Recap / Doctor Who S36E5 "Oxygen"

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How many breaths can you take?note 
"Four survivors, one distress call. The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. We show ours by how we respond."
The Doctor

Written by Jamie Mathieson.

The official synopsis from the BBC:

The Doctor, Bill and Nardole answer a distress call in deep space, and find themselves trapped on board space station Chasm Forge. All but four of the crew have been murdered — and the dead are still walking! In a future where oxygen is sold by the breath, and space suits are valued more highly than their occupants, the TARDIS crew battle for survival against the darkest evil of all.


Tropes:

  • Allergic to Routine: The Doctor, after seventy-plus years stuck on Earth, is itching to go back having adventures in space to the point he deliberately seeks out a distress call.
  • Animated Armour: Shortly after our heroes arrive, they find a person in a spacesuit stacking crates. It's shortly revealed via the removal of the helmet that it's just a spacesuit, with no one inside.
  • Artificial Gravity: Discussed — Bill, when told the station has it, tests it by jumping up and down.
  • Badass Boast: When he's asked who exactly he is:
    The Doctor: I'm the man who's going to save all your lives, and you're going to spend the rest of them wondering who I am.
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: None of the survivors are sure how the Doctor survived loaning his helmet to Bill in the middle of a vacuum for as long as he did, not being aware of his body's respiratory bypass system. Even so, the experience leaves him blind, and their attempt to fix it at the end of the episode turns out to have failed.
  • Being Good Sucks: To save the "expendable" members of the space station, the Doctor has to risk not only his life but those of his reluctant, upset friends, and ends up blinded for his trouble.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Nardole, who up until this point in the series has been pretty much just comic relief, goes absolutely ballistic at the Doctor after they return to Earth for risking their lives and coming close to dying, potentially leaving the occupant of the "vault" unguarded.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Doctor manages to stop the deaths in the end, but out of the forty-strong crew of the station and the four who were alive when he arrived, only two make it to the end. Worse, the Doctor is blinded in the process. Not only is his job guarding the Vault now more difficult, but he's lied to Bill about his condition, presumably to spare her feeling guilt.
  • Call Back: Nardole attempts to ground the TARDIS by removing fluid link K57, which the Doctor has told him the TARDIS can't fly without; the Doctor then flies the TARDIS off anyway and reveals that he was lying about the effects of removing the link. This situation echoes one all the way back in the very second story of the Classic series, where the Doctor sabotaged a fluid link to force the characters to explore Skaro, though in that case he was sincere about the TARDIS not being able to fly without it.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: The Doctor makes numerous derogatory comments about capitalism and the idea of controlling oxygen on a spaceship for profit throughout the episode. At the end, he alludes to the fact that what happened aboard Chasm Forge will serve as a catalyst for a rebellion which leads to capitalism's downfall... until humanity finds another great mistake, but that's another story. The "capitalism" in this story isn't the watered down post-unionization modern version either, it's full-out Robber Baron stuff.
  • Captain Obvious: Nardole points out that the TARDIS is on the other side of a sealed door and opening it will expose everyone to the vacuum of space, sending the Doctor into Sarcasm Mode.
  • Celebrity Paradox: In the episode prologue, the Doctor quotes the famous "space, the final frontier" narration from Star Trek, which would indicate that the Star Trek franchise exists in the Whoniverse. Several actors have appeared in both Doctor Who and Star Trek, including Noel Clarke (who played Mickey in the first four seasons of the revival series and had a supporting role in Star Trek Into Darkness) and Simon Pegg (who was the Editor in "The Long Game" and plays Scotty in the rebooted Star Trek film series). note  And if you accept the graphic novel Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation² as canon, two previous Doctors have met the crew(s) of the Enterprise.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Bill has numerous problems with the suit she got from the repair shop. It's later revealed, after her suit shuts her down, that its battery is running low and thus couldn't give her a fatal shock.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: The Doctor initially just wants a change of pace from present-day Earth, but he specifically decides to travel to a distressed space station — even though he's supposed to be guarding the Vault and could put the station off until later (due to the nature of the TARDIS) — not only because he can't resist a mystery but it's just not in his nature to ignore those in need. Even Bill and Nardole's reluctance and pleading can't turn him away. He rescues two members of the station, keeps Bill and Nardole safe from harm, and the Vault situation is unchanged. But he winds up blinded for his trouble; from here on out his guarding of the Vault back on Earth will be more difficult and could lead to great grief for all of Earth.
