“The end point of capitalism – a bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm. A spreadsheet. Like every worker everywhere – we’re fighting the suits.”
Thirty years ago, at the height of Reagan and Thatcher’s monetarism mania, Mel Brooks’ classic Star Wars parody Spaceballs showed us a world that had exhausted its air – but you could buy expensive cans of it (amusingly labelled ‘Perri-Aire’). At the time, it seemed an absurdist, hyperbolic take on the contemporary free market ideology that was coming to dominate the world. In today’s world, where ‘the market’ is worshipped like a god and the only value that counts is monetary, the idea of privatising the very air we breathe seems like a frighteningly believable prospect.
Jamie Mathieson, who’s been responsible for some of the best Twelfth Doctor scripts, uses this as a starting point for a superb episode, that balances angry polemic with telling a gripping and scary tale. It also put both the Doctor and Bill through the wringer more than any other story so far this season, and the repercussions aren’t over yet.
Oxygen was a well-constructed and tautly paced Doctor Who script that was by turns, gruesome, scary, funny and angry. Given a chance to yet again rail against cynical profiteering, Peter Capaldi was at his reliable best, seemingly every other line being a snarky dig at corporate domination. But the script never forgot to leaven the anger with humour – Capaldi got some of his funniest, most self-aware lines here (“Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?”).
Much of the humour derived from the presence, on this trip, of Matt Lucas’ comic relief ‘valet’ Nardole. Nardole’s been, in our household at least, something of a divisive character. Playing very much to Matt Lucas’ strengths, his frequent arguments with the Doctor have something of Blackadder and Baldrick to them, and I can see how that could be annoying in an otherwise dramatic series. Personally, I rather like the character, who’s definitely something new for the show (although perhaps reminiscent of K9 in his relationship with the Doctor).
Plus, the determinedly odd Nardole works well as a foil for the determinedly ordinary Bill. Pearl Mackie did well again, as Bill had probably her most traumatic trip with the Doctor so far. After all, being chased around by spacesuited corpses before being thrust into the vacuum of space then seemingly killed by a spacesuit motivated by corporate profit is a pretty bad day for anybody. If I were her, I’d think twice before getting in that TARDIS again.
Those ambulatory corpses (the actual dead human being merely a broken part) were truly gruesome, their twisted faces and bulging eyes an effective visualisation of the Doctor’s earlier, graphic (and useful) lecture on how space kills you. Yes, they were also somewhat reminiscent of the skeletal remains in suits from Silence in the Library; but so much more gruesome. Mathieson also took the time to build the characters sympathetically before offing them so unpleasantly – nicely demonstrated in the pre-credits teaser with Katie Brayben’s Ellie’s unheard declaration of wanting a baby, just before her nasty death.
The gradual realisation that all the deaths weren’t an accident, a hack, or a evolving AI, but merely “business as usual” was well done, the signposts all there for the viewer to work it out as the Doctor did. Having established the rules of the premise, Mathieson expanded on it cleverly – oxygen resources and distances being measured in breaths rather than minutes or metres – “the only measure that counts”.
Having put all that together, the story’s ultimate resolution was both clever and logical – make people’s deaths more expensive than keeping them alive. After all, if money is more intrinsically valuable than human life, how else to stop the killings – make them costly. It was a satisfying resolution to a script that was fairly simmering with anger about corporate profiteering and dominance; though I did find the Doctor’s assertion that the survivors’ complaints to Head Office led to the overthrow of capitalism a sadly optimistic and unlikely development.
There were yet more hints about the occupant of the mysterious Vault, this time both at the beginning and end of the story (but thankfully not shoehorned into the middle as previous arcs have been). So far, we know that it contains an intelligent being, who can play the piano (so has fingers presumably), likes being told stories, especially nasty ones. This week, we learned that whoever/whatever it is would sense if the Doctor was sick or injured, and if it got out, it would likely be curtains for Earth. All of which spells bad news considering that the Doctor is still blind.
Yes, in a season that’s so far consisted entirely of standalone stories, this is the first time we’ve seen an actual cliffhanger; nicely presented by director Charles Palmer as the final line was delivered over a blank screen. Capaldi played blind very well, which can be difficult for a sighted actor; I suspect those opaque contact lenses really were impossible to see through.
It would be a brave move indeed for the show to keep him blind for good – but I gather the next three eps comprise a loose ‘arc’, and I’m betting the Doctor’s blindness will be the continuing plotline. That offers some very interesting dramatic possibilities, and if anyone can pull them off, Capaldi’s the man. Let’s hope the scripts are up to it.
In a season that’s been consistently enjoyable, if more low key than the last, I’d have to say that Oxygen was my favourite story so far. Jamie Mathieson, a veteran of the superb Being Human, really gets how to do Doctor Who; tell a thrilling story, balance it with humour and scares, and even put in a bit of social allegory. This was good stuff, and I hope we get more from him under the new showrunner.