Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. And this week, we’re not late! But unfortunately, our numbers are still down. Scarves, alas, is not here this week. This is not because last week’s couple therapy failed when we discovered the therapist was actually the guru of a zoroastrian BDSM cult that sent a hundred masked assassins mounted on tiny Shetland ponies after him, by the way – no, it’s not that at all, just … life stuff. Yeah, let’s go with that, life stuff. So it’s only Scribbles and Tibbles here. But don’t worry, “Extremis” will normally have us return to a four-person crew.
Still, we managed to get a guest to accompany us on this fine day – dear Thomas Armstrong, who lives in the country of attractive Prime Ministers and elks, also known as Canada. Also she’s writing stuff for us (watch that space, good things comin’, yo – that’s how young people talk, right?), and, when he’s not doing that (and frankly, that’s a bit sad, who needs a life beyond a niche Who fansite?), she 1) dabbles occasionally in fanfiction (http://doctorwhofanfic.weebly.com/the-2017-specials.html ) and 2) co-hosts a blog about journeying with a friend through the Classic series ( https://thelinearadventuresdoctorwho.wordpress.com/ )
1) General Thoughts
SCRIBBLES: I found that a tad rough. Brilliant, obviously. Cutting satire, chilling and touching character work for Bill, creepy imagery, excellent shock twist. But something about the whole thing felt a bit off. I admire Mathieson tremendously and he can still do no wrong, but this didn’t quite hit for me as much. But what did work, well, that was quite a treat.
TIBERE: Well, we’re gonna touch on the episode’s issues further down, and I don’t think it’s Mathieson best script (when you managed to write both “Mummy on the Orient-Express” and “The Girl who Died”, it’s gonna be hard to top that), but … Yeah, I absolutely adored it. Both at a subjective level – because let’s be fair, horror Who is just my jam, through and through, and at an objective one – maybe it’s flawed, but it’s a really daring, creepy, interesting story I enjoy tremendously.
THOMAS: I agree that this wasn’t Mathieson’s best script – that title still belongs to “Mummy” for me – but it was still an absolute thrill ride. Those corpses genuinely unnerved me. Flawed, yes, but still very, very enjoyable to me.
TIBERE: I think what Mathieson manages, better than anyone, is to craft these stories that are very epic, that echo those big, well-known staples of Who, while still giving them a fresh, new, radical energy. There’s something that’s always incredibly strong, enjoyable and dynamic in his writing – even when it’s not perfect, it always feels boundary-pushing. He kind of perfectly embodies the Capaldi dynamic at large, and series 8’s spirit specifically: there’s a daring streak to him, a way to perfectly synthesize camp and grimness to create something uniquely Who. He might not be as sharp a political observer as Sarah Dollard, but he brings an incredible amount to the table in terms of creativity.
THOMAS: Mathieson just gets how Doctor Who works, really. His scripts so far have taken normal Who tropes and woven them into something that still feels new, which is the perfect embodiment of Doctor Who in general, to me.
SCRIBBLES: There was a daring harshness that felt very series 8 to this, for sure. It’s the sort of “Kill the Moon” tone shift, and I’m very intrigued that they’re pulling it earlier this time. Means the majority of this year will be the more exciting and ambitious approach of the back-half of series 8, give or take a Gatiss romp. “Kill the Moon“’s aftermath brought about some of the best Clara and Twelve episodes and character work, I’m excited to see where this will go with Bill, Nardole, and Twelve.
TIBERE: I think he deserves some serious kudos when it comes to the look and feel of his episodes, too. He has a talent that rivals Moffat’s when it comes to writing for the director, and especially for the monster design teams – he almost single-handedly created all the best antagonists of the Capaldi era, really. Well, I guess there’s still the Veil and the Kantrofarri. But eh, point still stands. And yeah, that was just a stunningly-realized episode on the visual front – I complained a lot about the issues “Knock Knock” had when it came to realizing the horror concepts, and crafting some actual tension and suspense, and having the two run back-to-back only sharpens that contrast. Charles Palmer, who helmed four episodes in series 3, is really back with a bang – that’s some of the sharpest directing Who has ever got. It’s interesting to contrast with “Mummy”, Mathieson’s other big horror story, on that front – Whilsmurst made that story incredibly stylized, and almost lyrical in its use of film language; here though, there is a directness, a brutal efficiency to it that’s really interesting, and really original. In a series that has been defined by a sort of laid-back, political rompiness so far, we get the most straightforward, most dark episode we had in a long, long while. I’m kind of impressed that they managed it without creating a vomit-inducing tonal whiplash, but yeah, the pulled it off. Congratulations, y’all.
THOMAS: Kudos to Charles Palmer on the directing front. The whole scene with Bill being exposed to vacuum of space was brilliantly realized and incredibly tense. I believe he also directed “The Eaters of Light” later this year? I look forward to what he brings to that episode.
