When the world is a danger to Doctor Who, does it raise up in rage or does it keep getting stranger?
Today, suffocation has a very specific meaning. In America, you can tell upon which side of the divide someone stands by seeing what their t-shirt tells you about their ability – or otherwise - to respirate. The divide in question is one created by a system of oppression that chokes people. It chokes them figuratively, and then has the brazen impudence to choke them literally as well.
One statement of resistance is the simple proclamation “I can’t breathe”, which derives its power from its ability to inhabit both the metaphor and the brute reality.
Part of the peculiar power of the metaphorical referent is that it expresses a feeling of helplessness as part of a demonstration of strength. Weaponised weakness.
‘Oxygen’ flirts with the SF trope of the post-racial future. The people of the future don’t understand why Bill should face prejudice. They don’t see colour. Except that there is the business with the blue man (played by a white actor, of course, because whiteness is perceived as neutrality, blankness, non-ethnicity, vanilla standard humanity, upon which a fictional alien ‘race’ may be projected without confusing things). But this seems like little more than a method by which the episode can not talk about race in a talking-about-race kind of way. After the imperfect but forthright way ‘Thin Ice’ touched on this subject, this is a failing. Apart from anything else, the refusal to depict class as imbricated with any particular hierarchical dynamics of race or gender is an especially glaring omission in an episode which, for once, explicitly concerns itself with class.
But even so, Bill dies in this episode. She isn’t suffocated, but she is deprived of breath. This happens in the context of a story in which the supply and denial of oxygen is the central iteration of hierarchical power in society. And yet she survives at least partly because she submits to the helplessness enforced upon her by an external force of systemic domination – her suit. She embraces negative capability. As resistance. That she has no choice only amplifies this fact rather than nullifying it. Her tactical embracing of her own helplessness is what ultimately leads to her survival.
She is, of course, saved by a white man. But this, while true and unignorable, is structural to Doctor Who… at least until the Doctor ‘does a Romana’ at the end of the series and chooses to regenerate into a copy of Bill.
(Shall we re-litigate this yet again? There is no way in which texts can be purified. There is no method whereby authors can ever entirely ‘win’. The solution to this problem(atic) is dialectical. It involves transforming society, not trying to amend the practice of authoring texts in the culture industries of late capitalism so that they become imperfectly ‘progressive’. Apart from anything else, what does ‘progressive’ mean in a society progressing towards some species of global choking and suffocation?)
And, of course, there is another sense in which we can’t breathe. I don’t want to arrogantly appropriate the slogan of a specific movement, but capitalism is pushing the climate of the planet to the point where, probably in a frighteningly short period of time, all of us – even the policemen – will find it hard to breathe. Mind you, I’m sure this new market will be exploited, and some will have the money to hoard every last gasp going.
Just as the episode does little more than gesture at the issue of racial hierarchies within capitalism, so it also makes little of blindness… which is disappointing, considering that the oppression of the ‘disabled’ in capitalist society stems from a perception of their lack of efficient utility as producers of surplus value. At least the Doctor’s blindness allows him to see the system clearly, which suggests its occult bassackwardsness.
The gun/frock dichotomy is, of course, a false dichotomy. That’s what dichotomies are for: being false. Even the true ones are full of contradictions when you examine them… which is why and how they exist in the first place.
Many of the most frock of Who stories are very tough. And a lot of the most gun are mushy nonsense underneath. ‘The Mind Robber’ is a radical story about capitalist alienation. (No, it is.) ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ is about bored wankers having workplace squabbles. (These are related issues, of course; it’s a question of emphasis.)
Generally, that the best Who stories are the ones that, whatever camp they fall into, let themselves (camply) transgress. It’s often done via a lovely trick of ironical self-interrogation… while the story in question ludically refuses to acknowledge its own camp (in both senses).
‘Oxygen’ doesn’t really pull this off. So, as much as I like it (and I do), it’ll never top, say, ‘The Space Museum’ for me. I’ll never rate it higher than a story that had to have an apology for its ostensibly poor quality on the DVD cover. But then most things fail to top ‘The Space Museum’, so that’s no great cause for shame.
