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The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole confront space zombies and ruthless space capitalism in what is easily the best episode of Season 10 so far, and one of the best episodes of the Capaldi era of the show.
In “Oxygen,” The Doctor finds himself pining for a trip to outer space. Despite Nardole constantly reminding him of his oath to safeguard the mysterious Vault, The Doctor just can’t stay put and decides to take Bill on another trip – except this time Nardole tags along. The trio respond to a distress signal from a space station, where the majority of the crew have died – except that hasn’t stopped them from walking around and trying to kill whomever’s left. On top of that, oxygen is in scarce supply, as the company that owns the space station has turned it into a commodity.
The past three episodes didn’t really do much of anything with the university, so it was good to see The Doctor back to lecturing here, albeit briefly. His little speech about the dangers of space was both effectively creepy and a solid way to set up how cooped up he feels.
The monster of the week is technically space zombies, although really it’s more of a variation of an idea Steven Moffat introduced way back in Season 4’s Library two-parter. At any rate, they’re a pretty ghastly threat – but what makes “Oxygen” such a great episode is that they’re far from the only problem the TARDIS gang have to face.
As the title itself implies, the main issue is the limited amount of oxygen. In order to breathe, The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole have to wear space suits with a built-in oxygen supply – since the company in charge was stingy, everyone has only about 3,000 breaths. In addition, Bill’s suit is malfunctioning, which leads to several really tense scenes.
“Oxygen” has what none of the previous episodes this season were able to bring to the table – a true sense of urgency and danger. The stakes are high and the situation is truly dire. The episode’s forward momentum, gripping scenario, and sharp writing will keep you glued to your seat.
Matt Lucas’s Nardole gets his first proper outing as a companion and “Oxygen” gives him more to do than just being the comic relief. Granted, he’s still mostly there to make jokes, and he’s actually quite good at that – but there’s another dimension to the character here, as his frustration with The Doctor breaking his oath reaches new heights.
Visually, “Oxygen” is pretty impressive. It’s impossible not to notice the TV budget shortcuts (lots of familiar looking corridors and such), especially right after seeing a high-budget sci-fi production like Alien: Covenant, but that’s not a knock on the episode – it makes the most out of its limitations and establishes an effectively spooky atmosphere.
One of the biggest twists this episode had in store deserves to be acknowledged, but first, a [spoiler warning]. If you haven’t seen the episode yet and want to be surprised, skip the next paragraph.
The Doctor subjecting himself to the vacuum of space to protect Bill and becoming blind in the process added another layer of urgency to the episode, but the final scene revealed that this wasn’t a temporary ailment – The Doctor remains blind and since this is Capaldi’s final season, it’s quite possible that he will remain blind until he regenerates.
It’s a shocking development that not only sets up some really interesting possibilities for future episodes, but propels “Oxygen” from great to amazing. There is no neat solution that wraps everything up nicely by the end – the trio escapes and even save some of the crew, but there are lasting consequences. The Doctor finally pushed his luck too far and now he has to deal with it
Writer Jamie Mathieson is responsible for some of the best episodes of the Capaldi era, such as “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “The Girl Who Died.” “Oxygen” is another major win for him – a truly fantastic episode.