A strange sort of episode from the perspective of what you might think of as the Eruditorum Press aesthetic. On the one hand, an episode in which the Doctor literally brings down capitalism; on the other, the most “gun” story since Resurrection of the Daleks. At the end of the day, my personal taste has always run a bit more “gun” than my ideological taste, so I’m pretty on-board with this, although I’m sure the paragraph that starts “but equally” will end up being interesting.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Mathieson writing this. For one thing, he’s proven himself to be quite good at writing gun. Never in quite so pure and frockless a way as here, but his Series 8 scripts’ reputation rests in part on the fact that they appealed to a particular type of traditionalist fan, and this is hitting many of the same notes. For another thing, he’s very good at developing fairly complex concepts. There’s an awful lot going on in this script, but Mathieson has an extremely deft touch in figuring out how much to develop and explain things. With both the voice controls and the fact that Bill’s suit doesn’t work like anyone else’s he gives himself enough to justify the eventual reveals of “that’s why I couldn’t tell anyone my real plan” and “that’s why Bill survived,” but not so much that either point felt like an obvious Chekov’s Gun hanging over the episode. Pretty much everything fits together save for the basic excessive complexity of the company’s plan, and that gets nicely lost in the mix instead.
On top of that, there’s just a lot to like about the ideas here. My complaint about the way in which scary episodes have become too dominated by haunted houses is nicely handled here with an episode that’s long on scares but is thoroughly sci-fi horror. “Make space scary again” is just a great brief. And the commodification of oxygen / murder of the crew when they become inefficient is great in the way that The Sunmakers was great. The point I’ve made about the Moffat era’s fascination with out of control systems as a strong analogue for anthropocene extinction basically becomes explicit text here, which is very nice.
It also accomplishes exactly what I was hoping for from the move into the season’s second act. Bill is still unmistakably Bill and characterized as such (her “last words” of wondering if it was good or bad that the Doctor wouldn’t tell her a joke were fantastic), but this is the first episode of the season to largely not be about her, instead taking a hard swerve into the dark weird brilliance that’s characterized the Capaldi era at large. The big shift in tone I hoped for is accomplished, and my excitement for the next couple episodes, and really for the rest of the season in general is now high. (The Whithouse episode is the only one I’m kind of dreading; I think the Gatiss one actually sounds quite good.) All in all, it’s a compelling mix of ideas executed intelligently.
But equally, there’s just something about this episode that’s hard to quite love. Part of it is simply that it’s so unrelentingly gun that it doesn’t seem to want to be loved. It’s not really trying to be fun. And while I am predisposed to liking a bit of the grimly epic, the sheer level of cold austerity involved in this episode ends up being offputting. It’s almost begging to be the standard “good episode that ends up taking a hit anyway” TARDIS Eruditorum entry for the tail end of any era. Something about its peculiarly joyless leftism seems to tee up a “noble but failed response to the world” critique of the sort I leveled against late Troughton-era stuff. This is great, wonderful, essential, and fundamentally inadequate. Under the “post-Brexit Doctor Who” standard, this feels like a last hurrah of the past more than it feels like the future, in marked contrast to, say, Thin Ice.
How much does that matter? I don’t know. As I’ve said repeatedly, the idea that Doctor Who has some sort of obligation to provide cultural leadership in the wake of Brexit is self-evidently ridiculous and sets the series up to fail. That doesn’t mean it’s not a standard I’m going to hold Doctor Who to – I can’t not, having created comparable standards for every other era of the program. But applying those standards to the program live, on a week-to-week basis, instead of in the historicized context of TARIS Eruditorum isn’t entirely fair. As a thing to torrent and watch in the afternoon with a glass of cider, this was an entirely cromulent way to spend a Saturday, though it rewatched much better later in the night when the sun had gone down (a problem that applied to its UK airing as well, but also one that’s par for the course for Doctor Who). If I want more, that’s only because of how much this offers and the inchoate sense of something greater that it manages to suggest.
All the same, I want more.
- Man, you wouldn’t normally expect Doctor Who into Eurovision to be a transition with quite this much whiplash, would you?
- The episode isn’t about Bill, but she’s absolutely put through the ringer in it, and Pearl Mackie is brilliant with it. Her two death scenes are upsetting, nightmare fuel stuff, and the decision to linger on them and let them be absolutely horrifying is smart and brutal.
- The frozen space zombies are a magnificently distressing design. Mathieson really keeps lucking out with his monster designs. Though equally, the third time you get a rock solid brilliant monster design it’s probably as much about being really good at picking things the BBC can do as it is about luck.
- More broadly, I really am struck by how well developed this world is. Details like measuring distance by average breaths, the posters, and the throwaway “mythical union” joke. There’s a level of thought and craft to the setting that Doctor Who often doesn’t bother with.
- I suppose I can’t leave the blindness angle unremarked upon, although it’s tough to tell what to say about it. It’s not really used that much here – there’s no real plot developments it’s essential to. So it’s mostly there for Moffat, Harness, and maybe Whithouse to make use of. Certainly it’s an interesting idea that I expect two of those three writers to do well with (and hey, Whithouse did all right with a deaf character), but I’m not sure there’s much to say about it beyond “well that’s got potential.”