TIBERE: Rona Munro and that director. Yes. So much yes.
2) The Doctor and the companions
TIBERE: There’s tons of stuff to unpack here. Three-person TARDIS team, yahee!
SCRIBBLES: God, Bill was great this week, wasn’t she? Put through the wringer in really dark and compelling ways. From her cuter moments like moping that it doesn’t feel like space to her asking for a joke to comfort her when she went, it was really effective work for her. That’s something New Who’s been really good about, picking out the companion to victimize while still making them feel like a brave and compelling character. That sounds awful when I put it like that, but it’s actually really great. An ability to make a character relatable and make their suffering sympathetic and dynamic rather than just unpleasant, so you feel the tension as a real consequence rather than something awful inflicted by a brutal writer. The flashes of her mother’s photo while she passed out in particular really connected with me. It was horrific but it grounded her beautifully, providing an emotional realism to the misery and space zombies.
TIBERE: I love the way the series always keeps weaponizing family, has always that shadow hanging around her. There was the boy from “Smile”, the urchins from “Thin Ice”, Eliza in “Knock Knock”, and this week, the dead wife of the bearded guy (yeah, we’ll get to the side characters and their problems later …). But yeah, definitely – that’s what Mathieson is great at, really: he knows how to make the tension is his episodes flaw organically: it’s not so much constructed as a series of horror sequences, but rather as a single, continuous narrative where the tension never lets down, and where the characters are taken on an intense, but straightforward journey that reveals tons about them and their insecurities and issues. That was another problem with “Knock Knock” – you never felt like anyone was in real, awful danger, and therefore it became really hard to push the characters in places that are challenging and interesting. Whereas here, fear is at the core of the narrative – Twelve kinda echoes beats from “Listen” and the superhero speech by saying adrenalin is good, keeps you alive.
THOMAS: Nardole in particular really impressed me this week. I’ve been a bit indifferent to him for the past four weeks, and in general ever since they announced his return, but he really works here with the Doctor and Bill, and their dynamic is really interesting. I especially enjoy how un-companion like he is. He’s a very different type of companion in comparison to pretty much every other one before him, what with trying to keep The Doctor on Earth and everything. Also, Matt Lucas is an incredible actor – “Look at me!” gave me serious chills at the end.
SCRIBBLES: It’s lovely that they’ve allowed him to be silly and sweet without being the butt of the joke the way he was in “Husbands of River Song“. There’s a clear shift in how they’ve approached him because of him being a regular, and it’s a good call. I love that the main use of him is to call out the Doctor and serve as an interface between the Doctor and other characters. It means the beats can’t fall the same way they did with Twelve and Clara. We can’t get a “Kill the Moon” repeat entirely because Nardole is the interface, for example. It frees Bill up to explore her own concerns more, and allows for extra drama in instances like the blindness being kept a secret from Bill. I look forward to seeing where they go with his place in the team.
TIBERE: There’s a really interesting tension to him. Because he functionally occupies the same space as someone as River or Jack – i.e. the character that knows how the weird, wild world of sci-fi works and is kind of unphased by all the weird shit the writers throw at him, but at the same time he is a complete antithesis of them. He is not an especially brave or badass person, he is a chubby office clerk that hit on orange-skinned women. And yeah, Lucas proves himself to do some really heavy lifting acting-wise, which was a really pleasant surprise: to be honest, I was already sold by that last scene in “Mysterio“, but this was another level altogether, and I loved it.
THOMAS: I’m looking forward to seeing where they take Nardole’s character, especially in the three-parter. Moffat has gone on record describing him as a “secret badass”, which has me really intrigued.
TIBERE: Yeah, he feels like an extension of people like Mickey or Rory that way – but at the same time he exists in a very different dimension: he’s pure, undiluted camp Who (with a serious edge, still), and that makes his heroic actions always coded in an anticlimactic, interestingly bizarre way. He’s great in the way he’s able to introduce a level of off-key goofiness in the proceedings without putting the narrative in jeopardy. I think of that last scene where he goes cuddling with the Doctor and Bill, most notably. It’s such an unexpected moment, but it works really well and it sort of introduces a lovely, warm energy to the scene.
SCRIBBLES: I do wonder how he’ll fare in the finale. I get the sense that neither Bill nor Nardole will last past it, and though I can’t see anything too cruel happening to Bill, well, there may be a spare Mondasian Cyberman costume going…
THOMAS: I can see Bill making it to Series 11, but Nardole is probably going out this year. Although, who knows? Maybe Chibnall will want to use them. We have no idea, which is terribly exciting and terrifying.
