This Isn’t a Cause; You’re Not an Activist (Oxygen)
|I heard they had a space program; when they sing you can’t hear there’s no air|
It’s May 13th, 2017. Luis Fonsi is at number one with the Despacito remix. DJ Khaled, Ed Sheeran, French Montana, and Shawn Mendes also chart. In news, the WannaCry ransomware attack goes off, affecting hundreds of thousands of computers in a hundred and fifty countries, with major effects on the NHS. And Donald Trump fires FBI director James Comey on the pretext of an objection to his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, but in reality, as Trump admits the next day in a meeting with Russian officials in which he also shares classified intelligence obtained from Israel, in an attempt to derail investigations into his campaign’s involvement in Russian attempts to influence his election.
On television, meanwhile, Oxygen. It is traditional, especially towards the end of an era, for me to take a good story that I enjoy and write an entry that is generally quite down on it. Even when writing the review of Oxygen, it was obvious that this would be the Capaldi story I did it to. The point of that exercise, after all, is not to indulge in the spurious pleasure of complaining or of contrarianism. Rather, it’s something baked into this project’s approach to Doctor Who, which holds that the show has a mandate to change and do better that applies equally to good eras and bad. If I don’t show the inadequacies of its triumphs, I’m not doing my job. And Oxygen was perfect for this: the most overtly anti-capitalist story in Doctor Who, written by one of the great writers of the era. I could either worship at its feet or be unsatisfied. The latter is more interesting by far.
What surprised me when actually rewatching it, then, was how much the episode made my job easy by failing to quite engage me in the first place. Upon initial airing, this was a huge sigh of relief after a desperately uneven first third to the season. Revisited two years later, its grim and gunly traditionalism stands out as an aggressive conservatism. It gets away with this for the simple reason that Jamie Mathieson is very good, and is capable of pulling off the minimum requirement of such an aggressively traditionalist-pandering story, which is to actually do everything basically perfectly. But the fact that only a writer like Mathieson would make this exercise worthwhile is not the same as the exercise actually being a good idea. More than anything else this season and possibly anything else in the Moffat era, this is a cynical box-checking exercise informed by GallifreyBase notions of what fans want. This is rearguard action, designed to placate a particular sort of hater.
It is in light of this that we need to look at this story’s politics. The first thing to note is that the aesthetic conservatism helps the story get away with the anticapitalism. To make a very obvious point, Series 11 not only has nothing that’s even close to this story’s level of overt leftism, it contains Kerblam!, a story that is essentially this story’s political inverse. Nevertheless, it was routinely pilloried for its supposedly excessively political content within the sorts of circles who adored Oxygen. The blunt reality is that for a lot of people having a female Doctor denounce anticapitalist resistance in a fairly goofy story is more inflammatory in its leftism than having a dour white man Doctor openly denounce capitalism in a big scary gun story where he and the companion are put through the wringer. Jodie Whittaker’s casting, while straightforwardly a good thing, in practice dramatically reduces the amount that the show can do without provoking criticism. Oxygen works the problem in the exact opposite way, getting away with politics that in the Whittaker era would be nuclear by masking them in trad-gun self-indulgence.
But this analysis involves divorcing form and content in a way that is at best oversimplified and at worst wholly disconnected from reality. The idea that overt anticapitalism is a fixed thematic quantity that would play out in basically the same way in a heavily trad/gun Peter Capaldi and a frockish Jodie Whittaker one is ridiculous. The structural content matters here. As the Marxist critic Mark Fisher points out, the cheap camp of 1970s Doctor Who was part of how the awesome and dreamlike hold those episodes exerted over a generation functioned. As he puts it, “what is eliminated in the mediocre melodrama we are invited to call adult reality is not fantasy, but the uncanny—the sense that all is not as it seems, that the kitchen-sink everyday is a front for the machinations of parasites and alien forces which either possess, control or have designs upon us. In other words, the suppressed wisdom of uncanny fiction is that it is THIS world, the world of liberal-capitalist commonsense, that is a stage set with wobbly walls.” Which is to say that the efforts to cater to a false memory of what Doctor Who was by creating the sort of dark action thriller that it never actually did are, in a real sense, working against any anticapitalist content the episode may have.
