Oxygen is marvellous. I’m just going to say it bluntly. Taking the simple concept that oxygen is limited as far as it’ll go, some genuinely illuminating signposting at the beginning of the episode hints that space isn’t the fun holiday destination the Doctor makes it out to be. To a lecture room full of students, the Doctor’s blunt listing of all the ways you could die there lays the groundwork for the episode exploring just how perilous it really is. So when he, Bill, and Nardole just happen to end up on a station where oxygen is an expensive commodity, you feel an inkling of dread. You remember exactly how they could perish, and desperately hope none of them will come to fruition. Ahem...
It’s not just an episode about rationing breaths, though. The lack of oxygen underlines every single plot point rather than being used as an excuse for tense scenes. If oxygen is limited and therefore expensive, then why would you fill an entire space station with it? Why not just restrict it to the suits instead? From here, charging for the ‘pleasure’ of breathing becomes the obvious next step. Distances between rooms are measured in breaths, because that’s the only important thing for its inhabitants. Then it’s a case of whether the company supplying its workers with oxygen is getting its money’s worth. Every single element asks “so what?” once it’s introduced, leading to more fleshed-out concepts and a really well-built world. You believe this hyper-capitalist space station could exist. But dear god, let’s hope it never, ever does.
Getting insight into the Doctor’s way of managing his companions is a fascinating lesson in manipulation. Caring manipulation, mind you. Rather than having him infer that he cares about his companions’ well-being through off-the-cuff jokes and quips, Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t afraid to explain things bluntly. Mystique isn’t his kind of thing. This ends up giving the impression that he’s treating Nardole and Bill as equals rather than as pets (which was sometimes the impression you got from Clara, but never from Rose). So when he tells them that he’s scaring them to keep their adrenaline high so they’re ready to run, it proves he’s giving them the credit they’ve earned by this point.
Bill has definitely earned it. God, she’s a marvel. Seeing her scream for her mum when the Doctor leaves her behind is guttural and heart-wrenching. Pearl Mackie’s acting is consistently honest, raw at times, and never, ever whimsy. Her mother wasn’t just used in the first episode to get a bit of sympathy for her either, the fact that she’s been referenced in multiple episodes indicates that Bill is a rounded character who - like in real life - doesn’t think of her mum as being less instrumental in her life just because she’s dead.
Like Bill’s growing depth, this episode got to showcase the fact that Nardole’s continuing presence isn’t just a bit of light comedy relief. He’s an uncomfortable reminder that the Doctor is neglecting the Vault, leaving the Earth at risk from its mysterious inhabitant whenever he takes a ‘quick’ trip in the TARDIS. Keeping tabs on the Time Lord is bloody difficult, with Matt Lucas swaying with excellent nuance between fury that the Doctor is selfishly going against his word and comedic one-liners.
As the Doctor puts it, “you see the true face of space when it calls for help”. At first he seems thrilled that he’s got to the essence of space, when it’s desperate and needs him. The Doctor really likes it when he’s needed. Typical. Later on when the Doctor loses his sight, everything gets inverted in a brilliant stroke which isn’t just there for the shallow shock factor. Blind, he becomes curt because all he can do is “think”, rather than help. We get to see the Doctor at his most vulnerable. He’s furious about it. I'm hoping that he’ll learn from this period of dependence. Bill is set to take centre stage with the Doctor’s continuing blindness, a challenge she is most definitely up to.
The Vault is still waiting. A terse exchange between Nardole and the Doctor showed the intimidating side of the android, who seems to be inching closer to turning on the Time Lord. Everything is bubbling below the surface, and I can't help but tremble with excitement as the next episode has an almighty amount potential stored up. It's time for an explosion that'll rip those vault doors right open.