Jamie Mathieson wrote one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who ever: Mummy on the Orient Express. It was a jaw-droppingly well-paced, phenomenal, pastiche of an Agatha Christie tale. His return to the Whoniverse this series - with Oxygen - is equally good and, to my mind, stronger than his other notable episode Flatline.
Oxygen is a stupendous episode which hooks the viewer from the opening voice over, twisting the familiar, iconic, Star Trek introduction: "Space, the Final Frontier" and in so doing seizing ones attention fully. Mathieson captures the character of the doctor brilliantly but his real skill as a writer is encapsulated in the teaser, in that brief confession when an astronaut tells her partner she wants to have his baby, only to reveal her radio isn't working. Her unheard revelation was a fantastic hook, and an utterly poignant one, given she dies moments later.
Near the top of this episode we're back in the lecture hall, the doctor as professor riffing on the lethal dangers of space, Peter Capaldi drawing on his art skills (and the black board) turning constellation points into a drawing of a skull. Bill sits halfway to the back of the lecture theatre. Nardole leans against the door jam, on the outside looking in. Thus we're reminded of one reason why the Doctor is at St. Luke's (teaching and tenure, obviously) whilst Nardole realises exactly how trapped the Doctor feels, parked (dare I say clamped?) on Earth. To have that understanding undercut, to have Nardole reveal the doctor's vow to guard the vault and not leave the planet is self-imposed was an utterly fantastic twist! It instantly made me wonder who was present when the Doctor made the vow, and why he made it. I also wondered about his relationship with Nardole who's watching over him, trying to hold him to that promise. A century or so since the Doctor made his vow and, he's restless. Then a touchscreen throws up a menu of possibilities, the Doctor and the TARDIS enticing Bill out into space, into adventure, into thirty minutes of gripping action and glorious characterisation as Doctor Who does zombies.
Arriving on a space station visibly reminiscent of Kubrick's Space 2001 (and current NASA footage, as well as a plethora of films which stretch from the late 1960's to the present day) the Doctor, Bill and Nardole discover thirty-six space-station crew, deceased (trapped upright in their suits) and four survivors on a space station devoid of oxygen. We learn that each space-suit carries an individual's oxygen supply, that breath isn't just life but a highly valuable, priced, sellable, commodity.
Jamie Mathieson takes these principles (together with a dash of Marxist theory) and applies them to the human need to breathe in order to stay alive. In commodifying oxygen he raises a nightmarish premise, but a plausible one, given the privatisation of water and water provision this century. Coupling this with the idea of the space-suits having a limited but evolving A.I., Mathieson touches upon the futuristic, yet possible, premise which may see man increasingly sidelined from both the 'blue' and 'white' collar workforce by the introduction and development of artificial intelligence. Mathieson takes this issue and twists it through the kaleidoscope of the Whoniverse; beautifully. So we see life jeopardised; the spacesuits - or literal suits - electrocuting and killing human crew in the name of cost effectiveness as they follow a directive (as they've interpreted it) from management. Death is a byproduct of monetary gain, the cost of oxygen (of sustaining forty humanoid life forms) deemed not to be financially lucrative enough. It's only with the Doctor's direct intervention, re-routing systems so it will prove more costly to kill than to keep people alive, that a worker's rebellion is launched.
Oxygen resonates thematically back along the Who canon to both Under the Lake and Before the Flood (both episodes written by Toby Whithouse ) where, just as here, a crew is picked off one by one by a malevolent force within the enclosed microcosm of a science station. But this is a far stronger episode than either of those. As in that two-parter the companion is placed directly in jeopardy, the Doctor sacrificing himself (literally and figuratively) so she may live. Clara may have been more adventurous; Nardole and Bill may be more skittish by comparison - which makes for a lovely bit of characterisation - but the Doctor is the same man. Despite the social message at the heart of this, Oxygen is primarily a fantastically good action-adventure, in which the stakes are high from the first. Once the TARDIS arrives on the station we're reminded of this, the Doctor mentioning the TARDIS has in fact extended an atmospheric bubble around herself (and throughout most of the space-station) for their benefit, just before they encounter the first victim of the disaster which befell the crew. A cadaver upright in a suit is as much Chekov's gun as the verbose and chatty A.I. who lent her voice to a space suit, and who Nardole apparently once dated. 'Velma' (the space-suit) is off-line due to a system malfunction when Bill has no choice but to step into it, out of the frying pan of possible suffocation and into the fire. The suit is both the weapon by which Bill almost meets her death and, eventually, her salvation. Its malfunction first leaves Bill without a working helmet, right before she has no choice but to venture out into the vacuum of space, yet later it's thanks to that Velma!suit's weak power source that Bill survives.
