'Doctor Who' Episode 5 ‘Oxygen’: Zombies and Capitalism in Space!
Space: the final frontier. Final because it wants to kill us. Sometimes we forget that, start taking it all for granted. But the void is always waiting.
I loved this episode. It had everything: classic sci-fi nods, plenty of Nardole, creepy space zombies and associated peril, technology that wants to kill you, and a zinger of a political message. This is Doctor Who: What Happens When You Don’t Have Trade Unions.
Spoilers follow, obviously. You know the drill.
The Doctor’s got itchy feet again. His lecture on exactly how space can kill you was delivered with a gleeful glimmer in his eye. As it turns out, he has grounded himself - so presumably, he has the power to unground himself, at least temporarily. The Doctor does not do well with boredom, after all.
Bill: What if you’re wrong?
Doctor: We’ll be horribly murdered. Let’s say I’m right.
As the Doctor chose the destination, I wondered whether his self-confessed desire to be a rescuer was the real motive, or whether he is still, like Clara, just drawn to the danger. One really shouldn’t look quite so excited at how deadly space can be… There’s plenty of hubris here, which doesn’t bode well, but makes for a pretty dramatic arc later on.
I’ve been consistent in my love for Nardole, and I was so excited when he got to tag along for this week’s trip. Though his main purpose was to nag the Doctor, reminding him of his own orders, he’s just so darned hilarious. Matt Lucas is amazing in this role: deadpan, sarcastic, nagging and probably the least comforting person ever in a crisis. More Nardole please!
As I said above, there were loads of classic sci-fi nods. The mining ship brought up thoughts of Alien, as did the fact that when the comms are down, no-one can hear you scream. The debate about what sort of noise doors should make on space ships and the diverse crew made me think of Star Trek, which had been explicitly referenced in the Doctor’s lecture too. The empty space suits were reminiscent of ‘The Impossible Astronaut’. The venting of the oxygen is a classic trope as well - though used imaginatively here. Technology taking on a life of its own and trying to murder human beings - well, that’s pretty much every portrayal of artificial intelligence, ever, but the ones that came to mind for me were the White Queen and the Red Queen from the Resident Evil franchise, and Skynet. At one point, I thought the noise of the mag boots sounded like RoboCop. And I saw some discussion online of the yo-yo at the end looking like Leela’s… (I’m sure I’ve missed even more though, so add any extras / alternatives in the comments!)
But this was more than just a familiar space story. There were a lot of twists on the expected conventions, and they worked brilliantly. Velma, the voice of the space suit operating system, was like a murderous Microsoft Paperclip at times. “You look like you’re trying to run. Would you like some help with that?” And the faux-helpful message she gave whilst ‘deactivating the organic component’ was pretty entertaining too: “Please remain calm while your central nervous system is disabled.” Velma really nailed the automated messaging of the call-centre; now that’s the stuff of nightmares. As someone who has argued with several automated message services in the past (I really hope they record them), it’s scary to think that one day, they might argue back. And then, you know, go on a genocidal rampage. Actually, scratch that. I hope they never record them. I’m sorry, Velma. I didn’t mean it.
But once again, the real monster of the week is humanity. Is this a running theme? Because watching The Handmaid’s Tale is doing enough to make me wary of the terrible potential of humanity. I’m almost craving some Daleks. Almost.
The evil humans this week were the capitalists. Boo, hiss. This is a world where unions are myths, and a lapse in productivity will get you terminated in a physical rather than contractual way. The idea of oxygen rations that you pay for felt like a metaphor for the bottled water business, personally, but it was a neat extension of ‘supply and demand’ economics. Here, the stand-off between surviving members of the original staff and ‘The Man’ ended happily. The manoeuvre was a bit more dramatic than a strike, admittedly. But finally, the workers were perceived as valuable resources again, rather than expendable cogs in a machine. Power to the unions! Take that, capitalist pigs!
Did you notice the reference to ‘Ganymede Systems’ on the terminals? I’m going to presume that wasn’t a random choice. It reminded me of the drip-drip references to Mr Saxon from a few years ago; it’s a sufficiently odd name for it to stick out. Is it a reference to the character from Greek myth, the beautiful boy who Zeus abducted and made immortal? Is it just a reference to one of Jupiter’s moons? Or is it a reference to the Shakespearean character from As You Like It - the persona that Rosalind takes on when she dresses as a boy? You can see where I’m going with this, right? Nailing my colours to the mast, I think Missy is behind ‘Ganymede Systems’. It’s a playful name for a character that has gender-swapped, and a self-aggrandising one too. Is she in the vault too? Am I seeing Missies everywhere now?
Doctor: All we’ve got left is a good death.
Is it just me, or has this series upped the peril? We were pretty sure that Bill wasn’t going to die, but she had two close calls here. And the Doctor suffered two great losses - his sonic screwdriver, and his eyesight. Unfortunately, those two losses led to the return of the sonic sunglasses, but I am making peace with them, as at least they will serve a dual purpose now. How long do we think the Doctor will remain blind? I like the way that his great ‘deus ex machina’ failed him this time, and that he didn’t tell Bill. How long will it take her to notice, I wonder?
With the return of Nardole, there are plenty of great quotations again. In fact, almost everything Nardole says is brilliant. Here are some of my favourites:
Doctor: Thought I sent you to Birmingham for a packet of crisps.
Nardole: Yeah, well I saw through your cunning ruse.
Doctor: You only really see the true face of the universe when it’s asking for your help.
Nardole: You haven’t seen my true face in years.
Nardole: Scareder you are, the faster you suffocate. So relax or die.
Blue Guy (to Bill): Great, we rescued a racist.
Nardole: Some of my best friends are blueish
Next week: the start of a three-parter, including a summons from the Pope, a reference to River’s diary, and most excitingly of all, a glimpse of Missy…
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