  • Completely Off-Topic Report: The Doctor delivers a lecture on all the ways that space can kill you to a packed lecture theatre. It was supposed to be on crop rotation.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Continuous Decompression: When the "unlicensed oxygen" that was brought on board thanks to the TARDIS is purged from the station. The Doctor manages to close the door before he, Bill and Nardole are blown out, but they're cut off from the TARDIS.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The unseen villains of the episode. They're using the suits to murder the crew of the Chasm Forge, whose "inefficency" and reduced productivity have made keeping them alive more trouble than it's worth.
  • Eureka Moment: The Doctor has one when he realizes why the suits killed their wearers, and simultaneously that Bill's suit won't be able to kill her.
  • Explosive Decompression: Averted in great detail. The episode opens with the Doctor describing the physical effects of vacuum exposure. Later in the episode, Bill is exposed to the vacuum of space and loses consciousness in fifteen seconds, but does not explode.
  • Fantastic Racism: Bill is accused of it by Dahh'Ren, the blue-skinned alien miner, when she's surprised by his appearance. She's just beginning to win him over when he becomes the suits' latest victim.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: When Nardole is chewing the Doctor out for putting himself in danger, shortly before the Doctor reveals he's still blind, he's wearing dark glasses indoors, like a lot of blind people.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Bill comes to after the trip outside the station, she's told that the Doctor gave her his helmet, and that he paid the price for it. The ominous tone comes off as if the Doctor had to regenerate as a result, although that turns out not to be the case. And when Bill learns he was blinded as a result, he says he needs to get back to the TARDIS because there's stuff in there that can fix it — and the TARDIS is where he usually regenerates...
    • During his "The Reason You Suck" Speech to the Doctor at the end, Nardole says that if the Doctor came back injured, the prisoner in the Vault would be able to detect it. Then the Doctor reveals he's still blind...
  • Forgot About His Powers:
    • The Doctor's apparently forgotten that Time Lords can voluntarily regenerate — he could cure his blindness instantly and thus be in better shape to guard the Vault. Even allowing that he'd have some problems explaining to the university what happened to the "professor" and it would be an adjustment for Nardole and especially Bill, wouldn't that save everyone a lot of trouble?note 
    • Though he made a point last episode of noting that one of the only times he bothers sleeping is after a regeneration, highlighting the inherent instability that comes with the post-regenerative state; if popping off for a quick adventure is worrisome enough in regards to leaving the Vault unattended, an unpredictable and potentially dangerous regenerated Doctor might be even worse.
    • Also, he's somehow forgotten that his sentient time-and-space-travelling machine takes him where he needs to go — such as to a good surgeon of the future. It's hard to imagine the TARDIS wouldn't make sure he gets patched up and returns to the Vault on time, given what's at stake.note 
  • Handicapped Badass: The Doctor, despite being blinded, still manages to save the day, delivering a Badass Boast about who he is and what he does right before he does it.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The Doctor saves Bill from asphyxiating in space; because he has to endure the void as a result of giving her his helmet so she can breathe, he goes blind.
  • Hiding the Handicap: The Doctor, after his eyes were apparently fixed, as he reveals to Nardole at the end of the episode.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: The suit helmets have clear glass faces. However, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole's early run-in with an empty suit stacking boxes suggests that the visors can be tinted.
  • If We Get Through This...: The woman at the beginning who is killed by her suit tries to tell her co-worker she loves him and would like to have a baby with him if they get off the station shortly before it happens.
  • It Can Think: The suits have a "basic problem-solving AI", which turns out to be quite up to solving the problems presented by jury-rigged locked doors and incomplete maps.
  • It's All My Fault: When the Doctor and Nardole have to leave Bill behind, presumably to her death, the latter tells the former it wasn't his fault. But although this is actually part of the Doctor's plan to save her, he blames himself for all the trouble because he was the one who insisted on figuring out what was wrong with the space station and pressed her and Nardole to follow him.
