If you’ve been paying attention over the last five episodes of Doctor Who you’ll have noticed certain themes cropping up. There have been digs at colonialism, capitalism, and rampant technology; from the colonists outmanoeuvred by the Vardies in “Smile”, to the over-weaning Lord Sutcliffe placing little value on human lives while exploiting the by-product of an imprisoned creature in “Thin Ice”. Jamie Mathieson’s densely scripted “Oxygen” is no exception, but before we get to the ‘political’ bits let’s examine the episode as a whole.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across an episode of Star Trek, and its Deep Space Nine spin-off in particular, with the “space…the final frontier” opening voiceover cynically undercut by several tumbling bodies hurtling past the camera and, later, several beauty passes of the Chasm Forge mining station. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) reminds us that the frontier is harsh and unforgiving and not full of shiny space suits, ships, and cute aliens. The frontier is final because space wants to “kill us” and “the void is always waiting.”
Despite this, that most human of requests (suggesting to your partner it’s time to become a parent and create a new life) is made in this dehumanising void, as two astronauts work across the surface of the station to escape their grisly fate. Either they’ll die from a lack of oxygen credits (an initial sign that they’re beholden to corporate interests), or become corpses propelled by their AI-augmented space suits.
Sadly, that desire is curtailed; not only does the proposal become an unheard wish fulfilment over malfunctioning comms, but Ellie (Katie Brayben), one of the parents-to-be, falls victim to corporate asset stripping of the outer space kind. “Still can’t hear you love, you’re wasting your breath,” signals Ivan (Kieran Bew), her significant other. There are lots of little gems of dialogue like this scattered throughout the hour, providing an ironic counterpoint to the terrible situation that unfolds. As she stands waiting for Ivan to open the airlock, director Charles Palmer ramps up the tension with a great use of shadows falling across the frame. It’s good to see Palmer back on Doctor Who, and he certainly exploits his visual prowess in “Oxygen”. A drifting space helmet succinctly indicates Ellie’s fate and, having become a dead woman walking, she lumbers towards a screaming Ivan to cap a cracking pre-titles opening sequence.
Meanwhile, back at Bristol University, The Doctor’s telling his class how you die in space. Apparently you’ll pass out, your sweat and saliva will boil, and your blood vessels will rupture. As an indication of The Doctor getting twitchy about his curtailed wanderlust, it’s gleefully extreme but Mathieson again seeds in a witty counterpoint that nods to the rest of the episode’s mission statement. “What’s this got to do with crop rotation?” asks a student. Well, apart from providing the punch line to a great joke, it has everything to do with crop rotation.
It’s all about industrial output. Back in the 18th-century, when the agricultural revolution got under way, output grew through new farming methods including the rotation of crops. More food being needed for more people meant intense farming and land reclamation for arable crops. Throw in free market capitalism, exploitable labour, unionisation, land reforms, and the corporatisation of agriculture that ultimately leads to debt and policies that favour business over farmers. Then, put it in space.
“But space is great, isn’t it?” answers The Doctor. Despite the frothy banter and lovely ensemble playing from the regular cast in the TARDIS, it’s clearly not so great in Jamie Mathieson’s universe. When The Doctor invites Bill (Pearl Mackie) to select a destination and suggests space is exactly like camping, Bill’s hoping for some Trip Advisor reviews before she sets foot into a vacuum. The Doctor ignores her first choice in favour of Chasm Forge, which is sending out a distress signal. The Doctor’s “theme tune” it may be, and where “you only see the true face of the universe when it’s asking for help” but Nardole’s (Matt Lucas) having none of it.
Sent to Birmingham for a packet of crisps on a cunning ruse, he demands that The Doctor stick to the strict instructions that keep him at the university. His own rules, naturally, and he intends to break them given any opportunity. Even Nardole’s precaution of removing a fluid link from the TARDIS can’t stop the tragically inevitable confrontation with a deeply unpleasant aspect of the universe.
Nardole, Bill, and The Doctor are immediately plunged into trouble, and to begin with Palmer makes great use of signage and displays — a world view — to tell us the underlying story. The air shell created around the TARDIS is in violation of a corporate policy that makes its employees pay for the air they breathe while slaving away on the mining station. Air is a commodity, to be bought and sold. The concept is not as ridiculous as it seems when you read about travel companies in China using bags of mountain air as a promotional gimmick to encourage smog-smothered city dwellers to get back to nature.
