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Doctor Who: Oxygen (Review)

Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.

– the Doctor about sums it up

In space, EVERYONE can hear you scream…

Oxygen plays very much like a companion piece to Thin Ice earlier in the season. Both are essentially stories about monstrous capitalism, from nineteenth century London through to the depths of outer space.

Indeed, Oxygen pitches itself as something akin to a late seventies or early eighties science-fiction film, in terms of aesthetic and politics. The episode’s production design recalls the “used future” of films like Star Wars, while the heavy criticism of capitalism invites comparison to films like Alien or Outland. Indeed, Oxygen even borrows from a similar strain of horror movies, tapping into the fear of zombies as the monstrous face of capitalism that can be traced back to Dawn of the Dead.

Station keeping.

Jamie Mathiesen has been one of the most consistently impressive writers of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, turning in impressive scripts for both Mummy on the Orient Express and The Girl Who Died, along with a genuine masterpiece in Flatline. Indeed, Oxygen is the most impressive episode in the stretch of the season, a bold and ambitious piece of allegorical science-fiction, wedded to a genuinely scary concept, top-notch production design, and any number of clever ideas.

Oxygen is a brilliant piece of work, and a reminder of just how effectively Doctor Who can blend its disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

Give him space to work.

There is something very cheeky in the scheduling of Oxygen. Of course, the episode ends with a loose cliffhanger leading into the epic three-parter that begins properly with Extremis, meaning that it could never have been shuffled around the broadcast order. However, there is something entirely appropriate about Oxygen broadcasting on the same weekend that Alien: Covenant is released in cinemas.

Oxygen might open with a cheeky and winking nod to the Star Trek franchise, with the wry “space… the final frontier” monologue that introduces the episode, but it feels like a much stronger homage to the Alien franchise. The episode makes any number of knowing allusions. The teaser is effectively one extended and cynical riff on the idea that “in space, no one can hear you scream.” There are shades of the corporation that would become Weyland-Yutani in the all-powerful corporation that treats human lives as little more than economic resources.

In space, all warriors are cold warriors.

Even the production design recalls the look and feel of the Alien franchise. The space station at the heart of Oxygen appears well-used and well-trafficked by a staff that care little for its appearance. Oxygen suggests that deep space has just become another hostile environment to be exploited, that this space station is no more exotic than a deep-sea oil rig or a remote mining station. The future is dirty and gritty, second- or third-hand.

Oxygen even inherits the idea of a hostile universe. There are several threats at work in Oxygen from various sources, but the environment provides threat that lends the episode its title. “The void is always waiting,” the Doctor lectures over the teaser. Space is an environment that is not friendly to the idea of life. The first threat that these miners face comes from the lack of oxygen, the reminder that that space is not conducive to their continued existence. Space may not be actively trying to murder them, but it is at best indifferent to their continued existence.

Airlocked and loaded.

Of course, the most obvious thread inherited from the Alien franchise is the idea of a brutally capitalist future. The real monster in the Alien franchise is never the monster itself, although it gets all of the publicity. The real villain of the piece is the system that has been put in place around mankind. In Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, Alien, Aliens and Alien3, it is the company in its various forms. In Alien Resurrection, the villain is the government and the military industrial complex. Maybe they are different faces of the same monster.

Oxygen is very much built around the idea of an eighties capitalist future, the kind of dystopian nightmare that the franchise tended to imagine in the face of Ronald Reagan. It is the world as reflected in movies like Bladerunner or Robocop or Total Recall. Like Aliens or Outland, these movies unfold in worlds in which greed has shed any illusion of social responsibility and human empathy, existing in an almost idealised form unhindered by morality or decency.

Airing his disappointment.

Mathiesen imagines a future in which large corporations have effectively monetised oxygen, charging people for the very air that they breath. Mathiesen is not too far ahead of the curve in this regard. The Irish mobile network Three satirised the concept in a series of high profile advertisements last year as a way of selling their “all you can eat” data plans. Given that Mathiesen works a number of none-too-subtle jabs at smartphones and artificial personal assistants into Oxygen, that might be a coincidence.

The smart suits play as a parody of modern artificial intelligences. “You look like you’re trying to run,” one advises Bill, mastering technology’s gift for recognising the obvious. “Would you like some help with this?” Indeed, the crew’s short reprieve from the suits comes about due to a very obvious gap in their awareness, their inability to actually look at the world in front of them. They do not recognise that the space in front of them exists. “Like when a sat-nav doesn’t know a new road,” Nardole reflects. Stupid technology.