TIBERE: That would be wonderfully fucked-up. Although, he’s already an android, so, is that even possible? Who knows, who knows … But I think, much more than any week before, this was a big Twelve-centric episode, so maybe let’s try and tackle that?
THOMAS: Yeah, what an episode for Twelve. There’s some wonderful character development showing in him, especially when he leaves Bill behind. It parallels “Deep Breath”, in a way, but in that case he left Clara in the dark to fend for herself. Here he’s learned from that and tries to assure Bill he will come back for her.
TIBERE: Mathieson really reveals the full extent of his talent when he writes Twelve, I find. I think he nails Capaldi’s specific voice the best. And he’s just terrific, terrific when it comes to showing the ambiguities and contradictions of that character. Because yes, the Doctor here is considerably kinder and more generous than the one in “Mummy”, for instance, but at the same time, there is a certain level of shadiness to his actions. He insists to answer a distress call and save lives, risking his own – but at the same time, he’s also doing it because he is an adrenalin junkie in need of a fix. He comforts Bill, but he also has a big smirk when he frightens her by making that suit lose its helmet at the beginning of the episode.
SCRIBBLES: I really just loved the moments between Twelve and Bill. Him giving his helmet to Bill was such a simple little moment, but meant so damn much. And it’s all the more powerful given how he isn’t really focused on for it. We see it through Bill’s eyes, which really works wonders. And Capaldi sells the hell out of what comes next. There’s a slight sense of resignation to him now, I think, that he brushes off to not let Bill see but is clearly there, snapping out at Nardole at the end. Given how much it seems he’ll have lost hope by episode 8, I think this could be Capaldi’s greatest performance yet in the making.
THOMAS: And of course, that simple moment of giving Bill his helmet is going to have big repercussions now that he’s blind from that. He’s willing to protect Bill so much that he has possibly blinded himself for the rest of the series.
TIBERE: It’s really interesting to see how this beat is going to play out. Because it was originally supposed to be something unique to the episode: the Doctor was supposed to heal at the end, in Mathieson’s original drafts. Which kind of just fits the standard bill of having a story that deprives the Doctor of all his typical assets: TARDIS, sonic screwdriver (I do appreciate how the drowning kid scene in “Thin Ice” becomes really fucked-up foreshadowing for the loss of that specific sonic, too …) to ramp up the tension. But the story plays out in a much more challenging way …
THOMAS: For a moment, I thought the Doctor was actually been healed at the end, and then bam, that cliffhanger. Really, really looking forward to “Extremis” next week.
TIBERE: I love that bit for all sort of reasons, really. First, it will offer some really, really compelling character dynamics and tensions, as Scribbles already pointed out. Second, well, it’s just a really cool opportunity to do some representation for disabled people – I mean, jury is still out on this one, they could fuck up pretty badly by having be blind-but-not-too-blind, or just milking it for angst, but I tend to trust the writers at work on the coming trilogy of episodes. Even Toby Whithouse: yes, he’s plenty iffy, but he handled Cass’ disability in his series 9 two-parter really well. But also, and that’s the three, there’s just a huge, huge ton of symbolical potency in that action. I mean, you can kind of see a Christ-like, religious metaphor in a man sacrificing himself and enduring a long, painful walk to save someone – and that feels relevant when the next episode is gonna throw the freaking Pope at you. But it also carries a ton of ancient world symbolism, which is 1) my jam 2) a recurring motif of the Capaldi era: he becomes almost this figure of the blind seer, the all-knowing man that was blinded by the contemplation of the higher forms of Truth (yes, they really are preparing “Extremis” here, uh?). And in the Odyssey, Tiresias the Seer is one of the figures that are seen in the Underworld, this Underworld that is constantly called upon on a symbolical level in Capaldi’s era, so, it still all coheres.
SCRIBBLES: In the documentary class I’m in right now, some of the other students are doing a documentary about disabled people going on adventures. And what really stuck out to me in this was how much Capaldi’s eyes looked like the interviewees (and I suppose he’s one for adventures, too). That really sold to me just how far they’re taking this. I hope they handle it deftly. It’s a difficult area to handle respectfully, and to not harp on about the disability or stigmatize it. But if anyone’s gonna not let it stop them, it’s the Doctor. I think they’re pitching the drama more in terms of Bill’s guilt, which is a lovely call.
TIBERE: Problem is, not every character is developed in such a compelling way …
SCRIBBLES: There was my issue with the episode. It had very little depth to the supporting cast, and seemed to have even less an idea what to do with them. The opening scene was promisingly poignant, but from there it really stagnated. The blue man racism joke was a fun idea, I suppose, but not really taken anywhere despite the amount of time given over to it. I would have liked him to be either a bigger presence with Bill or to not be so fussed over. Because an idea like that kind of racism isn’t something you can dispense with in a scene, and the casting of a white man to be the person discriminated against is somewhat tone deaf. I like the way Bill’s race has been handled so far this year, and I like the implication that humanity, in finding new people to embrace as accepted by society, finds a new outgroup to oppress, that’s pretty on-point. But it doesn’t really hit home with any of that. He dies quickly and with little fuss. It’s a tad frustrating and a very odd structural decision in the episode.