Fisher, of course—who took his own life in January 2017 in what remains a distressingly hard to refute response to the impending Trump era—is one of the major cultural critics of his era, and a figure I’m long overdue to engage with. (I somehow made it through the entirety of Neoreaction a Basilisk without encountering his work, despite the fact that he’s the most prominent product of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit that produced Nick Land.) Thankfully, his best known work, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative has much to say that is useful in analyzing Oxygen. Fisher’s subject in this book is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” This captures one of the basic problems of Oxygen—one framed cogently by Jack Graham in his politely irritated review of the episode. As Jack points out, the means of resistance offered within the episode—a “complaint to head office” that somehow sparks a revolution that leads to the permanent end of capitalism—is complete bollocks. It’s enough to more or less completely flummox Lars Pearson and Lance Parkin, who in AHistory are forced to ignore the textual evidence that the episode is set somewhere in the vicinity of Nardole’s home time (which was, in their calculation, the 52nd century) in favor of a wildly far future setting around the year one billion on the entirely sensible grounds that we’ve seen systems that are blatantly capitalism in any number of far future stories such as Dragonfire (around the year 2,000,000 given Sabalom Glitz’s presence in both it and The Mysterious Planet) and The Sun Makers (more arbitrarily thrown in the year 4,000,000 based on publicity material), but by their own admission this is still impossible to reconcile with the Doctor’s claims given that The End of the World, explicitly set in the year five billion, is just as blatantly capitalist, although this is mercifully about the last period we’re forced to concede the existence of capitalism. This is blatantly not the intention of the story, which takes a pretty standard mid-range future aesthetic, but the fact is that the Doctor’s claim really does make it impossible to reconcile with any other time period.
The obvious response, of course, is that science fiction is always really about the society it’s created in, and so Britain after modernity is going to depict capitalism right up until the end of time in much the same way that everyone until the end of time is going to speak with a British accent. But while the overall point is sound, it begs the question in the specific case. There are, after all, loads of ways in which the myriad worlds conjured by Doctor Who differ from contemporary Britain. Any number of imaginative premises and transformations of society are possible; indeed, an infinite number are. But there are a finite number of things that cannot be changed. And that’s the point: capitalism exists on the same level of conceptual constraint as a Britain-based production primarily hiring British actors. To think outside of capitalism is as impossible as not having dodgy rubber/CGI (delete according to era) monsters.
Where this becomes aggressively clear for Oxygen is in the line following the permanent destruction of capitalism, in which the Doctor describes its replacement: “a whole new mistake. But that’s another story.” Sure, it’s probably not fair to ask Doctor Who to design an alternative to capitalism twelve lines before the end of the story, but the point is that it wouldn’t have been any easier anywhere else in the story. Actually, the real point is the aggressive non-utopianism of the declaration—the idea that finally ending capitalism after a billion fucking years isn’t even progress. As Jack notes, there’s a hint of fears of Stalinism underneath this—a grim rejection of material social progress. (Fitting for a story that tries to retcon out the TARDIS’s need for mercury.)
What, then, of Oxygen’s anticapitalism? Well… what of it? As Fisher (and no shortage of other critics) point out, after all, anticapitalism is a tried and trued capitalist commodity. Fisher observes that “capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it.” Indeed, Fisher, following Žižek, argues that “capitalism in general relies on this structure of disavowal” whereby the desires it creates are intellectually disclaimed so that they can be subsequently taken up in action without us having to feel implicated in the systems of oppression we’re partaking in. And this is particularly apropos for Oxygen, which disavows capitalism while offering as its core pleasure a cynically regressive take on the show.
