Wednesday, 17 May 2017
Doctor Who: Oxygen (Episode Review)
So, here we go then, from one horror trend to the next. It seems that this new series is bouncing back and forth between eras, giving it a bit more balance than the prior outings. We've had a pilot which went everywhere, a jump to the future, a past story, a modern day story, and now it's the future once again. This can help to give the series a little more variety, but given how soon this current story follows on from one with very similar horror elements, it seems ill placed.
Rather than old secrets this time, it's technology which is slowly killing the denizens of the far future, albeit of a very different sort than Smile. As the Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive on a distant space mining station, they soon find it filled with the bodies of the dead. There are only a small handful of survivors left, as the rest have been killed by the very equipment intended to keep them alive.
This is another teaser which gives the game away, but it proves to be much more akin to last week's Knock Knock over Smile. Rather than completely giving away the twist, it leaves you questioning just how in the hell certain things are taking place, and introduces the audience to the big threat of the story. While sadly drawn out, it is at least good enough to keep you hooked and build up a sense of dread as the Doctor and co. walk into a situation where they are under threat from the moment they exit the TARDIS.
There's a clear sense of dread as they poke about the station, uncovering a few of the corpses and trying to put the pieces together as to what has gone so horribly wrong. It's very classic Who in that sense, and while it only lasts just long enough to get a few points across, it's succinct and direct. There's little dead air or blather present here, and the episode leaves little room to really seem as if it is dragging its feet or trying to avoid the action. The moment one idea ends it moves quickly onto the next, meaning you're never left overexposed even to foes which are effectively technological zombies. The fact there's even a visible ticking clock, or something which is almost as good as one, also helps you to stay focused upon the fact the heroes are living on borrowed time, and the slightest thing going wrong could easily harm them.
The story is also another one helping to introduce Bill to the Doctor's life, or at least parts of it. After three episodes she has a solid idea of what time travel will entail and even the issues of heading into the distant past, but this is a chance to once again show something entirely new. Future trends, changes and even a few oddities are always a fun contrast to see with modern day companions, and Bill's reaction to seeing an alien for the first time is one of the episode's more humourous highlights. Normally this initial episode would try to show the wonders of the far future or even suggest a brighter hope for what is to come, but by instead showing a grimier and darker era it manages to retain a sense of freshness to events. We already know just how brilliant time travel can be, something which Thin Ice established quite nicely, so delving into the more horrifying qualities of discovering dark secrets is a nice contrast. In fact, combined with Knock Knock it even helps to establish the idea that everywhere has its secrets and nowhere is truly safe from the Doctor's foes.
It has to also be said that the character moments present, while fleeting, were solid on the whole. Nardole has sadly been given little to work with since his re-introduction, and while he is an excellent foil for the Doctor, his presence can seem understandably superfluous. Here though, it's clear he's present to do a few of the things Bill can't. His greater experience means that he can constantly try to hold back the Doctor and remind him of his duties, or work the more advanced sci-fi equipment, along with offering someone else for the two to converse with. Something which, even in characters who were often regulated to background roles, has always helped substantially in keeping the plot moving. It's a good touch, and the final couple of scenes do help to fully cement this fact, even if some of his efforts are put down to comedy more than drama.
Still, I imagine some of you are wondering more about the strength of the story and the scares over long running series themes. Well, the story certainly has its moments. There are some flaws, some big flaws, here and they do stand out, but the script has a few clever moments despite this. Zombies - because that's effectively what they are - have become incredibly overdone, and even throwing them into space isn't that big of a gimmick these days. If you bring that up, people just think of Dead Space. However, the enemy here is creepy because it has something of a unique edge. It's a dead body on auto-pilot, hijacked by the very thing which was supposed to keep them alive. There's something insanely grim about the concept, and time and time again we see processes and procedures which were supposedly meant to safeguard the workers turning upon them.
The story even avoids a few of the more typical zombie tropes. There's purpose to their actions, a kind of singular group approach to every failing and problem put before them rather than merely milling about. So, while they might indeed be limited to a few lines of thought, the intelligence of their procedures still makes them capable of overcoming many unexpected problems; forcing the crew to often approach them via unexpected blind spots. This keeps the story going and makes sure that there is some new threat which arises just as soon as the old one starts to disappear, ensuring that the tale never drags and you're rarely left waiting for something exciting to pop up. Plus, someone on the creative team must have been working overtime, as the moment things start to seem overly dull or unremarkable something pulls you back in. It could be a line, a shot or even a musical cue, but it's enough to keep you focused upon the tale, and a personal favourite is the reveal of the "zombies" on the ship's exterior.
Unfortunately, there are some problems here. Big ones, which holds back the tale from being the first true classic of what has been a solid but somewhat unremarkable season so far.
So, what's the great failing above all? The message. Capitalism is bad? Yes, thank you Oxygen, I think we all know it has its problems. There's a very puerile approach the story takes to the subject, and it's unwilling to give any middle-ground, showing capitalism as a whole as some Sauron-esque entity. While a few ideas certainly work like oxygen being paid for in breaths rather than time and some of the unsafe procedures, it just keeps going until it becomes farcical. It keeps undermining the story at a few points, and when the Doctor says "It's us against the suits!" it's difficult to know whether to laugh or facepalm.
The fact that its themes and ideas are so openly broadcast to the viewer means that the twist ending is obvious from the start. Oh it's smart, and the visuals which gives the tech a HAL 9000 look would have been a brilliant way to distract someone from the possible reveal, but there's practically no hiding the truth here. The writer all but placed a big sign saying "THIS IS WHY EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG!" over the closing scenes, destroying what should have been a fantastic final moment.
Perhaps most of all though, Oxygen never manages to actually capitalize on any of its themes or ideas. Space is dangerous, very dangerous, and a fantastic opening speech by Capaldi describing the effects of explosive decompression is chilling. Yet, this only comes into play for a single scene, before its forgotten. Equally, while the whole "counting breaths" idea on how much oxygen they're allowed is solid, it's just a background element. It never serves as the proper ticking clock the episode needed, nor does it actually come into play as a serious danger outside of a couple of brief mentions that they're running out of time.
Perhaps most pressingly of all however is the ending. There's a big shock twist which is supposed to serve as a hook, or to keep people interested for what follows, but it only works if you ignore a few things. Without giving too much away, the Doctor is hurt. Badly. He's practically disabled in his current state and vulnerable to attacks, and there's no clear way to fix it with what they have on hand. The problem? Time Lords can regenerate at will, and if the excess energy of that can re-grow a hand, then it seems unlikely that his wound would even slow him down. Atop of this, the TARDIS can go to any time and place, and we have seen miracle surgeons practically resurrecting people over and over again.
It's a well executed final scene to keep people hooked, but it only lasts until you actually start to think about how easily it can be overcome.
Oxygen is ultimately very hit and miss. There's plenty of great stuff which goes throughout the entire tale, and some very fun scares, but for every step it makes forwards, it almost immediately takes one back. It's worth watching a couple of times, and it is definitely one of the best thus far this series, but there's no hiding its critical flaws. Give it a look if you're at all interested, but be ready to wince at a few moments of abject stupidity.