episodes?
Doctor Who is airing on Saturday nights on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
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