“Okay, now just say ‘braaaaains’…”

Indeed, the future presented in Oxygen is decidedly underwhelming. “This doesn’t feel like space,” Bill protests at one point, disappointed with the mundanity of it all. There is no wonder to this future, no majesty. There is just a dull utility. Bill has to look out the window to get a sense of majesty and scale, but even then she is staring to a void that would readily kill her. It is almost a surprise when an alien shows up half-way through the episode. This dreary and pessimistic future feels more of a piece with alien-lite and empty-cosmos tales like Frontios.

“Air costs,” a sign warns early in the episode. “Save your breath.” The station advises its new arrivals, “Oxygen is available for personal use only at competitive rates.” There is no oxygen in the communal areas. “Any unlicensed oxygen will be automatically expelled to protect market value,” the station warns. “Charging for the air you breath?” Nardole ponders. “It’s only in the suits,” the Doctor reflects. “They only have oxygen in the suits themselves.” That makes sense. The crew would logically be breathing the station’s air on their own time. Can’t have that.

Get a loader this guy.

This sort of Reagan-era paranoia is reflected in the episode’s secondary threat, the space suits that are literally murdering their hosts and transforming their bodies into zombies. At one point, the team discover a dead crewmember standing upright. “His suit’s standing up,” the Doctor explains. “He’s just along for the ride.” Bill asks, “The suit stands for him?” Later, they discover an empty suit doing some heavy lifting. “Fairly dull,” the Doctor remarks. “Capable of simple tasks.”

The suits are an ingenuous (and very cynical) commentary on capitalism itself. After all, capitalism creates a system whereby it is impossible to exist outside of that framework. Existing in the western world means buying into capitalism, because that is the way that the western world works. Everybody has to put on that space suit in order to survive, because the political environment is so controlled. The Doctor and Bill might recognise the dangers posed by the suits, but they still have to wear them. There is no opt-out of the system, no matter how dangerous it might be.

Suits you, sirs.

As the Doctor explains, Oxygen unfolds at “the end point of capitalism”, at a moment “where human life has no value at all.” Even the work uniforms are actively murderous. “They were killed by their own suits,” the Doctor reflects. People are nothing but “organic components” in some grotesque machine. Even as the crew die, the bottom line remains economics. “Last log entry, station’s declared non-profitable.” The Doctor sums it all up, “We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet.”

In some respects, the social and political commentary of Oxygen is a logical extension of the groundwork laid in earlier episodes. The Pilot introduced Bill as a companion grounded in social class in a way that no other companion of the Moffat era has been, her status as a working class lesbian repeatedly reinforced. This is particularly true in the context of Knock Knock, in which Bill’s status as a working class student makes her particularly susceptible to a landlord who lures students in with promises of a reasonable rent.

“Don’t breath. Breath and you’re dead.”

Repeatedly over the season, it feels like the forces of capitalism have been weaponised against people by unfeeling market forces. In The Pilot, the Doctor finds himself facing sentient rocket fuel that is consuming people while looking for meaning and purpose. In Smile, an entire colony of people are murdered by their mechanical servant class operating under corrupted directives. In Thin Ice, a wealthy family conspires to literally turn poor people into monster food and then into rocket fuel.

Indeed, at one point in Oxygen, the Doctor almost seems to recognise the emerging pattern. Trying to figure out what might have motivated the suits to turn on the crew, he speculates, “Maybe they got tired of carrying you lot around.” He turns out to be wrong, but it is a reasonable guess. After all, episodes like The Pilot, like Smile, like Thin Ice, are about the instruments of capitalism desperately seeking their own autonomy and independence. The season repeatedly asserts the individuality and self-determination of these would-be tools.

Back to normal.

Of course, it turns out that the Doctor is entirely incorrect. The suits are not rebelling or becoming sentient. Instead, they exist as pure and unwavering servants of undiluted capitalism. As the Doctor reflects at one point, this is not a freak occurrence but “standard operating procedure.” The suits were not hacked. They are not malfunctioning. They are operating under the directives of a company that understands that human lives are far too expensive to maintain in such an environment.

As such, Oxygen feels very much like the logical extension of this recurring motif, of this renewed engagement with the dangers of renegade capitalism. The early episodes in the season played with the idea in a variety of differing forms, most heavily in Thin Ice. However, Oxygen takes these ideas to their organic conclusion. It is a horror in which capitalism is the literal monster, as embodied through killer suits acting at the direction of an anonymous and nebulous corporation. There is not even a token bad guy like Lord Sutcliffe in Oxygen.

Screw the government!

Oxygen follows these ideas through to a revival of a classic eighties science-fiction horror format, a piece of nostalgic retro-futurism that reinforces these core themes. After all, Oxygen has a lot in common with the Andrew Cartmel era, in which the young showrunner boasted that his mission statement was to “overthrow the government”, a goal he pursued through pointed and bitter criticisms of Thatcherism in episodes like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol.