TIBERE: I mean, I’m all for praise of intersectionality, and pointing out that even a black, queer woman can fall pray to certain prejudices doesn’t strike me as a bad “idea” (Class did kind of the same thing, and I liked it) – but the execution was really lacklustre. If you’re gonna shove that under the rug, maybe don’t call that much attention on that in the first place? It’s an odd structural move. And it’s a shame, because Mathieson is usually much, much better at handling that kind of group cast. I guess “Flatline”’, which I still would single out as his weakest script, does suffer from poorly defined side characters a bit, but it does have a strong performance that anchors the script with Jovian Wade’s Rigsy. “Mummy” and “Girl” both have a large cast of really well-defined characters that all get cool, interesting beats. Here … not so much. The fact you get two White Bearded Dudes for the price of one, that’s not the best idea, for exemple. And, yes, there are some efficient enough mini-arcs for the side characters, one dealing with the death of his wife, and one learning to trust the Doctor, but they felt a bit undercooked.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of mini-arcs, I did not really care for the woman who mistrusted the Doctor. Nothing wrong with a beat like that, I’m all for it, but it felt very undercooked and haphazard. Her development did not feel very organic and I felt like she just was changing attitudes by the end because the script was over. I’d prefer a bit more her, a bit less blue man, maybe even just compile the two into one more dynamic character. Because the characters here all have seeds of interesting arcs and the episode tries to play them all, but I feel like they never got the space they needed to be elevated as the likes of Ashildr, Maisie, Rigsy, or even very minor supporting characters like Ashildr’s father.
TIBERE: Still, I do appreciate the fact the episode managed to craft compelling death scenes. It’s not like in “Knock Knock” where it’s all very obvious, here they manage to dispatch the red shirts in cool ways that feed into the tension really well. There’s an element of surprise, of uncertainty – yeah, it does come at the cost of some character development, and that’s a shame, but I do appreciate what Mathieson was going for a lot, even if he might not have hit all the beats. Actually, it’s the opposite of “Knock Knock”: that guest cast is dull in life but great in death.
THOMAS: I guess I’m kinda alone in liking, or at least not minding, the supporting characters in this episode. They didn’t add anything especially interesting, no, but I don’t know, I didn’t really mind them. I would probably call them the weakest link of this episode, though, totally.
TIBERE: I think they can make the episode feel a little bit like a well-oiled machine, in places, really. There’s a truly awe-inspiring efficiency at work here, and the tension scenes are killers – mostly because they know how to weaponize your care in the leads very efficiently – but it might be in need of a modicum of soul to be really called a outright, unquestionable classic. Still, it’s a showcase of all that Mathieson can bring to show, and that is a lot, especially when it comes to thematic focus.
TIBERE: I think one of the best things about the episode is the way it doesn’t just use space as a setting, but conceptualizes it and problematizes it. That lecture scene that opens the episode is absolutely perfect – honestly, it might be my single favourite bit of the episode: it has this sort of typically Mathieson-ian macabre poetry to it. The shot of the skull on the board is a specific highlight: it really plays well on this idea of Who as a cosmic horror story, a place full of dark void that wants to kill you. And the fact that Twelve brings this tension inside a classroom, inside the “safe space” of St. Luke’s college, is just fascinating to me – it feels like the first major hint that the world Who depicts, this post-Trump, post-Brexit world, is fucked up in ways that are properly metaphysical. You know, beyond the giant Vault of Doom down below.
THOMAS: Space is basically a secondary villain in this episode, alongside the suits. It turns it into such a terrifying thing, and it’s in some ways personified by the corpses in the suits – this is what space will turn you into, a rotting body in a spacesuit. I like that very much, honestly. This is certainly one of the first episodes in a while to genuinely unnerve me.
SCRIBBLES: A generation of kids just quit their dreams of becoming astronauts. I like how it focuses on space as an untouchable enigma. It’ll kill you in the end, it’s a vacuum that devours all, yet there’s a beauty in it, too. Twelve staring up at the sky, missing it. Bill staring out the window in the most joyful moment of the episode. It calls, it’s sort of a siren, isn’t it? And that’s a compelling drama, being pulled toward something that’ll doom you in the end. That’s long been the way the Doctor’s life works in the new series, but translating it specifically onto the dangers of space is particularly compelling.
