By its very nature, Doctor Who is a formulaic show. You have the Doctor, you have a companion, they go on an adventure, there's a scary monster, they overcome it, and they're back in the TARDIS in time to do it all over again. But its latest episode did something to twist that: It gave some major consequences to the threat the Doctor and Bill faced.
Without that addition, "Oxygen" would have been an entertaining, if dark, take on classic Who's rebellious streak of anti-capitalism — like the Tom Baker serial "The Sunmakers" — with a lot less camp and a lot more space zombies. That would have been totally fine; Doctor Who loves itself an "eat the rich" sort of story every once in a while. And this was a good one of those, especially as it played with the ongoing theme of this season, the value put on a single life, in an interesting if literal manner. But what elevated "Oxygen" from a good episode of Doctor Who into what could be a game-changing episode of Doctor Who was the fact that the Doctor's brash actions finally caught up with him in a way that had real, tangible consequences for both himself and his companion.
Usually the Doctor can get away with a lot over the course of his adventures — he's the hero after all, it's sort of his job — and usually the only sort of repercussion he faces is that every once in a while someone will chastise him for the people he's gotten killed or the lives he's ruined and make him feel bad for a bit. Sometimes the price is that he loses a travelling friend, but even then he can eagerly find himself a replacement and carry on doing what he does. But "Oxygen" finally gave the Doctor a consequence that couldn't just be handwaved away in time for the next episode: Something that might, ultimately, play into how Peter Capaldi's twelfth incarnation exits the series altogether.
Before we get into that, though, the episode also gave something similar to Bill in the form of not one, but two completely harrowing experiences: Being forced out into the vacuum of space without a helmet, and then abandoned in a malfunctioning spacesuit to be attacked by the monsters of the week and seemingly dying alone. While both moments resolved in ways that meant Bill was fine by the episode's end, in the moment they were both extremely effectively done — especially the latter which saw a desperate Bill screaming out for her mum while she was apparently being killed on screen.
A Doctor Who companion usually faces danger (like I said, part of the job), but they're usually protected by the fact that, unless they're about to leave the show, they're one of the main stars. The audience knows that, the writers know that, but even then these moments pushed the limits of what the show could do to a companion in some relentlessly grim ways for what is still a family TV show. Sure, it also made the eventual resolution — that Bill's broken spacesuit didn't have the energy to fully terminate her, just render her unconscious — feel even cheaper than it usually does when Doctor Who pulls an "everybody lives" moment, but hopefully the fact that this episode put Bill through hell in a way nothing so far this season has leads to some longstanding ramifications about how she feels travelling with the Doctor.
Even if the prior incident — being pushed out into the vacuum of space — didn't have as many ramifications for Bill herself, it had a huge one for the Doctor. In a typically Doctorish act of bravado, it's revealed that Bill was saved by the Doctor sacrificing his own helmet to keep her alive, but at the cost of him being temporarily blinded. Like most things in Who, and even like Bill's dilemma by the end of "Oxygen", it was expected the Doctor would, as he always does, get over this with a hand wave and move on to the next adventure. The fact that, as the episode's cliffhanger ending revealed, he's still blind and the cure he thought he had doesn't work, gives the show one of its most fascinating dilemmas in a long while: Not just for the fact it makes the Doctor more vulnerable than he ever has been, but for the fact that he now has to face a tangible consequence for his actions.
Time will tell if this is ultimately a brave experiment for the show or simply a diversion that's solved an episode later instead of immediately. The latter wouldn't be too surprising, but it sure would rob "Oxygen" of a lot of its impact. If this blinding of the Doctor has a larger role to play in his impending regeneration, however, Doctor Who is embarking on some pretty bold storytelling in ways it rarely has.
Assorted Musings (in Time and Space):
- The opening prologue to this episode might just be one of the most effective openings the show has done in a while. Creepy space action, wonderfully shot — the moment poor Ivan looked up only to see Ellie's helmet float by into space was brilliantly done.
- It was really nice to see Nardole have a meatier role in this episode, especially as a contrast to Bill in terms of someone who deliberately does not want to be on an adventure at all. It's probably not something the show could sustain over a long period — although it has played with the idea with a few companions in the past, arguably right from the beginning with Barbara and Ian — but it's an interesting angle to add into the mix.
- Still no answer to just who's in the vault, but the trailer for next week's episode seems to heavily imply that it's Missy, which would be far from a surprise at this point. We'll have to wait and see if it all pans out as everyone predicted, but still, it feels so obvious at this point I'm pretty confident it's a red herring.