“Oh look,” said Emily, as the credits ground to a halt. “Zombies again.”
We’d just finished ‘Knock Knock’, and were watching the trailer for episode 5, which appeared to show hordes of the undead in space, all mottled complexions and empty, soulless eyes. By and large it’s something the programme doesn’t touch. Transmogrification is fine. So is demonic possession. Even shuffling skeletons are OK, provided you don’t overdo it. Still, the last time Doctor Who did an outright zombie episode, it was ‘New Earth’, and it was a disaster. Before you start scrolling down to the comments box, I know they weren’t zombies. If anything they were the biological opposite. But they moved like zombies and they behaved like zombies, and that’s how I choose to remember them.
You have to watch out for the kids, and that’s what Jamie Mathieson was doing with ‘Oxygen’. The undead – murdered by company equipment in a cost-saving initiative, and then re-animated – are a big part of the story, but they are rather less gruesome than you suspect they were meant to be. That doesn’t mean the episode isn’t frightening enough without some of the cutting room floor stuff (and this isn’t speculation, Mathieson himself admits as much in Doctor Who Magazine). This is one of the outright creepiest episodes of Doctor Who in some time – I’d say since ‘Heaven Sent’, but that sort of yardstick doesn’t seem fair – and while not without its flaws it is, in terms of the atmosphere it creates, a massive improvement on its immediate predecessor.
Things start simply enough. There is a comical misunderstanding about a pregnancy revelation – Sienna Guillory trying and failing to impart the same news to Colin Firth in the Red Nose Day Love Actually sketch springs to mind – before the usual pre-credits death (Doctor Who is like The X-Files; appearing in the teaser is the equivalent to beaming down to a planet in a red shirt). Meanwhile, the Doctor has found his sea legs but Nardole is adamant that they should stay on Earth – hence a little subterfuge is in order, only the planned excursion backfires and before you know it the TARDIS has gone and its former occupants are stuck in a corridor with a horde of advancing zombies.
While this is going on the space station’s surviving astronauts are debating whether they should kill the Doctor, but I couldn’t tell you what’s said or who says it, because I can’t remember any of their names. There are always going to be problems when you have to establish a story and solution and pay lip service to the series arc within three quarters of an hour, but the price you pay is, once more, the notion of character development – or indeed any character at all beyond the three leads. It’s reminiscent of the Honest Trailer for Rogue One (a film I enjoyed, although we could have all done without the fanatically airbrushed Princess Leia), in which the voiceover mentions “K-2SO, a droid with more personality than any of the human characters”. Just about the only memorable character in ‘Oxygen’ is the one who is memorable precisely because he shouldn’t be: the blue-skinned Dahh-Ren, who exists solely to expose Bill’s own (and quite understandable) prejudice, thus appraising supposed 21st century enlightenment with an ironic, critical eye, shortly before he meets a grisly undeath.
Part of the problem these days is the general dearth of effective supporting characters: I’m having difficulty recalling the last base-under-siege narrative in which we met people I actually cared about. Gone are the likes of Clent and Penley in ‘The Ice Warriors’, or the upstairs / downstairs social commentary in ‘Fang Rock’. There are exceptions. ‘The God Complex’, for example, works because time is deliberately allocated in order to flesh out the characters in the hotel – essential for the narrative, as they are ultimately undone by who they are and the flaws and traits they possess. And ‘Voyage of the Damned’ features a band of misfits who manage to surprise just about everyone thanks to the order in which they die – or, in at least one case, the fact that they don’t.
But these simply prove the rule. For the most part, supporting characters in contemporary BUS stories are groups of miners, astronauts or soldiers with scarcely a distinguishing feature between them. There are usually two or three different accents and as many diversity boxes as the BBC can tick in a single sitting, but that’s about all you can say about them. With certain exceptions (Adelaide Brooke, step forward) they all melt into one generic, slightly grizzled man in his late thirties, usually with designer stubble and a complicated romantic history with the base’s leader. Names and titles are meaningless and we forget them within minutes of the closing credits. What’s the name of the gay chap in ’42’? It’s OK, I’ll wait. And you’re not allowed to use the internet.
