Previously on Doctor Who, “Knock Knock”
“Space, the final frontier… Final, because it wants to kill us.”
A Star Trek beginning for an episode that ends with the peak and subsequent death of capitalism, a necessary step to reach a Star Trek-like future, but not before it exacts a price not even the Doctor can escape. Clean getaways for the Twelfth Doctor seemed to be piling up, until writer Jamie Mathieson, previously of “The Girl Who Died,” “Flatline,” and “Mummy on the Orient Express,” was charged with making space dangerous again. It’s easy for Whovians to be lulled into security with a new Doctor and his blasé hops through time, speechifying himself and his companions out of scrape after scrape, but now and again comes an episode where the toll must be paid. Shrouded in the looming shadow of his season-end departure, Capaldi’s Doctor clearly senses regeneration approaching, with cutting asides to that effect and now taking an enormous risk to keep his young charge Bill alive when she’s exposed to outer space. She survives with a sobering dose of near-death trauma, and the Doctor is left blind, calling into question how the rest of the season will proceed.
In “Oxygen,” the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole encounter a future where oxygen is profit and metered by the breath in a familiar “Base Under Siege” drama at Chasm Forge, a mining station where 36 of the 40 crew members have been deemed unproductive by the spreadsheets and eliminated through their smart environmental suits. The trio are locked away from the TARDIS and its generous oxygen shell by the station’s profit-protection mechanisms and the first zombie suit crushes the sonic screwdriver, leaving them to fight through hordes of dead-body-filled-AI-driven space suits carrying out their orders to shut the entire station down and, as it turns out, reboot it for an impending shipment of replacements.
“This is the end point of capitalism. A bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet, like every worker everywhere. We’re fighting the suits.”
In the vein of similar space horrors, the survivors aren’t on screen enough for us to form an in-depth attachment, although I wouldn’t mind seeing Dahh-Ren (Peter Caulfield), a blue alien with a surprisingly calming voice, in another scifi show or movie like the Aliens franchise. Primarily they are there to hustle our team through the station, explaining the breath-as-distance perspective, to the unmapped core where the murderous suits can’t follow so they can call corporate for help. Along the way, Bill’s shock at Dahh-Ren’s skin color calls for another brush at racism, this time in theoretical Star Trek-fashion as he rolls his eyes and says, “Great, we rescued a racist,” followed by Nardole’s claim that some of his best friends are “bluish.”
As the Doctor attempts to parse together the complete picture and their options, he touches another seasonal theme in wondering exactly how smart the smart suits are. Nardole quips that the AI’s voice was potentially his ex-girlfriend Velma who left him for a call center, a joke which curdles quickly when Velma informs the first survivor to remain calm as his central nervous system is disabled, not unlike the antibodies in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” intoning cheerfully,
“Your life is in our hands.”
Are these suits, piloted by a HAL-like red eye, thinking for themselves as in the earlier episode “Smile” or is this a more nefarious directive from the bottom line? We’d already explored the first, so it had to be the second. Even worse, Bill’s suit is on the fritz and keeps resetting to its directive, arms moving against her will to remove her helmet while they’re in the rapidly depressurizing airlock. Although we have a decent reassurance that she lives through the episode and theoretical knowledge of how the vacuum of outer space ravages the body, thanks to the Doctor’s opening university lecture tangent (Don’t hold your breath. The water in your body boils in a vacuum. Unconsciousness in 15 seconds, death in 90.), it’s disturbing as hell watching the water in her face crystallize while the Doctor panics in her rapidly blurring vision. His solution, giving her his own helmet until they reach the core, costs him his eyes. The Doctor brushes it off with his usual arrogance, but Bill doesn’t completely buy it.
Nearly to their destination, the crew receives word of arriving “rescue ships,” but the Doctor questions their timing with suspicion. Abby (Mimi Ndiweni) challenges his authority to destroy their hope and make such determinations, inspiring one of those classic Who quotes:
“I’m the Doctor and I will do everything in my power to save all your lives, and when I do you will spend the rest of them wondering who I was and why I helped you.”