Does this invalidate Oxygen’s anticapitalism? Of course not. Better this than Kerblam! or even than the vapid liberalism of Rosa. But the fact remains that what’s going on here is far, far closer to what people derisively dismiss as “virtue signalling” than casting a woman in the main role ever could be. That, at least, is a long term commitment to doing something that affects every nook and cranny of the show differently and in a way that’s never been tried before. This, however, really is just an empty slogan that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s anticapitalism without any sort of notion of progress, neither envisioning what alternatives to capitalism might look like nor how resistance to capitalism might play out.
Meanwhile, in the US, the breathtaking corruption that constitutes the Trump administration is moving into a new and altogether more dangerous phase in which officials interested in pursuing the ordinary course of a society of laws are purged on shoddy pretexts. The UK careens towards a general election so that it can continue with the mad folly of Brexit. The planet slowly cooks to death. Capitalism is killing us all. Right now. People died today because of capitalism’s abuses. What does Oxygen do about that? Very little, and possibly nothing. (Certainly less than Thin Ice, which finds the space to articulate an actual alternative system of values, however timidly, and to endorse some actual praxis.) Is it fair demand that it do more? No. Imagining alternatives to capitalism is impossible, remember? But in the face of capitalism’s brutalities and degradations, surely the great Situationist slogan to be reasonable and demand the impossible applies.
Oxygen is an example of what makes the Capaldi era so good: a baseline level of competence, an inventive set of narrative concepts, and writing that has a clear idea of what it wants to do. Everyone involved does a great job, particularly Pearl Mackie, who takes to the horror of Bill’s situation with aplomb. But there’s a hollowness at the heart of this that, in 2017, is inadequate. Oxygen does everything right and it isn’t enough. What better proof can there be that it’s time for something new?
May 20, 2019 @ 5:53 pm
Not an influence on this post, as I’ve only gotten around to reading it recently, but for another comparison between Oxygen and Kerblam! I recommend Christa Mactíre’s essay at Downtime: https://downtime2017.wordpress.com/2019/03/18/guest-post-adventures-in-narrative-substitution-7-oxygen/
May 20, 2019 @ 8:10 pm
Though there is no doubt you’re right that a female Doctor exacerbates political touchiness, I feel compelled to point out two things re: the varying reactions to “Oxygen” and “Kerblam!”.
The fist and most important is that either way, you seem to be overlooking that “leftist” can mean two very different things; class-warfare and economic concerns (such as the ones “Oxygen” focuses on) on the one hand, and “identity politics” more interested in things like race relations and discrimination on the other. It is perfectly possible — and often the case among the Bowlestrek crowd — that one can be totally okay with the former while decrying the latter as preachy and daft. Indeed, I know marxist types on the frontlines of the “anti-SJW” crusade, who are there because they think the modern left is too concerned with ‘vapid’ issues of gender/sexual-orientation/race discrimination, and therefore not effective enough at actually, materially helping the lower-classes.
The second is that, regardless, if the increasingly-hateful resident fandom grinch Bowlestrek’s opinion is to be taken as indicative of the opinion of the “Series 11’s chief flaw is that it’s too politically correct” crowd, these people are actually more self-consistent than you give them credit for, having already found Series 10 to be getting too ‘PC’ for their tastes.
May 20, 2019 @ 8:16 pm
I’ve always been curious why I, someone who has never liked the gun aesthetic in any of its forms, am such a fan of Oxygen. I think it’s partially that Mathieson is a fundamentally frock writer and that even here, in his gunnest story, it shows through – it feels to me like a frock writer being given a gun assignment. I would emphasize the focus on the Doctor and his jokes here as the part where this shows through the most – the story is more interested in its character dynamics (of the main cast, at least) than in its supremely competent action sequences.
It’s a common and often oversaid thing to say, but I think this story would have done well as a two-parter. Apropos of its title, it feels like it lacks the room to breathe. Mathieson said he had the most trouble with this out of all of his scripts, and I think it shows, particularly in how underdeveloped the guest cast is. A slow burn a la the Impossible Planet/the Satan Pit in which things are slowly ratcheted up might have benefited this story greatly.