- Nardole is starting to clarify a bit, though. His relationship with the Doctor has some sharp edges that are legitimately interesting, and seeing him in an episode that really doesn’t give him any space to be comedic is unsurprisingly a major boon to the character. I still don’t see him becoming a character I love, but I think you can easily argue that his presence makes this episode more interesting than it could have been with just the Doctor and Bill, which is the bar he needs to clear to be justified.
- This episode seriously fucks with the plot of The Daleks. (Also The Wheel in Space, but that is famously the story where About Time leads the “Things That Don’t Make Sense” section with “the plot,” so complaining seems a bit churlish.)
- If you’re anything like me, you finished this episode and had the immediate reaction “ooh, I wonder what Jack’s going to have to say about that.” I’ve yet to crack the task of getting Jack to do what I want, but he’s British and thus motivated primarily by guilt, so if I were you I’d contribute to his Patreon. It’ll either make him feel obliged to write about it or send him into crippling despair at his inability to live up to people’s expectations. And really, either would be great, no?
- Meanwhile, we’ll be back on Thursday with a podcast with Shana. (Jack’s on next week, though I’m sure we’ll end up talking a bit about Oxygen as well.)
- And for American viewers who are just coming to Class for the first time, here’s my review of Brave-ish heart.
- This is going up late enough on Sunday that I’ll do Proverbs of Hell on Tuesday again. Hopefully actually remembering to post it this time.
- Right, time to bite the bullet and commit to a tacit philosophical position via the crude art of rankings.
- Thin Ice
- The Pilot
- Knock Knock
May 14, 2017 @ 7:54 pm
There seems to be a missing sentence at the end of the fourth paragraph.
May 14, 2017 @ 9:06 pm
Bizarre – the sentence finished in the editing window, but somehow that didn’t translate to the posted article. Fixed in any case.
May 14, 2017 @ 9:22 pm
It does not appear to have been fixed.
May 14, 2017 @ 9:35 pm
Bewildering. I’ll have Anna take a look.
May 14, 2017 @ 9:30 pm
Was the final sentence supposed to be “All in all,”?
May 14, 2017 @ 8:01 pm
“Mathieson really keeps lucking out with his monster designs” – I think it’s more a matter of his art-school background, which enables him to pitch stuff with a visual component, as well as (as you mention) his good understanding of how far a BBC budget stretches.
I think this episode can be put into conversation with 42 really well – the “joylessness” you’re talking about here is equally present in 42, although this episode takes 42’s general feeling (the moment-by-moment challenges the characters face, the bleakness, the moment where the companion loses hope completely) although this one is much more dedicated to having things like “themes” and “ideas” that Chris Chibnall seems to have forgotten to put in 42.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:03 pm
‘dark weird brilliance’ is enough – why do you need to be happy as well?! The ‘fighting the Suits’ line had me punching the air with glee, so much that I had to wind it back and replay so my hubby could hear it, and likewise rejoice. Paul Mason says the natural position of anyone on the left is frustrated, tired and angry, so as a Who version of the Labour manifesto, Oxgen seems to nail it.
And yes, I’ve read a little ‘there’s no hope of this happening in real life’ to the fall of capitalis,, but I’ve read more hope and encouragement in response to it, so we shall not give up. Just think how smug we’re going to be when we do pull it off!
May 14, 2017 @ 8:06 pm
Sorry about the typo – shold have been capitalisM. Capitalis sounds like a Terry Nation name for a planet of the far right.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:08 pm
I thought it was a bit void of tension: The Doctor’s ranting about a “noble death” was so obviously a ploy and, as it’s half-way through the season – Bill clearly wasn’t going to die.
The base characters were bland as well. They were just the black girl, the blue guy and the beardy white one.
Also, the blind plot was Jamie’s idea (he mentions it in the DWFanShow), he intended for the Doctor to heal the end of the episode but Moffat decided it would be interesting to keep it running. I think that was a really good decision, it wouldn’t have been completely pointless plot if just healed after 15 mins.
I really hope the Doctor doesn’t get on his soapbox in every episode; he’s making too many “sincere” speeches, I feel like they’re trying to replicate the Zygon inversion moment.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:15 pm
To apply something Phil says somewhere back when he was blogging through Classic Who, the tension in killing Bill isn’t over whether she’s really dead; the tension is over how it is that seemingly letting her die is actually the right way to save her.
May 14, 2017 @ 9:40 pm
Meh… I guess that’s an interesting way of looking at it but it just left me completely cold – this episode was a lot like Under the Lake/Before the Flood – very cold and empty.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:42 pm
There were actually two beardy white ones. Not surprising you got muddled on that though (I got a bit hazy on it myself). When you’re going very light on the characterisation and everyone is identically dressed, casting two such similar-looking actors is a little careless.
May 14, 2017 @ 9:43 pm
Ahah I did realise there were two separate beardy guys but the other guy was sooooooooo inconsequential I didn’t think he was worth mentioning. Yeah, that was weird casting decision for an episode with light (that’s being kind) characterisation.
May 15, 2017 @ 4:07 am
He’s not inconsequential, it’s just that one dies and the other moves from “voiceless extra” to “same general role” in such a seamless manner that it’s easy to miss that the actor changed. It’s like one of those change blindness/person swap pranks.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:10 pm
The excessive complexity of the company’s plan seems to be based around a basic contradiction. Namely that the company is killing off the workers, if we trust the Doctor’s exposition, to conserve oxygen, but at the same time the company is willing to jettison oxygen if it finds oxygen that’s not being paid for. As the contradiction reflects a contradiction of ideologies that justify capitalism I’m inclined to let it pass. Namely one set of ideologies is the libertarian line in which any transactions between self-interested contractors are ethically acceptable (as in Heinlein’ The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), while the other is the utilitarian line where any transaction is justifiable if it improves the overall good regardless of whose good it belongs to (Bentham for all his humanitarianism was an advocate of letting the unemployed starve in the name of the general good since charity would reduce the need to work). It’s also in universe justifiable as the company shift in policy not including all possible eventualities.
I don’t think that the workers got much more characterisation than the extras in the previous episodes. But the efficiency of the script gets away with that.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:37 pm
I thought the reason the suits were killing their human occupants wasn’t to conserve oxygen because of its price as a commodity. The company’s real-time profit projection metrics had declared the staff of the mining station irredeemably unprofitable. The station’s equipment had started to fail, production radically fell, and the company was paying this staff of 40 people while they didn’t produce any more ore. The suits’ switches flipped at a particular point when their daily profitability fell below a periodic goal measure.
Essentially, they were killed because murder is what happens in this episode’s world when you’re fired. And I thought I got some tactless cancellations over the years.
More details at my own review of the episode. Riding Phil’s coattails as usual.
Roderick T. Long
May 14, 2017 @ 8:40 pm
“the libertarian line in which any transactions between self-interested contractors are ethically acceptable” —
That’s not the libertarian line. Libertarianism is a theory about which actions are or are not rights-violating, not about which actions are or are not ethical. (“Rights-violating” implies “unethical,” but not vice versa.) And on “thickness” grounds, libertarianism actually implies that many non-rights-violating actions are indeed unethical and are to be vigorously (albeit non-rights-violatingly) combated.
Libertarianism is also incompatible with capitalism, but of course that’s a point many libertarians themselves are confused about, though the old free-market libertarian critique of capitalism is happily enjoying a revival nowadays.
May 14, 2017 @ 10:02 pm
This interests me, it’s not an argument I’ve seen made before (libertarianism and capitalism being incompatible, as well as many non-rights-violating actions being unethical). Do you perhaps have a source for a layman so I can educate myself on this further?
Roderick T. Long
May 15, 2017 @ 4:02 am
Ooh, the perils of asking an ideological fanatic to recommend a reading list! 🙂
On libertarianism and capitalism being incompatible, here’s an online book:
On libertarian “thickness” involving moral commitments beyond (though consistent with) non-aggression, see this article:
For the case that those commitments should be specifically leftist and anticapitalist, see:
We pro-free-market anti-capitalists generally hang out here:
May 15, 2017 @ 8:33 am
Selling the oxygen doesn’t mean that the oxygen itself is a limited or precious commodity to the company. The cost may be in setting up the air-recyling infrastructure and this is a way of making the employees pay for it. But more generally it is rent-seeking, it doesn’t matter that whether the oxygen is cheap or expensive to the company – the point is that they control it and employees can’t live with out it, so they have to pay.
May 15, 2017 @ 10:15 am
We’ve been paying for food for millennia, only reason we don’t pay of oxygen is that is is everywhere. What exactly is your point?
May 15, 2017 @ 6:41 pm
//We’ve been paying for food for millennia//
And when/if a company has an unregulated local monopoly (such as might occur with mining in the 19th century or in the copper mine featured in ‘Oxygen’) it wasn’t unusual for the company to own the shops. So the employees might be paying their wages back to the company for food and other necessities (and everything else). That gave such companies a lot of power over individual employees.
//only reason we don’t pay for oxygen is that it is everywhere//
So if it wasn’t ‘everywhere’ e.g. on a commercial space station, you might well end up having to pay for it. If you couldn’t pay for it then you wouldn’t have any. The company that owned the space station would have a local monopoly and hence could charge higher prices than you might expect based on the cost of having to provide it.
// What exactly is your point?//
EXACTLY my point was the full set of words in my previous post. Perhaps you want my more less exact and more general point. I don’t think either were hard to follow.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:15 pm
Episode is trying to preach… something, but it doesn’t quite work, because worldbuilding pieces don’t quite come together to paint a coherent picture.
I guess the lesson is “price fixing will bite you in the ass if you try to sell merchandise to your own employees.
May 15, 2017 @ 7:53 am
“I guess the lesson is “price fixing will bite you in the ass if you try to sell merchandise to your own employees.”
