|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?