Saturday, 20 May 2017

Oxygen written by Jamie Matheson and directed by Charles Palmer


This story in a nutshell:
The Silence in the Library meets The Waters of Mars meets Deep Breath…but so much more than an amalgam of those adventures…

Team: The Doctor, Bill and Nardole are such a collection of oddballs when put together that at the beginning of the season I was wondering how that was going to pan out. Basically, the Doctor and Bill works, immediately in The Pilot so it was the addition of Nardole, who has been hanging around for a few years now (technically) on the side-lines. The Doctor and his companion have been enjoying adventures for the past five weeks and Nardole has been making little cameos in each story to remind the Doctor of his responsibilities but now it is his turn to join them in a story and their lives full time. Is that something that can be made to work? I’m pleased to say it is a categorical yes. Oxygen gels the three of them in a way I could have never foreseen and cements them as firm friends and potentially the greatest set of regulars in the Moffat eras. The solution was simple, apparently. Put them in mortal danger in a terrifying setting and watch them suffer but get closer as a result. Throughout you feel that bond between the Doctor and Bill as he agonises over what he has to put her through. Nardole’s humour and sarcasm is much needed in this setting, sometimes it is the only source of levity. At the end once they have been through the excruciating ordeal of thinking that one of their number has died, they come together for a cuddle. It should be twee but it feels triumphant. It feels like the show is celebrating their survival and the fact that it has three likeable, well defined characters spearheading the show once again. Bravo, is all I can say. 

Indefinable: ‘What if you’re wrong?’ ‘Well, we’ll be horribly murdered!’ I have to restate my love for the Doctor as the university lecturer, a role that Capaldi seems immensely comfortable playing. I love it when the Doctor’s academia is stressed and this is done in a way that grounds him on Earth and allows him to be utterly flippant within the role too (he’s supposed to be teaching about crop rotation and instead chatters on about the dangers of space). I’m loving this new approach in series 10, giving the Doctor a responsibility that ties him to the Earth. The Doctor so often freewheels about space and time and it does give the show a wonderfully anarchic and formula breaking premise but every once and a while (the early Jon Pertwee years, the Key to Time) it is good to give the Doctor a responsibility that focuses both the character and the show. It’s impossible to engage him the subject of staying on Earth when he wants to pop off somewhere though, he has all the answers. This is simply a wonderful episode for Capaldi’ Doctor whatever way you look at it. He’s witty and verbose in the first ten minutes, out thinking Nardole into a trip into space. He walks around the station like an animated corpse, horrified by the terminal action that has taken place. At times he’s the scariest thing there. And he’s dangerously intelligent in outthinking the suits and figuring out just what is going on, his brain working until it overheats and forces him to put his companion in terrible danger. And most importantly of all is his dealings with his companions; tender, smart, funny and concerned. Matheson is the ultimate Capaldi writer for me, he just flies off the page in his hands. Giving the Doctor a disability is simply the icing on the cake. Watching him calmly trying to cope with being blind and how it doesn’t affect his ability to heroically work his way out of the situation shows his strength of character. And says to the audience at large that a disability, whilst debilitating, should never hold you back. I can only think of one other time where the Doctor had to fight a capitalist system like this (the BBC novel Anachrophobia) and he walked away from that story in burningly intelligent form too. Although he is becoming something of a modern-day Kathryn Janeway, reaching for the self-destruct button when there is no other option. This is the antithesis of Smile though; the Doctor is given a logical reason for blowing up the station, he’s not just doing it because it feels like it’s the only option left to him. This time, the threat of pressing the button is enough to keep everyone alive. 

Funky Chick: Naturally Bill thinks like a modern-day girl and so when confronted with the idea of going to space she asks the Doctor if there are any reviews of hotspots (the space version of trip advisor). I thought that was very funny. It’d love to work my way through that review site. I’ve seen the ‘oh wow, I’m in space’ a few too many times on NuWho for it to be novel (Cribbins in The End of Time is still my favourite, his sense of wonder is wonderful) but it is still a trademark moment for any companion (it’s certainly more impressive than Adam Mitchell fainting). Bill isn’t being racist when she reacts badly to a blue alien, but I like the idea that she can be accused of being one. More references to Bill’s mother…she’s going to be in this series I tell you. 