I guess, if you disregard the more explicit “capitalism puts profit over human lives and need to be destroyed”.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:17 am
The difference is that when you put profit over human life, you get progress, prosperity and freedom. When you put ideology over profit you get shortages, famines and police state. Human life remains worthless however, because it is worthless regardless and everyone who promises you otherwise is a scammer.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:29 am
To be honest, if you think human life is worthless, it’s not really surprising that you think this episode’s moral dimension didn’t work.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:44 am
What I think of worth of human life is of no importance. Only what decision-makers think.
All I’m asking is what exactly was the business plan of the company that required it to sell overpriced air to their own employees while venting surplus air into space. And how is “zombie suits will kill you and steal your stuff” is a criticism of capitalism.
May 15, 2017 @ 1:18 pm
In the setting, human labor is the cheapest, most disposable part of the enterprise. This is established by the fact that these employees have so little leverage that the idea of a labor union isn’t just unlikely, but a myth. The sale of oxygen isn’t meant to be particularly sustainable: it’s a threat to keep the workers productive. These people are slaves, and asphyxiation their lash. The company’s just slapped a legalistic rationale on it to make it look better.
The suits are straightforwardly a metaphor for the unfeeling logic of the company. The Doctor’s wordplay at the end practically spells that out.
May 15, 2017 @ 1:51 pm
While my patience with right-wing and Gamergate-supporting trolls is not zero, do at least try to be more interesting than this, mmm?
May 14, 2017 @ 8:16 pm
The suggestion in this story that humanity is going to have to wait an unspecified number of centuries and head out into the void in privatised space-factories before Capitalism is dumped is probably the most horrific concept on display here. Space-walking astronaut zombies notwithstanding.
It can’t be long before some business brain actually finds a way to sell us canned air like they’ve convinced us to buy bottled water. In a week when business-president Trump actually tried to insist that NASA make their latest long range unmanned space exploration manned, until he was told the prohibitive cost of putting humans into space, once again Doctor Who scores a zeitgeist bullseye.
Trump and May dismantling healthcare, workers on zero contracts, the very idea of an opposition to the relentless march of the military-industrialist corporate brand of uncaring profits uber alles being painted daily by right-wing propaganda tabloids as chaotic insanity (“Have you lost your mind Doctor?” “Yes. But that’s not a new thing!”). A cowed proletariat about to vote back into power the very machinery of their destruction like turkeys voting for Xmas. Welcome to the early 21st Century.
We’ve been here before of course. ‘The Sun Makers’, a 1971 Doctor Who story by Robert Holmes, allegedly written in a dyspeptic rage after he received a rather large tax bill (cf The Beatles’ ‘Taxman’), dealt ruthlessly with the idea of ‘The Corporation’ exploiting the workers on a bleak industrialised planetoid. The Doctor helps the proles overthrow the bullying profiteers and ends with the boss being thrown off the roof by an angry mob. Which rather makes the “go and shout loudly at head office” ending of this episode look rather tame.
So, Jamie Mathieson’s story ‘Oxygen’ wearing its anti-capitalist stance defiantly meta, like an Occupy activist’s V for Vendetta mask, strays rather decisively into ‘Black Mirror’ territory. I wonder how long before Charlie Brooker himself gets to write an episode of Doctor Who?
The Cold Open takes place outside. Both figuratively and practically. Even the cold of space becomes a work environment. Hostile and, as the Doctor helpfully lectures us, full of weird science that’s out to kill us. The “Final Frontier” Star Trek reference isn’t just a cuddly shout-out to Who’s brash American cousin. It reminds us that the ship that boldly carried its post-scarcity utopian imperialist multi-ethnic crew around the galaxy was proudly named the ‘Enterprise’. An echo of another capitalist buzz-word, another campaign from another era. Enterprise. Recently replaced by Make America Great Again or Strong and Stable as the preferred mantra.
I can easily imagine Theresa May replaced (if it hasn’t already happened) by a pre-programmed AI. Ruling the country like a snooty Alexa or Siri. “Can I watch Doctor Who please?” “NO. BUT WHAT I CAN OFFER YOU IS A STRONG AND STABLE LIST OF PERMITTED VIEWING”. So kudos to the BBC for making and broadcasting this piece of unashamed Left wing propaganda. And I mean that most sincerely. I hope, like the best stories from this franchise that it gives kids ideas about their own future and how to make it better.
Too political? Had enough of Doctor Who punching Nazis, disintegrating exploitative landlords and destroying capitalism? Here’s the geeky bit.
Once again Pearl Mackie as Bill showed us a range of emotions that previous companions would have struggled to emulate. Her space-zombiefication had me genuinely worried for her safety and her wondrous gaze out the window as the camera pulled back to show us the vast mining station – ‘Chasm Forge’ was beautifully played. Capaldi also had his moments and Matt Lucas got the best joke with “Some of my best friends are blueish”. Though Bill’s shock at being called out for racism was priceless.
There were shout-outs this week to Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, often seen playing with a yo-yo and to first Doctor William Hartnell whose own lying about the fluid link being an integral part of the TARDIS got his companions into an awful mess with the Daleks back in the day. The space walk had elements of ‘Gravity’ and the ever-watching red light camera eyes and AI voices were a reference of course to Kubrick’s ‘2001’, the exploitative mining corporation and astronaut body horror echo Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ while the name of the station – ‘Chasm Forge’ was a nice homage to ‘Valley Forge’ the name of the ship in Douglas Trumbull’s classic cult sci-fi movie ‘Silent Running’.
