This week’s episode of Doctor Who has one heck of a cliffhanger. And it’s a single-parter, so it’s not like it’s an “imminent danger at the midpoint of the story” cliffhanger. It’s more like a “They did WHAT?” kind of cliffhanger. And the rest of the episode is pretty swell, too. I’m not trying to skip to the end but when you get there you’ll know why I’m so impatient for the next episode. Take a deep breath – it’s time for “Oxygen”.
The Doctor does some “Space: The Final Frontier….” narration as we watch two space-suited bodies tumble through the void. Cut to a man and woman on a spacewalk, they do everything they can to establish themselves as tragically doomed, and we learn that their suits monitor oxygen in terms of “credits”. They each get tagged by spacesuit zombies, but don’t roll your eyes yet because it’s a better idea than that.
Back on Earth, the Doctor is teaching a class and telling his students how space can kill you. I really like him having a job, and I’ve always liked how he’s the only Doctor who writes things down, so seeing him scrawl on a blackboard feels so natural. Only it’s a class in crop rotation, so his space lecture doesn’t go over well.
Nardole worries that the Doctor wants to get out there again rather than guarding the vault as he promised. Hanging out with Bill in the TARDIS, he picks up a distress signal and despite a lecture from Nardole, he follows the beacon. So now nobody’s guarding the vault on Earth! They end up on a seemingly deserted space station and quickly come across a dead body standing up in a space suit. (“The suit’s standing up. He’s just along for the ride.”) We also learn that the space suits have sort of an invisible head bubble that keeps air in. So we’re not looking at a bunch of helmets all episode, presumably. Checking the logs, they see that 36 of 40 crew life signs have been terminated and the corporate space station deemed unprofitable. But there are still four people alive and the Doctor is going to save them.
They find an unmanned space suit doing menial tasks and then a talk with the ship’s AI reveals that there isn’t supposed to be oxygen in the station, only in the suits and only at a price. The unlicensed oxygen they pumped in from the TARDIS is going to be expelled. The sonic screwdriver saves them from being vented but it also puts them on the other side of the airlock from the TARDIS. The survivors contact them over the radio and tell them to get out of the repair bay immediately. At that point, a spacesuit zombie crushes the sonic before it’s shocked into oblivion. As much as I love the sonic (I have one right here on the table!), that’s probably a good storytelling move in an episode where locked and unlocked doors could be important. No short cuts for you!
Nardole finds that one line of code was sent to all the suits – eliminate the organic component. So the suits killed their occupants and our heroes need suits to breathe. The Doctor assumes the suits they find were offline for repairs so they won’t be killing them. Also, each one has a set number of breaths in the oxygen supply. Bill is understandably worried about this. They set out to reach the survivors, and Nardole accidentally names the ship’s AI “Velma”. They only barely get to safety before the zombies catch up.
At this point, they meet the survivors (Ivan, Trasker, Abby, and Dahh-Ren) and Bill is a little freaked out by the alien Dahh-Ren who is blue. Like Yondu blue. He’s her first alien, and it’s a surprise. But he reads her reaction as racism, which is pretty funny. Psychic paper convinces everybody the Doctor is from the Union. Bill’s suit glitches and freezes up for a second, which is not important yet. The Doctor takes over and they try to work out who sabotaged the suits. They’re mining copper ore which wouldn’t be worth stealing and they sent a message to their employers but haven’t heard anything. The suits have AI with limited problem-solving, which we see in action when one of them manages to fix the lock and come after them. The good guys run for it but one of the suits catches Trasker and turns him into a zombie. Cornered, they head for the air lock. When they leave the ship, they have to wear helmets – the invisible bubbles can’t survive in a vacuum. But just as they begin depressurization, Bill’s helmet malfunctions and her suit remoes it. The Doctor tells her not to hold her breath because her lungs will explode and then the airlock opens. It’s a blur of motion and distorted sound and Bill seems to pass out before we go to commercial.
More blurry images and quick bits of out of context action. Bill finally wakes up safely aboard the station. She’s alone and can’t move because her suit is offline for diagnostics. Nardole and Ivan show up to greet her – the Doctor hacked her suit to take her on the space walk while she was unconscious. Also, they’re in a section of the station that hasn’t been mapped, so even though they can see the zombies, the suits don’t know that section’s there and can’t enter it. But there’s bad news about the Doctor – he gave Bill his helmet and barely survived. He spent too long in a vacuum and he “paid a price”. Nardole tells her to go see him in Section 12, and the suits hear that. So that’s bad. It’s worse, because the Doctor’s blind. He assures her it’s temporary, in the sense that there’s something in the TARDIS that can fix it. Oh, and they’re almost out of oxygen.
