With Alien: Covenant coming out in just a few days, it feels fitting that this week’s episode of Doctor Who is a survival horror storyline. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole (against Nardole’s better judgement) chase up a distress call from a distant space station. They arrive, to find the place seemingly deserted. As they explore they find survivors, a work system where you literally have to pay for the air you breathe, and, eventually, space zombies. Isolated from the TARDIS, the team must find away to avoid asphyxiation, and zombification at the mercy of the corporate machine.
The season continues with another strong showing. Capaldi remains the steadfast presence that we have come to expect, and Mackie is a great pair of eyes to experience the universe through. This week’s supporting cast are a decent crop, with Peter Caulfield being the standout. Largely because of his bright blue skin, as the alien character Dahh-Ren. His odd skin tone leads to an amusing interaction with Bill. The mixed-race Bill does a wonderful double-take when she realizes she has made a racist microaggression against him. It’s a great moment, created by writer Jamie Mathieson, and earns further commendation for Doctor Who’s current above average discussion of race.
As for the episode’s villains, the oxygen-deprived space zombies are a creepy bunch. The mechanics of their coming into being and how they propagate themselves are solidly established. They are an enjoyable, credible threat, and the capitalist commentary they spring from is pretty neat. It raises the question, if the Doctor is fighting capitalist zombies, does that make him Bernie Sanders?
If there’s a problem with them, it’s that, although they are well differentiated from your standard film/TV zombie, they are not necessarily brilliantly distinguished from past Doctor Who zombie-esque villains. They share traits in common with the disease-carriers from New Earth and the Vashta Nerada from Silence in the Library, essentially making them a hybrid of the two. To call it lazy would be unkind, but it does highlight the problem of constantly needing to create new monsters for a long-running show like Who.
Matt Lucas is, once again, a welcome presence. His tendency to underplay alien flights of fancy is pleasantly left-field, and allows Nardole to feel completely unlike any other previous companion. His reluctance to be involved in the Doctor’s adventures could easily be tiresome, but so far writers have been able to keep him from being an “I told you so”, angry-nanny character. His concern for the Vault, and for the Doctor therefore comes off as touching, as opposed to annoying.
“…the twist at the end of the story felt a little off…”
Speaking of the wider Who world, as enjoyable as this episode was, the twist at the end of the story felt a little off. It’s difficult to talk about without getting into spoilers, but, keeping it as vague as possible, this feels like a classic Steven Moffat wrong footing. Of course, this depends on how long this change will be in effect for, and how it’s resolved, but this is a reworking of part of the Whoniverse that no one was asking for, much like last season’s Sonic Sunglasses. We all know how that went down. That said, Capaldi plays it brilliantly, as he does with all things, and we will doubtless see more of it next week, when the Doctor and Bill meet… the Pope, apparently.