Work has been really busy - that's what's going on, here. While I have arranged all the Silurian stories in proper chronological order, I still like to watch them all just to ensure that they line up properly before I start writing my essay. I wanted to stay away from opinion pieces but they're quick and easy to write. So, we're going to slip one or two of them in again while I work on Part 2 of Silurian History.
My Unsung Classics Series did seem to get a lot of good feedback so I've decided to look at another New Series story that deserves more respect than it gets. Here's a quick cut-and-paste from Part One just to refresh your memory about how this particular brand of essay works. If your remember reading it, just skip to the good stuff!
The stories fandom, sometimes, label as "Classic" can seriously boggle me. Genesis of the Daleks, for instance, is a story that works far better in theory than it does in actual execution (far too many captures and escapes - even by Classic Who Standards!). I've never understood all the fuss about Talons of Weng Chiang, either. I mean, it's a fun story - for the most part (that dumbwaiter sequence is four minutes of my life I'll never get back!). But I certainly don't think it's this amazing piece of television that so many other fans believe it to be. I know it's to be viewed contextually, but it's still pretty hard to get over the fact that they've cast a white person as an Asian. It's a bit like that discomfort you feel when you see old footage of actors performing in blackface. It's awkward.
What confounds me even more is the fact that there are some excellent stories that fandom seems to completely overlook. In some cases, minor quibbles have been found with them ("Kinda is an incredible exploration into the human psyche and an extravaganza of rich subtext - but I don't like it cause the snake looks fake!"). Or, for whatever reason, they just don't seem to resonate with the audience. Even though, to all intents and purposes, they're as well-constructed (or even better) than "classics" like Genesis of the Daleks or Talons of Weng Chiang.
My Unsung Classics Series will explore these stories. I'll not only look at what it is about them that I think makes them so great - I'll also try to figure out why they didn't go over as well as they should have. I'll probably also stun you a bit with what I consider to be a great story. Try not to be too shocked. Remember: The Sixth Doctor is my favorite - so I'm bound to have some weird views!
SERIES TEN AND ITS HIDDEN GEM
At the time of writing this, Series Ten concluded a short while ago. Overall, it's been very well-received by hardcore fans and the casual viewer. Quite simply, the season contains some very solid stories.
Even though it's very recent (things, such as these, should be allowed to age), World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is being labeled by many as a Classic. It's hard not give it that sort of title. On top of being a well-put-together tale, we've got Mondasian Cybermen and a double-Master reunion. And a teaser at the end makes Christmas feel like it's a million years away. Those kind of elements make it near-impossible to not totally fall in love with it.
But if we are willing to attach such labels to something so new, then I say we've missed a story earlier in the season that also deserves to be called a Classic. Oxygen, if you'll pardon the pun, really took my breath away. To me, it stands out just as well as the season finale.
PART THREE: OXYGEN
Like many other stories in the Capaldi era, Oxygen gets its lead actor to do a sort of opening narration that seems like the breaking of the Fourth Wall but isn't (or in the case of Before the Flood it just breaks the Fourth Wall). In this instance, the Doctor's sinister voice-over about the dangers of space turns into a lecture in his class. It's a clever use of the device that signposts what Oxygen does best: be clever. It's a somewhat simple story that presents itself in the smartest way possible. This, quite often, is my favorite style of Doctor Who adventure. A supremely complex plot can be fun but it is not necessary. A simple idea dressed up in a way that makes it sparkle as brightly as possible brings me far more joy. If you look at my Top Ten Stories list (http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html - start here and keep following) it includes stories like Ark In Space and Earthshock. Both have pretty simple premises (Ark: "We need to get off this space station before the Wyyrn eat us" Earthshock: "We need to stop the Cybermen from blowing up the Earth"). Oxygen takes a similar tact with its "We need to escape the zombies on this space station" premise. But it does so with great style and aplomb.
The pre-title teaser does a beautiful job of setting the tone. It lets us know that we are going to be dealing with nasty space zombies. Which is great. How can you not love space zombies, right? But it does something else far more impressive. In a few quick snippets of dialogue, it humanizes the hell out of the two characters we're watching on the space walk. So that when one of them does get zombified, we truly feel the loss. She had just decided she wanted to have children with the man she loves - and now that's never going to happen. Even worse, he never got to know about her decision. None of this was necessary to write into the sequence. We just needed to see space zombies doing their thing. But the fact that the time is taken to have that moment included in the sequence shows us that this story is going to be written with a degree of sensitivity. It's not just going to be a rollicking adventure. We're going to care a bit about these characters who are fighting for their lives.
With the opening credits out of the way, we take a quick trip to the university the Doctor's teaching at to let us now there was no Fourth Wall Breaking going on. Most stories of Series 10 start here and it's a nice piece of familiarity that makes us feel comfortable. The idea of setting the whole season in this location was a good one. It does have just a bit of that UNIT family atmosphere going on.
We don't dawdle at the university, though. We get to the good stuff nice and quick. The first few minutes with the TARDIS arriving on the space station and our three intrepid heroes exploring are glorious. Again, we are taken back to a vibe from the Classic Series. We feel like we're back in all of those lovely stories from the 60s where they spend the best part of the first episode just wandering about and getting to know where they are. They find various things that signpost what's to come later when a real plot starts to develop. But, for now, they're just wandering. The Classic Series would occasionally re-create this device in later stories (Ark In Space and Destiny of the Daleks) and I loved it when they gave us a first episode like that. To see them doing something similar in the New Series was truly impressive. Entertainment seems to be completely geared to people with ADHD, these days. So I must applaud the braveness of this decision. To just let the TARDIS crew meander for a good ten minutes was very bold. It also gets the story to feel very distinctive from a lot of other stuff we've seen in New Who. I hope we see this some more. Not every episode, of course. Just now and again.
