Five episodes into Series Ten, with almost half the run now over, and we’re still being introduced to Bill Potts. There was a moment during Oxygen where Bill would have been happy to turn tail and flee, but the Doctor stops her. “Crew of forty,” says the Doctor. “I’ve got 36 records of life signs terminated”. This should have been Bill’s moment to prove what she’s learned over the course of the last four adventures, to have recognised the Doctor’s position as the policeman of the universe, to have registered what happens when the Doctor and his friends don’t step in and help – to at the very least have acknowledged that there might very well be four people still alive and breathing on the Chasm Forge. But when Nardole claps his hands together and says, “Okay then, back to the TARDIS!”, it’s all Bill can do to agree.
It was a moment of clumsiness that threatened to unravel what was in most ways an otherwise exceptional episode. Because we’ve seen Bill face mortal danger and survive and want to continue travelling with the Doctor, and we’ve seen her come to understand that facing terrible threats and yet still doing the right thing is what the Doctor does; she’s basically told people as much. Here, what was obviously planned to be a moment of doubt given the gravity of the situation, played instead as the Doctor testing a new potential companion, the one who said, “I thought we were going home”, halfway through Smile, only to find her unsuitable. And not just on account of the maths.
And here we are, five episodes down and seven to go, with a companion who feels natural and ordinary and all the things the fans who didn’t like Clara were hankering after. Yet but for a couple of obvious moments of recognition – “Didn’t we just fill this place with air?” – she felt like a passenger in this episode, there to be a victim in need of rescuing, rather than somebody who’s come along in order to be part of the rescue party. It’s Nardole’s job to be the victim (a role he essays very well); if Bill isn’t enthused into helping out, you have to wonder why the Doctor would keep wanting to bring her along. In the modern series, it isn’t enough to be ordinary – even if that ordinary includes bright and questioning and able to understand situations the Doctor can’t; other episodes have given Bill every reason to be part of the TARDIS team. Oxygen has her pointing things out the Doctor or Nardole should have noticed already; things we’ve noticed from the comfort of our sofas. The companion has to be somebody the Doctor needs to have around. But this week, she wasn’t. And that undermined the episode almost fatally.
The temperature of Oxygen was very much the temperature of classic Doctor Who, and it seemed designed to appeal as much to fans of the original series as it did those of the revival. Following such a very cheeky opening line, the rest of the episode checked its playfulness in at the airlock (Nardole didn’t get the memo) and instead went full-tilt for Import and Message. This was Doctor Who in prime Sci-Fi as Real-World Analogy mode, and for those who’d missed the anti-capitalism messages in recent weeks – although particularly in the case of the on-the-nose Thin Ice they weren’t especially difficult to spot – here the allusions weren’t so much insinuated throughout the plot, as bludgeoned into your face in a way that surely only preaches to the already converted. And that’s fine, Doctor Who does that from time to time. The Doctor is one of television’s most blatantly liberal heroes after all. But the notion that a future society might have learned so little from the slow crawl up from the prehistoric slimes of survival of the fittest to the shining peaks of humanist values, that it would be allowed to get away with programming its equipment to do away with the human components should they prove unprofit-making – a deliberate ignorance of Asimov that also nagged away at Smile – left the suspension of disbelief feeling slightly beggared. This was very much the sub-text of the Alien movies and the relationship between the expendable crews and their corporate paymasters writ large into the uber text, and it felt just a bit too obviously designed to invoke a response. The notion that unions by this time exist only in myth was inserted to make a point in an amusing way, but wasn’t enough of a surprise to invoke much in the way of a response. All subtlety was surrendered to a sermon.
In common with the classic series, but in deference to the revival, the characterisations favoured verisimilitude over entertainment value, with the odd allowance for making emotional connections. “As soon as my radio’s fixed,” was a smart way of introducing not just tension but also urgency and humanity into an opening scene that might otherwise have felt very by-the-numbers, and the survivors’ desire to visit Head Office at the conclusion was a nod to the notion that humankind wasn’t without hope despite what the rest of the episode was apparently trying to say. But there was little in the way of characterisation of the Chasm Forge crew between times, with the notable exception of Peter Caulfield’s wonderfully blue Dahh-Ren. Everybody else felt very real and the actors did an excellent job of giving everything the appropriate amount of gravity, but nobody was having a lot of fun this week. Doctor Who can and should try on different outfits every week of course, but in spite of the involving nature of the plot we would imagine an inverse ratio between the amount of love this episode gets from the hardcore of fandom – those that value Seasons Seven and Eighteen and The Caves of Androzani above Sylvester McCoy and Terror of the Autons and Donald Cotton – and its final viewing figure. This was Malcolm Hulke as rewritten by Christopher H. Bidmead, a story that dwelt more on its plot than the people who inhabited it, and that revelled in its ideas almost at the expense of connecting those ideas to its audience. It was the antithesis of Mathieson’s previous script The Girl Who Died, a story about the people overcoming the odds rather than the odds they were overcoming.
Which is where the three regulars come in, of course. Matt Lucas was exactly what we would have had if Skinner had stuck around after Mummy on the Orient Express, and the peril that Bill underwent served to distract us from the seriousness of the sacrifice the Doctor was making. Because for once, this was an episode that didn’t just nip at the margins of having an effect on the Doctor – albeit this being the Doctor whose character has undergone the most fundamental, gradual and deliberate change, that over the course of three years though – rather, it was an episode that left him with a huge, physical disability that will no doubt have massive consequences over the coming week or weeks. It would be a shame if, now that Capaldi’s Doctor has finally arrived in a place where it’s become easy to fall in love with his portrayal, this new addition (or subtraction) were to unsettle that.
Oxygen also continued in the vein of the rest of Series Ten in that it appeared to foreshadow the Cyberman story later in the run. Whether any of what we’ve seen will actually be instrumental in bringing the finale together remains to be seen, but there’s no question there’s been a running theme of humanity subserving itself to technology. It might just be that Moffat’s constant “clues” to Bill having a hidden identity as the Doctor’s granddaughter are simply put there as red herrings, a distraction from the real work he’s undertaking in re-establishing the Cybermen and their origins – or it might be the other way around. Or it might, of course, be neither, we’ll just have to wait and see.
In the end, Oxygen was a consummate exercise in fulfilling its own ambitions, and in this respect it succeeded absolutely. Tense, thrilling, dangerous, it threatened its regulars and for once neither cheated nor pulled back from the precipice, and at something much more than a superficial level it was Doctor Who taking itself to its outer limits and examining how far those limits could be pushed. As such, it was far from “standard” fare for the programme, and if it allowed itself some slack in other respects, in that one at least it should be lauded.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 5: “OXYGEN” / DIRECTOR: CHARLES PALMER / WRITER: JAMIE MATHIESON / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, KIERAN BEW, JUSTIN SALINGER, PETER CAULFIELD, MIMI NDIWENI / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 13TH MAY)