Doctor Who Series 10, Episode 5
Posted by Sage
The Doctor + space. Relationship status? It’s complicated.
When he tells his students that space wants nothing more than to kill them, he says it with a fondness. It’s cold, dark, unwelcoming – and he’s missing it like crazy. He’s staring at the stars at night like a grounded teen. And with Bill ready to hop in the TARDIS and run away at any moment, it’s too much for him to resist. The Doctor works some misdirection on Nardole, sending him to Birmingham for crisps. (“No, the gas station in Carbondale did NOT have fresh yams!”) And despite the valet’s protests, they’re off to another solar system… hopefully one with easily digestible lasagna.
While I’m still struggling with Nardole’s presence, I’m also starting to have some sympathy for the guy. He basically has the worst babysitting job IN THE WORLD. His job (for a reason I hope we’ll learn) is to keep the Doctor’s feet on the ground and his mind on protecting the vault. What does he get for his troubles? Tricked. Bamboozled. Mocked. Bill is the fun one, and Nardole is the stick in the mud. But that wasn’t up to him, and it’s clear that his efforts go beyond duty. He’s also visibly terrified of what will happen when the vault eventually opens.
Anyway, this is a space station episode! My absolute favorite story is Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, so I love a plotline where the Doctor and his companion are temporary crew members of some under siege operation. This time, the workers on the station are mining copper ore. It’s not something that’s easy or particularly desirable to steal, so that’s not why they’re being turned into zombies one by one. And this also isn’t one of those situations where the wilderness bites back at human intervention – another popular Doctor Who narrative. No, what’s killing these workers is capitalism. Because their individual lives aren’t worth much in the grand scheme of things.
The kicker of this Jamie Mathieson script is that there is no singular, arch villain. In “Thin Ice,” it worked to put a smug face to the classist little shit who made his money off the skins of the poor; in this episode, it works to leave the human element out of it. “Oxygen” puts an entire system on blast. I haven’t looked at what’s trollin’ on Twitter, but people are probably complaining that their favorite show is now socialist propaganda, right? Workers of the world, unite!
But the faceless organization who runs this station stuck its checkbook in between life and death, and that’s not what intellect is supposed to be used for, as far as he’s concerned. We’re reminded in this episode that these people are WORKERS. They’re not academics, not explorers. They’re here to do labor, skilled though it may be. And capitalism has decided that they are expendable. Don’t worry. According to the Doctor’s update at the end of the episode, it was on its last legs at that point anyway.
So when the suits whose programming decides whether the miners should live or die choose the latter, the result is another silly/creepy image from the new series: space zombies. While an insatiable need for brains and more brains keeps the zombie as-we-know-it going, these walking dead are powered by another un-killable impulse: produce, produce, produce. These are actual corpses in suits, worth more to their employer dead than they were alive, because their only function now is to make and save money. I’m living for the political bent of these series, if that wasn’t obvious.
Contained within every sweeping statement of a story is usually something more personal. In this case, it’s Bill in the most danger that she’s been in yet, and the Doctor responding to that. The companion doesn’t have it easy in this episode to begin with. The suit she’s strapped into (because yes, in dystopian future space station, suit wears you) is malfunctioning from the jump. And Pearl Mackie plays her helplessness and growing fear to the point where I could feel my own anxiety rising. (“You only see the true face of the universe when it’s asking for your help.”) She has her “let me be brave” moment when the Doctor leaves her to “hell” so his plan can play out. And he has his Aladdin “Do you trust me?” moment, because he can’t tell her what he knows. The scary thing is that as the oxygen is being sucked out of her suit, it’s clear that Bill FEELS like she’s dying. She sees her mother, and her vision starts to blur. Imagine her terror. He should have told her a joke.
In the end, it’s the faulty product that saves her. The failure of capitalism to produce the perfect item is the reason why Bill is alive at the end of the episode. That, of course, and the sacrifice of the Doctor. After explaining to his class in terrifying detail what happens to the inside of a person when they hold their breath in space, he must do it. Bill’s helmet stops functioning when they’re outside the base; he pulls off his own to help her. (My heart: “Because he’s her DAD.” My brain: “Shut it.”) It’s not without consequences. The Doctor is blinded, but insists that this turn of events is no big thing. How could he not, when Bill’s first impulse is to feel EXTREMELY guilty, even though she was unconscious and it was his choice.
Nardole foreshadows this cliffhanger when he warns the Doctor again about going “off-world” while under oath. His cautions weren’t just that something might happen to/in/outside of the vault while he’s gone, but that his adventure could leave him injured and unable to carry out his duties. It’s highly unlikely we’d ever see the Doctor hobbling around on crutches or nursing the flu (outside of hurt/comfort fic, obviously). This disability plays into something much more essential. It would have been easy to add “navigating life perfectly without sight” to one of the Doctor’s super-heroic qualities (if really insensitive to people who are blind), but stealing away one of his senses throws the Doctor off his game JUST in time for Missy (and the Master’s?) return. It also gives Peter Capaldi another acting challenge, and I’m always all for that.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- The one area in which this episode disappointed me was in the supporting characters. The racism exchange between Bill and Dahh-rren was cute; other than that, they didn’t make much of an impression.
- “Uh, I don’t know, but space is great, isn’t it?”
- Why does NARDOLE get paid and the companions don’t?? SPACE WAGE GAP.
- Bill’s little squee when she picked a destination.
- Five minutes after Dahh-ren calls her a racist, Bill is smiling at him. Because when someone tells you you’re being insensitive and you didn’t mean to be and you learn something, you don’t get all pissy about it.
- “Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?”
- “Too many rescue ships. First world problem.”
- The Doctor’s last stand speech was very Braveheart, and I loved it.
What’d you think of “Oxygen”? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBC America