Ay ay ay. Doctor Who delivers a seriously suspenseful episode with “Oxygen,” which sends the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) into outer space, sometime in the future, in response to a distress call from a space mining station.
Before the opening credits, we see two worried crew members on what appears to be a space walk outside the space station, tensely monitoring the oxygen levels on their suits (measured foreshadowingly in “credits”) as they make their way towards an airlock door. We’ve also seen two other crew members, sans helmets, floating free of the space station. The female crew member is saying to herself as she laboriously walks towards the airlock that if she survives the ordeal we’re catching her in the middle of, she wants to have a baby. Oh, sweetie. Don’t you know that projecting into a happy future in the middle of what is obviously a space horror story means you gonna die?
Moments later, the floating crew members land behind her. Moving like zombies, they approach her and kill her. As her male companion is about to let her know he’s opened the airlock door, her helmet floats past him and he turns to find three space zombies closing in.
Back on Earth, the Doctor is starting to get itchy feet. Nardole can tell that he wants to go back into space, despite the vow he’s taken to guard the mysterious vault in the university basement. Despite Nardole’s efforts to intervene, the Doctor successfully escapes to the troubled space station with both Bill and Nardole in tow, ready for an adventure.
When they arrive, they discover that 36 of the station’s 40 crew members have been logged as recently deceased. They also discover that in this part of the future, oxygen has become a commodity. The reserves on the suits are measured in credits, because there is no “unlicensed” oxygen in the space station, and what oxygen is available for personal use in the suits comes at a premium.
The Doctor figures this out just in time to get himself and his companions into suits left in the station’s repair bay, as the station has started purging itself of the unlicensed oxygen the TARDIS provided for the first few minutes of their stay.
In addition to finding themselves limited to mere thousands of individual breaths, which is the measurement the suits use, they discover another dead crew member in the repair bay, apparently held upright just by the suit he died in.
It doesn’t take long for them to identify the location of the four remaining crew members and begin making their way towards them. From this point, the episode is in classic horror film style: our heroes and their new friends are desperately trying to figure out why the suits are killing their occupants while evading an army of zombies pursuing them while they’re trapped in space and running out of air. Yikes!
They determine that the suits, except the seven they occupy that were all offline for different reasons when this happened, were given a directive to terminate their organic matter– a.k.a. the humans within them. The “zombies” are actually corpses animated solely by their suits, and although there’s nothing supernatural at play, now the question of who must have hacked the suits to kill– while simultaneously disabling all communications between suits and beyond the station– suggests that one of the four surviving crew members is a killer.
As the seven living people struggle to survive the increasingly resourceful A.I. of the zombie suits, they don’t have the luxury of time to figure out which of them, or who outside the station, could be behind the hack. And as they effortfully make their way to the station’s energy core, the Doctor loses his eyesight during a space walk when he removes his own helmet to give it to Bill, then loses Bill when her suit malfunctions and they have to leave her behind to be killed by the suits.
By the time they reach the core, the Doctor and Nardole are alone with the only two remaining living crew members, Abby (Mimi Ndiweni) and Ivan (Kieran Bew). The Doctor, despite his blindness, is rewiring systems on the station. As he left Bill, she joked that she might be fined for dying, which has given the Doctor his inevitable moment of clarity about what’s amiss.
The crew members and Nardole are starting to become more concerned about the Doctor’s plan, which turns out to be blowing the station up when the last person is killed, than they are about the zombie horde about to break through to the room they’re trapped in. The Doctor encourages them to die a good death and let the zombies in, as as he explains that the suits weren’t hacked– that corporate headquarters has killed all of the crew because they’d become inefficient and that it isn’t a rescue ship, but their replacements coming now. Abby and Ivan get on board to die well and agree to open the door.
The zombies, led by Bill, come in to kill the Doctor and the survivors, and as they do, the Doctor explains that Bill’s suit wasn’t strong enough to kill her, and he’s able to revive her with the push of a button. Then he announces to all of the suits that if they kill him and the others, it will be very EXPENSIVE. This stops all of the suits in their tracks.
Once the suits have calculated that losing the station would be a greater financial loss than losing the remaining crew, the Doctor is able to get his small group onto the TARDIS, where Abby asks him to take her and Ivan to the head office so they can file a complaint.
Back home, Bill is satisfied that everything is back to normal. The Doctor has had Nardole apparently heal his eyesight with a device on the TARDIS. The Doctor tells her that although he can’t say definitively that the complaint to the head office worked, he does remember that there was a revolt against capitalism by the human race within 50 years of the moment they visited. Bill leaves his university office with a smile and heads back into her life.
As soon as she’s gone, though, the Doctor reveals to Nardole that all he’s actually healed is the appearance of the Doctor’s eyes– he’s still totally blind. Nardole believes that their “friend” in the vault will be able to sense any weakness or illness in the Doctor, so this is extremely bad news.
Sadly, this looks like the beginning of the end of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. Since we know that John Simm is going up against Capaldi’s Doctor this season, I feel even more sure that it’s his Master they’ve got stashed in the vault.
Noteworthy in this season so far: Bill is rad. She is fun and silly, but she never misses a beat when it comes to calling anyone out on things we’re used to seeing TV gloss over– especially racism. There’s a terrific moment in this episode where a blue crew member accuses her of being a racist because of her goggling reaction to him, followed by Nardole assuring the man that some of his best friends are “bluish.”