Reviewed: Oxygen

I’m typing FAST dear reader – here at DWC we get around forty breaths per review. I’m on the clock and like they say, never end an article with asphyxiation…

~GASP~

Confession: I have a MASSIVE brain-crush on Jamie Mathieson. His writing fits exactly what Doctor Who looks like in my mind’s eye and it’s Properly Clever™. He gave us Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline in Series 8 and then The Girl Who Died in Series 9. All have been well received if not lauded so far and for me, dear listener, he’s done it again.

The Doctor and Bill have settled into their Doctor-companion/ tutor-pupil relationship and he’s itching to show her more of the universe. We see more of Matt Lucas as Nardole in this episode who gets dragged along with the Doctor as he skips class and shirks his duty to guard the vault. Oxygen is a dark story. The premise is dark and the action is refreshingly macabre even for Moffat’s scare-heavy version of the show. Nardole is the ideal antidote to this. While many were worried that his character – originally Christmas special comic relief – might be too silly, Lucas has toned down the character so he provides humour and some safety for younger viewers without derailing the atmosphere. Talking of atmosphere…

~GASP~

And what a creepy piece of genius Oxygen is. In the After Show, Mathieson explains that a single note from Moffat lead to the suits being the monsters with corpses inside. Their slow movements, not being able to enter an area without a floorplan and redundant, lolling human face made them all the more terrifying. This achieved the uncanny creepiness of the Borg from Star Trek which the Cybermen have sadly never managed to live up to in New Who.

Then the underlying premise was, itself, utterly horrific. Taking the logic of neoliberal capitalism to its extreme where the market becomes more important than the individual lives existing in it was wonderfully played. And that’s another thing I love about Oxygen

~GASP~

The whole piece is dripping with wonderfully satisfying allegory. The human workers in this fantasy Capitalist future are redundant – their lives as a mere means of production. They might as well be mere “organic components” or walking corpses following protocol. When they cease to be productive enough for the spreadsheet – they get removed. It gives a whole new meaning to zero-hours contract. This is a new take on the accidental evil that we’ve seen cropping up in New Who, often in Moffat’s early offerings such as The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace. No one is being mean – something malfunctioned. Something happened out of context and led to a complex disaster. Here, as the Doctor observes, “we’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet.” To stop the onslaught of zombie miners, he simply has to make it cheaper to keep them alive. Menace over. But there’s something else – in finest Ridley Scott (or maybe Robert Holmes) tradition, the unseen villain is the greedy Company….

~GASP~

And this underlying conceit is brilliantly revealed in the Doctor’s climactic-speech – a Mathieson speciality. Something that I really appreciated in this script was that the Doctor really had something to do. He saved the day. It’s not that I object to the companion being the focus or courage and resourcefulness coming from surprising characters and places in New Who… only we do sometimes have the odd story where the Doctor seems like part of the premise and just another observer rather than the hero. The Doctor’s speech where he deciphers whodunit and unravels an ancient mystery in 66 seconds in Mummy is hands down one of my favourite moments in Doctor Who since 2005.

In Oxygen, it gives such a perfectly cheeky gag: “Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.” The genius Time Lord, hiding his compassion behind witty one-liners shows us why he deserves the title: Space Gandalf. And just to makes sure we’re under no allusions as to how awesome our hero is, he only goes and does it blind!

~GASP~

This was very unexpected. Real suffering, real injury and consequences are something that is often missing from New Who. That is perhaps with good reason, given there are (hopefully) kiddies watching. We get used to the dead coming back to life, to resets, to deuses ex machina-ing and the like. Now I know we’re (almost certainly) going to see the Doctor get his sight back, even though it’s clearly missing in at lease part, if not all, of next week’s episode. But there is something so terrifying about losing a major means to accessing and interacting with your world which makes this all the more alarming. It’s somehow more believable and more affecting than seeing blood and screams on the telly. This both gives the episode an added edge of danger and threat, but also does something to the Doctor. It again makes him all the more brilliant and brave that he saves the day minus one of his usual faculties. But also that he chose to save Bill and put himself at risk. And I think this gives us the key to what Oxygen is about…

~GASP~

The Doctor takes a risk and sacrifices his sight for Bill. At the end point where he has deduced what is driving the murder and rigged the mining station so that their deaths will be too costly for the Company’s accountants, he makes a speech. He talks to those assembled about dying well. He allows “the suits” into the room and says, “Let’s send them a message, teach them a lesson they will never forget. They take our lives, we take their station and every penny they will ever make from it. Die well, it’s the finish line, it’s winning. Our deaths will be brave and brilliant and unafraid but above all, suits, our deaths will be expensive.”

This story – or rather our hero’s message – is about standing up for a principle. Risking your belief that human life is worth more than profit. It’s about compassion and it’s about sacrifice – the opposite of the greed encoded in the Company’s algorithms.

~GASP~

Not much to go, dear reader. Bottom of the tank and the boss will be taking any extra breaths out of my salary! The supporting characters are well-rounded and expertly delivered by a sturdy guest cast. Director, Charles Palmer (Smith and Jones), keeps the action clear and the scares potent while delivering a grim and gritty version of space. Mathieson gives us an interesting take on racism where Bill can’t conceal her alarm at the all-over blue Dahn-Ren (played by Peter Caulfield, or “Blue Peter” on set apparently!). When she tries to explain that she’s not racist and is usually on the receiving end, Dahn replies, “why?” highlighting the arbitrary nature of our prejudices. All this seems to flow naturally within the narrative – like Capaldi, it feels as though Who has hit its stride.