On the subject of ‘The Space Museum’, ‘Oxygen’ falls considerably short of it, and other stories like it, such as ‘The Sun Makers’, ‘The War Games’, ‘The Happiness Patrol’, and ‘Planet of the Ood’, at least in one respect: they all feature the system toppled by solidarity and struggle from below.
Of course, this isn’t an indictment of ‘Oxygen’ per se. You can’t meaningfully criticise a story for not being a different one… except that we all do this all the time. It’s just that you only notice when people like me do it.
Even so, I know what people want. They want me to write the thing that assesses ‘Oxygen’ in terms of Marxism, or rather ‘Marxism’. Marxism, or Historical Materialism, is, as Lukács said, “the theory of the proletarian revolution”. In ‘Oxygen’, a “complaint to head office” does the trick.
I whinged about this on Twitter, and Phil said he assumed that the complaint sparked a rebellion. Even granting this, the interpolated rebellion is apparently the product of an official complaint. I suppose it depends how you interpret their intent when they say “complaint”. That could be a euphemism. It could be a very sharp and hard complaint. But it’s difficult to see how two people can do more than complain, especially since ‘the Union’ is “mythical”.
The mythical Union is a classic example of the double edged sword... well, it's more a paperknife. It is a caustic comment on the scarcity, paucity, frailty, and (to regretfully step away from my rhyme) the masochism of trade unions this far into sado-dystopo-neoliberalism. It is also an expression of defeat, of resignation. In the future, the Union only becomes less present, less powerful. It eventually becomes less a union and more a unicorn. But it turns out the paperknife is triple edged. Because in an age of defeat, pessimism – as Salvage insists – can be bracing, can even be revolutionary. It possesses the radicalism of reality. And the refusal to look away from the baleful glare of defeat can allow us to see that, whatever form Defeat takes, it might not be that of a basilisk. There might be some room for manoeuvre around Defeat, if Defeat’s eyes do not entirely and immediately petrify. It’s a gamble, but one thing a salutary pessimism allows one to know is: when to gamble. Let’s restate it: a future where “the Union” is considered a myth. Sad, yes, but also… enticing? The phrase “the mythical Union” can be heard another way. Myth is story that persists, regardless of time, regardless the rises and falls of governments and societies. And stories that persist are stories that have life, have breath. And it may be heard still yet another way. (Turns out the paperknife has four sides!) It may be heard as “the union of myth”. The occult organisation, or cadre, or party, or association, or fraternity, or sorority, of that which is myth, which is mythic, possessed of the power of legend. Maybe we’re not talking about a union in the old sense. And, fond as I am of them in many respects, I confess to hoping that we’re not still reliant on the trade union struggle for better conditions in hundreds of years’ time. The “mythical Union” could be near anything, even as it persists in sounding like something that is ours. Turns out the paperknife has notionally limitless sides. It’s starting to look like a formidable weapon. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out to be like Macbeth’s dagger of the mind: unclutchable. We’ve got some Duncans to kill at some point.
Having said all that, ‘Oxygen’ partakes of the usual assumption that capitalism will continue far into the future. It will still be with us (still harder to imagine dead than the world itself) in a couple of hundred years time, apparently unkilled by apocalyptic climate change and the anthropocene (pssst… capitalocene) extinction. (Meanwhile, back in this universe, I suspect at least a large portion of the human race will not be so lucky… the ones who can’t afford Air™.)
The late-late-late-late-capitalism of SF gives the impression that capitalism - as per its own spurious claims - is an eternal and transhistorical truth of human nature, especially when combined with the flintstonian capitalist-pre-capitalism of the fictional past, in which every previous era in human history is just capitalism in smocks and codpieces, with the bourgeois ideology expressed in perfunctory forsooths and methinkses.
I’m being a bit unfair, I suppose… especially since the ‘capitalism continues indefinitely into the future’ thing is baked into Doctor Who (very much like the white-guy-saviour narrative that threatened to obscure Bill’s radically negative capa-bill-ity above). This sort of thing allows Doctor Who to put capitalism into the metaphorical space of ‘the future’ in order to attack it. And, this being an established Doctor Who tradition, it’s a tad mean-spirited to denounce ‘Oxygen’ for it. Even so, an episode that explicitly asks to be taken as a critique of (or at least a comment on) capitalism is kind-of asking for it. (“What were you wearing? Was it a revealing, low-cut metaphorical comment on capitalism?”)
