Series 10 of Doctor Who has been tackling topics and themes in the kind of mature fashion that the earlier Steven Moffat years never did. From acceptance of LGBT people to taking on racism, these first few episodes have taken science fiction angles on some pretty important topics. But if there’s one thing that Doctor Who hasn’t done too much, it’s a science fiction angle on actual science. Jamie Mathieson’s “Oxygen” deals with space as it exists, without too much Doctor Who-ifying, and even puts in some healthy satire about capitalism and corporatism. It’s also super great, by the way.
In an age of shows like The Expanse, which takes its scientific accuracy incredibly seriously, science fantasy things like Doctor Who might seem quaint in comparison. “Oxygen” took the tactic of treating the plot with scientific accuracy (as much as possible, I mean; it’s still fantastical) and just have the Doctor and company be the more fanciful. The episode starts with the Doctor lecturing about the harshness of space and what will happen to a human who’s out there with no protection, and fittingly, we also get to see people in space, walking on the outside of a space station while this is happening. Notice how there’s no sound aside from the breathing/speaking of the characters.
There are definitely a lot of references to Ridley Scott’s Alien in this, along with movies like Event Horizon, and after the first trailer, it seemed like the show we’d be watching would be about space zombies. But, oh no! The episode actually focuses on the importance of oxygen–breathable air–in a place where even the smallest malfunction, loss of pressure, or solar flare a million miles away could kill the crap out of you.
Doctor Who has dallied in hard science before. The Cybermen, when they were created, were all about the idea of body modification through technology, something which has become much more prevalent in the decades since. In the ’80s, there was also a real effort to base the show in science over fantasy as much as possible, trying to be like a more mathematical Star Trek. This ultimately lasted one season–1980’s Season 18–which dealt with stuff like block transfer computations and charged vacuum emboitments. It went over a lot of peoples’ heads (mine included); I feel like “Oxygen” science feels very immediate, and easy to grasp. Breathing good. Not breathing, bad.
But a way “Oxygen” is a lot more like Alien than I expected is how the actual “villain” of the piece isn’t a zombie crew member, or an unknown saboteur, or even the ambulatory computer-controlled suits; the real antagonist is the corporation who a) is charging workers for the oxygen they use. In all of the Alien films, the Weyland-Yutani corporation are the unseen yet wholly oppressive overlords who want to harness the Xenomorphs as weapons and will use their crews as bait to obtain them. Here, the corporation cares about nothing but absolute efficiency, and if the crew being alive can’t meet the quota, then “shutting down their central nervous system” and using the suits to do the work surely will.
This is a pretty overt skewering of capitalism–which at its worst can definitely put the bottom line and profit margins way above that of workers. There’s a history of certain writers using Doctor Who for the purposes of satire in this way. Malcolm Hulke wrote several stories during the Third Doctor era about things he thought was a problem. These included imperialism (“Doctor Who and the Silurians”), corporatism (“Colony in Space”), fear and hatred of outsiders/those different than us (“Frontier in Space”), and wide-eyed hippie approaches to word peace (“Invasion of the Dinosaurs”). To me, though, Mathieson’s taking down of capitalism and “the suits” feels a lot more like Robert Holmes’ “The Sun Makers,” which is all about how he was mad about paying exorbitant taxes.
Along with “Thin Ice,” “Oxygen” is my favorite episode thus far this season. I love its themes and the way it uses science within the science fiction to ultimately tell a story with a purpose. While some of the lines hit the message a little too hard (“You’re fightin’ the suits” was so on the nose it made me cringe), but it’s a damn good exercise in letting the writers have a message in the first place.
Before I go, let’s talk for a moment about a cool reference. The “Fluid Link” that Nardole removes from the TARDIS in an effort to keep the Doctor from leaving Earth is the same piece that the Doctor himself removed in the 1963 story “The Daleks” to keep everybody on Skaro. That the piece is actually unnecessary definitely speaks to the First Doctor’s duplicitousness. And, hey, yet another reference this series to the First Doctor.
Next week, the Doctor’s blindness might be an asset in “Extremis,” in which reading a book might get you killed. And we’ll see Missy, and since we know Missy will be in it, I’m almost positive she won’t be the thing in the Vault. Steven Moffat has said we’ll find out what’s in there in this episode, so get ready!
Share your thoughts on “Oxygen,” the gas and the episode, in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!