This week’s Doctor Who may have elicited a giant gasp at the end, but thanks to the deft skills of episode writer Jamie Mathieson (“Mummy on the Orient Express,” among others) I was a little short on “Oxygen” myself the whole way through.
The hour kicks off with a scene reminiscent of Gravity, before taking a left turn into The Walking Dead, as Ellie, one of the residents on the Chasm Forge mining station, builds up the courage to tell her partner, Ivan, she wants a baby — only to turn into a zombie minutes later.
Sadly, this is not one of the many ways of dying in space the Doctor is outlining for his class. As we quickly learn, the main problem is the lack of pressure, so do not hold your breath or your lungs will explode. Also, all your bodily fluids will start to boil thanks to the vacuum. (It almost makes me miss the infestation of nightmare bugs from last week. Almost.) It also makes the Doctor wistful for space, as Nardole cannily notes. But he’s powerless to prevent the Time Lord and Bill from blasting into space when they decide to answer a distress call (a.k.a. the Doctor’s “theme tune”), so he just comes along for the adventure.
Upon touching down on the Chasm Forge — like they’d go anywhere else — the trio quickly realize that not only is most of the crew dead save for four survivors, but that there is no oxygen beyond what the TARDIS has provided, and the company’s suits are supplying (for a price). Of course, it doesn’t take them long to discover that zombies are huge part of the problem. So they get into three for repair suits in an effort to get to safety, slowly learning that they only have a certain number of breaths they’re allowed to take before they run out.
Bill starts to panic, but the Doctor advises her to try to relax, and not hyperventilate. To quote Nardole, “Relax or die.” Not that this advice helps much, the new companion is the most scared we’ve ever seen her, and her malfunctioning, talking suit is only making things worse. Like when it decides to take off her helmet as she, the three survivors they find (Tasker, Abby, and Ivan), the Doctor, and Nardole, decide to escape the zombies by going outside the station, into space.
What follows is a sequence as horrifying as that Magic School Bus episode where Arnold took off his helmet in space (you know the the one), as Bill, only protected by a flimsy air bubble, slowly begins to pass out and frost over — all while a range of scary-sounding things are happening around her.
In any case, she wakes up safe and sound (for the most part) back inside the station. The only catch? The Doctor gave her his helmet so she’d survive, rendering him blind. It’s also his third “big” loss of the episode considering that he’s blocked from returning to the TARDIS, and the first zombie crushed his sonic screwdriver. Nonetheless, the Time Lord taps into his stores of bravado to ask Bill that “Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?”
When the zombies, or rather the suits controlling them, figure out how to get into Section 12, where they’re hiding, the group attempts to make its way to the reactor core. Only Bill’s suit straight up magnetizes its boots, preventing her from walking —
and anyone from lifting her.
With the zombies hot on their trail, and no real option to bring her along, the Doctor makes the split second decision to leave Bill behind. And while he doesn’t tell her a joke like she asks, he does advise her, “You will go through hell. And you will come through it. And I will be on the other side.” As the zombies get her suit (causing it to deactivate its “organic component”) Bill calls out for mum, breaking both the Doctor and my heart.
But they must still get to the reactor room. Once there, the Doctor shares his theory. What if the suits and communications systems weren’t hacked? What if that isn’t a rescue ship on the way answering their distress call? What if it’s their replacements? He connects the reactor’s settings to everyone’s suits, thus guaranteeing that the whole station will explode if they die.
His working theory is that because the station was not very productive recently, the company hiring them decided to “conserve” the valuable oxygen and not waste it on them, thus silently zombifying its entire staff as they died in these intelligent suits. Only thanks to his recent actions, they’ve all become too expensive to really destroy.
This not only stops the zombies but restores Bill! As we learn, her suit was low on battery anyway, so the Doctor hadn’t been too scared of losing her. Unfortunately for Ivan, Ellie is gone. Even though she and the rest of the zombie suits give the remaining group members their oxygen.
After they drop Abby and Ivan off at HR to make a complaint, our trio returns to Earth where the Doctor informs Bill that this rebellion they helped start would put an end to “capitalism in space.” She leaves, allowing Nardole to begin berating the Doctor for taking this risk. What if whoever is inside that vault finds out that he weakened himself like this? Completely Nar-done with the Doctor he asks the Time Lord to “Look at him.” Only for Twelve to reveal, that despite all their healing tools on the TARDIS, he’s still blind.
This then kicks off the theory that this entire season will feature the Doctor’s slow journey towards regeneration, which we all know is coming once this season ends. Like Tennant’s Doctor before him, Capaldi’s Doc might “trigger” a regeneration in order to heal his eyes. But maybe instead of channeling all that “leftover” energy into his hand,
Steven Moffat the Doctor finds a way to slow down the whole process so as to not retread already covered ground? Of course, that lends an extra layer of emotion to the current one, especially seeing how Bill and his bond keeps growing week by week. While she did question what regeneration was when he mentioned it a few episodes ago, he hasn’t really told her what it means to them and their relationship. If Moffat wants us to feel extra sad that Peter Capaldi is leaving, he’s succeeding. This episode proved that Mackie can break hearts like the best of them. And for his part, Nardole fit in seamlessly with them, making me mad we didn’t get to see this team-up sooner.
More importantly, though, this is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor sustain this kind of long-term damage — even though Capaldi’s performance on the station makes us forget for a short bit — so it will be interesting to see how it affects him going forward, especially as it seems like we’ll finally meet
the Mistress whoever is behind those vault doors next week. Could this episode be foreshadowing the rest of the season, as the Doctor continues to be stripped of some his most valuable assets? He already “lost” the sonic screwdriver. (Though might this bring back the sonic sunglasses?)
For the most part, Matthieson really hit it out of the park with this episode, as he presented one of the scariest questions of all: What happens when the thing that’s supposed to protect you, becomes the very thing intent on killing you? After all, the only thing between us and the howling void of space is a space suit—but even that is no longer in our control, as much as it is the company’s property. The result is at times literally “heart-stopping” as we see Bill have the closest brush with death yet. (While also bringing up so many questions about the Doctor’s relationship with her mother.)
And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, as fun as each episode has been (thanks in no small part to Bill and the Doctor’s bond), it’s also offered commentary on the current state of the world, something that good science fiction is supposed to do; offer us a slightly distorted mirror into our own lives. This week, the focus was “capitalism” and the extent to which companies are willing to disregard workers’ lives for the bottom line (“We’re fighting a spreadsheet”). The Chasm Forge crew were able to overthrow their system. But like “Smile” and “Thin Ice” before it, Doctor Who doesn’t really offer a solution, rather than highlight a problem. It’s almost like what the Doctor told Bill a few weeks ago, he can’t really make our choices for us. He can just show up and try to help.