Also, it’s hard to accuse ‘Oxygen’ of representing capitalism as eternal in any simple way, because it does claim to depict the fall of capitalism… or at least the beginning of the fall. It claims to present the chain of events which leads to the strongly worded letter of protest which causes the fall of the entire system (presumably galactic rather then merely global by this point) in a matter of months, as everyone (the CEOs included?) reads the complaint, and simultaneously blinks, shakes themselves, and exclaims “Blimey, maybe we should try something else!”, much to everyone’s relief… as if everyone only just noticed that corporations could be a bit callous sometimes, and the flying of this fact under the radar was the only reason we hadn’t gotten rid of capitalism long ago.
We don’t see a proletarian revolution in ‘Oxygen’, as already noted. But we do hear tell of the fall of the system, apparently under popular pressure. And the system is even named. The word – ‘capitalism’ – is used, which may be a first for the televised show. Terry Eagleton once pointed out that one of the accomplishments of Marx was to give the system a name, and to thus distinguish it from just ‘life’ or ‘normality’ or ‘the way it is’ or ‘the free market’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘democracy’, and all those other things it likes to pretend to be. As a result, the system starts to look like a delineable thing rather than just… well, just the air we breathe. And the thing about things is that they’re limited in time and space. They have borders and underbellies and endpoints.
(Ironically, Marx himself never used the word ‘capitalism’; he called it things like “the bourgeois mode of production”… and, much as I enjoyed hearing the Doctor say the word “capitalism” (just as I once enjoyed hearing him say the word “Marxism”, albeit in a stupid context), what I wouldn’t have given to have heard Peter Capaldi say “the bourgeois mode of production” on BBC1!)
That endpoint, its presence within ‘Oxygen’, is thus what allows the episode to use the word “capitalism”, in the manner of an equation being restated backwards. As weak as the episode is on its ideas of how capitalism could actually be replaced, it does at least raise the possibility of such a thing.
This sort of thing doesn’t come ex nihilo, of course. Texts and signifiers aren’t actually autonomous living things, even if we like to talk about them that way. They don’t just take it into their heads to do stuff at random, even if it seems like it sometimes (as ‘The Mind Robber’ remarks upon). They do what we make them do. And last Friday someone made the text of Doctor Who talk about the end of capitalism. ‘Oxygen’ is the most free-associative of all the episodes so far this year in its reaction to the world post-Trump and post-Brexit (though I hasten to remind everyone that the post hasn’t actually arrived yet in either case, and when it does it’ll take the form of lots of those horrible brown envelopes with little windows, windows which never look in on good things). Unlike ‘The War Games’ and ‘Spearhead from Space’ being more radical than the show had ever been before in dialectical response to the upsurge of struggle and radicalism in Western capitalist society at the end of the ‘60s, ‘Oxygen’ is not inspired by ‘success’, or the ‘rising tide’, or anything like that. On the contrary, ‘Oxygen’ was inspired to go as far as it did because of defeat.
Referring back… it’s something generated by pessimism, by staring Defeat in the eyes and discovering that, whatever he is, he’s not a basilisk… not yet anyways (he’s still mutating). Hence the disappointingly knee-jerk bit of more-jaded-than-thou ontological pessimism in the Doctor’s line “and then humanity finds itself a new nightmare”. Even success is now a precursor to yet more nightmare. The terminus of capital is thinkable, but utopia is still too much for a show about an immortal alien with a magic box to countenance. Again, this is just the bog-standard and (again again) baked-in reactionary liberal gloom about humanity. That, in itself, is excusable, because it is structural… and yet isn’t it the structure, the fabric, the constitutive elements, what we should be most angry about, even according to this very episode?
As a result, the episode’s depiction of the end of capitalism is anti-climactic. We finally get to the point where the show depicts the fall of the bourgeois mode of production, and our response… well mine anyway… is “Yeah, okay. Good. Nice. I guess. Um…”. And that isn’t just me being a miserable git who’s never satisfied. (Not just that.)
