I, like many, was very impressed with Jamie Mathieson’s previous contributions and was very much looking forward to what he would come up with next. As with other stories broadcast this season, I must use ‘old-fashioned’ to describe "Oxygen". Of all the base-under-siege stories that have been made since the programme returned, this story of a threat on a space station is the one that could fit most easily in Patrick Troughton’s first full season. However, as I said for "Cold War", this story has the advantage of being much shorter, meaning a much leaner narrative. It is told in a series of memorable set pieces and is so focused on driving the narrative, that much is left unstated – the time when the story is set, the location of the station (although references to ‘Ganymede’ imply a Jovian setting) although these are not plot holes and do not detract from the story. Another consequence, as with the Troughton stories that influenced, characterisation of the guest characters is rather thin. What we do get is some very convincing world building, which gives the story a certain political bite. We have a world where oxygen is a commodity and the sheer size of the human population means that a human life is a very inexpensive commodity. Mathieson makes the Doctor discover the dark secret of this iteration of the human story and then turn it on its head, as only the Doctor can in a story that has the most overtly left-wing agenda yet – some more committed conservatives might have a few problems here!
"Flatline" and "Mummy on the Orient Express" also distinguished themselves by being scary and, again, we have a Jamie Mathieson story that goes right up to the boundary separating frightening a child and traumatising it. The special effects and make-up complement these sequences perfectly – the first space zombie that the TARDIS crew find looks terrifying, with its blue face and glassy eyes. We are helped along by the very welcome return of Charles Palmer to the director’s chair, after nearly a decade. The first appearance of the suits – basically space zombies – is brilliantly realised by Palmer. The rescue of Bill from the vacuum of space is masterly, with her regaining of consciousness shot in flashes of post-production slow-motion. Even the look of outer space is distinctive - very different from the colourful nebulae more often seen in the programme. Here, space is stark and silent, with the stars dim against the blackness of space. This is the darkness of 2001, of Alien, rather than the brightness of Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy.
Despite the characterisation not being a priority, we have some very good performances from the guest cast, which move them beyond the traditional base-under-siege antagonists. Standing out is Dahh-Ren, played by Peter Caulfield, showing that humanity will gain a few more ethnic groups in the future. The regulars are in a new configuration. Nardole takes a more proactive and serious role and Matt Lucas manages to do this without us losing sight of Nardole’s inherent humour. Bill has less to do, but Pearl Mackie continues to excel – Bill’s cry for her mother is genuinely heart-breaking. The character of the Doctor is written like his Fifth personality – but the other Peter takes it into wholly new directions with the virtuoso display that we have come to expect.
Again Jamie Mathieson has fashioned a truly memorable tale, even without the shocking turn of events at the end. It will be very interesting to see what this Zatoichi-Doctor will do, in the light of things…