Faithful Sidekick: The best use of Nardole since he was first conceived, bar none. For once he is actively engaged in the story and not just a cute presence on its outskirts. Even Mysterio, which did put him in danger seemed to have him along for the ride just for the fun of it. Matt Lucas seizes the chance to play something this dramatic in the series and the result is very surprising: Nardole is actually a character in his own right and not guest star of the week. What’s incredible is that we don’t learn that much about him still, it’s simply a matter of treating him seriously. Is he his sidekick or his jailor? Nardole says it is the Doctor who told him to insist that he stays on Earth but which incarnation did that? Or are we going to see the 12th Doctor tell him at the end of the year and set this whole thing up as a future version of Capaldi putting the season in place? That sounds like a very Moffat thing to do. The fact that I am asking questions about this means I am already more engaged than I have been with previous Moffat mysteries (the Impossible Girl in particular). I really love the fact that Nardole is knowledgeable about the universe and can chip in with useful suggestions and ideas. He’s not just quips and japes. I’ve been waiting for an ‘alien’ companion for some time, somebody like Romana who could talk to the Doctor on an equal level about the universe and what is contained within, I just never thought that person would be played by Matt Lucas. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Space is great, isn’t it?’
‘The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. We show ours by how we respond.’
‘If we want to keep breathing we have only one option. Buy the merchandise.’
‘Please remain calm while your nervous system is disabled.’
‘Like every worker, everywhere…we’re fighting the suits’ – possibly Capaldi’s best line in the series.
‘Our deaths will be expensive!’

The Good:
· I heard Matheson take questions in a convention once and aside from being a fascinating speaker with lots of interesting things to say about his episodes, he pointed out that when it comes to Doctor Who that the characters are often sacrificed to ensure the plot can breathe. He even indicated some scenes that should have taken place in Flatline that would have allowed you to see apparently one-dimensional bullies like Fenton in a whole new light. I’d say in The Girl Who Died he went the other way, he gave his characters plenty of limelight but at the expense of a very slight plot. In Oxygen he seems get the balance just right – there are an abundance of very affecting character moments (the opening scene is a terrific and this story cements the team of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole like never before) but I don’t think anybody can say they are short-changed on incident and excitement in the narrative.
· Whilst the opening kick at Star Trek is a lot of fun (deliberately referencing Star Trek isn’t something I expecting to see on Doctor Who outside of the grotesquely indulgent Deep Space Nine parody Bang Bang a Boom on audio) but it’s making a very deliberate point too about how space is dangerous. This is one of those Doctor Who episode that features a setting that is out to get you straight off the bat. Matheson takes that danger and cranks it up to eleven throughout the episode but the very idea of traipsing around a space station with no oxygen is tense enough without adding malfunctioning spacesuits and dead eyed zombies. Other notable examples of settings that are instantly buttock clenching are Planet of the Daleks, Planet of Evil and Genesis of the Daleks. The scenes shot on the exterior of the station are outstandingly lit and filmed that they feel as though they could have been actual footage that has been taken and superimposed into a Doctor Who episode. I can’t think of an episode in recent years that has instantly planted me in its location so vividly as this. As if the setting wasn’t scary enough, the Doctor then proceeds to spell out the process of oxygen starvation in space, preparing the audience for what the characters (especially poor Bill) will be experiencing late in the episode. To have had the course of oxygen deprivation spelt out beforehand means we’re suffering along with her because we know what she is going through.
· How far can a show like Doctor Who push teatime horror on a Saturday night? Actually quite far, as it has proven to controversial effect before. It’s not a show that often gets under my skin but I’m quite hardly when it comes to television but there are countless times over its long history where you could point and wince ‘too much for children.’ Oxygen definitely counts and is probably one of the most frightening episode since the show returned in 2005 (for the record I would say that Midnight and The Waters of Mars, both on a psychological level, are still moreso). The character that is savaged by zombies on the outside of the station, screaming for help in her spacesuit that cannot be heard as they advance and murder her, is just your starter for ten. The Doctor, Bill and Nardole discover a corpse that is standing up, simply because the spacesuit hasn’t figured to have him lie down. That’s an alarming visual, especially the dead, oxygen starved fish eyes glaring out of the suit. For me, psychological horror is always much more effective and Oxygen features plenty of that too, particularly when it comes to Bill. We really get inside her helmet and experience hell with her. Or outside her helmet should I say as the suit decides to take it off just as the room is about to depressurise. You’re witness to some of the most accomplished direction on Doctor Who in an age when Bill falls unconscious during this sequence. Palmer captures the disorientation, the claustrophobia and the passing of time as Bill falls in and out of consciousness. It’s remarkably well done. I thought that would be creepiest moment of the episode but boy was I wrong…when Bill is told a few hours later that she is going to have to be left at the mercy of slowly advancing zombies and become one of them. The Doctor walks away from her, leaves her to her fate. That simply isn’t done. And Bill is left alone, screaming for her dead mum and for all intents and purposes dies. That’s a phenomenally scary sequence.
· The concept of oxygen being a commodity is an intriguing one and something that I have been thinking about for many years. ‘One day we’ll be paying for our oxygen and sunlight’ is something I’ve been telling people during debates about capitalism and politics for years (let’s not even pretend that those are my primary topics of conversation…they are usually ‘in episode three of the Androids of Tara, did you notice that Tom Baker let one off when he’s offered the throne?’ and ‘I know the cream cake is 300 calories but factor in the walk it took the shop and back means that once I’ve eaten it I’m in calorie deficit.’ But I do have my moments…) and the idea that something that is fundamental to us staying alive being something that you pay for has always fascinated and frightened me. So, to have that notion explored in an episode of my favourite show delights me. And terrifies me. Unlicensed oxygen is expelled to protect business interests, which means the station is actively working against the TARDIS crew for financial motives. Brrr.

