Doctor Who: Oxygen
(1 episode, s10e05, 2017)
Take a deep breath. It might be your last.
On a space station named Chasm Forge, workers Ivan and Ellie spacewalk across the hull to effect repairs. The pair are romantically involved and Ellie tries to tell Ivan that she wants to have children with him. Sadly, she’s running out of oxygen and her comms are malfunctioning. Even more tragic, she’s soon killed by two figures who are obviously dead because they look like zombies, aren’t wearing helmets, and move like Cybermen. As Ellie is killed, Ivan looks on with a scream.
Back on Earth, the Doctor lectures about space, the final frontier. Final because it wants to kill you. Bill watches uncomfortably and another student asks why they’re not discussing crop rotation. Nardole pressures the Doctor about his obvious desire to go off-world again. As the Doctor plots his next trip with Bill, Nardole stops him by stealing a fluid link and preventing the TARDIS from flying. Of course, the Doctor lied about that particular fluid link’s importance – Rule Number One and all that – so he throws the lever and off they go in search of a distress call.
The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole arrive on Chasm Forge and expand the TARDIS’s air bubble to envelop the station. The travelers find a dead man in a spacesuit, propped up by the suit’s systems. His death is perplexing since his suit’s oxygen tank is full and his breathing field is operational. While Bill and Nardole propose a return to the TARDIS, the Doctor presses on to find the source of the distress call.
Deeper in the station, they find an automated spacesuit doing labor. The suit speaks to the travelers in a voice that Nardole recognizes as a former girlfriend, explaining that the station is typically depressurized. Oxygen is only contained in the pressure suits because it is sold at competitive rates, and any unlicensed oxygen is purged into space. Soon enough, the station’s systems blow the oxygen overboard, forcing the travelers to seek refuge in a repair shop. Someone contacts them and warns them that the shop is dangerous. Sure enough, the dead man marches toward them, but the Doctor is able to disable the suit at the expense of his sonic screwdriver.
Upon investigation, it turns out that the suits were commanded to kill their organic components. The station is filtering out the remaining oxygen to sell it back at a premium, so the Doctor recommends that they get into pressure suits that are offline for repairs. They do so, aware that the rest of the station’s dead personnel are in pursuit.
The disembodied voice, which belongs to a man named Tasker, guides the travelers to a room of survivors. Ivan is among the survivors and helps the Doctor to find a station map. They plot a course to the station’s core – going outside is suicide – and discuss what the station is processing. Copper ore isn’t particularly valuable, so a plot to steal the ore is not the motive.
The zombies start repairing the lock to the repair room so the survivors run for the core. Unfortunately, Tasker is killed by an electrical discharge produced by one of them. With all options cut off, the group dons helmets and heads outside, but Bill’s helmet malfunctions. Since the pressure-retaining forcefield isn’t strong enough for the rigors of space, Bill is exposed to extreme cold, but the Doctor gives her his helmet for the trek.
After they return to the station’s interior, Bill is revived and learns that they are in an uncharted area of the station so the zombies can’t find them. The Doctor saved Bill’s life but has been blinded by the vacuum of space. He ensures Bill that the condition is temporary. The crew regroups as the dead figure out how to gain access to the uncharted section. Dahh-Ren is killed and the team runs for the reactor core.
Along the way, Bill’s suit malfunctions again and prevents her from moving. The Doctor has a revelation and decides to leave her behind, and the advancing horde assimilates her. Inside the core, the Doctor enacts a plan that connects the team’s suits to the reactor coolant system. If they die, the station will explode and destroy the suits. The Doctor explains that the suits are doing exactly what the corporation wants them to by eliminating inefficiencies.
Humans are inefficient, thus the endpoint of capitalism demands that they are bypassed.
The team lets the suited zombies into the core room, but the Doctor springs his trap and stops the suits in a logic loop. He also reveals that Bill’s suit battery was too low to deliver a lethal dose, so she’s okay after all. The suits swap the oxygen tanks from the dead people to the living, ensuring their own survival in the process.
The survivors head for the TARDIS and the Doctor sets a course for the company’s head office so they can file a complaint. Meanwhile, Nardole attempts to fix the Doctor’s eyes. Later, at the university, the Doctor reveals that the event precipitated the eventual downfall of space capitalism. As Bill leaves, Nardole chastises the Doctor for leaving the vault unprotected. If the Doctor were to be incapacitated, the vault would be in jeopardy and the occupant would take advantage.
The Doctor refuses to look at Nardole. When Nardole gets angry about that, the Doctor removes his sunglasses and discloses a major secret.
The Doctor is still blind.
This story has a (sadly, continuously) relevant plot, but it’s also wrapped in a very thin run-from-the-monster motif. The franchise has tackled politics and social issues many, many times in the past, and has done better many times along the way.
This story also showcases some really terrible humor moments with racism, and even if they were meant as parodies, their clumsiness sucked out any amount of funniness. Writer Jamie Mathieson has done far better in the past (notably with Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline) and this is his last story in the franchise to date.
The story does play with the franchise mythology a bit: It nods toward the Doctor’s ability to survive the vacuum of space better than humans can (as seen in Four to Doomsday and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe) and the semi-official nature of Star Trek in the Who-niverse (previously alluded in a handful of episodes). It also reinforces the Doctor’s core characteristics, especially the refusal to believe that his companions are lost.
Oh, yeah… it also marks the destruction of the sonic screwdriver. That won’t last long at all.
This story could be more, but it tries to do too much in 45 minutes and falls short in the end.
Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.