May 20, 2019 @ 9:21 pm
… and would probably have allowed for more touches of weird and frock, too, as well as more character beats.
It is interesting to look at the difference between how well the guest cast in Mummy and Flatline are characterised compared to here. Partly that might be down to the actors – Kieran Bew and Peter Caulfield are fine, but they’re not a patch on David Bamber, Frank Skinner, Christopher Fairbank, Joivan Wade, Janet Henfrey, and Christopher Plummer, who sparkle in their roles. I think it’s also the relative lack of space – there’s a 3 person TARDIS team here plus it’s Nardole’s first trip so he needs extra focus, whereas in the other two stories the Doctor and Clara alternately take back seats which allows more room for the guest cast.
But even the train driver in Flatline who’s always wanted to ram something feels like more of a real person than the crew here.
May 21, 2019 @ 2:56 am
…Christopher Plummer was in it!?!
May 21, 2019 @ 7:23 am
… I do not know how “Villiers” became “Plummer”. Obviously tired. Oops.
May 21, 2019 @ 10:21 am
In this episode, Clara is cleverly disuised as Bill.
May 22, 2019 @ 7:28 pm
I think the character issues might be an inevitable limit case of a three-person TARDIS team in a 45 minute story—it’s the classic “choose two” triangle with “main cast development,” “thematic depth,” and “well-developed guest cast” as the three points.
May 20, 2019 @ 9:26 pm
The quote in the title gave me bad flashbacks. Baaaaaaaaaaad.
May 21, 2019 @ 12:21 am
Like other’s it would seem, I never felt engaged with this story. It was just… there, ran for 42 minutes, and finished with some, perhaps in the current climate, predictable lines about ending capitalism that meant nothing, and hinted at worse to come.
The crew held no interest for me, and I never felt anything as any of them met their demise, nor any concern for Bill. And then usual OCD problem I have with logic in stories came up… with the suits calculating the amounts of steps remaining, not breaths (or time), which makes no sense at all.
And it introduced the whole the-Doctor-is-blind arc that went nowhere and did nothing, and still makes me sigh every time it comes up.
May 21, 2019 @ 6:06 pm
Is it possible that the number of steps is analogous to the way modern printers just work out how much ink you should have left rather than how much ink there is in the cartridge? In other words, another poke at capitalism?
June 5, 2019 @ 8:35 pm
Didn’t the suit explicitly calculate breaths?
May 21, 2019 @ 3:24 am
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May 21, 2019 @ 10:56 am
Kerblam! is a funny one, because the ending feels so squarely at odds with the satirical tone of the story leading up to that point. Recall “I was hoping for something a bit less really repetitive, but apart from that I’m enjoying it,” and the sales pitch for cushions to “liven up the grimmest workplace, like this one”. Even the final scene, in which we’re told the business has been shut for a month but that workers are given only 2 weeks’ pay. I wouldn’t expect this to have escaped the notice of the episode’s conservative detractors. Obviously, the climactic scene with Charlie is jarringly at odds with all of this.
I don’t know if i’ve ever truly grasped the frock-gun distinction, but something about the aesthetic of episodes such as Oxygen, where the characters are forced into an overtly, oppressively hostile environment and have to find an escape from it, has always spoken to me, ever since Shearman’s Dalek. Likewise, The Impossible Planet, Asylum of the Daleks, Heaven Sent. It was one of the highlights of Rosa for me, that they managed to convey the material threat of racist Montgomery in a way that felt similarly constricting and unsafe.
May 21, 2019 @ 11:16 am
You’re completely right, as usual. I’ve never looked at “Oxygen” like that, but it does seem much less impressive on rewatch, mostly because, as you say, its anticapitalism mostly falls flat.
