Thoughts on: Oxygen

Jamie Mathieson for showrunner.

No, seriously, this was brilliant. It easily takes the prize for the best episode of Series 10 so far—which is really saying something, because this series has been superb and nearly unblemished so far. Even the somewhat trite Knock Knock is rather fun in a weird sort of way, in the same way Closing Time is unfortunate yet oddly fun. But this is now four of four astounding scripts Jamie Mathieson has turned in. Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline were the definitive episodes of Series 8, and, while The Girl Who Died has its detractors, I thought it was brilliant and, if not for Heaven Sent, would have been my pick for the superior episode of Series 9; I’d rank this one above Flatline, on par with Girl but below Mummy. Mathieson is heads above the other regular writers as non-showrunning fan-favourite, and he’s frequently accorded the flattering honorific of “Moffat’s Moffat”. For me he’s the obvious choice for showrunner after Chibnall. Bewilderingly, though, it is looking like this may be the last we see of Mathieson for some time.

Let’s get something out of the way first, though. This was an especially political episode. It was one of the more overtly political scripts of modern Who, and it’s reminiscent of Malcolm Hulke’s stories in its unabashed promotion of ideology, but without Hulke’s taste for analogy. I don’t agree with its politics, but equally I’m damn well not going to mark an episode of Doctor Who down for promoting a political message I disagree with. The episodes with forceful political themes have been some of the most arresting and effective, I’ve found: see Malcolm Hulke and Robert Holmes. A Doctor Who that doesn’t allow writers to be as political as they want to be (just, not too obnoxious, please) is not a Doctor Who I think I really want to watch. But I mean, it’s also that you can practically guarantee that if something on television carries a political message, whatever it is, I’m almost certainly going to disagree with it anyway, so there’s that, too (The Zygon Inversion is the rare exception).

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So, no, this episode’s politics had nothing to do with why I liked it. Since it does take a fairly conspicuous jab at capitalism, though, and since everyone seems to be joining in on the capitalism-bashing, I think I’ll just say briefly that we supporters of the voluntary exchange of goods and services don’t like what’s happening in this episode any more than ye virtuous socialists do. This wasn’t capitalism, for one thing: it was a murder house, it was industrialised serial killing. That would come under the definition not of any particular economic system, but of ‘crimes against humanity’.

What I will object to about the politics in this episode, though, is the way it made the Doctor an ideologue. The Doctor has acted in the service of various writers’ ideologies before—he’s led revolutions, undermined corrupt systems, bid for peace and generally stood up for the oppressed—but he’s never come out as holding dogmatic political views, except against the incontrovertibly evil. His instincts have always been anti-authoritarian and progressive, but equally the Doctor has always given the impression of being sceptical of dogma and the dogmatism of ideologues: he has far too much experience of the world to think it can be explained by any political ideology. But here he is, a smug socialist exalting in the end of capitalism. My entreaty to Doctor Who writers is that they can have carte blanche to be as political as they want (as long as they write good scripts), but all I ask is: can we please just hold back from making the Doctor come out as a Corbynite? (Or indeed a Trumpite).

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But anyway. This episode worked. It worked in a way I was sceptical that it would after seeing the ‘next time’ trailer, which gave the impression of a run-of-the-mill unmemorable monster runaround in a spaceship (see: 42). The writing was deft. The dialogue absolutely sparkled throughout the piece, which went a long way to holding it all together between the plot beats. The humour in this one merits a right honourable mention: there was lots of it, and it was genuinely funny, leaving me unexpectedly appreciative of the presence of Matt Lucas.

Jamie Mathieson’s first two scripts shared the device of a very clever conceit at their heart—in Mummy a monster visible only to its victim, and in Flatline a creature inhabiting the second dimension. He took after Steven Moffat in his fondness for clever and intriguing gimmicks. The Girl Who Died was very different stylistically, but Oxygen represents something of a return to the use of clever conceits in the “oxygen countdown”. It’s not as high-concept as Mummy and Flatline, but it makes for a very interesting distinction from the usual gamut of space monster runarounds. “The scareder you are, the faster you suffocate. So, relax or die.” Just riveting. To be fair, more could have been made of the oxygen countdown: it could have made for some very gripping viewing if we’d seen the thinning oxygen begin to affect the characters (like in Smith and Jones), but there was never a moment when the diminishing oxygen ever felt like a real, urgent threat, unlike the zombies-which-weren’t-actually-zombies (but which were still very good).