  • Lecture as Exposition: The episode opens with a lecture from the Doctor on the dangers of the vacuum of space (it was supposed to be on crop rotation), and Bill gets to experience some of them first-hand when her helmet malfunctions. One danger he mentions that often gets passed over is the fluids of the eyeballs boiling. He later blinds himself by travelling through the vacuum without a helmet after giving Bill his.
  • Literal Metaphor: "Like every worker, everywhere, we're fighting the suits."
  • Mistaken for Racist: Bill, due to her reaction when meeting a blue-skinned alien.
  • Motifs: Several Series 10 motifs continue apace:
    • "Villains" who aren't evil: The "zombies", who walk and stalk because of the programming of the smartsuits.
    • Exploitation: The smartsuits are designed to kill their wearers if they aren't efficient enough for the company that employs them.
    • Mothers: The first on-screen victim wants to be one; Bill sees the picture of her mother in her mind's eye as she has her near-death experience.
    • Hidden threats: The suits the workers think are for protection are actually what's killing them.
    • Swarming creatures: A variant: The smartsuit victims travel in a pack.
    • Imprisonment/Release: The episode ends with Nardole discussing the prospect of disaster for Earth if the Doctor doesn't guard the Vault and its prisoner properly, noting that he needs to be ready when it opens, suggesting a release is imminent.
    • Promises: The Doctor promises Bill that he will be waiting for her on the other side when she walks through hell.
    • Truth: When Nardole asks the Doctor for the truth early on, he replies "Don't be unreasonable." Later, he tells Bill and Nardole why they will explore the space station despite the risks: "The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. We show ours by how we respond." At the end, he reveals to Nardole that despite what he's let on to others, he is still blind.
  • Noodle Incident: Nardole apparently got his current face after having to go on the run.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Justified; the station was built by a penny-pinching corporation that's prepared to execute its workers to save money. Airlocks and spacesuits with failsafes to protect the workers are the last thing they'd think of.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The Doctor, when the sonic screwdriver is destroyed by the occupied suit in the repair shop.
    • Bill and the Doctor, when her malfunctioning suit removes her helmet in the airlock while it's cycling so they can go outside.
    • Bill, when the others have to leave her behind because her suit won't move.
  • One-Word Title: "Oxygen".
  • Only Mostly Dead: It turns out Bill's suit didn't have quite enough power to kill her.
  • Prophet Eyes: The Doctor, after being blinded.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Nardole gives the Doctor a pretty blistering one for risking everyone's lives and coming close to getting them all killed, which would have left the Vault and its presumably dangerous occupant unsupervised.
  • Redemption Equals Affliction: A heroic "really screwed up" example. The Doctor manages to save Bill after her dragging her into the crisis at the space station when both she and Nardole would rather have left, but it comes at the expense of his eyesight.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Spacesuits that still walk after the occupants die appear to be one to the trauma override harnesses from Fallout: New Vegas. The harnesses were themselves the source of a shout out when they repeatedly asked "Hey, who turned out the lights?"
    • The Doctor's opening narration begins "Space, the final frontier."
      • Furthermore, walking zombie-like beings that form a cybernetic Hive Mind, can survive in space, and claim their victims by touching them? Sounds familiar to any Trek fan.note 
    • The spacesuits have a red light on the front that looks like HAL.
    • Bill's spacesuit has a Microsoft Office Assistant moment: "You look like you're trying to run. Would you like some help with that?"
  • Taking You with Me: Threatened by the Doctor. Realizing that the employees were killed just to save money, he rigs up the station to be destroyed if the remaining ones die, making them more valuable alive than dead.
  • Temporary Blindness: The Doctor gets blinded after having to give Bill his helmet so she could travel outside the space station. He says that there's medical equipment on the TARDIS that will be able to fix it up. The last line of the episode subverts it, however — he's still blind, and faking being able to see.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The Doctor doesn't reveal his plan to anyone, in part because the spacesuits' AI might overhear. It goes off perfectly.
  • We Would Have Told You, But...: The Doctor doesn't tell Bill that she'll be okay, or what his plan is, when he's forced to leave her behind because the suit's AI would have overheard.
  • Wham Line: At the end of the episode, when all seems well and the Doctor was playing with his yo-yo just moments ago...
    The Doctor: I can't look at anything ever again. I'm still blind.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The suits are programmed to exterminate their wearers because Chasm Forge's mining operation has become unprofitable.


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