Of course, there is solace in one respect. The Doctor could be lying about the whole thing. As noted, we don’t see the fall of capitalism he tells Bill about. And his account of it is implausible, to say the least (though plausibility is not really a priority here). And, even as he tells Bill about it, he’s lying to her about something else. He’s allowing her to believe he has regained his sight. If he’s spinning her a comforting line of bullshit about his own eyeballs, why wouldn’t he risk spinning her another about a future she’ll probably never get to check up on. We, meanwhile, have checked in on that future. We’ve been to the year 5 Billion. And Cassandra was rich, and about to get richer from share options.
The strange thing is that I find it rather comforting to think capitalism doesn’t end that way in Doctor Who. I don’t want it to just putter out in a little puff of moral indignation, a series of irate calls to local ombudsmen, and a contrite press conference or two. I don’t want it to just collapse after a comparatively minor scandal.
Capitalism survived inspiring and enabling African slavery, colonialism, countless imperialist wars, more genocides than can be decently considered, two world wars, the several ‘Great Depressions’, the holocaust, Hiroshima, the Anthropocene… and it can’t survive one incident in which the lives of about two dozen people (mostly white) were considered expendable?
No, as attractive an idea as it is for capitalism to finally be brought down by comparatively trivial crimes (as regimes often are), I want its death to be slow and protracted and painful, and I want its death to be not just an ending but also the beginning of something more than just a “new nightmare”. Stalinism lurks in that phrase. I want it gone.
It isn’t just that the episode says capitalism ends in a way that I personally don’t find credible (I mean… what does ‘credible’ even mean in this context?). And it certainly isn’t just that the episode says capitalism ends in a way contrary to Marxist doctrine. Hey, Marxism is big enough and ugly enough (and battle-scarred enough… and bloodstained enough) to survive being contradicted by Jamie Mathieson.
It’s rather that one wonders what the point is of getting rid of it if the exercise isn’t collective and heroic and transformative and regenerative. The whole point of getting rid of capitalism is that we can thereby get socialism, or at least something better than capitalism. Ultimately, it’s not enough to just be against capitalism.
Am I moving the goalposts? Yes. Deal with it.
Ideological orthodoxy isn’t a criterion by which to judge aesthetic merit (except, of course, that it is… because we all do that all the time, as I say… it’s just that people only notice and condemn it when people with non-mainstream views do it).
But, from a political viewpoint, if the suggested terminus of the story is wobbly, the depiction of why need to get there is surprisingly strong. ‘Oxygen’ goes about as far in critiquing capitalism as anything could possibly do nowadays, I think. That sounds like damning with faint praise, and I want to stress that I genuinely liked the episode, and was honestly surprised by how far it went.
For instance, the Doctor’s stress on “all workers everywhere” fighting “the suits” was great: an acknowledgement of class but also of class struggle as inevitable in the capitalist system, and of the essential unity of the interests of all workers. The word “suits” was more than a cute pun; it referred to the managers and owners of the capitalist system, but also to capital itself.
The characters in ‘Oxygen’ are explicitly workers, which is good… and their employer’s priority is explicitly profit over everything else, which is good. The employer will literally kill them if they stop being profitable… which is complex. In reality, the employers would probably simply sack them… but then isn’t that basically what they are doing? The point is not that the employers want to kill them, it’s that they don’t want to have to pay to keep them alive any more now that they’re unprofitable. In an environment in which oxygen is naturally absent, and is only provided as a commodity, then its withdrawal is simply a cost-saving exercise. Of course, the company could continue to sell its employees the oxygen they need even if they’re no longer employing them, and presumably make a profit from the sale. But the thing is… the credits the workers would use to buy their oxygen would come from the wages they are paid. If the company stops paying them, they have no means with which to buy the oxygen, and the company can’t be expected to provide it for free. It’s almost an exaggerated picture of a crisis of overproduction, followed by austerity.
