Doctor Who: 10.05 Oxygen
is synonymous with the phrase 'hiding behind the sofa'; it's ability to scare its audiences started with the first appearance of the Daleks way back in 1963 and continues to this very day. Showrunner Steven Moffat delivered some of the modern Who's most scary creations, from the Weeping Angels to the Silence, but there's one contender that has taken on that mantle in the Capaldi era; Jamie Mathieson. He terrified audiences young and old with the Foretold in series eight's Mummy of the Orient Express and he's back to scare the Doctor Who fans again with Oxygen.
And make no bones about it, Oxygen is scary. If last week's haunted house affair Knock Knock delivered the chills, than this will have some audience members watching through prised open fingers. Mathieson created a simple but very effective concept; zombies in space and while this is no The Walking Dead, the episode pushes family viewing to its very limits. There is a genuine sense of dread and claustrophobia hanging over the episode and Charles Palmer directs the hell out of it. Everything looks stark and oppressive and even without the threat of zombie threatening to strike from the shadows, the grim nature of this part of the universe - where oxygen is at a premium and you have to count every breath in your space suit - is an oppressive one indeed.
I said in my spoiler-free preview that this is the best script Mathieson has written for Doctor Who. Not only does he deliver plenty of shocks and scares, the underlying concept is a great sci-fi idea; humanity mining in the harshest reaches of the galaxy, capitalism to the extreme (you have to pay to breathe). The idea that the space suit will kill you and turn you into a mindless zombie because then you can keep working but working but won't need to waste money on breathing or food, is an ingenious if cruel idea.
He also layers the script with plenty of wit and humour to keep Oxygen from getting too dark and depressing. The episode opens with a wonderful perversion of the classic Star Trek line "Space the final frontier" and then explains how it's going to kill you. There's a certain manic nature to the Doctor when Bill realises that the suits might kill them if the zombies don't, an 'embracing of the madness'. Mathieson has the skill to throw in some Whedoneque-style lines that have you tense one moment and laughing the next and that's what you need from a good slice of entertaining horror.
And this is Doctor Who horror at its best. The shot of the space zombies walking across the hull of the spaceship is utterly terrifying. Bill wakes up after a frantic escape outside the airlock, sees a group of zombie crew standing in the doorway, unable to recognise the part of the station they're in. The idea that the zombies could start to sense you when they're just a few feet away is creepy stuff. And there are plenty of shots of zombie faces staring through airlock windows to keep the audience unnerved. The clanking of the suits magnetic boots as the zombies walk felt a little Cyberman esque, but they work too to stop the zombies from feeling too - zombie-like - for the family audience to watch. The same goes for the faces of the dead; they're cold and exposed to space but there is a clever line between dead and decaying to allow them to be viewed pre the 9pm watershed.
But the episode is more than just being chased by space zombies. As with the rest of the series, there is a sense of time being taken to establish the story. In previous years, the Doctor and companion would probably have been on the station and being chased by the end of the opening credits. Instead the story is allowed to breathe. It begins with another fantastic lecture from the Doctor at the university, telling the horrors of being exposed to space; knowing that you don't just freeze but the liquid in your eyeballs boil adds a sense of dread when Bill and then the Doctor are threatened with just that later in the episode.
Oxygen also take great care with the character of Nardole who quite frankly has emerged as a very fine addition to Doctor Who. Even before the TARDIS landed on the space station we had a lovely scene inside when Bill observes Matt Lucas's character berate the Doctor about his responsibilities concerning the vault and then the Doctor mischievously whisking all three away in time and space simply because he was told not to. Peter Capaldi really has fun with his character, flitting between stern and harsh to a midlife crisis sonic sunglasses wearing fool to a naughty schoolboy and each aspect is delivered with absolute charm. As for Nardole, some might argue that his absence or the story might not have changed anything but with I think he adds a nice extra layer (I'm also fond of double companion TARDIS dynamics) and he also added to the straight man humour needed to balance out the episode.
Being a zombies in space take on the classic Doctor Who 'base under siege' storyline, there was several unsettling moments throughout the episode that are sure to stick with viewers long after. The discovery of the suit without a person build nicely on the mystery before the zombies arrived and the reveal of the first dead human, stood upright in his suit, will be sure to have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. You know the zombie is going to start moving and attack, but the episode drags it out just long enough that you have no idea when hell is really going to break loose.
And hell it does. Justin Salinger's Tasker opening an airlock door and coming face to face with a zombie is a pure horror movie moment. And the added tension of Bill's malfunctioning suit - a suit that could actually turn against her - ramps up the tension in two great scenes. Her suit removing the helmet just as the airlock is going to decompress is nail biting stuff. Would it have been nice to have seen the subsequent space walk escape? Absolutely, but with the limitations of budget the sense of delusion and confusion as Bill suffers from oxygen lost works just as well...and leads to the cruel twist that the Doctor gave her his helmet and went blind as a result of exposure.
But the worst moment for Bill has to come the moment her suit stops walking and the zombies close in. The Doctor is forced to abandon her and she is 'killed' Seeing a loveable companion turned into a zombie must be a horrifying moment for younger audience members, assuming they watch it. If there's ever an episode to restrict viewing on, its this one.
Of course the Doctor saves the day, rigging the survivors to the reactor and threatening to kill everyone if the zombies attack them. The cost of a destroyed space station and no workers is far worse a concept to the capitalist masters back home and turns the tide at the eleventh hour. There's even a satisfying resolution for Bill as the Doctor brings her back. I liked the twist that the suit was too damaged to kill her, just disabling her instead. The same could not be said for poor Ivan (Kieran Bew), whose wife was killed in the pre-title sequence. The high body count of the episode is classic Doctor Who era stuff indeed.
There is one consequence of this episode though and that's the Doctor. We know that this is Capaldi's last series and so anything can happen, but to permanently blind the Twelfth Doctor halfway through his final run is a shock and I'm intrigued to see how he plays this for the remaining six episodes - and the Christmas special.
Oxygen is a great episode of Doctor Who, certainly for me the first 'classic' on what has been a strong series 10. It pushed the show's ability to do horror to its very limits and delivered plenty of shocks and scares, while still developing some intriguing sci-fi concepts. Jamie Mathieson has delivered his best story yet and enough can't be said about Charles Palmer's taught, atmospheric direction. While not an episode for younger viewers, it demonstrated that Doctor Who can keep even the bravest of us on our toes to the very end.