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Don’t hold your breath! 5 times Doctor Who’s Oxygen left us gasping for air

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Aaaand breathe. Oxygen, the fifth episode of this quietly impressive season, continued the series’ run of solid if unspectacular form – with a notable game-changing cliff-hanger thrown in for good measure.

The Doctor, Bill and Nardole answer a distress signal in deep space from a mining station, where 36 of the 40 crew members have died after their suits ran out of oxygen (or did they?).

After being forced to don the space-wear themselves, they uncover a sinister corporate plot in which the very air you breathe will cost you – and you thought parking charges were a rip-off.

This was a slower, talkier, more atmospheric space thriller than we’ve sometimes been used to from New Who.

Throw in some genuine psychological scares, outstanding direction and distinguished performances, and we’re surely on the way to a Who classic… But does Oxygen reach the finish line, or end up sprawled breathless at the side of the track?

It’s time to run-down our top five talking points from this one… Take a deep breath.

1. Nardole!

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After four episodes of teasing (we have to get our kicks where we can, don’t judge us), Matt Lucas’ balder, wimpier K-9, Nardole, finally comes along for a TARDIS ride – and he’s a joyous addition to the team. Lucas is a gifted comic – “Some of my best friends are blue-ish”- but never allows his comic moments to devolve into Little Britain-style winking at the camera.

He also has wonderful chemistry with Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, which allows for some brilliantly funny schtick between them (“I thought I sent you to Birmingham for a packet of crisps?”), and never before has a character’s terrified whimpering filled us with such affectionate warmth. Lucas also shows he’s far more than a one-trick robot in Oxygen’s final scene, where he angrily berates the Doctor for leaving the vault unguarded.

2. Music!

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After 12 (!) years of scoring the show, we’d say Murray Gold knows a thing or two.  Over time, he’s come in for some criticism for his overly-bombastic tunes, but there’s none of that here. Gold’s work for this episode wouldn’t sound out of place in a ‘40s Hammer horror flick – and yes, that’s a compliment.

The pulse-pounding suspense score as our heroes dash from the villainous Suits is suitably exciting, but the real stand out is the music he makes for those enemies themselves – whenever we see them, Gold sounds a strong, harsh musical note not unlike the sound of a fat cat leaping onto a piano keyboard. It certainly woke us up. In Oxygen, Gold is golden.

3. Capitalism!

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Mum: “Son, why do you love Doctor Who so much? Is it the Doctor, the Daleks, the companions, or the adventure?”

Child: “None of the above – it’s the episodes where the Doctor applies a Marxian economic critique of the post-industrial capitalism system to those exploited by that very same morally bankrupt system.”

Mum: “Oh… Ok.  Fancy fish fingers for tea?”

Ok, here goes: Oxygen’s political pondering will most likely go over the heads of the average eight-year-old, but this show, at its very best, is about ideas.  Oxygen carries on that tradition by discussing the extreme end point of a capitalist system: murder as good business. The miners’ ship contains no oxygen, with only their suits granting them breaths at a market rate, and the corporation deliberately murdered the unproductive workforce by cutting their air.

Oxygen’s anti-capitalism premise is as subtle as a brick, and may be a little too right-on for more moderate watchers to take – but political causes, particularly left-wing ones, have been a part of Doctor Who’s DNA before – think the Happiness Patrol, or the monstrous businessman Trau Morgus in The Caves of Androzani.  It would have been welcome, however, if Oxygen’s political posturing carried the nuance of Caves.

In fact, the premise’s biggest problem is not politics but logistics – how exactly do the workers actually pay for their oxygen? Why are the trio not charged when they put on their suits? If oxygen is so valuable to the company, why do they allow the mining ship to toss any unsanctioned air out into space rather than store it somewhere? And if the suits can work without humans inside, why does the company need to hire them in the first place?

4. There’s a Doctor in the house.

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Scripting issues aside, one aspect of Oxygen is not in doubt – Peter Capaldi absolutely nails the big man here. He’s witty, mysterious, grumpy, joyous and genius all at once – he gives absolutely everyone a chance, but takes shit from precisely no-one.

Doubts about Capaldi’s suitability must surely evaporate after his stellar conduct this season (for the record, we never doubted him). It helps that the writers have given up on last season’s doomed exercise of making him ‘cool’ (sonic sunglasses? We shivered…), and just let him be his own Time Lord.

But the really special thing is that he, like the best of his predecessors, is utterly selfless when there’s life to be saved – as he forgoes his space helmet and carries Bill to safety, blinding himself in the process, we’re reminded of the Fifth Doctor crashing Stotz’ ship into Androzani Minor, to save his friend Peri, the Ninth Doctor’s ‘I’m coming to get you’ speech to Rose in Bad Wolf, and the Tenth’s rescue of Wilf in The End of Time – destroying himself in the process. Peter, and the Doctor, did very, very good tonight.

5. “I’m still blind…”

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All of which leads us here. With all due respect to Oxygen’s baddies, supporting cast, and plot, the episode’s not going to be remembered for any of those. It will be looked back in the 2050’s by old Whovians who were just children when it aired, as the episode which ended on the Doctor being blind.

After saving Bill, he is temporarily (or so we’re led to believe) blinded, but in the denouement he’s healed in the TARDIS. Except for Oxygen’s final scene, in which he declares to Nardole “I’ll never see anything, ever again. I’m still blind.”

Not only does this further amplify the sacrifice he made to save Bill, it also uniquely changes the game of the rest of the season. Is this really a permanent disfigurement? If so, how on Gallifrey will the remaining seven episodes cope with having a Doctor who cannot see?

The answer, presumably, is that he’ll be forced to use those things which set him apart from countless gun-toting heroes – wits, and that most alien of things – humanity. This cliffhanger was, aptly, breath-taking.

Closing time…

Oxygen is an ambitious, self-confident episode packed to the gills with ideas, but which nevertheless doesn’t quite match up to its glowing press. In the manner of Doctor Who’s greatest moments, the script takes on plenty of good, strong ideas – in this case the future of work and exploitation, but there’s a degree of subtlety and considered thinking that’s absent from it.

Likewise, the premise of a workforce forced to pay for the air they breathe is potentially ingenious, but there’s one too many holes in its internal logic and basic explanation for it to truly hold water (or, indeed, air).

Nevertheless, Oxygen aims for the stars, and makes it a good deal of the way – we’d always rather that than watch a show which is content to sit looking up at them. We give Oxygen…

3 tense breaths out of 5

Next week: Extremis. The first episode of the series’ first three-parter since the Master trilogy, way back in 2007. Monks, the Pope, a blind Doctor and River Song’s diary? Oh and Missy too?! Don’t tell us you’ve got a better way to spend your Saturday night.

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