I still like this episode, if only because it takes a turn towards hard sci-fi and it produces interesting results. DW usually avoids hard sci-fi for a good reason: it’s both too cynical (which clashes with the show’s optimism) and too focused on scientific realism (which clashes with the show’s more magical approach). All of this makes hard sci-fi much closer to the real world than DW can ever be, which is bad news for the show. The Doctor can topple fictional empires and survive fictional dangers. Get him too close to the real world and he becomes powerless – and fragile. This is exactly what happens in “Oxygen”. The Doctor tries to battle the real life evil of capitalism and essentially loses (the next system will be even worse). The Doctor tries to survive realistic space and is seriously damaged, materially as well as symbolically: as “The Pyramid at the End of the World” will prove, losing his sight ultimately meant losing his ability to solve DW plots.
(It’s also interesting to note how space and capitalism are connected in “Oxygen”. In a way, they’re the same thing: an immaterial, deadly danger that cannot be defeated, only survived. Or perhaps more accurately, this deadly space is a perfect example of how the real world looks through the cynical lens of capitalism: it’s a deadly, dog-eat-dog world with scarce resources we fight over. In such a world, capitalism can be seen as a mercy: it may not be perfect but at least it allows you to buy rare commodities like oxygen to save yourself. But be careful not to get distracted by love like that woman at the beginning of the episode or by friendship like the Doctor: if you do, the world will get you. Notice how, in the end, capitalism also wins in that the Doctor has to buy his eyesight back: in “Extremis”, he goes into debt by nicking some eyesight from his future incarnation and in “Pyramid” he gets healed after Bill sells Earth to the Monks… who then hire the Doctor so that he can earn that “free gift” by working for them).
One can even build a convincing case that what kills the Doctor this season is getting too close to the real world. Finding a companion that can recognize sci-fi plots, punching a racist in “Thin Ice”, attacking capitalism… “Oxygen” is the episode that symbolically kills the Twelfth Doctor way before the Cybermen get to him. After he’s damaged in this episode, in “Extremis” he becomes outright fictional (and weaker for it, barely managing to outsmart the Monks), in “Pyramid” he fails to save the world and in “Lie” he turns into a cynical version of himself so unrecognizable that Bill has to kill him. There’s even a (fake) regeneration… After all that it was only a matter of time.
May 21, 2019 @ 2:34 pm
“(It’s also interesting to note how space and capitalism are connected in “Oxygen”. In a way, they’re the same thing: an immaterial, deadly danger that cannot be defeated, only survived. Or perhaps more accurately, this deadly space is a perfect example of how the real world looks through the cynical lens of capitalism: it’s a deadly, dog-eat-dog world with scarce resources we fight over. In such a world, capitalism can be seen as a mercy: it may not be perfect but at least it allows you to buy rare commodities like oxygen to save yourself. But be careful not to get distracted by love like that woman at the beginning of the episode or by friendship like the Doctor: if you do, the world will get you. Notice how, in the end, capitalism also wins in that the Doctor has to buy his eyesight back: in “Extremis”, he goes into debt by nicking some eyesight from his future incarnation and in “Pyramid” he gets healed after Bill sells Earth to the Monks… who then hire the Doctor so that he can earn that “free gift” by working for them).”
I love this! A very neat reading.
“One can even build a convincing case that what kills the Doctor this season is getting too close to the real world. Finding a companion that can recognize sci-fi plots, punching a racist in “Thin Ice”, attacking capitalism… “Oxygen” is the episode that symbolically kills the Twelfth Doctor way before the Cybermen get to him. After he’s damaged in this episode, in “Extremis” he becomes outright fictional (and weaker for it, barely managing to outsmart the Monks), in “Pyramid” he fails to save the world and in “Lie” he turns into a cynical version of himself so unrecognizable that Bill has to kill him. There’s even a (fake) regeneration… After all that it was only a matter of time.”