When Wikipedia editors are summarising episodes like this the only way to actually write them up is to say “The TARDIS crew gather in the control room with the surviving astronauts”, and (eventually) that’s exactly what happens. There are chases and mishaps and the Doctor loses his eyesight, but when he begins waxing lyrical about ‘a good death’, in precisely the same manner that Miss Quill does in the opening episode of Class, you know something is about to happen: and sure enough, it’s a ruse in order to trick the omnipresent AI, which is always on standby and able to hear anything. Thus, at its conclusion, ‘Oxygen’ becomes less a critique of unchecked capitalism and corporate greed, and more a dig at the Xbox One.
We need to talk about this, actually. A couple of months ago Gareth Roberts tweeted, in response to someone’s earnest-but-dumb comment, “Yep. Historical analysis and a critique of social hierarchy. That’s what I took from The Time Meddler.” At least I think it was Gareth Roberts. It certainly ought to have been; it feels like the sort of thing he’d say. ‘Sort of’ is pretty apt here, because I’m paraphrasing; I can’t find the damn thing to quote verbatim. The point is that in 2017 it’s very easy to get caught up in worthiness. How much of the praise heaped on ‘The Zygon Inversion’ stems from its sense of intrigue and excitement, and how much from that wretched Black Archive monologue? The situation hasn’t improved: the other week the BBC aired ‘Thin Ice’, an episode I thoroughly enjoyed, but it damn well wasn’t because the Doctor punched a Nazi. It’s because it was two people walking around London and interacting in a way that I found genuinely interesting. And yes, my favourite scene was the one where the Doctor said he moved on because he had to, in a few lines of dialogue that are destined to make the Facebook groups for years to come. But I also liked the bit when Nicholas Burns did the splits and fell into the river and got eaten.
You see where we’re going. It’s nice that people care about things, but the earnestness with which these throwaway lines of dialogue are adopted as profile signatures and – just occasionally – life mantras is something that puzzles me immensely. It’s as if Doctor Who is no longer allowed to be important unless it means something. Robert Holmes showed you can be political, and thus this is something you ought to do at every conceivable opportunity, with episodes that say Important Things left on a pedestal, while the more superficial, disposable stories (sit down, ‘Planet of the Dead’, your chops and gravy are in the microwave) are critically lambasted for being disposable candy floss. ‘Planet of the Dead’ is crap, of course, but you get the idea. There is bugger all social commentary in ‘The Invasion’; it’s Cybermen running around London. It is also tremendous fun. That really ought to be enough.
Thankfully, ‘Oxygen’ has the fun factor in spades, whether it’s the Doctor effectively kidnapping Nardole in the opening scene, or the mesmerising, wordless spacewalk (when people say things like “You’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space!” in Hollywood blockbusters it sounds corny as hell; Capaldi pulls it off); or the moment, just a short time later, when the Doctor abandons Bill in a corridor. We know he has something up his sleeve, but we don’t know what it is, or why he’s being so quiet about it – or, indeed, why Bill is so goddamned calm about the whole experience. This is obviously some sort of proving ground, some way of testing her mettle, but he did more or less the same thing with Clara (across a series and a half, but notably in another episode with spacesuits), and that ended with her dangling upside down out of the TARDIS, laughing like an idiot. I just hope you know what the hell you’re doing, Doctor. That’s all.
Things fall apart a little as the episode concludes. A quick glance at the synopsis for next week – along with the series trailer – should make it reasonably obvious where we’re going, and once more the BBC have revealed a little too much too early. The Doctor’s continuing blindness, while predictable, nonetheless makes for an effective cliffhanger: unfortunately it suffers in its implementation. The scene with Nardole borders on soap-style melodrama; it would have been better had Capaldi concluded his conversation and then risen from the desk and caught his leg on its corner, or perhaps stumbled at the rug. That would have got the message across in an understated manner, or at least got the fans talking.
But this is Doctor Who, and for the most part these days they don’t do subtle. You take what you can get, and that’s fine. “Space is the final frontier,” the Doctor muses in the episode’s opening, “because it’s trying to kill you.” Too often, space is the vast and beautiful starswept aura that’s the backdrop for the birth of planets, the delicate ballet of a dancing Time Lord and his almost-wife, and the reawakening of a middle-aged man sitting with a Thermos and a sandwich watching the world go by in the most literal sense. That makes this week anomalous, but in the best possible way – space, in Doctor Who, is usually not dangerous, and it’s a refreshing change when it is. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it turns out to be one of the most effective and frightening monsters we’ve seen in the show for quite some time.