Season 10, Episode 5 “Oxygen”
Directed by Charles Palmer
Written by Jamie Mathieson
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Kieran Bew, Mimi Ndiweni
Air date: May 13, 2017
Ah, now that’s more like it. After a somewhat tepid attempt at atmospheric haunted house horror last week, Doctor Who brings us a full-throated example of zombie horror in Episode 10.5 “Oxygen.” Drawing on a diverse series of film influences that use horror and jeopardy to entertain as well as launch social and economic critiques, experienced Doctor Who hands Charles Palmer (“Smith and Jones,” “The Shakespeare Code”) and Jamie Mathieson (“Mummy On The Orient Express,” “Flatline”) create a tense, kinetic episode that is much of what Episode 10.4 “Knock Knock” wasn’t and raises the average quality of the episodes this season to a very respectable place. More about the episode and its influences after the jump.
This episode has some clear and obvious antecedents. The first one that comes to mind is 2001: A Space Odyssey. An atmospheric and intellectual film, its third quarter concerns itself with the human/machine relationship and the helplessness of humans caught in the complex technological systems when two astronauts must deal with an artificially intelligent computer that has gone mad while on a voyage from Earth to the planet Jupiter. The film is known for a number of things, including its dazzling visuals and the razor-sharp tension it invokes with the pleasant, mild, measured tones of Douglas Rain, the voice of the computer HAL.
References to both are abundant here. They begin with the whirling camera work showing dead bodies in space suits in empty space at the episode’s start along with the wheel-like space station that featured prominently at latter part of the film’s first half. Those visuals are something of a Doctor Who homecoming; series folklore states that Stanley Kubrick supposedly contacted the Doctor Who production office while making 2001 after watching two characters die by airlock ejection into space in the 1965-1966 serial “The Daleks Master Plan” to find out how the effect was achieved. The use of computer voices ratchet gets play here when space suits have an AI with an interface that uses the voice of an actress Nardole knows.
Another influence on the horror here is George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. Made at approximately the same time as the Kubrick film, Dead presents a visceral approach to horror with that deals with issues of race, technology, and politics as the dead rise to lay siege to a Pennsylvania farm house holding a diverse group of frightened individuals. Those individuals feel helplessly caught in a net woven as much by society and international events as anything they’ve done themselves.They must navigate through crisis and overcome what society has made them as much as what it has made the dead, flesh-eating cannibals outside the house.
The connections between that film and this episode are equally strong. Though it doesn’t have the time to really develop the personae of the characters under siege, the basic construction of the latter half “Oxygen” is very much the same. Characters representing different racial and economic backgrounds must navigate social mores and attitudes to survive as they remain under siege by undead army that wants to convert them to its ranks by killing them. Much as with “Thin Ice” two weeks ago, race gets a mention in the script when Bill meets a bright blue humanoid and gets accused of prejudice. That leads to a quick reference to another 1960’s sixties film, Yellow Submarine, that makes the joke “Are you Bluish? You don’t look Bluish.”
Finally, I think this episode must, in much of its commentary and critique, connect with Ridley Scott’s Alien. In that film, a group of rank and file employees on a space freighter are required by contract to land on planet where the encounter the eponymous creature of the title and bring it aboard. There, it kills them one by one. Along the way, the audience discovers much of what the company thinks of its employees. They are essentially worth nothing in comparison to the cargo (both inanimate and living) that are now aboard ship.
This episode launches a similar critique. It begins with the episode’s title, Oxygen. It is something absolutely necessary for human life, and is considered a natural human right by many as a result. Here, it is a metered commodity by an economic system that measures and charges a cost for every aspect of human life. The critique ends with the measure of the value of the humans aboard the space station relative to that of the equipment.
It forms a very rich tapestry of reference and shade that drives the episode forward. Along with way, we also get jeopardy, real jeopardy, for the Doctor and his companions. This episode had me from the word “go” and kept a hold of me all the way to the end.