So, next week. Looks like it’s Doctor Who meets ‘The Name of the Rose’. The Doctor is blinded. Is his wounding permanent? Might it be this that triggers the regeneration which I predict will happen sooner rather than later? And Missy! Is it her in the vault? Too obvious. There’s been too many references. I still think, somehow, it’s Susan and/or the first Doctor.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:27 pm
I suppose the story’s intense commitment to gunnish traditionalism (seriously, has Doctor Who ever done science fiction this hard?) ties in with all the references to classic screen sci-fi. Spacesuited corpses spinning through space was surely another 2001 riff, but what I thought was witty was kicking off with “Space: the final frontier”, and then just a minute or two later having someone in space being unable to hear someone else screaming – “Actually, this is the kind of sci-fi we’re doing this week!”
May 14, 2017 @ 8:36 pm
That last sentence of mine uses the word “space” far too much.
Incidentally, this one is almost certainly not a deliberate reference, and definitely not to vintage gunnish sci-fi, but the racism-against-blue-people gag made me think of Farscape’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
And I was mildly disappointed that the oxygen cylinders didn’t have the Peri-Air logo on them.
Roderick T. Long
May 14, 2017 @ 8:42 pm
“Valley Forge” was also, of course, a site famously associated with a revolution.
May 15, 2017 @ 12:14 am
Why are people taking the “Head office” line so literally? The character who says it has no issue firing a gun at the Doctor. To me it felt like clear code for “Blowing head office up”
May 15, 2017 @ 2:18 am
The opening struck me as much as anything else as Doctor Who riffing on the aesthetics and thematic concerns less of Star Trek (beyond the obvious reference in the voiceover) than of a contemporary SF show, namely The Expanse. In fact this whole episode kinda felt like “what if Doctor Who invaded an episode of The Expanse”, which is just a delightfully awesome idea.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:22 pm
Interesting fact: the radio times TV listings description of this episode described it as the Doctor fighting against “the darkest evil of all”. I know that it was probably written to be radio times hyperbole, but all the same I have to ask: does this make it canon (to the degree Doctor Who has canon) that “the darkest evil of all” in 21st century Doctor Who is capitalism by spreadsheet?
Anyway, I watched this episode with my Dad, a Doctor Who fan who’s been with the show for a very long time. We both liked this episode, though my Dad suggested that the politics were on the right side of history in roughly the same way that anti-racism episodes of 60s science fiction were: they needed to be very blatant given what the audiences of the 1960s were like, but modern audiences were aware enough that they could be more sub textual. I entered into a coughing fit that sounded suspiciously like the names “Theresa May” and “Donald Trump” and he conceded his point.
May 15, 2017 @ 2:11 pm
The ‘darkest evil of all’ bit is directly from the BBC’s official press description.
So in answer to your question, yes. Canon as fuck.
Roderick T. Long
May 14, 2017 @ 8:34 pm
It’s striking (though surely unintentional) that this episode’s critique of capitalism is precisely the traditional free-market libertarian critique of capitalism rather than, say, a Marxist critique. The corporation’s willingness to jettison free or low-cost air in order to keep up the price of their own high-cost air is precisely a mercantilist, anti-competitive, anti-free-trade move of the kind that Bastiat parodies in the candlemakers’ petition: http://bastiat.org/en/petition.html
At a more theoretical level, Bastiat’s point is that the natural tendency of free-market competition is to increase the domain of free, no-cost, common resources and diminish the scope of profit —
— which is one of the many reasons why capitalists are in practice (rhetoric aside) so unalterably opposed to free markets.
May 17, 2017 @ 10:06 am
During the Cold War the US government was buying grain the boost the price of the commodity — and then burning it.
This caused a minor outrage because “couldn’t you use it to feed the poor?” came up, to which the answer was that doing so would depress the price of grain again.
1) The fact it was only a minor scandal is depressing as hell.
2) My point is… venting the unauthorized air in order to produce artificial scarcity and keep prices high isn’t some ridiculous extreme — it’s something that does actually happen.
May 14, 2017 @ 8:38 pm
the throwaway “mythical union” joke.
Oh, good grief, I didn’t even get that one. In space, I read the word “union” coded as “federation” or whatever. But of course, the mythical organisation the exploited workers would respect is an actual union. Of course.
On the subject of actual jokes in the episode – I think saying Nardole “doesn’t [get] any space to be comedic” are a bit harsh (even though you don’t seem to intend it as criticism, exactly).
The Nardole and the Doctor double act about the fluid link was hilarious. (My fan-theory is that it’s the wrong fluid link – the one in “The Daleks” is essential, the one the Doctor carefully pointed out to Nardole prior to this episode is not.), and his irrelevant reminisces about the suit voice were quite funny as well.
In fact, the whole episode struck me as being based on a bitter joke – the one about the oxygen masks on budget airlines probably having coin-slots. Of course “humorous” and “fun” are not the same thing, especially when the humour is very black, so I wouldn’t entirely disagree with you about “joyless”, although Bill at least gets one Space Is Awesome scene, before we move back to Space Is Trying To Kill You (And Capitalism Is Helping).