TIBERE: Of course, that Twelve beat is also a massive, massive moment of foreshadowing for the end twist. He looks to space, and space condemns him never to look at anything again. It’s the Icarus story, basically: he flew too close to the sun. Space here kinda stands for all the places the Doctor goes to when he is not on Earth, and it’s a place of tragedy and horror – by going there one more time, he faces the consequences of his actions. The healer and empath is deprived of the primary way to interact with people. A part of who he symbolically is is taken away from him – the places he once used to visit and rule over (Mathieson did say the episode was intended as a sort of antithesis of the Eleventh Doctor, THORS-like vision of space) are now hostile and want to kill him. There’s a sort of corruption of the world of Who at work here – down to the name, “Chasm Forge”: an abyss of darkness.. I could go all Sandifer and pull out the “narrative collapse and stuff” card.
SCRIBBLES: God, I just had a thought. Imagine if they’d done this beat with Clara? Her in the Doctor’s role? It’s too horrible to bear thinking about. But in practice, this is him meeting the same consequences as “Face the Raven” did with Clara, the same beat. And it’s fascinating. It sounds as though the three-parter aspires to re-assess the earth invasion narrative, find out what happens when the invasion already won. This episode similarly pushes a different natural conclusion, starting that process of typical adventures but with the consequences pushed to the fullest. It’ll be a very interesting break from the typical Doctor Who mold, and should be rich with drama.
TIBERE: With Clara, it would have acted as a punishment for her “arrogance” at wanting to be the Doctor. It would have been so, soooo damn iffy. The Doctor has, well, better reasons to be punished – as I said, his behaviour throughout the episode is iffy, navigating between the most extreme, devoted kindness, and the adrenalin junkie. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the moment where he gets too cocky, too sure of himself in a world whose rules have changed. You could kind of read a political metaphor in this, I assume.
THOMAS: To reiterate what Scribbles said, I really like how it portrays space as a kind of magical place, with the Doctor desperate to get back to it, but also as a terrifying force what wants to kill us all. The Doctor staring out at the stars is a magnificent shot (again, kudos to Charles Palmer – every shot in this episode is beautifully crafted to perfection), especially after that lecture scene. It somehow highlights both space as a force of good and evil at the same time.
TIBERE: I greatly admire the way it parallels the final shot of “Kill the Moon”. Really, that has been one of the great strengths of the Capaldi era, this willingness to put words and labels and definitions on the basic building blocs of the show. “Kill the Moon” is a much more optimistic episode, though, I would say: it shows the faith in space restored, the possibility of something more, of a new drive for the human species. Which I think makes sense, because that’s a story that’s definitely turned to the future: yes, it problematizes the authority of the (cis, white, male, able-bodied) Doctor, but it shows you a future where the President of the United States is a black woman, for instance. This episode is paradoxical in that yes, it is set later in the timeline than “Kill the Moon”, but, in that deeply contradictory way that is why we all love Who, also feels very much like a present-day story, informed by current context. Also, the episode starts by quoting “Star Trek”. Which is the sort of weird, fan-provoking move that I can only love. But honestly, that simple, basic quote is incredibly meaningful here: Star Trek often versed in the unabashed celebration of the human being as an all-triumphant agent of progress, making space first a place to be explored and colonized, like the Far West might have been, then to be ruled over and administered (the TOS/TNG dichotomy, if you want). Whereas here, humanity is small, threatened at every corner – it’s a world that’s too big, too complicated and too hostile for us, and even the political systems we might bring with us can’t really create order and structure in the void and the nothingness. Basically, the station will blow up, the people on it will die, and at the end, space always wins. Wheeee, that’s a bag of laughter, that episode, isn’t there?
THOMAS: I love how the episode subverts that famous quote at the beginning: “Final, because it wants to kill us all”. Basically a mission statement for this episode, in general.
SCRIBBLES: Also, though I’m not a Star Trek fan, isn’t it tied to bureaucratic structures the way this episode rejects them? That’s an interesting rejection. A cynicism at capitalism contrasted with the implicitly invoked flawed utopianism of Star Trek, Star Fleet, and all that.
TIBERE: Definitely. It’s one of the core elements of the show, especially in its latter days: the deeply flawed nature of the Federation. I won’t get on a segue about it, but DS9, the spin-off show, was specifically an answer to that, and the ever-so-famous concept of the Borg is intended as a direct, obscene parody of said Federation. By the way, that episode calls back to the Borgs quite a bit: dead-looking humanoids dominated by technology? That’s a reference. But yeah, really, above all else it’s quite a great way to make you get into the episode, a big sign saying “this is gonna be political”.
