15 May 2017

Doctor Who Oxygen review

2017 Series Episode 5 - tx 13/05/17. Written by Jamie Mathieson. Directed by Charles Palmer. Episode reviewed by Sean Alexander. 
“You only really see the true face of the universe when it’s asking for your help.” 
The ‘elephant in the room’ irony of this tenth run of revived Doctor Who is that as the quality continues to build, so less and less of the mainstream audience feels compelled to tune in on increasingly balmy Saturday evenings.  Blame barbecues, blame the convenience of modern catch-up television, blame even the interminable Eurovision results.  But don’t blame it on the boogie.  And boogie is an apt epithet for a show that has now undoubtedly got its mojo back after five series of increasingly tortuous and convoluted (or “timey-wimey”, in apologist speak) narrative that has seen the Doctor rebooted to anything from imaginary fairy-tale friend to prophesied hybrid standing in the ruins of Gallifrey’s fall.  On his farewell lap of honour, Steven Moffat has either finally seen some of the error of his ways or the thought of being unshackled from the most demanding (and demanded) of television hot-seats has rebooted his own creativity to somewhere between 2005 and 2008 vintage.  

The arc for this series – that oh so pregnant vault now bursting at the seams to unleash whatever horror the Doctor has been safeguarding these past fifty years – is constant without being sledgehammered.  Tabloid tittle-tattle has us believing all sorts are inside; but if Moffat’s greatest triumph this term is orchestrating his own phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes of post-fiftieth ennui, then the prestige reveal late next month may just prove to be the icing on his goodbye cake.

And so to ‘Oxygen’, as I gather my breath and remember not to hold it in the vacuum of diminishing overnight figures.  Jamie Mathieson is arguably the find of the Moffat era, as the results of the DWM 2014 poll so ably illustrated.  While his 2015 follow-up was somewhat hamstrung by that co-writer credit with a showrunner keen to shoehorn a season’s arc into an otherwise humdrum tale of the Doctor equipping a local band of Vikings, ‘Oxygen’ instead reinstalls our faith in a writer who brought a very clear and triumphant zest to his debuts ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’.  “Make space dangerous again”, was his simple brief, and while ‘Oxygen’ has more than a smack of debt to Gravity’s modus operandi (the Doctor’s opening narration echoing that film’s onscreen caption) the episode rattles along at such a pace that it not only mimics the desperate race from space zombies that permeates the running time, but also leaves in its wake any lingering comparisons to a dozen or more influences that, inevitably, in a purely sci-fi setting scream for comparison with everything gone before.

It’s also the first proper look at ‘Team TARDIS, 2017 version’, as Nardole suits up for a more substantial adventure than the whistle-stop affair of ‘The Pilot’.  While I like the idea of the Doctor having a Jeeves-like conscience constantly pulling him back to his responsibilities on Earth (a Brigadier for the 21st Century?) it’s clear that Matt Lucas is a marmite presence both here and as a concept as a whole.  Inevitably those gaping holes explaining how his head got reacquainted with (his?) body will be filled in given time, but right now Nardole works best in small doses; the boy wonder irritant to Capaldi’s caped crusader.  I’ve nothing against Lucas basically regurgitating his Little Britain shtick in a show he clearly has a fanlike enthusiasm for, but perhaps more acting and less performing would help round his character out, as right now he’s little more than a group of pithy remarks that feel the need of David Walliams to bounce off.  Still, this is a work in progress that one suspects has more to do with Moffat struggling to find space for a performer keen to return rather than an element designed to fit in from day one.

Quibbles aside, ‘Oxygen’ pushes all the right buttons when it comes to both visceral scares and scathing outrage in a future where our most basic and taken for granted need is reimagined as a chargeable commodity.  The real evil here is, of course, corporate greed – a frequent target in Doctor Who’s eyesights ever since the days of Robert Holmes fuming over his tax bill in ‘The Sunmakers’.  Again the vices of relying on increasingly dependable future technology results in a culture where the very things designed to keep you alive are themselves disposed to bringing that life to a premature end.  The manner in which the Doctor solves the puzzle of an AI more concerned with conserving a gaseous element than human life is neat, logical and all the more affecting for the fact that (by now) our hero has himself succumbed to the rigors of space anathema.  That cliffhanging sting that the Doctor is still blind adds not only a sense of pathos to the subsequent episodes yet to air, but also makes vulnerable the character in a way we’ve hardly seen before.  Even Matt Smith’s Doctor aged to the point of final incarnation oblivion didn’t elicit this sense of sympathy, and it goes without saying that Peter Capaldi absolutely sells the gallows humour and dramatic poignancy of his condition.  The Doctor blinded may be this series’ most obvious red herring – especially given publicity photos of later episodes that show him not only sonic sunglass-less but irrefutably able sighted – but it’s an intriguing concept, not least given its place in the run-up to the character’s approaching regeneration.

Direction-wise this is a very welcome return for Charles Palmer, whose lensing hasn’t lit up our screens since the days of John Smith and the shambling scarecrows of 2007.  One particular moment stands out even in this flawlessly executed turn, as Bill succumbs to the encroaching coldness of vacuumed space – a tour de force of direction, performance and make-up ensuring that we feel every painful moment of her near demise.  Needless to say Mackie excels in a role she has already proven her excellence in with aplomb since first walking into the Doctor’s study a month ago.

Five episodes into what is already an Indian summer for the Moffat era of Doctor Who and once again there’s very little left to fault here; appropriately enough given its title, ‘Oxygen’ continues the trend of providing a breath of fresh air for a programme seemingly set on a crash course of self-referential and increasingly mythologised storytelling.  Doctor Who hasn’t felt this good in years, and whichever side of the fence you fall when it comes to assessing the legacy of Steven Moffat’s seven year presidency, there’s little doubt that (thus far at least) he is leaving the toy-box in ripe condition for the handover to his successor.

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