May 15, 2017 @ 4:05 am
“Space Is Trying to Kill You”/”Capitalism Is Helping” would have been a wonderful double title if this had been a two parter.
Honestly, and episode called “Capitalism Is Helping” where it ends up it’s helping you die sounds like at least a science fiction short story someone needs to write, if not a an episode of Doctor Who.
May 14, 2017 @ 9:30 pm
Between opening with “space: the final frontier” and robot zombies that can turn you into one of themselves with a touch, I of course immediately thought of the Borg.
Glad to see SOMEBODY is still using them as a parody of capitalism run amok, as they were originally, instead of the generic zombies they became in the latter half of the 90s.
May 14, 2017 @ 11:30 pm
Now if only they could get back to the original idea (or, at least, my read of that idea) of the Ferengi of “What kind of people would make Donald Trump look like a liberal?”
May 15, 2017 @ 2:22 pm
Both appearances of the Ferengi in Voyager fit this brief.
May 15, 2017 @ 6:29 pm
But also raise some horrendous anti-semitic stereotypes. I was always uncomfortable around any depiction of the Ferenghi.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:46 pm
Very true. Part of why I prefer the Borg, as far as Trek parodying capitalism is concerned.
May 15, 2017 @ 6:31 pm
I think we should wait till we see what Moffat”s going to do with the Mondasian Cybermen.
May 15, 2017 @ 11:42 pm
That was exactly what I thought. And I assumed the line about humanity’s next big mistake after capitalism referred to them. (Though I’m not sure how it ties in with Mondasians arriving on Earth in the 1990s)
May 14, 2017 @ 9:30 pm
I feel like this one’s got a good chance to be the classic of the season; as you point out, it’s got two very different sections of the dedicated ‘Doctor Who’ fanbase hooked.
I think whether or not it becomes that classic (or at least the episode nominated for awards) is how the blindness thing plays out. If it gets done badly, this episode will suffer in the collective unconscious of the ‘Doctor Who’ audience, if it gets done well, you get the idea, and if it becomes basically just a bit of trivia (hey, remember which Doctor went blind?), well, I think it still might make it.
May 14, 2017 @ 10:38 pm
I think I’m in love with Mathieson for telling a generation of kids that the endpoint of capitalism is slaughter, not through implication or subtlety but by having the doctor just say it explicitly and repeatedly. And props to Moffatt for letting him do it. Yes, it was obvious from the off that there was no “hack”, that this was just business as usual, but they really stuck to a their guns and left no space for ambiguity.
I don’t know when this was written, but there’s really something in the “things aren’t this bad because of some external party hacking the system, this is where the system was always logically going to lead us” that makes it especially biting post-election.
I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved that Series 10 wouldn’t really be able to deal with President Trump directly, but when the politics in this and Thin Ice are so firmly in the right place that we get the parallels anyway, that’s almost better.
May 15, 2017 @ 7:11 am
Post-election in the States, pre-election over here. If there was ever a case to show an episode so dark and angry and bitter and cold, it’s in the run-up to Theresa May’s almost-inevitable victory next month on her “Fuck literally everyone on less than six figures” platform. The fact (as Jack mentioned on Twitter) that some at e.g. Gallifrey Base are claiming the episode is a Labour ad rather says everything about how screwed the UK is, and why “Oxygen” so desperately needs to exist.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:00 am
Yeah I definitely meant to say “Post US Election” there.
I’m still buzzing from this episode. Punched the air in the denouement several times. It was grim, yes, but also told us that, if you have to, you can just threaten to blow everything up and make them pay. That was about as positive a message as you can realistically expect in the current climate.
Also, no Bowie reference this episode but a Fall reference in “Bill’s not dead”, so it’s forgiven.
May 14, 2017 @ 11:01 pm
It’s a Base Under Siege story. But with ferociously tight plotting. And a woefully under-characterised supporting cast.
I didn’t mind the unsubtle politics. We do not live in subtle times.
Putting Bill thru the wringer not once but twice was brilliant and I want to see some consequences from that later in the season. It also made an expensive-to-shoot space batter considerably cheaper.
If we’re going to play Old-Series-New-Series Snap then Jamie Mathieson is Terrance Dicks.
The thing that stopped it from being unbearably grim was the constant stream of one-liners – and the knowledge that this isn’t Dr Who every week.
May 15, 2017 @ 3:50 am
Really? “Oxygen” wasn’t trying to be fun? In comparison with the haunted house story whose “uplifting everybody lives” ending involves a mother committing suicide while simultaneously ending her son’s life? Did other people change the definition of “fun” when I wasn’t looking?
“Oxygen” certainly didn’t linger, but it was packed with moments I found amusing, and it was constantly playing with the conventions of its genre. From the suit Siri/Velma offering to “help you” with running away to the idea that the suits couldn’t find them because they were on a part of the station not yet on the map to the wonderful direction when the suits figure out a way around that problem as the Doctor’s being threatened by one of the survivors, this episode rewarded viewers for being actively engaged with what it was doing.