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Still, I liked the idea this episode played with of making space itself the primary threat. With space so frequently presented in Doctor Who as a magical, whimsical plane of endless adventure and possibility, it’s fun and interesting to see it cast for once as the suffocating, lung-exploding, blood-vessel-rupturing, saliva-boiling deathzone that it is. And, speaking of exploding lungs and boiling saliva, wasn’t Bill being exposed to the vacuum of space just brilliant? Wasn’t it just bracing? It was a stroke of screenwriting genius to put that bit in, and the direction (not to mention the acting) rose to the challenge by making that one minute or so of the slow-motion tearing of Bill to shreds by the vacuum of space absolutely stupefying. I don’t get properly scared by Doctor Who any more, regrettably (that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when the right audience, children, would be, though), but I was genuinely afraid for Bill. I thought she was going to die. Props to Jamie Mathieson and the show for actually managing to convince me for once that a main character was going to die, unlike, you know, every other week where the show doesn’t even manage to convince itself, let alone the audience, when it pretends to put the Doctor or the companion in mortal danger (looking at you, Under the Lake/Before the Flood).

This episode is full of unexpected and interesting turns, though. The other obvious one is the Doctor going blind. In Jamie Mathieson’s Reddit AMA I linked to above, he said he keeps shelves full of ‘How to Write’ books, no doubt saturated with the kinds of tricks and devices writers are enjoined to employ to make for more interesting story-writing. No doubt there’s something in at least some of them about taking something fundamental away from a character to render them vulnerable and weakened, like their eyesight—not to mention their sonic screwdriver. Taking the Doctor’s vision away from him does look like it’s come straight from a ‘How To’ book and boy, did it work. It didn’t have much work to do in the narrative apart from raising the stakes in the episode’s latter half and putting a spin on the usual Doctor-does-clever-things-and-saves-the-day sequence of events that typically kicks in around that point, but it made things really interesting. And Twelve has never been more heroic and, frankly, more outrageously bombastic than when he was blind. All that grandiloquent soliloquising about dying well made for one Twelve’s most riveting sequences, and Peter Capaldi, as always, rose spectacularly to the challenge.

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To say something about Series 10, though, I’m really liking what this episode represents as a distinct tonal shift for Series 10. This one was properly dark and bleak and gritty, and it’s exactly the kind of Doctor Who I was anticipating and hoping for in the Capaldi era, when we first embarked on it four years ago. With the exception of The Pilot, everything this series has been fairly sober and fairly gritty. It’s miles away from the fairytale aesthetic of Series 5 (which was great in itself) or the material pitched more at children in the RTD era. It’s also a significant development from Series 8, which still felt like it had one foot firmly placed in the Matt Smith era. This is good, and it’s exciting, and it’s so very different from the braindead fluff I was expecting from this series this time last year.

I’m also interested by what the Doctor’s almost fatal recklessness in this episode portends for the rest of the series. It’s unexpected, because we’re looking at the man who lost Clara last series because of a combination of her recklessness and his willingness to indulge her recklessness out of devotion to her. I get that the point of making the Doctor lose his memory of Clara was to avoid the obligatory post-companion brooding and the boring “I can’t let you get killed like the last one” stuff this time round, but this is reckless and audacious even for the Doctor. I wonder if it portends anything about the fate of Bill. I don’t think she’ll die, but at the very least it might end with Bill choosing to part ways with the Doctor after brushing inches from death just one time too many.

But anyway, though, fantastic episode. Can’t wait to see the vault open next week. #MathiesonForShowrunner

Rating: 9/10.

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