After Knock Knock proved to be a fun but hollow experience, it’s time for wunderkind Jamie Matheson to deliver. Matheson exploded onto the Who scene in Series 8 with the single best double bill of any new writer, Mummy On The Orient Express and Flatline. Both absolutely terrific stories, finding the perfect balance of humour, scares and mystery, that gave a much needed burst of energy to what had been a very average run of stories. The Girl Who Died, from Series 9, was a step down in terms of great storytelling but had enough compelling ideas and humourous moments to see it through.
Oxygen sees Matheson move away from fun period adventures, and into the realm of high octance space thrillers ala Life, Alien and Gravity. The Doctor, Bill and a reluctant Nardole wind up on a space station, deep in the cosmos, where capitalism has gone into overdrive, oxygen has to be paid for, and the spacesuits have one common command: terminate their ‘organic components’.
While certainly not a bad story, Oxygen feels eerily hampered by the same issues that watered down Girl Who Died last series: a great concept, with good moments, truncated by a disposable supporting cast, a showpiece midpoint sequence being montaged through, and a rushed ending that feels like it has to make way for the set up of something bigger (which I won’t spoil, but it ties back to the Vault). Matheson is clearly an effective writer, but when he’s restrained by the demands of the bigger picture, his work greatly suffers for it.
The premise of combining a claustrophobic space thriller with an extreme take on capitalism gone mad is the strongest aspect of the story, and the episode does wisely take time to allow some mediation upon it. Seeing how everything is so carefully micromanaged and penny pinched offers some interesting food for thought, like you could definitely see how we could end up there, as well as a novel twist on the standard ‘space zombie’ monster.
The supporting cast, though their characters lack any real dimension or strong personalities, are well played, but it’s Capaldi and Mackie who get the best material here (Lucas is fine, but still hasn’t had much room to shine). The episode pushes them hard into corners, making them as weak and handicapped as possible, which generates some terrific tension as both struggle to survive in a situation spiralling out of control. Mackie, proving her dramatic chops here, really sells Bill’s fear and despair as it looks like the Doctor may finally fail here. That little moment might actually be one of the scariest moments in the series thus far.
Fair props, also, to Charles Palmer’s direction and the production values: the grim, grey corridors of the space station create an effective isolation and coldness that helps add to the tension, and how they’re shot helps give the killer suits a lot of menace and prescence: They’re almost like a swarm of locusts, crowding and surrounding the station, and our heroes, at every turn. It’s just a shame that it ends up feeling a little lax: without the calibre of supporting cast from past Matheson scripts, a lot of the edge and intensity is missing, weakening the threat factor and drama.
Oxygen has a lot of ingredients to be a fantastic episode, and in some ways, it is better than Girl Who Died: it’s structurally tighter and offers a more inventive premise. On the other hand, it has a weakened emotional undercurrent, its obvious reuse of familiar elements from other space thrillers comes off as more arbitrary than charming, and it lacks the character detail that made Mummy and Flatline so memorable. If this is to be Matheson’s last Who story, given that Chibnall wants a clean slate for next year, it would a real shame to end on this note: For any other writer, this would be a very decent, bordering on good, episode, but by Matheson standards, it’s a let down.
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