4) A Capitalist Satire
TIBERE: Where does one even start with this …
THOMAS: That was astonishingly good. Satire, and especially political satire like this, is totally my thing, and oh my god did it deliver. The ending I especially like, because the Doctor essentially turns capitalism against itself. “Our deaths will be expensive”, he says, and the suits stop attacking. All the episode, they’re fighting capitalism and it’s capitalism that in some way saves the day, in a weird, anti-capitalist sense.
SCRIBBLES: Tibere brought up the Class parallels briefly, and I wanna get back on that, because they were my favorite parts of the episode by far. The Doctor growing more Quill-like in the “dying well” beat is obviously the highlight, that was a phenomenal and very pointed beat that suggests interesting things both for his growth and for the future of Class should the show come back for series 2 like I hope for. Class is a sort of exorcism of the Twelfth Doctor’s liberal ideals coming to a breaking point. And it was made, I believe, at the time of the breaking point of Trump and Brexit, which is tremendously fitting. Whereas this series of Doctor Who is thoroughly post-Brexit and post-Trump, a reassessment of ideologies and an attempt to rebuild and move forward. Interesting also that the episode reuses the “I’m totally not prejudiced” moment from Class, a beat previously ascribed to April, the well-meaning but flawed liberal at the heart of a lot of Class’ thematic explorations. With Bill, it’s a curious choice. Bill isn’t that kind of liberal, nor has that kind of privilege, so I’m not sure of what to make of that beat. I think the important distinction comes in her acknowledging her own position as typically being the marginalized person, but it’s still an odd beat in how it doesn’t really pursue much payoff, like we discussed earlier. Wonder if we might be hearing more of that theme?
TIBERE: She’s black and gay, for starters. April is … Very, very white and very, very straight. She’s a folk singer whose first beat is getting rejected by a guy! Insert your #whitefeminism hashtags at your convenience. It’s very interesting to see how Moffat and co. have weaponized the hiatus and the Twenty-Four Years on Darillium as a chance to push the soft reboot on his character, and to make him rise anew, aware of the lessons “Hell Bent” and, indirectly, Class (even if he was not present during the events of “The Lost”) taught us. I do love the way the spin-off keeps having these thematic connections with the flagship. The “dying well” scene is utterly lovely – the show is now totally on board with the idea that destroying a system that wants nothing but to crush you is a good thing, and justifies drastic actions. I like that.
SCRIBBLES: I find myself again hoping for Doctor Who and Class to cross over and collide. There’s so much thematic weight in the air, particularly in the aftermath of The Lost and the directions that series 10 is pushing in, there’s a lot of interest that could be examined.
THOMAS: I still haven’t actually watched it, so I can’t comment on it anyway.
TIBERE: I don’t want to start a debate about Class, but I think the problem that show has what that it wasn’t always very good at conveying all its thematic points and its richness to the viewers. The ideas were good, the language, not so much. This feels much cleaner and more efficient – and I think it has a lot to do with the nature of the threat. The Shadow Kin are impressively lame monsters (on purpose, mind you, but still), and I think the suits here are a much, much better and more terrifying metaphor. Maybe let’s take a deeper look at it?
THOMAS: “We’re fighting the suits” made me chuckle a lot. Reminds me a lot of “your sewers are revolting” from “The Witch’s Familiar”. Anyway, I really enjoy what this episode has to say about workers’ rights. The suits and the company treat the workers on the space station, with no respect whatsoever, simply replacing them when funds drop and getting rid of the old stock, all the while pretending to actually care for their wellbeing. But their only real purpose is to make them money, and they have no other value then that. It’s absolutely biting.
TIBERE: Not to forget the mythical unions joke. Now that is one stellar beat: a world where basic worker protection has become a folktale. Not that unlikely – look at what happens to healthcare these days … Unlike “The Witch’s Familiar”, though, this episode has like, a basic idea of what a structured plot is. That’s good. I like when that happens. Cheap shot, I know, I know.
SCRIBBLES: Interesting, I actually feel the opposite. I feel like “Oxygen” is actually more unrestrained in structure and a tad messy. I enjoy both, but “Oxygen” to me could use some tightening and structuring.
TIBERE: I have lots of feelings on that series 9 opener. Some good. Lots of bad. But anyway – I do really appreciate that central metaphor.
SCRIBBLES: Oh, the central metaphor of the suits was delightful. This episode was utterly unsubtle with the disregard of capitalism for human life. I almost wish they were literal business suits in a more earth-like setting, that’d be gloriously cracky. But it works excellently hear in a clever toying with space iconography.
TIBERE: That would have been great. Doesn’t stop them from milking the irony as much as possible – for instance, the signs that read “take care of your suit, and your suit will take care of you”. Ah, Mathieson, you bearded weird wonder.
SCRIBBLES: Oh, the set work was on fire like that. The signs were numerous and all gave me a chuckle, the perfect level of soulless corporate nonsense that “Sleep No More” didn’t quite capture last series. And it worked perfectly with other aspects like the cheery corporate droning of Velma, all the motivational but lifeless platitudes that capitalism uses to pretend it gives a damn about its workers.
