Sunday, 14 May 2017


"I'm still blind!" 

The most melodramatic ending to a Doctor Who episode ever? Possibly. It's certainly a contender. Whether it wins that particular contest or not it renders the episode that led up to the revelation as little more than a footnote: Oxygen will always be, first and foremost, the episode in which the Twelfth Doctor went blind1

This is a bit of a disservice to Oxygen. The thing is, Oxygen deserves it. It was a plodding, moralistic base under siege story. Nothing memorable happened beyond that final, melodramatic line. The plodding nature could have been fixed with another draft or two. Same goes for the sledgehammer subtlety of the anti-capitalist message that cropped up in seemingly every other scene. I mean, literally being charged for air, could it be anymore on the nose? The base under siege approach just wasn't made interesting enough. It can work in Nu Who (see 42, Mummy on the Orient Express(mosty) and, of course, Dalek, for examples of this). It just didn't work here.

While Oxygen was primarily just a string of disappointments it did achieve at least one thing of interest. It provided a good example of the different approaches Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat take as showrunners2

A refresher: the pre-credits sequence featured a man and woman3 clambering about on the outside of a space station with the woman telling the man that she wanted to have a baby with him when "all this is over" before a problem with her suit's broadcasting equipment was revealed, meaning he hadn't heard her. She was then murdered by two corpses in space suits while the guy mended a generic prop in silence, turned round to notice, and escaped.

It's a sequence designed to achieve a few things. Firstly, it's there to introduce one of the key plot points of the episode: air being a valuable commodity that is rationed by the company funding things. Second, it's meant to show us that, hey, these are real people leading real lives out in the harshness of space. Finally, it's there to introduce the monsters of the week, the aforementioned corpses in spacesuits.

It accomplishes all of this. But it does so in a hollow, perfunctory manner that is striking. We're told, at several points throughout the episode that the air is valuable on this space station because it has to be paid for. We see the payment interface, we see signs reminding people not to waste oxygen, the pre-credits sequence has the man tell the woman. But none of the characters ever actually act like speaking should be avoided in the name of saving oxygen. All those details are great and good bits of world building, something I'm usually all over, but when the supporting cast witter on like the supporting cast of any other episode it makes immersion difficult. If rationing speech is going to be part of a Doctor Who episode it should to be a central theme4, something that dictates how the episode is structured. Television relies on heavily on characters talking to one another. If that ability is going to be taken away from them the reason for it needs to be explored and the opportunity needs to be taken to offer a unique experience in which they rely on other forms of communication.

But what really leapt out as something that warranted comparison to the RTD era was the interaction between the two characters in the pre-credits sequence. Having a child together is one of the most significant things two people can do, and it's use here was clearly intended as a shorthand for Real Living Couple With Functioning Emotions And Plans For The Future. It was then undercut with a joke from the woman about repeating her heartfelt speech later, which is a very Moffat thing to do and also wonderfully highlights what I was saying in the last paragraph about not being able to take oxygen rationing as a serious thing within the episode. 

There's no way to know for sure how Davies would have handled this scene but it feels like a safe bet he'd have approached it differently. There probably would have been general chitchat about the banalities of life in place of "Hey, we're on the side of a space station, let's have a baby soon!"The whole faulty radio aspect would probably have been dropped or reworked so that there was at least some meaningful interaction between the pair.  The man one likely would have looked more emotionally distraught when he turned around to see the corpse of his loved one staggering towards him. The scene towards the end of the episode where the woman's corpse handed her oxygen supply over to her still-living lover would either not have existed or would have been rejigged so that the man shows some emotion at having his life saved in such a poetic way. Or, possibly, it would have featured a tear rolling down the dead woman's cheek5. I admit I would have preferred the former of these two.

The Davies approach was to make supporting characters feel like real people and focus on how things like killer spacesuits affected them. Moffat understands the importance of supporting characters but doesn't go to anywhere near the lengths to get us invested in them, which means we get a watered down approach where small scale human worries and ambitions are fumbled at but don't always feel fully formed. Yeah, Jamie Mathieson (who's been pretty good with previous Who work) wrote this episode but that's neither here nor there: under RTD the sequences in question would have received the rewrites needed to get the tone the episode needed them to have. Oxygen highlighted the difference between the two showrunners in how they go about writing the show. 

I think the fact that the relationship in question and the episode as a whole were so flat shows that Moffat's just not especially good when he's not overseeing "clever puzzle" episodes. He's well-suited to big event episodes, probably better suited than Davies, but they only come along every so often. Moffat's approach doesn't work well with more standard episodes, and that's what he's overseeing the majority of the time.

A less pressing issue: why do space set episodes have to be all grimy metal and shadows these days? The Girl in the Fireplace (to take a random RTD era episode) takes place on a spaceship but never falls into these traps of uninspired set design. Throughout Fireplace things are always tinted blue or red or green, avoiding the bleak visuals of Oxygen. Could it be that the sets were deliberately subdued so as to tie in with the fact that the Doctor goes blind, tacitly linking our visionary experience to the one he has by the end of the episode? It's certainly possible, but nothing in the episode backs that up. It also wouldn't explain why space set capers have gradually shifted to this approach under Moffat6.

I'm sure the question we're all meant to be asking coming out of this episode (besides the clearly vital "Who's in The Vault?") is: "How will the Doctor's blindness impact the show?" But I wasn't given a reason to care, so I'm not.


1 Assuming it's something that sticks for a significant amount of time. Judging by the way the revelation was framed I think it will stay at least through the next episode or two.

2 Yes, this again.

3 They have names but truth be told every character outside of the regulars was so tedious that I can't be bothered to look them up. Deal with it.

4 Buffy managed an extended sequence of absolute silence about fifteen years ago. Surely Doctor Who, a programme that has far more tricks to employ to get to a scenario like that, is up to the task now. Maybe it just needs a better lead writer2...

5 I've never said Davies was perfect and a weeping corpse is right up his alley.

6 This is something that can be tangibly traced back over the last few years and seems to coincide with Matt Smith leaving. Kill the Moon, Sleep No More and now this story have gotten incrementally more basic in their depiction of space. I understand that it helps to emphasise the stark, unforgiving nature of a space setting but it doesn't half make things boring to look at.

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