The Writer Breathing Life Into Doctor Who
To run out of air is human; Jamie Mathieson gives us something divine.
Whenever a new cast member joins Doctor Who, whether it be a new companion or a new Doctor, there's always a period of adjustment that lasts several episodes. Which is unfortunate, given that we don't get that many episodes per season in the first place. But when the show has an episode that signals that it's gotten into its new groove, that makes it all that much more exhilarating. And at the moment, writing those episodes would appear to be Jamie Mathieson's gig.
Peter Capaldi's Doctor and Clara seemed to flail somewhat during the first half of their inaugural season together, to the point where Clara was ready to walk away from the TARDIS forever. But their supposed farewell jaunt in "Mummy On The Orient Express" put that idea to rest. It also put to rest any doubts about Doctor Who's immediate future by being the best episode of the season...until it was topped the very next week by "Flatline," which remained my favorite Capaldi episode...until this week's show, "Oxygen," proved to be even better than either of them.
What all three of these episodes have in common is that they were written by Jamie Mathieson (Mathieson also co-wrote Season 9's "The Girl Who Died," which was less of a standout, but maybe we can blame that on his co-writer). And while I couldn't pick Mathieson's face out of a lineup, I am absolutely a fan.
So what did I love about "Oxygen"? Let me count the ways it made me happy:
- Revisiting Doctor Who's classic "base under siege" episode structure, while offering a refresher on the reason for the Doctor's self-imposed mission that will stick in our heads for a while.
- Populating the setting with self-propelled spacesuits still carrying the rotting corpses of their formerly-alive occupants. This is a highly clever way of making it essentially a zombie story without abandoning Doctor Who's science-fiction mandate. And I always love a zombie story, as is proven by everything I've been willing to put up with from The Walking Dead over the years.
- Being about something. Science fiction generally tries to hold up a funhouse mirror to the world we already live in, but it doesn't always work. Sometimes that's because the allegory is too obvious or clichéd to be interesting. And while "Oxygen" isn't the most subtle indictment of late, late, late, late, late-stage capitalism, it finds new and clever ways to say new and clever things about it. Like the miners in the spacesuits that serve as both the saving grace and the undoing of the colony, many of us are also too dependent on technologies that are ultimately controlled by someone else. It may have felt unsettling when we first went online with them, but there was nothing to do but glide past those worrying terms & conditions and power through even the most unnerving glitches. The episode also captures the realization that technology's users and owners are frequently not the same people, nor do they always have the same goals. And it also captures that queasy feeling you get when something doesn't work the way you want it to, even though it's working exactly the way it's intended to.
- Finally figuring out what to do with Nardole. Landing a comic actor of Matt Lucas's caliber was a great move on Doctor Who's part; letting him go to waste as a tertiary character who mostly sandwiches the real action with his fussing and scolding has not been. It's nice to see him get to come on an adventure for once, help move the plot along, and comment knowingly on his troublesome ex Velma, which also happened to be the operating AI for Bill's borrowed spacesuit. And then he still gets to fulfill his usual role for the season at the end of the episode, but amped up to a proper chewing-out. Dude is funny, but it takes some range to talk to the Doctor like that while still looking like a giant baby.
- Finally, being witty as hell and scary as hell, which I've said before are the two things Doctor Who should always aspire to be. This episode traps the characters between pitiless undead hordes and the even more pitiless vacuum of deep space, and still finds time to make the following punchline about workers opposing the Man: "We're fighting the suits!"
- A great, Doctor-style resolution. Even blind and separated from his TARDIS, the Doctor hasn't lost the mastery of sideways thinking that's gotten him out of more tight spots than even he could count. Here, it's taking advantage of the fact that corporations will always screw you unless you make it cheaper for them not to. Normally, that means boycotts, but the Doctor's fix is a lot more interesting -- even inspiring.
I only have two complaints. One is that this isn't an awesome Bill episode. Aside from her wide-eyed reaction to looking out the window at the stars, there isn't a lot of the character bits that usually make her so much fun. Yes, she faces death -- not once but twice. But on the other hand, she doesn't do a great deal that couldn't have been done just as well by Clara, Amy, or even Sarah Jane. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there was an earlier draft written for when Clara was still on the show. But then there was the fun bit about her being mistaken for a racist by the sapphire-skinned Dahh-ren (not a great name to have in an environment where every breath costs money, TBH), and I have faith that there will be some payoff to the mom-flashbacks from her first near-death experience. So even that downside works out to a push.
My other complaint is that there doesn't appear to be another Jamie Mathieson-penned episode on the docket for this season. Far be it from me to give advice to incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall, but I advise him to hire Jamie Mathieson as frequently as possible. If he's allowed to keep this up, Mathieson could easily take his place among Doctor Who's best scriptwriters: Robert Holmes, Neil Gaiman, and even -- dare I say it? -- Douglas Adams.
And even if Mathieson doesn't become another Adams, which almost nobody does, one can do a lot worse than writing some of the best Doctor Who episodes of our era. BBC's own suits would do well to take notice.