May 15, 2017 @ 5:50 am
Random notes on colours:
1. Nardole says his friend Velma was “a bit orange,” which sounds like she overuses fake tan until we find out that being bright blue is an option.
2. The most famous Velma in fiction wore orange a lot.
3. The pun on “bluish” also appears in Yellow Submarine. In which the bad guys turn people into blue frozen statues.
May 15, 2017 @ 7:43 am
When I searched for reviews for “Oxygen”, “bottled oxygen” was top of the Google search list. Which takes irony to a new level I think.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:23 am
This was an interesting one. I’d picked up on the political angle the season was taking, but I hadn’t expected it to go as far as explicitly putting capitalism on the list of things the Doctor will destroy. I do like the bit of ambiguity at the end – we don’t know if the Doctor really was responsible for the downfall of capitalism, a contributor or just a coincidental passer-by. As a person who’s allergic to hero-worship of the Doctor, I like those gray areas.
This felt like it would have been a pretty forgettable episode except for some individual moments of excellence. Bill’s exposure to the vacuum, for instance: using her point of view to skip over the actual space-walk was a nice bit of expense-dodging, but it also worked to the narrative’s advantage. And physical suffering so rarely happens to the main characters nowadays that it felt like the show was breaking new ground, even though the Doctor spent every other episode getting punched or tortured back in the old days.
That being said:
There’s a sort of arc that Doctor Who is very prone to doing in the Moffat years – a mysterious thing is happening to the characters, they figure out its nature at the very end and the Doctor sorts it out with some perfunctory plot maneuver. Honestly, I think it’s crushing the life out of the show’s ability to tell engaging stories, because it’s very often used without much consideration for whether or not it improves the narrative.
I’d argue this episode would have been much stronger if the true nature of events had been revealed much earlier. The characters would have a chance to absorb and react emotionally to what was being done to them, fixing the bland characterization; the Doctor would have been able to engage with the (fantastic) core premise of fighting a Kafkaesque corporation in a more direct way; the final gambit of inspiring the others to choose a heroic death would have felt like a real climax instead of a rushed, generic Doctor Who conclusion.
On a final note, where things go with the Doctor’s blindness is of course still a mystery at this point, but giving the character a disability is one of the things I’ve been proposing for years now. I’m losing interest in the power fantasy caricature of the Doctor, and making him less able to simply sprint away from things opens up some marvelous potential for his character. I have no illusions about this lasting into Chibnall’s tenure, but I appreciate Moffat recognizing that being on the finish line gave him some freedom to try new things.
May 15, 2017 @ 9:27 am
Thought you might have busted out that old long word that start with Q for this one.
I find the iconography of the “monsters” interesting. On one level they’re both literally and visually zombies – shuffling mindless human corpses with basic drives. But the cleanness of the division between the flesh part and the machine part is unusual for Who; the flesh is redundant and the suits could remove them and still go about their cold business, and the only reason they don’t is because it wouldn’t look as creepy to the viewers. Even a sleeping Wallace in The Wrong Trousers was more vital. (And – I don’t know much about the biology side of this, but don’t some bacteria consume oxygen? So even dead the crew are continuing to use precious company resources. Jettisoning the bodies would make more sense.) The corpses should continue to decay – something that it often treated in an somewhat arbitrary fashion in zombie narratives – so at least some of them should be more disgusting and Walking Deadesque, and the only reason they’re not – again – is because of viewer requirements. I can’t offhand think of a major Doctor Who monster where their appearance is this irrelevant to their function in the story. It does provide us with perhaps the most interesting moment in the story, where the crew member thanks his dead partner even though she played no part in the resolution and the suit was acting in pure self-interest – thank all available gods she didn’t smile back at him or something. It says something fresh about our pareidolic instinct to anthropomorphise anything that can be anthropomorphised even when at the same time we’re conscious that it’s a ridiculous thing to do. That moment alone is enough for me to put this episode head, shoulders and nipples above the rest of the season so far.
That “I’m still blind!!!!!!!!!” tag at the end was beyond cheesy, though.
Megara Justice Machine
May 15, 2017 @ 5:37 pm
“so at least some of them should be more disgusting and Walking Deadesque”
Well, I thought they were still pretty hideous, they weren’t just people walking about with dark circles under their eyes. I was actually surprised they went as far as they did. And also, did we find out how long ago these people died? Maybe they didn’t have a chance to get too gross. They also apparently were out in space for a bit so being frozen might have preserved them for a bit longer.
May 21, 2017 @ 7:23 am
Everyone died, like, yesterday. Not a lot of time for decomposition, especially in a cold, anaerobic environment.
May 15, 2017 @ 12:50 pm
I liked Oxygen a lot, but while Gun episodes are nice once in a while, a Who where they dominate is far from my ideal vision of the show. Also, much like blue-ish people, some of my favourite Capaldi eps have been Gun
Any Australians on here watching Whovians? I admit to being oddly charmed by its existence, with Rove McManus seemingly happy to slum it on the ABC and genuine fans on the panel theorising and poking loving fun at the episode.
