Sunday, 14 May 2017

Breathing Space

Doctor Who
Series Ten, Episode Five

Shortly after this one aired, several of my friends raved about it.  “Best one yet” is the general consensus.  Fair enough.  I can’t tell if I disagree or if the bar for Series Ten is just a bit low.

Oxygen is by Jamie Mathieson, well known for turning in good stuff, and technically this is no exception.  It ticks the right boxes: we have a contained (space station) setting with a few survivors being picked off by creepy things (in this case, their dead comrades in automated spacesuits), which gives the Doctor and companion(s) something to run away from, and offers a tight time limit until he unveils his brilliant solution, probably with a showy-offy speech.  So far, so New Who.  And there are strict rules – because Moffat era Who is all about the rules.  In space you only get a certain number of breaths, because they’re charging for it nowadays.  So don’t breathe!  Or rather, do, but don’t waste it.

Fig. 1: typical movie/TV space helmet, i.e. lots of lighting to help us see them...
...not so useful for them to see anything else.
(Also, what's with the frosted glass?  Why make it a bit see-through?)
This is a natty, if severely pessimistic commentary on the evils of capitalism, which is a favourite target for Doctor Who.  (And that’s still not the half of it.)  It’s admittedly a bit silly, even for Evil Capitalism, to give everyone their own air limit to worry about – what if your Chief Engineer uses it up and doesn’t have enough money to get more?  You’re all up a creek then, which is bad for business, surely?  And what about when you’re asleep, and can’t exactly regulate it?  Since they’re all aware that they’re paying for air, why does everyone talk so much?  If ever there was a need for text messages or a pen and a whiteboard, this is it.

It’s a little odd to give everyone such a specific limit, too, from a dramatic point of view: the Doctor, Bill and Nardole get about 2,500 breaths each, yet there’s no countdown, and incredibly no scene where anyone runs out of air.  There isn’t time for that, with the automated suits either murdering or malfunctioning on you.  (Of course I did wonder how anybody could get away with charging for oxygen, when we’ve established that Earth’s trees can repopulate at will, so we have an endless supply!  Silly Jamie Mathieson.  Except oh, hang on, we’re supposed to have forgotten about that one.  Moving on then…)

The air thing isn’t always relevant, but the space setting creates some neat problems, such as Bill losing her helmet on a space walk – beautifully and nightmarishly shot with very little sound – and gives us an unexpected consequence, the Doctor going blind as he gives Bill his space helmet and has to work in a vacuum himself.  His determination to help Bill no matter the cost, repeated when he tries to give her his space suit after hers malfunctions, is a lovely reminder of his “duty of care” for his companions.  Blimey, the days of the Series Eight Arsehole Doctor feel long ago, don’t they?

Anyway, the suits: it’s established that they are technically intelligent but “dumb as rocks”.  Eye-roll on standby – is that another bit of duff technology on the murder?  That’s three in five episodes!  Except we then find out the suits are just following orders, and are therefore working perfectly, so there.  The space station is deemed unprofitable, so their bosses dispense with the useless humans and send in replacements to do the job better.  You won’t be needing that air, so let’s make with the killy-killy.  It’s very neat, if a bit reminiscent of Mathieson’s Mummy On The Orient Express, which also had an unseen villain dismissing human lives.  Not to mention the movie Moon, which tackled the same theme (among others) in a much more interesting way.  (No spoilers, go watch Moon.)  It’s a bit weak to never see the people responsible for all this, give or take non-sentient spacesuits that are just doing their job, and also a bit flimsy to tell us (via epilogue) that it all worked out in the end.  You’ll find that in Mummy On The Orient Express as well, so I’m tempted to pin these niggles on Mathieson rather than an unforgiving script editor.

