Sunday, 14 May 2017
Doctor Who: Oxygen
This felt like the first solid episode of the season—just as I was beginning to fear one would never materialise. The story filled its running time comfortably, its main characters were effectively used, and the CGI was the best we've had all season. Even Matt Lucas earned his wages this week. I quite enjoyed Nardole, actually. Not that he added anything essential to the story, but at least I didn't feel like slapping him.
We've had so many of these spaceship-in-peril stories over the years, that I was fully expecting yet another tepid traipse through base-under-siege territory, but Jamie Mathieson managed to build on his previous Who triumphs ('Mummy on the Orient Express', 'Flatline') and delivered something that was genuinely compelling. (For my money, he's turning into what Steven Moffat was to the Russell T. Davies era: a reliably good storyteller.) True, the ship's crew were the usual bunch of underdeveloped nobodies that we didn't give a shit about, but the story was cohesive and pacy, and despite us knowing that nobody important would die, the threat felt surprisingly real. Mathieson just gets these characters. He also knows how to put both both them and us through the wringer.
The Doctor losing his sight was an inspired story choice. Perhaps the writers can't kill him off yet, but they can certainly make his life more difficult, and this appears to be exactly what Mathieson has done. I'm not sure what they have in mind for the Doctor this season, nor why him being unable to see would be a part of it, but it's a fascinating twist which opens all manner of mouth-watering story possibilities. If his visual impairment can do for this season what Cass's hearing impairment did for last season's 'Before the Flood' (at least in terms of new challenges), then I'm all in. But why is the Doctor keeping his visual impairment a secret from Bill? Is it simply to alleviate any potential guilt she might feel, or is there some other reason why he's keeping shtum about his blindness?
I suppose the obvious worry is that this latest development might somehow play into the Doctor's imminent regeneration. Will he ever get his sight back, or is this the beginning of a fall into decrepitude which will necessarily culminate in his regeneration? That would certainly be something different, to see the Doctor basically fall apart over the course of the series, whilst struggling to save the world. Perhaps we won't get to see the Doctor being unbearable, after all. It would also mean a very different Doctor going into the latter half of the season: a Doctor far more reliant upon his wits, his experience, and the acuity of his two companions. Of course, this might all be a little premature, and he may well get his sight back next week, but let's revel in the story potential a while, shall we?
I know Nardole was kind of pissed at being off-world, but he really needed an episode interacting with the Doctor and Bill to establish his character, and personally speaking, this felt like a partial antidote to my own apathy towards him. I'm not going to lie, I still find him utterly disposable, but Mathieson did gift him with some humorous lines, and at least gave him a reason to be there. I also thought that Bill and the Doctor's dialogue was infinitely more lively this week than in previous outings. The Doctor seemed somehow invigorated, and Bill's horrific predicament gave Pearl Mackie the perfect opportunity to let her acting shine, and as is slowly becoming the norm this season, she elevated the episode significantly.
There were all manner of metaphors and clever satire running through tonight's story: from the hilariously racist banter with Dahh-Ren ('I wasn't expecting... hello!' and 'Some of my best friends are bluish' being particular standouts), to them calling their space attire 'suits', to the rather condemnatory view of capitalism and technology gone mad. Perhaps the tech dig was a little too soon after 'Smile' (an episode which dealt with similar themes), but in view of the coming UK general election, and the seeming impending Tory landslide, the story was both a poignant and timely reminder of the dangers of unchecked capitalism and the perils of turning necessities into commodities.
I'm also wondering whether the sheer awfulness of last week's CGI was due to the beauty of this week's episode. Is this where the money went, because it looked spectacular throughout? The 'suits' looked horrific, the cold open felt vaguely reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the work they did getting across Bill's vacuum ordeal—from the camerawork, to the sound, direction and acting—were all top notch. I'm just hoping that with the colloquially named 'Monks Trilogy' due to kick off next week, and the seeming return of at least one old foe (or so the teaser would have us believe), the show's finally turned the proverbial corner. After what's been (for me at least) a rather ordinary start to the season, things suddenly seem to be looking up.
—I couldn't help but laugh at the cold open: all that talk about wasting breath, yet they still found time to stand around and chat.
—Despite being blind, the Doctor did a terrific job of faking eye contact with everyone aboard the TARDIS.
—What's the score with Bill's mum? Clearly she's going to have some sort of future importance, but it's all so maddeningly vague.
—It made zero sense that an empty spacesuit would have a moulded human-shaped arse.
—Looks like the Doctor's sonic screwdriver is knackered. That was such a weird plot beat. Is him not having a sonic screwdriver going to become an issue later in the season?
Doctor: 'Oh look, Bill, it's Nardole. What a lovely surprise. I thought I'd sent you to Birmingham for a packet of crisps.'
Bill: 'Are you trying to scare us?'
Doctor: 'I'm maxing out your adrenaline. Fear makes you fast. Fast is good.'
Bill: 'Do people ever hit you?'
Doctor: 'Well, only when I'm talking.'
Dahh-Ren: 'Great, we rescued a racist.'
Nardole: 'Some of my best friends are bluish.'
Doctor: 'I'm the Doctor. I will do everything in my power to save all your lives, and when I do, you will spend the rest of them wondering who I was and why I helped you. If anyone's offering a better deal: be my guest.'