Well, it’s time to review the fifth episode in the new series of “Doctor Who”. Again, although I’m not sure how many of the new episodes I’ll end up reviewing or how long it will take me to review them. But, I’ll try to review as many as I can.
So, that said, let’s take a look at “Oxygen”. Needless to say, this review will contain MAJOR SPOILERS.
The episode begins with the Doctor saying “Space… The final frontier. Final because it wants to kill you“. We see two astronauts walking on the outside of a space station, their oxygen is low and they are trying to find a way inside. However, just as one of them gets to the airlock controls… something lands behind the other astronaut. What could it be?
Back on Earth, the Doctor is giving a lecture about the cold void of space and how it is especially deadly because the pressure differences can quicky boil all of the fluids in someone’s body if they aren’t wearing a spacesuit. One student asks him why he’s talking about space in the middle of a lecture about crop rotation.
A while later, Nardole notices that the Doctor misses space and gives him a stern lecture about remaining on Earth. So, naturally, The Doctor meets up with Bill in the TARDIS and asks her to choose anywhere in space to visit.
Nardole shows up and begins to lecture the Doctor again, before claiming to have sabotaged the TARDIS to prevent the Doctor from leaving Earth. Yet, before they can resolve their argument, they get a distress signal from a space station….
One of the first things that I will say about this episode is that it is very much a horror episode.
Sci-fi horror is a brilliant genre, the zombie genre is also a brilliant genre too. Not to mention that the preview trailer from last week reminded me of this animated Youtube video too. However, the episode both succeeds and fails at being a great sci-fi horror episode.
The best way to describe the story and atmosphere of the episode is that it is like something from “Red Dwarf“, but without the comedy. Seriously, with a few changes, this would actually make a fairly good episode of “Red Dwarf”.
In terms of emotional tone, this episode is surprisingly bleak. Whilst most horror episodes of the show usually accompany the horror with humour, this episode actually takes the horror elements a bit more seriously and this works surprisingly well in terms of creating suspense and drama.
But, as much as horror is part of “Doctor Who”, so is comedy. Yes, sci-fi horror is cool. But, sci-fi horror comedy would be even better! Yes, there are a few amusing lines of dialogue but, for the most part, this episode is very much a “serious drama”.
Even so, the horror parts of this episode work really well. The zombies, although not technically zombies, are proper old-school slow-moving zombies who are also vaguely reminiscent of the Borg from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Since they are controlled by a computer (or, technically, their space suits are), they sometimes tend to act more like machines than people – which adds to the chilling atmosphere of the episode.
The horror elements of the episode are also enhanced by the fact that the space station’s computer rigidly follows the policies of the company who owns the station (which include selling oxygen to the inhabitants and venting any “unauthorised oxygen” to preserve oxygen’s market value). This is a fact that is also cleverly exploited by the Doctor in a later part of the episode.
Likewise, a lot of drama comes from the fact that Bill ends up inside a malfunctioning space suit that has a habit of freezing, helmet problems etc… which adds a bit of extra drama to a few scenes, albeit in a slightly predictable way sometimes.
In terms of the characters, the few survivors left on the station are -as you might expect – pessimistic, grim and frightened.
Another problem with the episode is that it is very heavy-handed with it’s politics. The episode is meant to be a satire about corporations and capitalism but, unlike in great cyberpunk films like “Robocop” and “Blade Runner“, the writer of this episode doesn’t seem to credit the audience with enough intelligence to work this out for themselves from the many clues scattered throughout the episode.
Throwing subtlety and nuance to the wind, The Doctor even gives a speech about the “logical end point of capitalism” at one point. Even Jeremy Corbyn would probably consider the politics of this speech to be “a bit too far left”! I mean, The Doctor practically quotes Karl Marx (and his later comment about capitalism only lasting another six months is oddly radical for a show that is ordinarily just moderately liberal).
More importantly, the satire also doesn’t work because it contradicts itself! The main point of the episode is that the soulless corporation who runs the station thinks that it is cheaper to kill the workers and convert them into zombies. Yet, earlier in the episode, we see an empty space suit being controlled by the station’s computer. Surely, it would be even cheaper for the greedy mega-corporation to just send 40+ empty suits to the station, and just 5-6 technicians to make sure that the suits are working properly.
There’s also a somewhat cringe-worthy scene where an alien called Dahh-ren accuses Bill of racism and – with a limited supply of oxygen left- they spend a while discussing this topic instead of planning how they’re going to escape from the deadly space station whilst they still can. Given the context of the scene, the discussion just comes across as being shoehorned into the episode for the sake of it.
This is not to say that sci-fi shouldn’t include politics. It’s an intelligent genre for intelligent people, and any speculation about the future will inevitably involve politics. But, political subtext in science fiction should just be that… subtext. It shouldn’t dominate or overwhelm critical moments in the story. A political sci-fi story should be a story that also makes a point about politics, rather than a political lecture that gets in the way of the story.
All in all, this is both a good and a bad episode. The parts with the space zombies, the suspenseful horror elements and the chilling mystery of why the space station turned rogue are absolutely brilliant. The heavy-handed politics and the relative lack of comedy are somewhat less brilliant. When this episode is good, it is really good. When it isn’t, it really isn’t.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about three and a half. The episode has a great premise and some brilliantly chilling scenes, but it needs more subtlety, nuance and humour too.