Science fiction satires about the nefarious actions of corporations stretch back to the template established by Fred Pohl and C.M Kornbluth’s 1952 novel The Space Merchants, a Swiftian satire on the future of advertising. Total Recall (1990), Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, is a more specific example, where the corporate villain Cohaagen withholds the secrets of oxygen-producing technology because he wants a monopoly to sell air to the citizens of Mars.
After some initial appreciation of classic design, door seals, and space doors that don’t go “shuk-shuk”, The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole find themselves on a station where AI-controlled space suits limit your oxygen credit and presumably ensure you put the labour in at the coal face in exchange for the breaths you’re given. Navigating the corridors of the station is therefore measured in breaths not metres.
The discovery of a cadaver being kept upright by his suit is a grisly one. It gradually becomes clear that the suits will continue as directed even after the occupant has snuffed it. “Death, where is thy sting?” asks The Doctor, foreshadowing the very thing that’ll alter the corporate balance sheet in their favour, at the conclusion of the episode. It clearly upsets Bill and as the audience identification figure she allows us to tap into our own fears and phobias about dead bodies.
This is our abject horror of dead bodies and Julia Kristeva noted that abjection of the body was “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, roles. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” The corpses could thus reflect a symbolic attack on the rational self and the materiality of the flesh. This is quite strong stuff for Saturday night viewing, and Palmer doesn’t shy away from showing the lumbering, dead-eyed station operatives attempting to render the survivors as dead as they are.
The story becomes a rather gruesome treatise on how dead bodies can be animated for narrow, unscrupulous business needs, where corpses act as a metaphor for how the lumpen proletariat have been exploited to the bitter end by their corporate masters. The suits are also the symbolic embodiment of the corporation, using the executive ‘suit’ as the folk devil of contemporary business, where the appearance of the gangster, as Stella Bruzzi suggests, is based on “the essential amorality of those who created their own codes of business practices in bastardised versions of the city suit.” Here, the Ganymede Systems Series 12 Smart Suit is a worker’s uniform and an extension of executive power dressing with “customised robing.”
However, the suits have all been given an order to “deactivate your organic component” and, again, Mathieson eloquently prompts us towards the story’s denouement that the workers were “killed by their suits” as they were surplus to requirement. When the unauthorised air created by the TARDIS is evacuated “to protect market value”, donning the off-network suits that haven’t been given this order becomes a matter of survival. Breathing becomes an imperative to “relax or die”, but for Bill it’s slightly more complicated as her suit seems to have a malfunction and the episode’s tension escalates when its dysfunction puts her in jeopardy several times.
Although The Doctor notes that the last log states “the station declared non-profitable”, he’s determined to save the four survivors who managed to get the distress signal out. Where the universe shows its true face, The Doctor tells Bill that “we show ours by how we respond” in such a crisis. The TARDIS crew are eventually saved from the clutches of the walking dead by Ivan, Tasker (Justin Salinger), Dahh-Renn (Peter Caulfield), and Abby (Mimi Ndiweni). Mathieson manages to squeeze in some amusing observations about discrimination between Bill and the blue-faced Dahh-Renn. After committing a social faux pas, she observes: “for the record, I’m not prejudiced. I’m usually on the receiving end.” It’s not helped by a cringe-inducing observation from Nardole that “some of my best friends are blueish.”
At this point the episode is about gaining of trust between the survivors and The Doctor as he sets about resolving the problem that’s stricken the station and its crew. The order received by the suits was received on the least productive shift for the station to mine copper ore. The Doctor ponders on whether the AI in the suits are evolving and able to solve problems independently of their occupants. However, the AI directed cadavers have repaired the locked door and broken in. The episode then becomes a claustrophobic chase in an attempt to exit the station air lock before all the survivors are picked off.
