For my money, “Oxygen” was the single most terrifying episode of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen.
Defying his stated purpose of guarding whatever is hidden in the vault under the university, in this episode the Doctor and Bill decide to take a jaunt, over the objections of Nardole. The duo answers a distress call from a space-station/mining set-up, and discover that most of the crew has been killed.
Writer Jamie Mathieson really put some thought into the details of his horror story. The station has no oxygen, with the workers having to remain in their suits purchasing new supplies from the company store. This creates and unbelievable tension as The Doctor, Bill and Nardole have to adapt to survive using the crew’s technology and faulty suits. The payoff is fantastic, as the dead crew continues to move around thanks to their suit technology, and the remaining cast desperately tries to outrun them and their depleting air.
More than any other season, Series 10 has messages that are rather blatantly and refreshingly political. Without spoiling too much of the reveal, The Doctor, despite being desperately injured, manages to turn the perpetrators of the massacre’s own naked self-interest on themselves and escape. It’s incredibly satisfying, though the comeuppance extracts a terrible price on The Doctor.
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Director Charles Palmer deserves a lot of credit for the execution of “Oxygen.” He perfectly mimics some of the most iconic shots from the George Romero zombie oeuvre without sacrificing the beauty of the space imagery that is constantly present. It truly is one of the only times I have ever seen zombies in space done well.
It was also nice to finally have Nardole back on a proper adventure, though his overbearing nannying does occasionally get annoying. In general, though, he’s the heart of the team, always quick to quip but more than that, quick to care. Even his final speech at the end of the episode as he dresses down The Doctor for abandoning his responsibilities is kind at heart, and his growing affection for Bill is cementing this into a really amazing Tardis crew.
There are moments when it’s a bit much. “Oxygen” manages to sneak in three of the death-but-not-a-deaths that have become the Moffat-era trademark, and some of them are just plain emotionally manipulative. As the episode comes to a close, The Doctor appears to lose more than he has ever lost before. It’s hard to know what dark roads the season is leading us down, though Capaldi’s announcement that he would be stepping down at Christmas gives us some idea. Dalek gunstick to my head, I’m willing to bet the vault storyline will also bring an end to the current Master, though how and why she would be trapped in there is beyond me.
It wouldn’t be Steven Moffat unless he took us out on a downer, though the personalities of Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas help keep things from getting too grim. The former especially has a knack for hitting the perfect beats to derail a downward slide, my favorite being when she asks The Doctor if space has reviews like Yelp. She’s been an absolute treasure this season. I’ll be as sad to see her go as I will Capaldi.