Visually the seconds until Bill blacks out, when first in mortal jeopardy, are beautifully filmed - slow-motion footage, lighting and sound effects all blending fantastically to create a sense of lapsing consciousness which lead back to the opening voice over:
DOCTOR: So, how does space kill you? I'm glad you asked. The main problem is pressure. There isn't any. So, don't hold your breath or your lungs will explode. Blood vessels rupture. Exposed areas swell. Fun fact! The boiling temperature of water is much lower in a vacuum. Which means that your sweat and your saliva will boil, as will the fluid around your eyes. You won't notice any of this because fifteen seconds in, you've passed out as oxygen bubbles formed in your blood. And ninety seconds in, you're dead. Any questions?
Bill walks forward through the space-station expecting she will die, not once but twice in this episode. Standing terrified (in the space-station corridor) she asks the Doctor to tell her a joke in a moment which really called to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer for me - Buffy asking her Watcher Giles about life in general, and her life in particular:
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah. Does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Bill is asking the Doctor to lie. Ironically he tells her the bare-faced truth, but neither Bill nor this viewer believed him. Did I think Bill was a goner? Yes. That she lives is down to the Doctor's ingenuity - in a fantastic plot twist by the writer - and down to the Doctor's own bravery and self-sacrifice. Choosing to forego his helmet (in order to give it to Bill) proves he sees himself as being in loco parentis to his companion and that, as he once brokenly told Clara, he believes he has a duty of care. Given that the Doctor once also made it a point to tell Clara Oswald he was no longer a hugging person (post regeneration) it's apt and poignant that Bill hugs, warmly, exuberantly - glomping and clinging onto the Doctor in relief and jubilation that she has indeed survived.
Stunningly, for Doctor Who (given it's children's or family drama) there is a visceral cost. The Doctor's eyesight is damaged - Capaldi donning white contact lenses - the Timelord blinded. Coupled with the loss of his sonic screwdriver (which was fried and bent like Ron Weasley's broken wand) and separated from the TARDIS which is parked beyond bulkhead doors,(in a portion of the station devoid of all breathable atmosphere) the Doctor is left with his razor-sharp intellect and a best guess. Best weapons ever for the Doctor of War, who never carried a gun.
Mathieson's characterisation is fabulous, the writing raised further still by consummate, deft, performances on the part of Pearl Mackie, Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas; as well as the actors cast as supporting characters. Here I'm thinking predominantly of Peter Caufield who has a small but pivotal role as Dahh-ren. The interplay between Cauflield and Mackie was pitch perfect, the latter double-taking to see such a vibrantly blue-skinned being, the former rolling his eyes and declaring her a racist. I'd quibble with the term racist, given that if anything Bill is being ’speciest’, but it's a lovely moment and one which links the present day to the possible, fictional, future brilliantly. I particularly liked Mackie playing Bill's gobsmacked incredulity at being labelled a racist herself. Aside from her shock, given that Bill Potts is a person of colour, this gently reminds viewers that racism doesn't exist solely from a Westernised, first-world perspective replete with white privilege. Regrettably there are other, less signal-boosted prejudiced positions in this world.
Pearl Mackie is a really strong actress, especially when given solid material. Here she was fantastic at conveying the jubilation and excitement of being in space, before the script called for serious unease (at the discovery of the the dead crewman left standing upright in the space suit) then - in the latter half of the episode - terror, relief and sorrow. Mackie was utterly believable in her portrayal, as Bill's life is jeopardised and then saved. So too when Bill realises the cost of her salvation to the Doctor, before he lies to her. Pearl Mackie is a lovely actress and I assume acting opposite her makes it truly easy for Peter Capaldi to embody the fondness the Doctor feels for Bill.
Chemistry between Mackie, Capaldi and Lucas is strong and, for once this series, Nardole doesn't feel like a third wheel. Quipping about his ex-girlfriend reminded me somewhat of a tale which might have been spun by Captain Jack Harkness, though "g" rated in this case. I loved the three way hug, particularly given Nardole/Matt Lucas's little grin as he hugs them both belatedly, implying he may have failed to read the moment correctly, but that he's hugging them anyway. For a brief moment there's a spark of reminiscence harking back to Amy and her boys, but that was probably wishful thinking on my part.
I never expected the Doctor's blindness to persist; for him to be sitting at his desk, yoyo in hand (reminiscent of both the Tenth and Fourth Doctor) admitting to Nardole that he can't look at him because he can never see anything again. That threw me completely. It's a fantastic hook, narratorially, in that it places the Doctor at a considerable disadvantage, (which may yet prove an invaluable advantage given the trailer for the next episode) going forward into the second half of the series. It also stunned me given that this series has been listing towards children's television, away from young adult drama. I would have expected difficulties and distressing events to be hand-waved away by the closing titles.
With Oxygen Jamie Mathieson celebrates the Doctor as professor, teacher, detective and intellectual. He withholds the Dieu Ex Machina tools we know and love and then disadvantages the Doctor further still, robbing him of his sight. And so the Doctor is challenged to solve a life-threatening situation, armed with little more than his wits whilst all about him are losing theirs. He still saves the day, sticks it to the corporate man, and possibly triggers the rebirth of the unionisation of the workforce.
Jamie Mathieson is a master of drama and pacing and also shows a deft hand at characterisation. His episodes are an utter joy to watch.