“Space, the final frontier…”
Spoken over a starscape of a sun, planet, and two bodies floating towards us, thus begins the latest episode of that classic 60’s sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Expanding on it’s Star Trek allusion however, it goes on to explain that space is “Final, because it wants to kill us.”
Also echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wallace & Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, “Oxygen” sees the Doctor taking new companion Bill on her first trip to outerspace as opposed to another planet, answering a distress call coming from a mining station owned by Ganymede Systems. With Nardole in tow, they find themselves in yet another life or death situation – only her fifth episode and yet Bill has already learned all she needs to know about the Doctor’s reactions to imminent death – and one which is broadcast at time which couldn’t be more apt.
For me, season 10 has come as a pleasant surprise. After what I considered to be a dreadful Superman rehash in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, “The Pilot” offered a glimmer of hope that maybe all wasn’t lost before Steven Moffat’s overdue handing over of the showrunner reins. Despite news of his own decision to leave the show which prompted speculation of his replacement, for the first time Peter Capaldi felt like the established Doctor rather than just the new Doctor who had only recently taken over from his predecessor.
As much as I have admired his performance as the 12th Doctor, I feel as though he has been let down by too many episodes which didn’t give him enough to make the most of his time in the role. Yes there have been some stand out moments, the Doctor’s “sit down and talk” speech is an absolute highlight of Doctor Who as a whole, but these have by far been the exception rather than the rule.
Bill’s questioning of everything from the Doctor’s Tardis to his morality is a welcome addition from a more than worthy new companion and has lead to some of the season’s most comical, and also most dramatic moments. The inclusion of Nardole as the Doctor’s very own Jiminy Cricket also adds to the show, albeit at the expense of Matt Lucas who – like Catherine Tate before him – plays a character with a great concept almost exactly the same as every other character throughout his career.
Although I must admit I have been iplayering them rather than making a Saturday night appointment like previous years, even Lucas and the small blip that was the second half of “Knock Knock” haven’t stopped season 10 from being a collection of great episodes.
“Oxygen” is no different, and perhaps the best to date. Far from the only time Doctor Who has placed emphasis on compassion, respect, and the value of a human (or alien) life, it is perhaps the most pertinent. In the run up to the UK’s general election, it is also perhaps the most widely reaching anti-Conservative party political broadcast of all time.
The episode is written as an unashamed morality play against the excesses of capitalism, depicting a futuristic dystopian vision where even the air we breathe is considered a commodity to be marketed: making the whole metric/imperial argument somewhat redundant, units of distance on a map are shown in average breaths.
While most dystopian futures are written as an allegory for contemporary societies, “Oxygen” has the unfortunate honour of being broadcast at a time when the targets of its metaphors are in fact already reality. The inevitable point of the episode when the Doctor realises the true nature of the threat comes when, faced with imminent death quite literally by the trappings of capitalism, Bill comments on the absurdity of being “fined for dying”.
Rather than the fully automated space suits killing their occupants due to being hacked as initially believed (another remarkable quirk of timing in regards to the recent cyber attacks on the NHS), it readily becomes apparent that their current threat, not to mention the previous cause of death for 36 miners, is in fact a conscious decision made by the corporation that considers workers who aren’t meeting work quotas as a waste of resources.
More than just “Companies with links to Tories ‘have won £1.5bn worth of NHS contracts’“, ideas such as there being no middle ground between being either a diligent worker or six feet under also evoke headlines such as “Thousands have died after being found fit for work, DWP figures show“, which attempt to highlight the full extent of the Tory policies which even the UN has declared as being a breach of international human rights.
It would seem that the present here and now is as much an ideal setting for “the endpoint of capitalism, a bottom line where human life has no value at all” as any imagined far future.
Even were this not the case over here, the fact that “Oxygen” was written before businessman Donald Trump’s US election victory but broadcast after his repeal of Obamacare is equally as alarming. Something which considers pregnancy and even domestic violence as pre-existing conditions which insurers all to often refuse to cover, surely even writer Jamie Mathieson cannot deny that the future always comes upon us quicker than we realise.
Having saved the lives of two survivors however, the Doctor drops them off at their “Head Office”, afterwards informing Bill that “six months later, corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalists … then the human race finds a whole new mistake”: with the benefit of hindsight, something which could also be taken as an analogy for Labour’s constant infighting hardly making them a perfect choice for government either.
But whether it’s from space miners facing the ultimate redundancy, or an impassioned plea based on real life experience entitled “This is how the Tory disability assessments are killing people“, if we take one thing from “Oxygen” regardless of when it is set or even when it was written then it’s surely the Doctor’s thoughts on answering a distress call:
“The universe shows its true face when it asks for help, we show ours by how we respond.”
Something for the UK to think about on the 8th June….