Watch a show like Doctor Who and the dangers of space travel fall away. It’s easy to forget that the universe is mostly a vacuum, inhospitable to life. But in “Oxygen,” The Doctor, Bill and Nardole discover that zombies aren’t as dangerous as the lack of atmosphere.
Or as The Doctor says in his school lecture at the start, “Space: the final frontier.” Of course, he adds the less-romantic caveat that it’s final because it wants to kill us. Not only is breathable air a necessity in the great void, but so is atmospheric pressure. These elements become unstable when the trio answer a distress call on a mining space station.
When they arrive, they discover that oxygen is only available for sale within space suits. There’s no air on the station itself. And before they arrived, the suits received an order to “deactivate your organic component.” So the people inside the suits are dead, but the tech lets them still move around. And every suit tries to infect those with still living people in them. Hence, the space zombies! The makeup is pretty good, giving a creepy, frozen look to the zombies to fit the setting.
For our heroes, the situation keeps moving from bad to worse. First, the TARDIS and sonic screwdriver are taken away. Then, when the survivors need to space walk, Bill’s helmet malfunctions. It’s a freaky sequence when she’s exposed to the vacuum of space, slowing down to see her body’s reaction. So The Doctor does the only thing he can. He gives Bill his helmet for the space walk. They get through mostly alright, but he’s blinded by the experience.
As the crew is slowly picked off, The Doctor realizes that the command given to the suits wasn’t an accident. Since the crew was no longer considered profitable, the company they work for decided to kill them off. As The Doctor says, it’s the end point of capitalism where life has no value at all. Or simply put, like every worker ever, they’re “fighting the suits.” To win, the Doctor does what he does best: uses his enemy’s techniques against them. He hooks up the survivors’ life signals to the reactor core. If they die, the space station blows, creating a huge profit loss for the company. It’s a nice, relevant bit of political commentary. The remaining crew lives, The Doctor restores his eyesight in the TARDIS and they return home. Success.
You would think that would wrap everything up neatly, making this a standard episode of Doctor Who. Not bad, not great. But in a shocking conclusion, it turns out that The Doctor is still blind. Space is dangerous and unforgiving towards everyone, even its heroes. We’ll see how this impacts him going forward.
– The biggest downside to “Oxygen” is that it gives Bill very little to do. Half of the episode, she’s unconscious or a zombie. The rest of the supporting cast isn’t strong enough to make up for this shortchange either.
– Bill asks for reviews of space stations to figure out where to go. Given how space stations usually wind up on Doctor Who, that’s not a bad idea!
– Bill had a pretty appropriate reaction to a space station full of dead people, wanting to run back to the TARDIS. But The Doctor has a great line about showing your true face when responding to those who ask for help.
– Bill: “Do people ever hit you?” The Doctor: “Well, only when I’m talking.”