The strangest part of this ep was the segment with conservative MP George Christensen (The second politician to be on the show after former miserable communications minister Stephen Conroy) praising the Christian values and imagery, quoting the “Lonely God” moniker, desperately trying to wave away questions surrounding Bill (Christensen has been strident in opposing LGBT support programs in state schools) and showing off his childhood fancomic starring a 4th Doctor expy. The rest of the panel were happy to take the piss out of the situation, with (openly gay) Adam Ritchard getting some barbed lines in.
It amuses me that today Christensen is now trying to block an American fascist from entering the country for an alt-right convention, despite having appeared on the organisers’ podcast last year. Seems like not realising what he’s supporting is a recurring problem for George.
May 16, 2017 @ 12:30 am
I had low expectations of Whovians and was very pleasantly surprised. My 7 yr old son loves it (altho Bajo is the true star for him, he’s never heard of Rove). The things that put me off Rove (the smugness, the need to be cool) are completely neutralised by sheer geekiness of it all – which he embraces rather than mocks.
The key to understanding Christensen’s strange behaviour is that he’s desperate for attention – from anyone for any reason. Fave GC fact: He dropped out of the Catholic Church and joined the Antioch Orthodox Church because the former wasn’t sufficiently judgmental.
GC and DW: https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/people-who-love-dr-who-should-love-their-fellow-man-right
May 15, 2017 @ 3:21 pm
What’s a “gun episode”?
It’s not really guessable from the context and I’ve not heard the term before.
May 15, 2017 @ 3:30 pm
I discuss the distinction here: http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/time-can-be-rewritten-33-the-shadow-of-the-scourge/
May 16, 2017 @ 11:11 am
Has anyone ever considered re-writing Earthshock as Earthfrock? It’d be an interesting exercise in showing the distinction.
May 15, 2017 @ 11:24 pm
Thanks Phil for the reviews and discussion. Oxygen made me think of a couple of Brecht poems.
Song of the Rice Barge Coolies.
I can’t find a video but lyrics in several languages here: https://www.antiwarsongs.org/canzone.php?lang=en&id=49985
Last stanza: (not the greatest translation)
“The foodstuff from downstream gets to
The eaters upstream. Those
Who hauled it have not
Had their food yet.”
The Song of Supply and Demand
May 16, 2017 @ 2:04 am
Was there an explanation as to why a space station with no oxygen would require an airlock? Or what was taking up the space outside the suit’s shield if it needs a helmet to keep air in in a vacuum (implying the station had an atmosphere, just one that didn’t include oxygen)?
I don’t recall there being one, but you’d think that one gas would be just as expensive to supply to the station as another, so they’d just run in a vacuum anyway.
Other than that niggle, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode.
May 16, 2017 @ 6:02 am
There being some form of atmosphere is probably the best explanation, considering that we can hear sounds in the station perfectly well.
May 16, 2017 @ 8:49 am
The simplest explanation would be that something on the station (the equipment or maybe the minining process) requires pressure to work. So the station management just filled it with nitrogen or carbon dioxide or whatever was the cheapest. Maybe the mining itself produces some gas – two birds with one stone.
May 17, 2017 @ 3:36 am
Wasn’t the station still under construction? If so, they’d leave it without oxygen while it is being built, to control the workers.
Once it is open for business, presumably paying customers expect to be able to breath without constantly wearing a suit.
May 17, 2017 @ 11:13 am
Isn’t it a mining station? So you wouldn’t expect there ever to be anyone but workers there. (I mean, it’s Doctor Who. Of course it’s a mine. What other kind of setting is there?)
May 16, 2017 @ 8:50 am
With appropriately nervous glances in the direction of our host, can I pick up the discussion of the episodes ‘scientific’ and economic plausibility? It all works for me. The base is filled with a carbon dioxide dominated gas – it’s pressurised and you can hear sound etc. Any unlicensed oxygen is vented in order to stop oxygen ‘pirating’ / maintain scarcity and the company’s market (or companies? arguably to be a proper critique of capitalism there should be a thriving market with competitors so you can choose between coke and pepsi – but not free water). I can’t imagine the base is that warm so any bacterial action that can take place in the absence of oxygen will be minimal. Presumably the ‘rescue ship’ is a (robot crewed?) take down ship that will chuck the bodies, dismantle the base and all it’s valuable components and set it up some where new, where a new crew will turn up to do the whole thing all over again.
May 16, 2017 @ 9:02 am
Favourite episode so far. But I’m a sucker for space and serious SF, so “Oxygen” would’ve had to be really bad for me to notice. Thank God it wasn’t. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and the politics were very satisfying, if a little heavy-handed.
I’m surprised no one mentioned the interesting connection between the Doctor’s blindness and this episode’s genre. The Doctor’s lecture at the beginning, with its realistic depiction of the vacuum of space, pushed us straight into hard SF territory (well, as hard as Doctor Who SF can ever be). And Doctor Who is very ill-suited to functioning in hard SF mode. No wonder this realistic vacuum did lasting damage to the Doctor – that’s just what happens when you allow fantastic creatures to cross into the real world. They can’t survive there.