And then, finally, we get some more zombie horror. We're also introduced to the surviving crew members. All of whom do a pretty good job of seeming three-dimensional even though some of them aren't going to last too long. It's a nice testament to the writing and the acting when expendable crewmembers can still make a lasting impression.
Bill seeming racist to the blue crewmember (Dahh-Ren - great gag!) is our last little bit of levity in the storyline. Once that's out of the way, the tension in Oxygen kicks into high gear. For the rest of the episode, it is impossible to tear ourselves' away from the action. Problems present themselves' at all the proper moments to keep us engaged. It's executed quite masterfully, really. The writers for The Walking Dead really need to watch this episode. They could learn a few things about how to create effective zombie action.
And then we get to that magnificent airlock scene. Who can forget it? It's one of two great sequences in the episode where we really see just how attached we've gotten to Bill in such a short time. We are utterly horrified by the whole moment. There seems no real hope for her.
The surreal half-conscious effect that is created in the space walk is absolutely gorgeous and gives us another minute or two of beautiful suspense. We have no idea what's going on. But it looks absolutely fabulous and keeps us wondering.
When things do start making sense, again - we find ourselves' completely falling in love with Doctor Twelve. Yes, he was very spiky in his first season but the gradual softening of the character has led us to moments such as these. The Doctor sacrifices his sight to save a friend. The fact that he was so much colder a few seasons ago makes the gesture all the more beautiful. We were sure the heart(s) of gold was still there. And we get to see it in its full glory, here.
Things don't stay too calm for long. The space zombies finally find their way in and the tension picks up, again. And, if the airlock sequence wasn't terrible enough, what happens to Bill in this moment truly horrifies us. There seems no clear way out for her when she gets zombified. It's completely brutal to watch. It also gets us to see, even more, that we've fallen in love with her and don't want to lose her.
The final solution to Oxygen is what propels it into Classic Status. Too often in New Who, we get endings that seem to rely just a bit too heavily on waving the sonic screwdriver about and using some convenient pseudo-science. Oxygen stays away from that and has the Doctor being genuinely clever (he, in fact, loses the sonic screwdriver fairly early on). He susses out what's really happening at about the same time as we do. He understands that corporate greed is the true enemy, here. He then uses his enemy's power against itself in a very smart and down-to-earth way. It really is cleverness that saves the day rather than something that feels a little bit more on the deux ex-machinae side of things. We also get a brilliant speech where the Doctor inspires the remaining crew to sacrifice themselves' heroically. This, to me, is the way a story should end. The Doctor is genuinely brilliant rather than just tech-savvy. Absolutely brilliant stuff.
There's also several truly delicious moments in that climax that really make it pop. The way the Doctor delivers the word: "Expensive!" shows us how he was hatching a scheme the whole time. It halts the zombies in their tracks and changes the whole tide of the story. What a flood of relief that falls over us as he saves Bill, too. And then, finally, we get the sad reunion of the two lovers we saw at the beginning of the story. It's a truly painful moment as he must look into the dead eyes of the woman he loves. As she gives him her air canister to keep him alive, it gets us to wonder if love can even survive beyond death. There is a sense that things have come full circle with the story, now. The lovers are reunited. Not quite in the way either had hoped for, but they are together again. Once more, Oxygen shows us it's not just about space zombies - it's also about the people who are struggling against them.
The denouement is very quick and hopeful. We get a bit of future history as we learn that capitalism is soon to die. And then, we get a wonderful cliffhanger to lead us into a mid-season 3-part epic. The Doctor announcing in black-out that he's still blind is absolutely gorgeous.
I'm hard-pressed to find anything wrong with Oxygen. It's one of those stories that's written so tightly that quarters could bounce off of it for centuries and never cause the slightest dent. It's a shining example of a great Who story that relies purely on the merits of being good in its own right. Our season finale is also magnificent. But, as I mentioned, it has the added bonus of using some elements from past continuity to make it that much more enjoyable. Whereas Oxygen stands up on its own.
Which means it might just be that little bit better...
WHY IT DIDN'T GO OVER AS WELL AS IT SHOULD HAVE:
There are probably several factors that affected how Oxygen was received. First and foremost, it's in the middle of a season of really well-crafted stories. So that makes it that much harder to stand out. We also had a more-than-stellar season finale which really ended up dwarfing anything else that went on during the actual season. Even though I allege that Oxygen might be better than the finale, seeing the First Doctor striding through the blizzard to meet Doctor Twelve will get a fan to forget about everything else that went on this year!
Finally, of course, there's the fact that it is so recent. I mentioned earlier that a Classic does need some time to age (like a fine wine). So, maybe, in the next few years, we'll all stand up and take notice of Oxygen. We'll recognize its absolute brilliance and give it its due credit.
Okay - Part 3 done. Being a lover of narrative symmetry, I'll probably do a Part 4 before I get back to Silurian History. To balance things out even better, I will pick something from the Classic Series that deserves more respect than it gets.
What story will I pick? I don't even know, yet. But I've got plenty to choose from.
Suggestions are welcome, by the way. Leave them in the Comments if you so desire....