Just in case you weren’t shaken quite enough by her near death in space, Bill’s suit malfunctions yet again, mere feet from their goal with the zombie suits closing in, and he must leave her, warning she will go through hell and nary a joke for comfort, as the suit might calculate his intention and call for the other suits to finish her off. Sputtering in doubt and terror, she calls for her mother, having visions of her as the suit shuts her body down and hustles her into the marching horde. Despite knowing she would live, this one really made me emotional as it recalls other companions who begged the Doctor in good faith to save them all too late. Fortunately what she (and we) doesn’t know is that her suit has scarcely enough power to knock her unconscious, a problem easily enough solved in the final act. It is also clear now more than ever that Bill’s mother must make an appearance by season’s end.
While Bill and the errant suits attempt to access the core, the Doctor, Nardole, and the final two survivors (Dahh-Ren died opening the door) make their last stand. The Doctor, handicapped by his eyes, rigs their life signs to the coolant levels, declaring passionately that their final option is dying well, a maxim that must have been haunting him since his regeneration, which he believed would be his last. Stick it to the man! When the suits shut them down, this whole station will blow and then the corporate heads will be sorry! At first resistant, Abby and Ivan (Kieran Bew) agree, only for the Doctor to pull one of his more morbid switcheroos when he lectures the encroaching zombies on the impending expense of carrying out their orders. Running the numbers, the suits stand down and allow Bill’s revival.
Back on the TARDIS, Nardole seemingly repairs the Doctor’s eyes long enough for Abby and Ivan to request a drop off for at corporate HR, which, once back in his earth office, the Doctor tells Bill spurs a revolution 6 months down the road and ends the breathe-for-pay business model for good. She bops out and Nardole stomps in to demand the Doctor abide by his agreement and look him in the face while he’s at it, except, he can’t. Ever again. A chilling and surprising ending that casts a pall on the next few episodes. Although I found the survivor storyline a bit lacking and Nardole’s shticks perhaps a step too far each time, the emotionalism of Bill’s first major encounter with the costs of companionship and the Doctor’s gloomy pronouncements strongly affected me. Paired with a logical and likely future where humans continue to be parsimonious bastards to each other and the morbidly ironic literal interpretation of “suits,” these elements make this episode a dark space drama worth re-watching.
Quotes, Moments, & Other Thoughts
- Other episodes that made Star Trek references: “The Empty Child,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” “The God Complex,” and “Closing Time.”
- The blackboard and yo yo return!
- “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I was just tweeting.”
- “I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about 10 minutes of oxygen left, and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’ll be when I pull this off.”
- Space is a horror movie waiting to happen, so don’t announce you want to have a baby or love anyone while on a space walk!
- Program feedback: just as useless in the future as it is in the present.
- Shoutout to Microsoft Clippy: “You look like you’re trying to run. Would you like some help with that?”
- The suits were “Ganymede Series,” which may or may not be a shout out to The Expanse, which last season explored a conflict between Earth and Mars on Ganymede and a being without a suit. Ganymede is also mentioned in Classic Who episodes, “Revenge of the Cybermen” and “The Hand of Fear.”
- Fluid links were first mentioned by the First Doctor in “The Dead Planet,” when he claimed as part of a ruse that the TARDIS couldn’t operate without it. That was fluid link K7, and the one Nardole removes is K57. Still not needed to fly.
- The Doctor laughs, telling Nardole, “Teach you to trust me!” as they take off, but later presses Bill as her suit malfunctions the final time, “Do you trust me?” as he rushes away to the core, reminding us that although the Doctor tries to save everyone, he is fallible and has his own, sometimes unspoken, agendas.
- Nardole aparently had another face before swapping to this one “on the run.” Is there any part of Nardole that’s original? What makes Nardole, Nardole? Is this another nod to the seasonal theme, “What makes life?”