Interestingly, it looks as if money as such is absent, and workers are paid in oxygen credits. Air has become money. It makes a kind of sense for a commodity as valuable as air (because of its scarcity, and therefore because of the amount of expense and labour needed to source and provide it) to become the basis of money in space. In space, no-one can afford to scream. On the other hand, oxygen isn’t like gold – gold isn’t necessary to our survival. And capitalist money long since being linked directly to any one commodity.
It’s more like the episode is saying - being both consciously metaphorical yet very direct - not that air is money (or that it could be) but that money is air. (Time seems to be air too now, by the way… presumably because time is money. Labour time certainly is.)
And it’s true that, with society arranged as it is, without money (of at least some kind coming from somewhere), individuals die as surely as people in a vacuum. Money is an artificial need, of course, whereas air is a natural one. But that only makes the collapse of the distinction more horrible.
The episode trades on our seemingly instinctual revulsion at the idea of commodifying survival directly - not to obscure the fact that we commodify it indirectly, but rather to emphasise this fact. The choice of oxygen as the necessity which has been commodified is so obvious that it’s a wonder no story featuring capitalism in space has done it before (and they probably have). After all, capitalism commodifies everything it can. We know that the commodification of survival is a thing. Even sticking to 'first world problems', health care is something people in America often don't get if they can't pay for it, and things are going that way in Britain too. And the anthropocene continues to loom, looking like a great 'die-off' to come, with this die-off calculated already - by some - to be economically worth it.
Aside from even normal capital accumulation, primitive accumulation – original and continuing – ‘encloses’ every resource it can, turns it into private property, and makes us pay for access to it. In classic primitive accumulation, people were turfed off the land, separated from their direct access to the means of making a living, harried into towns, and then made to pay for the produce of the now privately-owned countryside with the wages they got from their urban employers. This is analogous to what has happened to the people of the future. They have been separated from the air of terra firma, forced into a new environment in order to make a living, a place where they no longer have direct access to the means of survival, and are being made to pay for mediated access to it, as a commodity now owned by private interests.
The people who reproduce the system with their labour in the future are still bedevilled by the same contradiction between usefulness and profit that bedevilled their ancestors.
‘Oxygen’ mostly leaves out the confusing semiotic association Doctor Who has frequently reiterated between capitalism and ‘totalitarianism’… though there is a fascinating echo of this in the otherwise inexplicable presence of cheesy propaganda posters which are also adverts for the suits. Also, ‘Oxygen’ is a resurrection of the ‘base under siege’ formula, which was always tinged with anti-communism, especially when the base was under siege by Cybermen.
(Here, of course, the base is the siege. And ‘Oxygen’ even dimly remembers the duality of the Cybermen as both communist and capitalist monsters simultaneously, with its echo in the robozombies made of dead human meat walking inside technological shells.)
The episode nevertheless largely rejects the old semiotic connection in classic Who, which expressed an idea of the similarity - rather than the contrast - between capitalism and 'communism'.
Of course, there’s no particular reason why the old semiotic connection should still be active. The huge rupture of years down the middle of Doctor Who caused the severance of many trains of semiotic thinking within it.
Along with the narrative of ‘similarity’, the confusion inherent in the connection is also jettisoned, and thus the inherently reactionary implications which mesh with those of ‘totalitarianism’ theory and vulgar anti-communism. The old capitalism-totalitarianism connection was always a bit of a non sequitur, despite its political fertility. Jettisoning it is no bad thing in itself..
This emphasis of the critique in 'Oxygen' is not on the idea that capitalism is overtly brutal and repressive, but rather on an idea of capitalism as structurally alien, as fundamentally not designed for humans. The system itself is a bit like… well it’s a bit like a suit that is ostensibly designed to facilitate human activity, and to protect and preserve human life, but which actually decides when and where it will permit its occupant to move, and even if its occupant needs to die to service the priorities of someone else. And yet simply taking the suit off seems like an impossibility, like madness, like a death sentence. Capitalism is, one might say, unsuitable.
The suit is, beneath some of the more showy surface stuff, the central motif of the episode. The suit does its own thing with you inside it. If it decides - for its own occult, technical, rational, insane reasons - that it doesn’t want to let you walk, then you don’t walk. If it decides you need to die, you die. It evaluates you, your worth, your efficiency, your productivity, and makes a disinterested decision, on impersonal grounds, that you need to die in order to prevent your becoming unprofitable.