TIBERE: Velma is a pretty terrific invention, I found. It’s basically sexing-up the capitalism, adding a layer of glamour to it.
SCRIBBLES: Velma was perfect. Hiring an actress to shill for the corporation and make the workers feel valued by bringing in a star to create an illusion of personal care from higher ups, it’s a very real thing. Also, I demand a sequel where she and Gus are an evil AI power couple.
TIBERE: Best companion since Pete, she is. And yes, that needs to happen. This episode might have slotted Gus in there, actually – I suspect that if series 10 hadn’t been a sort-of reboot, they would have done just that. Really – the metaphor at the heart of the episode is not especially complex and doesn’t require much in the way of interpretation (this is no “Smile”), but the proliferation of little, laser-pointed details lend it a texture and a potency that I can’t stop adoring. The obsession with counting everything, for instance: measuring every distance, every action, in function of the oxygen it consumes. And even the Doctor kind of falls prey to that, you’ll note: one of the first beats of the episode is him doing some maths, 40-36=4 survivors.
THOMAS: Measuring everything by number of breaths is a genius bit of writing, as is the fact that the space station itself completely lacks oxygen. The company only provides the bare minimum for their employees in order to cut costs on oxygen.
TIBERE: Still in the long, long list of cool stuff: the literally empty suit moving crates by itself. Really impressive visual. But really, when you look at the episode with a magnifying glass, you sort of are faced with a lot of stuff that doesn’t make much sense. And that sounds like a criticism, but it really isn’t – I think Mathieson crafts a scenario that voluntarily pokes holes at deeply absurd bits of logic. For instance, if they have suits that can do the jobs pretty much as well as humans, why bother with the human element at all? Well, because even if you have the means to make the production automatic, you’re not gonna bother – people need to work, they need to earn the money they need to basically survive (here, it’s the air, that pushes the metaphor to its logical extreme), they need to earn their survival, that’s just the way it works. Work, and productivity, defines the value of human life. Even when there is another choice, that principle must be upheld – it’s an episode that talks really well of the philosophical grounds of capitalism, I feel.
SCRIBBLES: Oh, certainly. There’s no level on which it’s logical to suck out oxygen and then sell it as a rare commodity, or to depend on organic workers when they’re cost inefficient because there’s not as much oxygen because you just sucked it out and then kill them as a result, while hiring more organic workers to repeat the process. But that’s not supposed to be human logic. It’s the logic of a spreadsheet, like the Doctor says, working with a couple presumed givens, like “we need a human workforce” and “oxygen = $$$” and applying it to a deeply flawed business scheme. Crunching the numbers without crunching the cultural hegemonies of the capitalist society, there’s your problem.
TIBERE: “Last entry: declared non-productive.” “Yeah, killing your entire workforce will do that.” Nardole sums it up well.
SCRIBBLES: One of my favorite lines of the episode, that was.
THOMAS: I love how at the end the two surviving space station members decide to make a complaint to head office. Lovely little touch, that.
TIBERE: I almost wonder whether it’s a reference to “The Almost People”.
THOMAS: Well, I prefer to forget about that episode personally, so I won’t think about it…
SCRIBBLES: I love the implication that that achieved nothing, but then there was a revolution, so it’s all okay. Also, “The Almost People” is great.
TIBERE: Yeah, I do like the closing ambiguity. Capitalism gets destroyed, and “humanity moves on to its next mistake”. Even if I’m absolutely a far, far-leftist, I think a “yeah, capitalism is over, let’s celebrate!” ending would have rung weirdly false. What this episode and “Smile” shows is that there’s something almost cyclical in the way humans interacts with sociological systems.
SCRIBBLES: And that’s the only way I really can grapple with the much harped-on racism beat. It’s a cycle of human injustice, rather than a linear history. It’s more accurate to the way human progression actually works, there’s nothing linear about history and human development at all, always stepping back and forward and sideways.
TIBERE: Circular Time. Paul Cornell would be proud. Just, another little element that has crossed my mind – I love the way the crew here are there to mine copper, something they themselves confess to be basically worthless. Plays nicely on the absurdity of the whole situation.
THOMAS: There’s so many things about this episode I’m sure we’ve missed, it’s a very intricate and detailed script.
TIBERE: Hey, got another one. The oxygen is only ever contained in the suits, so that means the workers would have to constantly, constantly wear them. To bed. To go to the bathroom. Talk about fridge horror ..
SCRIBBLES: So much for casual Fridays. But yes, that is the implication, and it’s screwed up as hell. And I imagine their wages don’t cover nearly enough for the oxygen.
