In the fifth episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, The Doctor and Bill answer a distress call from a ship where most of the passengers are dead… but not? If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of death, consent, racism, ableism
Seriously, this whole batch of episodes has been ridiculously intense, and “Oxygen” is no exception. This space thriller about capitalism, human life, and oxygen is smart, though, a biting look at the inevitable end to a world that accepts that profit-driven economies. Y’all, this episode is not subtle in that regard, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. At the heart of “Oxygen” is a struggle that the Doctor has fought with since the incarnation of the show:
What is a life worth?
There is a terribly uncomfortable truth within this script, and it deals with the algorithm that the Doctor mentions as being the cause of the suits terminating the “organic” forms inside of them. If you think that this is mere science fiction—the idea of an algorithm being used to calculate the worth of human life—then this is not going to be fun. Earlier this month, I got to catch a screening of Decade of Fire, a fantastic and personal documentary about one Bronx native who decides to investigate all the reasons why the Bronx was so frequently on fire from the late 60s through the early 80s. (If you get a chance to see a screening, please go! I believe it’s having a wider release soon.) And one of many of those factors was the RAND Corporation. Under the support of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a great number of fire stations in the area of New York City where the LITERAL most amount of fires were breaking out were closed. In order to save costs on the budget, he relied on the RAND Corporation and their statistical models in order to determine where most false alarms were coming from so as not to send trucks out to supposed fires, which then ballooned into him allowing some of the most vital stations to be closed because… well, the RAND models told him about fire predictions and response times, and he relied on them, despite how horrifically flawed they were. (One bit I recall from the documentary and from a discussion after is that there was no information in the model that accounted for the density of buildings/population in an area, and since the Bronx was low-income, there was a high number of high density buildings and populations within those buildings.)
In short: that algorithm and the decisions made from its results most definitely contributed to loss of life and property. People died because stations were closed or calls were ignored or calls took too long to respond to. There were firefighters who worked in the Bronx and Washington Heights at our screening, and they were palpably angry when talking about how absurd and scary and frustrating this all way. They wanted to help people and save lives and save buildings.
But a damn algorithm that saved the city money also did not save lives and buildings.
So, “Oxygen” felt very much like something rooted in reality, despite how fantastical the notion might have appeared. Suits that would automatically kill their hosts because they used too much oxygen? Who would design such a thing? Well, who would choose to shut down fire stations in the part of the city most on fire?
Human life should not but is often given a numerical value. A monetary value. We do it all the time, and corporations most definitely have been doing it for ages. It is the most believable thing in this entire episode, and I’m real happy that the script shows us the horrible end of a world where profit margins matter over people.
There’s such a crisp design to “Oxygen,” from the suits, to the colors, to the sheer blackness of space, and I wanted to take a moment to give props where they are do. It’s almost like this episode was designed with a clinical palate in mind: there are very few bright colors, and everything is this dull, metallic sameness. It’s almost like a corporation used an algorithm to design the space station for maximum productivity. RIGHT.
Also, holy shit, the BODIES. Initially, I wondered if these were like zombies? But the show’s design plays with our expectations here, giving us visual cues to think we’re seeing zombies, but what’s actually happening? I truly feel like it’s worse. They’re just CORPSES being controlled by their suits. IT’S REALLY FUCKED UP, OKAY. REALLY, REALLY FUCKED UP.
Okay, first of all: Pearl Mackie is INCREDIBLE in this episode, and her performance runs the gamut of emotions, and I BELIEVED IT ALL. And she had to sell it, too! Both scenes where she “died” were gripping and shocking, and I am obsessed with how well Mackie is at conveying emotion. And I wanted to open up this section with this because I don’t want my criticism of two things to suggest that I am displeased with Mackie in the slightest. For the most part, I loved this episode, what it had to say about humans and money, and also my heart hurts??? WHY IS THIS SERIES SO INTENSE.
But I gotta call foul on one thing and then discuss another. I felt real uncomfortable by the show finding a roundabout way to have someone call Bill racist, especially someone with blue skin. There’s a vague memory I have of discussing this on Mark Watches before, but I can’t recall when. The point is: calling a Black character racist is not a good look, but the context here made it feel more insidious. As a more general issue: people of color are routinely thrown hypothetical examples of people with blue or green or purple skin to talk about colorblind ideology. You know, the whole, “It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white or blue or green,” etc. Which is always a bullshit, racist thing to say, so having an actual blue-skinned person call her that is… not cute. (Also, more of an American thing/reading of the script, but boy, there’s the whole Blue Lives Matter thing as well, but that’s probably not as relevant here and more of an unintentional tangent.)
Secondly, I’m worried about the scene where the Doctor just… let’s Bill die? And I get that he didn’t actually let that happen, that he knew that the suit didn’t have enough power to kill her, but holy shit, she didn’t know that! So she watched the Doctor leave her, then “died” after having ALREADY BEEN EXPOSED TO THE VACUUM OF SPACE. Holy shit, a lot happens to Bill in this episode, and I’m not sure the episode really allows her the space to deal with that? At this point, she’s watched someone die horribly in every episode after the season opener, right? So my concern here is that I loved Mackie’s performance, but I felt like her character wasn’t given choices here. She has things forced upon her, particularly her “death” at the end. It’s a weird dynamic because I like when Bill is more a part of the action—like in “Thin Ice”—than just the action itself.
Lastly, this isn’t really something I have the experience to speak on—and I swear, I did enjoy this episode!—but how do we feel about the Doctor’s blindness? It’s not cured magically at the end of the episode, but does that mean we’re actually going there? How much of the show is going to address this without making it a plot twist or a punch line? So, it’s possible I also can’t really discuss this meaningfully because I simply don’t know what’s happening here. But I admit to being surprised that they didn’t cure him at the end. THAT USUALLY HAPPENS.
Anyway, I do want to end on a positive note because while I’ve critically engaged with this, I enjoyed “Oxygen” a great deal. It’s fantastic that, by the end of this episode, there’s no set villain. We don’t have a face to put to the monstrous algorithm that killed so many people. And truthfully, that’s such a genius move because the actual villain is capitalism itself. There is no one person to pin this on, at least not in the sense of a story like “Thin Ice,” where you CAN blame a single person. (Fuck Sutcliffe.) There has to be that detachment because these decisions were made by a distant party who never had to interact with the people they were affecting. It reminds me of the cognitive dissonance of people who are responsible (at various levels) for something like drone warfare. Or business cuts and downsizing. This is about dehumanization: not viewing humans as what they are. And once you do that, you can justify anything you do to them.
The video for “Oxygen” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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