Oxygen thieves

“Space, the final frontier…”

Spoken over a starscape of a sun, planet, and two bodies floating towards us, thus begins the latest episode of that classic 60’s sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Expanding on it’s Star Trek allusion however, it goes on to explain that space is “Final, because it wants to kill us.”

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Space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence.

Also echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wallace & Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, “Oxygen” sees the Doctor taking new companion Bill on her first trip to outerspace as opposed to another planet, answering a distress call coming from a mining station owned by Ganymede Systems. With Nardole in tow, they find themselves in yet another life or death situation – only her fifth episode and yet Bill has already learned all she needs to know about the Doctor’s reactions to imminent death – and one which is broadcast at time which couldn’t be more apt.

For me, season 10 has come as a pleasant surprise. After what I considered to be a dreadful Superman rehash in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, “The Pilot” offered a glimmer of hope that maybe all wasn’t lost before Steven Moffat’s overdue handing over of the showrunner reins. Despite news of his own decision to leave the show which prompted speculation of his replacement, for the first time Peter Capaldi felt like the established Doctor rather than just the new Doctor who had only recently taken over from his predecessor.

As much as I have admired his performance as the 12th Doctor, I feel as though he has been let down by too many episodes which didn’t give him enough to make the most of his time in the role. Yes there have been some stand out moments, the Doctor’s “sit down and talk” speech is an absolute highlight of Doctor Who as a whole, but these have by far been the exception rather than the rule.

bill

Bill’s baptism of fire.

Bill’s questioning of everything from the Doctor’s Tardis to his morality is a welcome addition from a more than worthy new companion and has lead to some of the season’s most comical, and also most dramatic moments. The inclusion of Nardole as the Doctor’s very own Jiminy Cricket also adds to the show, albeit at the expense of Matt Lucas who – like Catherine Tate before him – plays a character with a great concept almost exactly the same as every other character throughout his career.

Although I must admit I have been iplayering them rather than making a Saturday night appointment like previous years, even Lucas and the small blip that was the second half of “Knock Knock” haven’t stopped season 10 from being a collection of great episodes.

“Oxygen” is no different, and perhaps the best to date. Far from the only time Doctor Who has placed emphasis on compassion, respect, and the value of a human (or alien) life, it is perhaps the most pertinent. In the run up to the UK’s general election, it is also perhaps the most widely reaching anti-Conservative party political broadcast of all time.

The episode is written as an unashamed morality play against the excesses of capitalism, depicting a futuristic dystopian vision where even the air we breathe is considered a commodity to be marketed: making the whole metric/imperial argument somewhat redundant, units of distance on a map are shown in average breaths.

While most dystopian futures are written as an allegory for contemporary societies, “Oxygen” has the unfortunate honour of being broadcast at a time when the targets of its metaphors are in fact already reality. The inevitable point of the episode when the Doctor realises the true nature of the threat comes when, faced with imminent death quite literally by the trappings of capitalism, Bill comments on the absurdity of being “fined for dying”.

Rather than the fully automated space suits killing their occupants due to being hacked as initially believed (another remarkable quirk of timing in regards to the recent cyber attacks on the NHS), it readily becomes apparent that their current threat, not to mention the previous cause of death for 36 miners, is in fact a conscious decision made by the corporation that considers workers who aren’t meeting work quotas as a waste of resources.

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One of many protests against austerity.

More than just “Companies with links to Tories ‘have won £1.5bn worth of NHS contracts’“, ideas such as there being no middle ground between being either a diligent worker or six feet under also evoke headlines such as “Thousands have died after being found fit for work, DWP figures show“, which attempt to highlight the full extent of the Tory policies which even the UN has declared as being a breach of international human rights.

It would seem that the present here and now is as much an ideal setting for “the endpoint of capitalism, a bottom line where human life has no value at all” as any imagined far future.

Even were this not the case over here, the fact that “Oxygen” was written before businessman Donald Trump’s US election victory but broadcast after his repeal of Obamacare is equally as alarming. Something which considers pregnancy and even domestic violence as pre-existing conditions which insurers all to often refuse to cover, surely even writer Jamie Mathieson cannot deny that the future always comes upon us quicker than we realise.

Having saved the lives of two survivors however, the Doctor drops them off at their “Head Office”, afterwards informing Bill that “six months later, corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalists … then the human race finds a whole new mistake”: with the benefit of hindsight, something which could also be taken as an analogy for Labour’s constant infighting hardly making them a perfect choice for government either.

