Zombies in space. It was only a matter of time. The fifth episode of the latest season of DOCTOR WHO, a hitherto soft-reboot for showrunner Stephen Moffat’s final season, goes straight for the rich vein of hard sci-fi that runs through the show’s 54 year history. Tackling corporatisation this week, it’s a plotline that could have stepped straight out of the middle years of Tom Baker’s run. It also foreshadows the ultimate departure of Peter Capaldi. [Avast ye! Minor spoilers be ahead].
The Doctor (Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie), and a reluctant Nardole (Mat Lucas) head into the depths of space, where a distress beacon has alerted them to a mining station in trouble. Half the crew appear to be dead, and the remaining members are subject to a commercially rationed oxygen supply. To make matters worse, the Doctor and company are also at the mercy of the same restrictions, and the dead are not quite as inert as they initially appeared.
Ignoring for now the fact that “Oxygen” thematically mirrors the plot of the second episode of the season, in which A.I. decide what is best for the humans in their care, this week provides some terrific moment-to-moment action. Given the confines of the 45 minute plotting, it’s a real fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants affair, as one insurmountable hurdle is presented right after the other. It’s an episode that’s constantly aware of its own machinations, from the slightly trolling opening (the Doctor’s “Space: the final frontier” monologue) to its intertextual dialogue with the zombie genre. Indeed, the corporate satire can’t help but recall Dawn of the Dead.
This is also one of the first episodes this season where Bill’s fledgling trust in the Doctor is put to the test, left with no choice but to give herself over to the pinball workings of the Time Lord’s brain. While this deus ex machina approach has marred many of the episodes so far this year, here writer Jamie Mathieson (whose “The Mummy on the Orient Express” had a zombie-esque theme) wields the trope like a blade. Nardole acts as the voice of the viewer, and his pragmatic questioning gives Lucas some delightfully dry moments in his first full outing this season.
Eschewing the typical discussion of the mysterious Vault, “Oxygen” instead leaves us with a massive cliffhanger. While it will no doubt find a solution in the very near future, it’s also a giant signpost that the end of the Twelfth Doctor’s era is nigh. Setting us up for a unique sixth episode next week, “Oxygen” may not necessarily go down as the most original episode to date, but it still manages to work as a thrilling rollercoaster along the way.