“Space, the final frontier. Final, because it wants to kill us.” Against Nardole’s better judgment, and contrary to the oath he took to guard the vault, the Doctor takes Bill and Nardole for a trip into space. And of all the places he could have chosen, of course, the Doctor picks the one with the distress signal. A mining ship is having problems with its space suits. Designed for best economic efficiency, the suits are programmed to deliver a limited amount of oxygen before the wearer has to buy more. Any unlicensed oxygen will be filtered out of the suit, killing the occupant. However, the suits on this ship have received a single line command: “Deactivate your organic component.” Deactivation involves shutting down the wearer’s central nervous system. When the TARDIS team arrive, there are four of the forty crew members still alive, thanks to their suits being offline when the message was sent. Thirty-six zombie suits are, however, roaming the ship hunting down the survivors. Was this command a malfunction, or is someone trying to kill the crew? Cut off from the TARDIS, and facing insurmountable odds, the Doctor needs to figure out who sent the command and why before they all join the walking dead…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Episode five of New Who Season 10 takes us deep into space, and pits the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole against space zombies. Written by Jamie Mathieson, who brought us “Mummy on the Orient Express,” “Flatline,” and “The Girl Who Died,” this episode is, in my estimation, the best of the season so far. It’s an interesting concept with some foundational science, and plenty of OMyGoodness moments to keep the viewer riveted to the screen. There are some significant plot developments too that will, no doubt, play into the larger themes of the “vault” and the Doctor’s upcoming regeneration. While there isn’t a “bad guy” in the traditional sense, there is at least a malevolent force behind the drama in the form of capitalism taken to an extreme, where human life is expendable for the sake of saving, or making, money. “Profit over people” is, sadly, something we see all to often in real life, and this was a creative way of connecting the other-worldly with the familiar.
The space adventure starts with the Doctor giving Bill the choice of destination. She wants to see reviews, something like online hotel ratings, to find the best place. For the Doctor, however, the universe really only shows its true face when it’s asking for help, which is why he gravitates to where there’s a distress signal. A short while later, when Bill wants to run from the danger, the Doctor puts to her the other side of this: “We show ours by how we respond.” I’ve noted in past reviews how much a Who story is strengthened when the Doctor has clear motive for staying. Here we have the Doctor’s reason for not running back to the TARDIS: there was a distress signal, and it’s not in his character to walk (or run) away from that. He has to help. Of course, they have further reason to stick around when they are separated from the TARDIS by a door that’s vacuumed sealed. But at least we have a credible reason why the Doctor doesn’t just leave at the first sign of life-threatening danger.
When the Doctor and Bill encounter the first corpse, he is just a lifeless body standing in a suit. This introduces us to the idea of the suits having a “life” of their own (albeit robotic). Even when the wearer is dead, they can stay upright, and can keep track of oxygen use. They then come across an unoccupied suit doing manual labor, showing us that the suits don’t have to be worn in order to function, at least on a basic level, and can communicate via synthesized speech. Both of these concepts are important for understanding the situation on board the ship. I appreciate this kind of thoughtful writing, where important plot points are incorporated naturally into the story early on to preclude later questions.
One very interesting scene is when Bill meets the blue crew member. Of course, she is taken aback–this is the first alien humanoid life she has encountered that doesn’t look like Earth humans. His reaction, “Great–we rescued a racist!” is understandable, and ironic, considering Bill has been the object of racism herself. Then, when she talks to him slowly, and Anglicizes his name, he is understandably ticked off. Bill isn’t trying to be racist, but this little interaction shows how easy it is to offend by thoughtlessness, and mirrors the way many people treat “foreigners” in our societies. Especially in the West.
As if being chased by zombies wasn’t dramatic enough, the Doctor seemingly sacrifices Bill when her suit malfunctions and she can’t move. The zombies catch her, and we see her get zapped. The Doctor tells her to trust him, but only later do we find out he had determined her suit didn’t have enough power to deliver a lethal shock. She recovers, but the Doctor spent too long in a decompressed environment trying to get her to safety, with the result that he is blind. Right up to the end, we are led to believe his blindness is temporary. But, as he reveals only to Nardole, it’s not. At least for the next episode, if not longer, we’ll have a blind Doctor!
Finally, the Doctor’s solution to the zombie suit problem is ingenious. Since the computers running the algorithms that determine who is expendable are driven by profit, make it inefficient and costly to kill the life forms. He does this by programming a connection between them and the ship–if they die, the station will blow, and the company will lose its means of making money. “Our deaths will be expensive!”
This is good Who, with not much to fault–at least in my estimation. It was a bit convenient that there were three “offline” suits available to the TARDIS team, so they wouldn’t be affected by the deadly message. But the suits were offline for repairs, which then makes sense of why Bill’s suit would malfunction.
“Oxygen” is well worth watching, and restores my hopes for the rest of the season after last week’s half-good episode.
What did you think?