But whether it’s from space miners facing the ultimate redundancy, or an impassioned plea based on real life experience entitled “This is how the Tory disability assessments are killing people“, if we take one thing from “Oxygen” regardless of when it is set or even when it was written then it’s surely the Doctor’s thoughts on answering a distress call:

“The universe shows its true face when it asks for help, we show ours by how we respond.”

Something for the UK to think about on the 8th June….

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Into The Dark?

"Into The Dalek"

“Into The Dalek”

Of all the recent Doctor Who episodes, “Into The Dalek” is one that I personally want to see the most, perhaps even more than 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” itself. Rather than the anticipation that has been built up around current episodes, the War Doctor, regeneration, etc, “Into The Dalek” instead has me curious.

Last week was the broadcast of “Deep Breath”, the first full episode to feature Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. Like many (make that all) fans I had been looking forward to this as I was eager to see exactly how Capaldi would portray the Doctor. Even though we have all now seen this portrayal however, there is still the fact that we don’t know who Capaldi’s Doctor is.

Although well read audiences are used to the idea of regeneration and several actors all playing the same character, a new Doctor is still something that takes getting used to. Many fans, particularly those new to the series, will also need convincing that this new character is the same one they know and love. As such “Deep Breath” follows a similar template to “The Christmas Invasion” and “The Eleventh Hour”, the first appearances of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors respectively.

Whilst fending off an alien invasion these are episodes which see a companion trying to figure out who this new/same man is. Throughout the run of the series it has always been the companion who is the point of view character, through whose eyes the audience discovers time and space. In this situation they are more important than ever, and amnesia or not, the failure of the 1996 TV-movie is often blamed on introducing two incarnations of the Doctor before his companion.

For those post-regeneration episodes of the revived series however, we first get to see the comical but crude side of the Doctor. Capaldi comparing Strax to the seven dwarves is no different from Matt Smith telling Amelia Pond to fry something because she’s Scottish. It may be harsh, but it’s that funny element of being alien and not quite understanding that is the initial reassurance that there is nothing to worry about. So far, so very Doctor.

"Basically, run!"

“Basically, run!”

Throughout the episode the companion is puzzled by the Doctor saving the Earth by asking seemingly ridiculous questions, but come the end of his investigation he will save the day through his ‘I am the Doctor’ moment. David Tennant called the Sycorax’s blood control bluff and pressed their big red button for them, and Smith stared down the Atraxi with his history of saving the Earth. Capaldi on the other hand …. didn’t.

The confirmation phone call from Number 11 wasn’t for Clara’s benefit, it was for ours.

In interviews and previews leading up to Capaldi’s episodes, one word which was often used was “dark”, and here we are given a Doctor who may, or may not, have pushed a (half) man to his death. Regardless of whether it was push or jump, it is hardly the first time the Doctor has had to oversee the death of the antagonist, but here he does so with a look of almost indifference.

Dark indeed, and something which harks back to the days of Sylvester McCoy (apparently) destroying Skaro and committing Dalek genocide. It came at the point in the show’s history that script editor Andrew Cartmel wanted to add some more mystery to the character after years of accumulated drip-fed information. Twenty-plus series after the question had first been asked by Ian and Barbara, “Doctor Who?” had essentially become “the Doctor’s life story”.

The question...

The question…

And after the broadcast of “The Time of the Doctor”, this was exactly where we found ourselves again. Not only have we had revelations regarding the Time War, an element that Russell T. Davies used to renew the character and wanted to leave untouched, but along with Smith’s tenure, “The Time of the Doctor” also saw the end of the question.

This time it was quite literal in fact, as it was even used diegetically within the show itself; “on the Fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked — a question that must never ever be answered”. To be fair it wasn’t exactly answered properly, but it did at least give a substantial conclusion to an arc that had run throughout Smith’s entire portrayal, if not the series as a whole.

And so now we find ourselves ready to continue/renew the adventures of a character we have known for 50 years. After the climax of “Deep Breath”, we are eagerly awaiting the next appearance of a Doctor who has every indication of being as dark as it gets, and it doesn’t get much darker than when facing the Daleks.

Throughout years of mystery, answers, and revelations, we are once again asking ourselves that central question which brings us back to our television sets Saturday night, after Saturday night: Doctor Who?