They get a signal that there’s a rescue ship on the way, which tips off the crew that the Doctor isn’t part of a rescue crew and while everybody argues the zombies approach and touch Dah-Renn, killing him. By the way, what’s actually happening is that the zombies (who are really just dead bodies in functioning suits) touch somebody and that transmits the kill code to their suit and they’re electrocuted.
They make a run for it and Bill’s suit freezes again. The Doctor gets a bright idea and asks Bill to touch him. They have to leave her behind, and it will be hand, but she won’t die. He promises and they get away just before the lead zombie touches Bill.
In the control room, the Doctor unveils his plan. To die well. When the suits kill them, it’s going to destroy the whole station. “Revenge as bright as the sun”. Nobody is happy about this. He explains. Nobody hacked the suits. They’re doing what they were programmed to do. It was cheaper to kill everybody – like every worker everywhere, they’re fighting the suits. (Gotta admit, that was pretty clever.) The Doctor lets their enemies in, explaining as they advance that their deaths will destroy the station, which will be very expensive. That’s enough to stop them. It’s more expensive to kill them than let them live, so the suits let them live. Also, a tweak to Bill’s suit brings her back – her malfunctioning suit didn’t have enough energy to kill her. The suits give the survivors their oxygen, to make they stay intact.
And then they’re back in the TARDIS where Nardole blasts the Doctor’s eyes with a science thing. He explains that he didn’t tell anybody his plan because he didn’t want to tip off the suits. Then he offers to bring Abby and Ivan anywhere they want, and they’d like to go to the corporate office to register a complaint.
After he drops them off, and returns to his office, he tells Bill that this is the beginning of the end for the corporation, until the human race makes a new mistake. Also, the Doctor is wearing his sunglasses again. That’s a bad sign. Bill leaves and Nardole starts lecturing. The Doctor tries to get him to stop but he can’t – he’s still blind.
–That is a really good cliffhanger right there. Especially since it’s such a simple, physical thing. The Doctor didn’t get shot with a blindness ray or contract some sort of virus. He ruined his eyes in a vacuum. That might not be a thing he can fix. If he’d been blasted to a parallel dimension, he’d get out of that next week. But I’m sitting here wondering if they’d actually leave him blind for the rest of the season.
This season has really been great. We’ve had a series of standalones that feel like they’re building to something And not just the vault stuff – the Doctor’s relationship with Bill is new and interesting, and I like what they’re doing here. The way she learns about things in drips and drabs and questions everything is a really fun dynamic. And I like that the Doctor still retains the lessons he learned from Clara. He may not remember her, but he’s still been changed. He made Bill decide whether or not to free the monster in “Thin Ice” but he stayed there with her and explained why it had to be her choice. Whereas in “Kill the Moon”, Clara faced a similar choice and he abandoned her, not returning until after. He’s realized that he can hurt people and now tries not to. When he withholds information, it’s for a reason (not wanting the suits to hear), and not for effect. And that makes hiding his blindness even more significant. He may have learned how to treat people, but he’s still terrified of admitting weakness, even to a friend.
And it’s super fun to see Bill experience all the series tropes for the first time. Amy and Clara both served long tenures so we haven’t had many chances in the past six seasons to see somebody’s first trip to a spaceship.
Bill’s mother is going to be super important, by the way, right? That picture turned up again this episode. And given that the Doctor retroactively inserted himself into her life, there’s got to be something there.
And with this week, it’s back to seeming like the thing in the vault is an enemy. But that’s more down to the way Nardole talks about it and I don’t know how much he actually knows. Speaking of Nardole, he makes a weird reference to not having seen his real face in years “I picked his one up on the run”. What the hell? It’s been indicated that he’s a robot, and there’s the issue of his severed head now back in place. Maybe he was always a robot, which would have made reattachment much easier. Maybe he’s a robot duplicate and the Nardole from “The Husbands of River Song” still has his head in a battlesuit. We know so little about him but he definitely wasn’t always what he is now.
The main plot of the episode was nice and clever – Who doesn’t delve into evil corporations all that often, and I think this worked well. And I’m glad for the twist on zombies. The opening gave a very different idea as to what this episode was going to be about, and the actual thing was a lot more interesting. It even felt kind of political, but we live in such a weird world right now where everything seems political, so don’t go by me.
Next week we’ve got a Steven Moffat script, so I assume the vault story is moving forward. Also, the Pope requests an audience with the Doctor and the trailer shows glimpses of Missy and River Song’s diary. Plus, you know, the Doctor is still blind.