(Of course, it is not as though Cartmel has a monopoly on political commentary on Doctor Who. There are plenty of classic stories with a political bent like The Curse of Peladon and The Sun Makers. In fact, Cartmel is not alone in using Doctor Who as a megaphone to attack the Prime Minister. Russell T. Davies took repeated shots at Tony Blair in episodes like Aliens of London, World War III and The Sound of Drums. However, Oxygen is perhaps closest to the way that Cartmel used that science-fiction framework.)

“Don’t worry, I have a plan to save all of you. Most of you. Some of you. One of you. Okay, but definitely Bill. Unless it’s a season finale, then all bets are off.”

It is interesting to reflect on why this idea of an eighties future has come back into focus in contemporary science-fiction, particularly in Doctor Who. Perhaps it is purely aesthetic, a reflection on the shifting cycle of nostalgia. A few years ago, big-budget high-profile science-fiction leaned heavily into sixties nostalgia, as reflected in films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Star Trek and Interstellar. Even outside of science-fiction, sixties imagery and iconography crept into popular culture through shows like Mad Men.

However, in the years since, popular culture has shifted that nostalgic gaze to later in the timeline. As the Obama era came to an end, it seemed like the mood changed. Seventies nostalgia came into fashion, reflected in shows like the second seasons of True Detective and Fargo, or through feature films like The Nice Guys and Elvis and Nixon. Perhaps this embrace of a late seventies and early eighties vision of the future is part of that broader cultural trend.

Bolt from the blue.

At the same time, there may be political and social factors at play. In the United Kingdom, the Tories have cemented themselves as the dominant party. They emerged from the last election with an overall majority, and a clear mandate. There is little indication that any of this will change in the upcoming election. The Tory agenda includes one of aggressive capitalism; they have made steps to privatise the NHS, and plan to exploit Brexit to strip various workers’ rights.

However, there is a clear sense that this resurgent fear of a future driven by weaponised capitalism is not merely a British anxiety. Logan played with similar ideas in its depiction of a heavily commercialised future in which private companies seem to operate their own armed forces. Films like Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 are returning to those same eighties futures. Writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark follow capitalism to one possible extreme in their comic book Lazarus.

I hope Bill is a good pupil, because the Doctor could sure use one about now.

After all, Oxygen is airing in a world where the President of the United States is a businessman who trades on his reputation for making good deals, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary – the bankruptcies, the lawsuits, the fact that he would be richer now had he invested his money in index funds. This is a business man who has stacked key government positions with relatives, major donors, and corporate executives. This is a man who built his campaign on promises to cut both regulations and taxes on major businesses.

While Oxygen obviously went into production before all of these details coalesced, there is no denying that there is something in the popular mood. Indeed, the anger and frustration at the crass capitalism could even be traced back to the Great Depression, as many people watched the government bail out banks that were “too big to fail” as individuals suffered. Oxygen arrives very much as a part of this reengagement with corporate dystopias, grim visions of the future that feel very much of this particular moment. Oxygen is a timely piece of science-fiction.

Dress to impress.

Of course, Oxygen is also a very good episode of Doctor Who. While the episode fits comfortably with the recurring themes of the season around it, it is fantastically constructed in its own right. Notably, this is the first episode of the season to make proper use of Nardole, incorporating the character into the adventure rather than positioning him at the edge of the story. This makes a certain amount of sense, Matt Lucas was a late addition to the season. Oxygen seems likely to have been the first episode written with him in mind.

Mathieson also makes great use of his central gimmick. Oxygen commits wholeheartedly to the idea of oxygen as a precious resource in outer space, to the point where the default unit of measurement is “breath.” As Tasker reflects, that is “the only unit worth a damn out here.” Time and distance are irrelevant in the harsh corporate future of Oxygen, as they are secondary concerns; it does not matter how far something is, it only matters whether a person can reach it.

Dead space.

Similarly, the use of oxygen as a measure of time captures the subjective nature of experience; time passes different for each person, depending on how excited they are, how scared they are, how relaxed they are. In some ways, this could be seen as a slight twist on the “meta” monsters associated with the Moffat era. Much like the Weeping Angels can only move when the audience looks away, weaponising the viewer’s fear, the air in Oxygen depletes quicker if the person breaths faster. The more afraid the individual is, the less likely they will survive. It is a clever touch.

Oxygen is a fantastic piece of work, and a great way for Mathiesen to bid farewell to both the Twelfth Doctor and the Moffat era as a whole. Hopefully, he might return for the Chibnell era. There is a “holding one’s breath” joke to be made.

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