TIBERE: Technical question: how is that lady supposed to have a baby with Bearded Dude number II if she can’t get out of her suit … ?
SCRIBBLES: Probably on vacations? Or is oxygen restricted on all worlds, not just in space? If so, that could get very test tube-y.
TIBERE: Well, if you have to not breathe faster during bedroom sports, yeah, that could be very awkward very fast … Which would almost tend to mean that actual full-on sex would be the privilege of the rich, that can afford “wasting” oxygen. See, that’s how you spot good worldbuilding, when you can just sit there and question every single aspect of the episode, getting some really interesting concepts in exchange.
SCRIBBLES: “Interesting” is your word for contemplating space sex. Sure.
TIBERE: I HAVE VERY SPECIFIC CENTRES OF INTEREST SCRIBBY DEAR. But yeah, I mean, for instance, why don’t the suits get rid of the bodies once they kill their occupants? … Because those bodies are going to be used for something else, maybe? Don’t let all that go to waste, I’m sure you can make profit selling them as food or whatever. The world that Mathieson paints is one where everywhere you look, you are faced with deeply, deeply disturbing ideas and concepts. That’s what “Sleep No More” never achieved: you never really understood how the Morpheus device impacted the everyday life of the people that experienced it.
SCRIBBLES: I think it’s more simple than that. Capitalism is built on human-run factory labor. That’s the core pillar. In order to shift the bodies, they’d need to reassess their system, which they clearly are too busy staring at spreadsheets. I don’t think “Oxygen” really touched the everyday, either, neither aspires to. Both just leave it to you to imagine.
TIBERE: Yeah, definitely, it’s almost a form of contempt for the puny, human flesh, really. The numbers and data, that’s what matters. And yeah, I don’t think “Oxygen” is really “about” the everyday, but it “suggests” it in incredibly, incredibly compelling ways.
5) Closing Thoughts
SCRIBBLES: Solid episode, with good satire and beats for Bill and Twelve, but some flawed structure and supporting character work for me. I’d say it’s probably the second strongest of the run so far for me after “Thin Ice“, all the episodes have been very solidly put together and pleasantly political without quite reaching a standout level so far. To me, this is the necessary turning point the way “Kill the Moon” was. It’s got a lot to handle and doesn’t manage it all, but it feels like we’re really moving toward some high points now. If next week’s episode isn’t a classic, I’ll be shocked. This is just the exciting path there. The characters are all fully formed now, and the seeds of their conflict have now been placed. It’s time to see the drama unfold.
TIBERE: See, I absolutely hear your criticisms, and I get that. As I said initially, I don’t think it’s the best thing Mathieson has done – I would rank it third, above “Flatline”. And there’s a reason why I would say it’s better than “Flatline”, and, for me, the strongest of the series so far – that same reason which would push me to slap full marks on it -: I think it’s a genuinely, truly unique story. That’s basically my criteria for great Who, honestly, giving me something that I haven’t seen before in the show. And yeah, that delivered: it’s not that the basic building blocks are the most original things this side of Andromeda, but the specific tone the episode aims for, and executes fairly well, I find really strange. And strangeness is the fuel Who runs on: I never had seen a Who story where I could honestly buy, in all good faith, that they were going to kill a main character; I never had seen a story that dared punish the Doctor in quite a spectacular fashion. I never had seen something that reproduced in the show, and in such a creative way this feeling of unease and danger science-fiction, in its darkest corners, can create. I felt echoes of “Alien” – and to bring that kind of deep existential darkness to a corner of entertainment that’s still primarily defined by its aim as a family show … Is just truly impressive to me. I love the episode to bits, even if I’m not blind to its flaws.
THOMAS: I don’t think it’s my favourite Mathieson script ever, but it’s still absolutely thrilling and enjoyable all the way through, with some spectacular satire and clever world-building. It pushed the boundaries of Doctor Who storytelling in a really wonderful way that really gells well with me.
SCRIBBLES: That it certainly did. Perhaps I’m getting a bit too demanding and cynical. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what this episode had on offer. But the niggles are significant to me, and I feel like this series of Doctor Who has it in it to offer even higher heights, and I’m eagerly awaiting what those may be.
TIBERE: I absolutely don’t think you’re being too demanding on the episode, honestly – and yeah, I agree, I don’t think this will end up being the absolute highlight of the series. Next week, though … Now, all bets are off. This is gonna be a fun one, I’m telling you …
So concludes our talk on “Oxygen”!
Coverage (with full crew!) will continue next week; a talk will also be devoted to the Ninth Doctor Chronicles, I SWEAR TO GOD IT WILL WE SHALL MAKE IT HAPPEN EVEN IF IT COMES TWO WEEKS LATE. Ahem. Anyway. Enjoy, be safe, watch Who!