The Bad: I wasn’t that enamoured with the guest characters. But they service as victims and a chance for the Doctor to bounce his ideas off of. And they fulfil that function perfectly well.

Result: ‘Bill I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about ten minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?’ Oxygen is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders. If there was any doubt that the series could reach the heights of its NuWho heyday then this was the proof. Whilst it was extraordinary, I can’t include Heaven Sent because it was such an unusual experiment. Oxygen is honest to God, nuts’n’bolts Doctor Who, refined and pitched to perfection. I mentioned in my review of Smile that FCB doesn’t write my kind of Doctor Who (that isn’t to say there aren’t others who find his tensionless sermons perfection itself) and in contrast Jamie Matheson writes exactly my kind of Doctor Who: bold, original, clever, tense, beautifully paced, characterful, funny and satisfying. In the Capaldi era his is the benchmark that everybody else is working to, just as Moffat was the standout under the previous administration. What you have is a threat on the inside (the oxygen suits that are working against you) and the outside (the dead-eyed zombies attacking en masse) and two companions that are allowed to be absolutely terrified. It’s the tensest the show has been in many years, probably since the Moffat era began. And it’s a formula for success that the show traded in for many years in the classic series that I thought had been long forgotten. Add in an already terrifying environment and you have a Doctor Who episode that ticks every single box when it comes to putting the willies up you (oh get a room). This is the bonding exercise that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole needed too, a race to survive together and a feeling that they are a group of friends working together. Each of the regulars gets their best moment of the season to date involving blindness, oxygen starvation and the killer line ‘Look at me!’ Oxygen holds back from being indulgent or overly spectacular like so much of this era, it focuses on a tricky situation with a small group of characters and some dastardly clever ideas. When Moffat makes the joke that he has finally figured out how to show run Doctor Who just as he is leaving is not only very funny in its self-deprecation but also quite true. Charles Palmer directs with exactness, capturing the claustrophobia and terror of the setting with the precision of scalpel. The performances are first rate. The music underscores rather than overwhelming the action. And the final scene is a doozy. I think Oxygen is a modern day classic Doctor Who. I genuinely got short of breath watching this: 10/10

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