The suit shifts the critique away from the figures of brutal policemen and onto the quotidian – and even formally utilitarian – structures that enable normal work, and yet which also confine and discipline the working body, alienating humans from the product of their labour (the suits are themselves products of labour – even their voices were supplied by Velma, a working actress) and from the labour itself.
The brutality and repression is now something you wear rather than something that is done to you. It is slow-mo, daily, normal. It is an accepted part of working life. The suit is technology, and protection, and fixed capital, ostensibly shaped around humanity, aiding humanity, acting as an extension of the human body (like all tech), but actually containing humanity, trapping humanity, slaving humanity within it, to its inhuman priorities.
And it is a SF representation of the joining of variable capital (wage labour) to fixed capital (technology, etc). This is particularly interesting, since the whole chain of events we witness is triggered by the station’s drop in profitability. By Marx’s analysis, the very investment in productive tech is what produces the tendency for the rate of profit to fall - though this should be happening overall and systemwide rather than just in one workplace. I begin to suspect a galactic recession that nobody knew about because they were all shut up in their own little capsule workplaces.
The emphasis on the ‘runaway system’ was inherited from Moffat (much as were dead bodies in space suits), but its inflection here stresses that the system is, at least in some sense, meant to be runaway, that it was kind-of designed that way, or that it succeeded precisely because it evolved that way. And its runaway nature is operated and utilised by people expecting to benefit from it. The very runaway nature of the system is its utility for the people who own and run it. What looks like malfunction to the people on the ground is actually the normal functioning of the system as far as the company is concerned.
Moffat’s preoccupation with runaway systems always had a potential charge of critique to it. It depicts people as subject to systems they didn’t design, don’t and can’t control; systems which are ‘man made’ but also anti-human, and not for reasons of malice but simply because they represent an imbalance of power; systems which have alien priorities, which take on the contours of life and then treat the humans trapped in them as material. Commodity fetishism, in other words. I think this is where the tradition within SF of stories about runaway tech and systems - which Moffat picks up (and fair play to him) – ultimately comes from, much as the SF tradition of invasion stories ultimately comes from modern imperialism, etc. SF is for expressing such quintessentially modern nightmares. But, while I genuinely like some of Moffat’s runaway systems, it must be said that he tends to depoliticise them. And ultimately, while the metaphorical charge may be potentially quite strong, such metaphorical readings are often foreclosed upon by an enforced literal reading which neuters them… or even, sometimes, by a seemingly-conscious adjustment of the metaphorical import in the dialogue, such as where the Doctor makes sure we understand that runaway systems of modernity can be fixed as long as we “don’t forget the NHS”. To be clear, not forgetting the NHS is good advice, but it doesn’t solve commodity fetishism.
The zombie is, as we know, the official monster of the Great Recession. And s/he’s still with us every bit as much as is the Great Recession. But it’s worth remembering that the zombie began as an expression of the horror of slavery in Haiti. It is a tale expressing how it feels to be reduced to mindless, labouring meat; how it feels to spend so much of your life effectively a dead person walking. The zombie migrated into Western culture via anxieties about race and imperialism, and after a few radical experiments, was eventually recuperated/appropriated as a elitist liberal/left anxiety about the horrors of consumerism. But it has retained a certain radical charge, and has continued to mutate. Even deracinated, the zombie can be the carnivalesque masses in revolt (horrifying to some, cheerable to others). The zombie can also be the worker, steeped in the dead time of alienated labour. There is a mini-tradition of this within Doctor Who, of the dead-or-mentally-dead as meat-puppets performing mindless work for some alien, self-involved power. In ‘The Long Game’, the vast spoiling meat of the Jagrafess employs an army of dead labour in its chilly larder. And there are the perpetually icy Cybermen, of course, as much about capitalist utility as communism. ‘Oxygen’ echoes this tradition with its zombies. They are the workers, surrounded and controlled by metaphorically dead labour (machines), and reduced to literally dead labour themselves by those same machines. And yet still working; preserved by the cold of space. Employment as living death.
Now, who’s in the vault? I bet it’s the Rani.
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