~GASP~

So, true to form, the Doctor seeds the fall of big-business corporate capitalism. And he does so while pretending to come from the mythical “union”. And this is only a week before the nation’s nurses announce they are going on strike and several weeks before the UK has one of the most polarised General Elections in our history.

But Moffat and Mathieson couldn’t have know this could they?

~GASP!~

[ED: Right, that’s it, Lomond – I’m docking your pay.]

  • Dr. Moous In Extremis

    Undoubtedly a highlight of the Capaldi era so far, which is itself a highlight of Doctor Who as a whole. Jamie Mathieson really gets it. That episode was everything Doctor Who should be rolled up into one 45 minute chunk. There’s no doubt about it, Oxygen is an incredibly easy choice for top twenty material.

  • bar didn’tseethatcoming

    So, I may be wrong, but I get the impression you maybe liked this one a bit James?

    1. Yes, I saw the zombies much more Borg than Cyber – the only reason the space station was round was that if they’d made it a cube the Roddenberry estate would have sued!
    2. No, markets are ok; they can be exchange for mutual benefit. Capitalism changes that so that the most important ‘beneficiary’ is the inhuman number on a screen signifying ‘profit’ or the supposed ‘worth’ of a faceless company. Like the man said; alogarithms, spreadsheets, Suits (which clothe the hulk of what used to be a human being!)
    3. A note on blindness; I’m sad to say the directing of the final scene spoiled an almost perfect ep: the Doctor isn’t a drama queen when it comes to his own troubles – The head-in-hands thing was beautiful – it went downhill from there. Underplay like Suchet, don’t emote like EoT2. It was like making a companion scream for no apparent reason just to accompany the cliffhanger sting.

    • James Lomond

      Oh yes – markets are fine (good even), just a problem when they’re valued more than the indivisuals that make them up *or* people claim to value the market more than the people making it up when really what they mean is they value the benefit *they* get from it and are pretending that markets automatically benefit everyone or form some kind of natural justice. Those are the questionable aspects for me (you can probably tell, I could go on! 😉 )

      • bar didn’tseethatcoming

        I think we’re singing from the same manifesto James! Those who benefit from the status quo always claim it is neutral or benefits everyone equally, and destroy anyone who won’t acquiesce to their worldview. Happiness will prevail.
        I thought the three-parter wouldn’t be as overtly political as the last few, but the surpressing of alternative voices (the haeraticum) for the one truth might just tread on similar ground. We will see on Saturday.

        • James Lomond

          Whenever RTD or Moffat have done *The Church* I have been very onboard. Looking forward to seeing where he takes this…

          • bar didn’tseethatcoming

            It’s a very difficult one for them to play internationally. In N America The Church is a very different beast to the bumbling, middle-of-the-road varied thing in Britain, & in both Roman Catholics are only part of the picture, whereas in Latin America Roman Catholicism is huge – so I hope they don’t feel too targetted! Across the world of fandom there’s a complex variety of taken-for-granted faith, often far-removed from the ‘head office’ version of any individual religion. Hard to portray in a 45 min slot, so I’m glad they tackle it in a three-parter.
            I do hope there turns out to be a real baddie for once though, not yet another misunderstood monster.

  • Jason Z

    Another excellent review. Regarding your: “No one is being mean – something malfunctioned.” I read in DWM once a reviewer (or maybe The Watcher) calling this the “broken spoke”. Apparently, benign technology becoming the antagonist almost never occurs in Classic Who (Face of Evil, maybe one or two others) but is very, very common in New Who. The Pilot and Smile are other recent examples. But in lieu of an evil baddie, which is something almost entirely lacking this season so far, it is (as you say) great to see the Doctor providing a clever resolution once more.

    • James Lomond

      Thanks Jason- it’s just occurred to me that the first broken spoke story (the original, you might say) was Inside the Spaceship/ the Edge of Destruction where the problem was literally a broken button 😂

      • Jason Z

        Ah yes I had forgotten that. Though technology trying to tell the regulars something in a weird way (which is what happens, if I remember that story correctly) is, I think, not quite the same as technology accidentally going bad. But you are right that this is very similar. It makes me think that I may have read it being called Broken Spoke in the DWM Wotcha! column (100 Objects: The Fast Return Switch). Er or maybe it was in a review of The God Complex. There’s another. 😂

  • Rick714

    Yeah, perhaps the highlight of the series so far. It IS far more logical to supply oxygen just for suits as opposed to an entire, giant space station after all, and of course it would become a commodity. you know it will eventually happen. My hope is that Mathieson still gets regular work on the show once Chibs takes over. Dare I hope that Mathieson even takes over entirely once Chibs is gone? Yeah, I know Chibs hasn’t even started yet but I do like when the future is in safe hands. mind you, if Mathieson has no yearning for the job in a few years and the Beeb isn’t crazy about him, it won’t happen but one can hope.

  • Planet of the Deaf

    Very good, but some of the anti capitalism rhetoric was overdone, the majority of companies aren’t out to screw their workers, indeed the key to successful companies is a happy and motivated workforce

    The blindness was a shocking development, but I’m not sure what it actually added to the story as the Doctor still managed to completely wire and re-programme a space station he’d never seen before in 10 minutes. And the scenes of the Doctor in the TARDIS afterwards feel odd, as he was walking around and operating the controls perfectly normally, including setting the coordinates to get to the HQ.