Series 10 of Doctor Who has been weirdly reminiscent of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. Back in the early 1970s, the showrunners decided that they needed to cut costs, and so used a plot device to leave the Doctor stranded on Earth, only occasionally able to escape to travel elsewhere. In this series, the mysterious vault under the university has served a similar narrative purpose, largely confining the Doctor to 21st Century Britain. Oxygen was therefore very much in the style of those Pertwee adventures where the writers decided “Screw it! Let’s send him off into outer space!”
In certain respects, Oxygen follows all of the classic rules of science fiction – the combination of a claustrophobic entrapped environment, a seemingly unstoppable menace, and the necessity of solving a mystery or puzzle in order to escape. In this instance, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole answer a distress call from a spaceship, discovering that the spaceship removes any external Oxygen from the vessel, forcing anyone on board to wear a spacesuit for survival. That’s all to the good until one discovers that the spacesuits have a limited supply of Oxygen, and there is a rather nasty glitch instructing the suits to ‘eliminate the organic component.’ Only by the end of the adventure does the Doctor realise that the glitch is not a glitch, but the company who owns the spaceship seeking to eliminate an expensive workforce.
As Sci-Fi, it definitely works, and is highly enjoyable. I was relieved however to read on Twitter that I wasn’t the only person who felt the ‘Capitalism is always evil’ motif was rather over done, and lessened the potential impact of the story. Exploitative capitalism and abuse of workers does take place, and narratives like Oxygen are great for reminding us of that … but the tone bordered on hectoring, and made the narrative less believable. Which is a shame, because as a concept it worked really well, and I quite enjoyed the twist of the Doctor knowing that Bill’s malfunctioning spacesuit would ultimately save and protect her. The less said about his ‘dying well’ speech the better though … not the finest narrative ever written, even if the Doctor was in part trying to deceive the spaceship’s artificial intelligence.
I wanted to give the last part of my review to the very exciting revelation at the close of the story. During the story the Doctor is blinded, supposedly temporarily. At the end of the adventure his eyes are restored, only for him to inform Nardole with the very last sentence of dialogue: “I can’t look at you. I’m still blind.” We can only speculate how this will play out – we know that Capaldi is leaving at the end of this series, so one imagines that when he starts to regenerate the first thing he will regain is his eyesight. I think more importantly, this has the potential to be a wonderful statement for all those individuals who have struggled with physical impairments, whether blindness or otherwise. I sincerely hope the BBC do embrace this as an opportunity to show the Doctor, hero to so many, vulnerable but still triumphant. What a fantastic role model that would be!