Fig.2: what to do on a space station full of killer spacesuits
(if you wish to get killed).
The mixture of evil capitalism and well-meaning technology that kills you is like flicking through The Big Book Of New Who Tropes; it’s so inevitable that a few more survivors will cark it that you don’t bother to get attached.  (Either that or there’s bugger all to them.  One bloke is so blasé about his now dead fiancé that I’m still not sure if they were an item.)  But it’s all done with reasonable panache.  The zombie-spacesuits are horrifying enough, and will make decent playground fodder.  The survivors get killed and crack under pressure as the story requires, otherwise shrug.  It is, like most episodes, a decent showcase for Peter Capaldi: he makes a good fist of blind acting, and the “You’re not my mum” banter makes a good case for Nardole being here.  (I also love his response to Bill’s reasonable question “What if you’re wrong?”  “Well, we’ll be horribly murdered.”)  Matt Lucas continues to underplay the comic observer, thank god, and Bill goes through the wringer, though her main impact on the plot is making it necessary for the Doctor to go blind.  I’m happy for a three-companion setup, but I’m not entirely sure they’ve cracked rationing out the action yet.

Episodes like this, i.e. plot-driven base-under-siege, at best they work, but they’re still just a case of having a plot and successfully unfolding it.  And... tick.  But I’m mostly here for the character development, and I can’t spot much else to get out of it.  Yes, the Doctor’s blindness will continue at least into the next episode, which is a bit interesting; there’s a sweet reminder that Bill feels a deep connection to her departed mum when she talks to her as she’s about to die; and it all feeds that ongoing need of the Doctor’s to escape his (self-imposed?) exile to watch the Vault.  He’s happiest when he’s gallivanting or answering distress calls, as we know.  Series Ten is supposed to be a jumping on point for new viewers, and defining who the Doctor is, complete with one of those drearily self-important “Who am I?” speeches, makes sense for new viewers.  It’s just not much of a newsflash to those of us who’ve been here a while – and who inconveniently make up most of the viewing figures, such as they are.  So well done, all these elements (still) work.  Now rearrange them into something new.


  1. Enjoying your reviews. Unlike seemingly everyone else on the planet I have not been blown away by this series. It just feels cold, emotionally stunted and without heart. Production wise it is superb, Bill is so wonderful and Capaldi is finally the doctor I knew he could be, BUT......

    I thought the atmosphere and visuals were great in this episode, the scenes with Bill under threat were excellent and suspenseful but WTF, the plot makes NO sense yet again. Who is ful of risible plot lines but at least make them internally consistent and believable within the world constructed. A rant follows, sorry. Why are people there if robots or suits can do the work? What work exactly are they doing? Why would you sell oxygen to your employees in the first place? Wouldn't it come as part of your employment package since you need it as a basic to work. How likely is it that capitalism would disappear in only six months off the back of some random people complaining to head office when they weren't even passionate about the deaths of their crew mates? What plan were the surviving crew following to get more oxygen? Why is the doctor worried about saving the crew at all costs even if he dies when he couldn't give a flying f*K two weeks ago when an urchin was sucked under the ice and only cared about his sonic. This episode he just shrugs when his sonic is destroyed. This seems to me that space suit zombies and travelling outside a spaceship without oxygen and Doctor blind were the notes given to Mathieson and all the capitalism guff was stitched on to give it some 'topicality'. It adds nothing to the plot and motivations and could have been used better or a simpler motivation. Why not just a technical snafu affecting that ship alone where the suits became sentient or out of control.

    I found myself comparing this to 42 - yes it's a pretty weak episode and despised by most hardcore Who fans, but at least the silly nonsense underlying the plot made internal sense, the disposable crew had actual emotions and the episode had momentum. I am finding this series lacks passion and warmth, despite Bill being such a wonderful addition and Peter delivering fabulous performances. Say what you like, stupid sloppy poorly produced RTD felt like it was trying to win your heart. Oh well, there's next week which looks bonkers fun.

    1. You make a lot of excellent points, although we'd say that for us what it lacks (other than plots which aren't actively stupid) is not passion and warmth per se but depth. These episodes are tissue thin, with everything shrugged off at the end, and as a result they have the impact of a feather. It's that that leads to the lack of passion as neither the audience nor the characters can get invested in anything.

  2. (No need for the link, BTW, as we always rush over to read your take ASAP.) We're sure you're right that the Who Am I stuff is for new viewers, but even so it's bad writing. The Doctor's doing plenty to convey that stuff without him having to supply a written summary.