This I find a bit less convincing, though, not least because it isn’t Being Fictional that weakens him in Extremis – he’s blind, and injured by the eyesight gizmo thing, yes, but I would argue the triumph of the story is it argues the Doctor isn’t any weaker for being fictional – in fact he’s just as much the Doctor when he knows he is as when he doesn’t, because he can send a message to the outside world for us to take to heart, for us in the real world to become the Doctor (“you don’t have to be real to be the Doctor,” he says)… so in a way it shows him shattering limitations rather than being constrained by them.
I particularly love that this concept of a fictional Doctor getting in touch with the real world comes the week after we’ve seen him urge us, on our T.V. screens, to fight the suits.
May 21, 2019 @ 2:57 pm
You’re right that “Extremis” argues that being fictional doesn’t make the Doctor any less effective, but I don’t feel it succeeds. The simulated Doctor informs the “real” Doctor about the danger the Monks pose… and yet in “Pyramid” he loses to them anyway, and in “Lie” it’s Bill who defeats them (and he steals the credit). That undermines the message of “Extremis” for me.
(And anyway, I’m a bit skeptical about inspiring people with fiction. It works sometimes, sure, but there’s almost no way to predict if, when and how a given work will inspire people. But that’s beside the point).
May 21, 2019 @ 5:44 pm
“The simulated Doctor informs the “real” Doctor about the danger the Monks pose… and yet in “Pyramid” he loses to them anyway, and in “Lie” it’s Bill who defeats them (and he steals the credit). That undermines the message of “Extremis” for me”
That’s a shortcoming of the ‘real’ Doctor, though, not the fictional one (and more specifically of Harness’ and Whithouse’s troubled scripts). I take your point, though.
May 24, 2019 @ 2:52 pm
I met Mark Fisher at a talk he gave based on his book “Ghosts of my life.” The writer Rob Young wrote a moving eulogy where he said that now we are in the Trump era, there was a feeling that Mark’s passing on meant that the compass had been lost overboard, never to be found again. For my part, what impressed me so much about Mark was not just his richly subversive ideas- but his warmth and generosity of spirit- he carried on chatting and laughing and joking to a load of us after the talk, almost to the point that of missing his train. On a humourous note, I later found out that he couldn’t abide people wearing sportswear, and I turned up at his talk on the back of a 5 K race. I greatly enjoyed meeting him- but I bitterly regret that I didn’t spot that he might be in trouble and didn’t say anything. I foolishly thought he was talking about his own experience of depression in the past tense whilst placing it in a cultural framework. Seeing it within a cultural framework, as a symptom of late-era capitalism was a way to remove its power. I’m not one for superlatives but this something I will always remember and regret. He should still be here, giving talks at different venues about his book “psychedelic communism” which would be out by now…
Horse Wee Everywhere
May 30, 2019 @ 10:10 pm
I have to be honest, I’m kind of confused about the view you’re taking with Series 10. Both this and Knock Knock especially have kind of implied an exasperation with the show as it was, and while I personally sort of agree as someone who’s not that fond of the Moffat era, I’m not sure how it leads into talking about the Chibnall era if you plan to given how you’ve claimed it’s the worst era since Colin Baker (which personally I don’t agree with, but still).
Are you going to take a similar tract to the ‘era as exorcism/self-critique’ approach you took to the Sixth Doctor era for Whittaker, or try to outline how it falls out of line with your alchemy reading, or not cover it? Any of those I can understand, of course, I’m just sort of curious.
June 5, 2019 @ 8:31 pm
But surely there needs to be a space for a critique of capitalism that doesn’t necessarily feel the imperative of suggesting an alternative.
If only to counter the tiresome counter-argument that communism is not better, as if the only ground one might have to critique capitalism is being a communist.
Isn’t the point of sci-fi is that is that it allows us to imagine other realities? I realise that this episode clearly did not imagine anything different, but it made it clear that, in due course, capitalism would be replaced by something that does not exist yet – which means that we have to invent it, which requires imagination.
May 5, 2020 @ 10:03 am
Using “blatantly” three times in one paragraph is a bit annoying. That’s what I learned from this article.