Palmer excels in creating a tense atmosphere, and he uses Mathieson’s witty script to defuse some of its scarier moments. Bill’s clearly concerned about the space walk out of the air lock and asks, “what happens if I throw up in my helmet?” Nardole pithily retorts, “Colours and smells.” This is just prior to a scene where, for a moment, the episode throws a bit of misdirection our way, and our concern is that Bill could die. Bill was listening to The Doctor’s lecture because she at least remembers not to hold her breath prior to being exposed to the vacuum when her suit malfunctions, and she’s forced to remove her helmet just as the airlock opens. Palmer goes for some great abstract visuals from her point of view as she begins to lose consciousness, her flesh freezes and her heart beat pounds on the soundtrack.
Bill regains consciousness briefly as a fire-fight rages around her and then she passes out again. It’s a very evocative sequence, with just some key sound effects to colour the mood. However, the real casualty is The Doctor. By helping Bill and giving her his helmet, he exposed himself to the vacuum and has been blinded. This is quite an audacious stroke and it’s rare to see a physically damaged Doctor in the series. For Mathieson to take that idea and, by the end of the episode, leave The Doctor in this condition, perhaps suggests a different approach is about to be taken with demise of the Twelfth Doctor and his oncoming regeneration. When Bill embraces him at that moment it underscores how potent the relationship between them has already become over the course of just five adventures.
Bill is certainly put through the mill this week, as the dodgy suit malfunctions again and she’s left to become a victim of the dead suits. Again, we have more superb playing between Capaldi and Mackie as she implores the blind Doctor to at least tell her a joke to offset the very real likelihood she’s about to die. As her nervous system is shut down she calls for her mum and a brief image of her is overlaid onto the scene. It’s poignant and effective and underlines how ‘real’ Bill is as a character.
However, it’s also clear The Doctor’s had time to ponder the instructions sent to the suits and that the various AI hacks were “business as usual.” This leads him to the assumption that the real estate of the station would be the most valuable item on the corporate balance sheet. Linking its fate to their own, by “dying well” in an explosion caused by their deaths, he offers the mysterious corporation a choice. The suits have been following their orders because that’s what they were supposed to do. It’s an efficiency drive and helps the corporation cut down on expensive resources such as oxygen consuming workers. “The end point of capitalism. A bottom line where human life has no value at all,” concludes The Doctor.
This theme also picks up from The Doctor’s emotive speech in “Thin Ice” where “human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life”, and Mathieson’s reassertion of that view comes in the same week as a sour speech by Ian Duncan Smith blamed our EU membership for letting “low value, low skilled people” into the UK. Fighting an algorithm, “fighting the suits” also reflects the way, as Johan Söderberg suggests in Hacking Capitalism, that “digitalisation has leapfrogged capitalism to the end point of total automation.”
Our economic system is busy adapting to this change and one solution is “increasing the rate of exploitation in labour intensive sectors. The pattern of growing mechanisation on one side and growing poverty of labour on the other is business-as-usual in the market economy.”
Capaldi again gets some rousing and amusing speeches as the dead suits close in. “Our deaths will be expensive!” he cries and at least on this station one mode of capitalism is stopped ‘dead’ in its tracks. It echoes many of the satirical pot shots Robert Holmes hurled at the tax man and the profit and loss margins of corporations in the classic series story “The Sun Makers” too.
Bill’s alive and well because her suit’s low battery wouldn’t have had enough power to kill her and the corporation signals its understanding of the situation. Time for a group hug. The Doctor takes the survivors to Head Office to make a very loud complaint. Goodbye capitalism and hello the human race finding “a whole new mistake.” A bittersweet ending to an elegant, economically scripted episode, impressively directed by Charles Palmer and impeccably performed. The only slight quibble I had were the broad brush stroke characters for the station workers. Given a slightly longer running time, Mathieson might’ve been able to give us more of their back stories in an already crammed script.
The big shock, of course, is that The Doctor remains blind. Although he feigns recovery in the TARDIS, it’s not until he, Bill, and Nardole are back on Earth that the shocking truth is revealed. Nardole angrily takes him to task for abandoning the vault, warning him that he will “need to be here, and you need to be ready if that door ever opens.” Their friend in the vault will sense if The Doctor returns from an adventure injured or sick. The irony is, he already has, and as he finally declares, “I’m still blind.”