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Monday, 15 May 2017

Doctor Who S36E5: Oxygen

Doctor Who
Series 36, Episode 5

Let's talk about a problem that Doctor Who has.

Doctor Who is, in essence, a monster-of-the-week show with a sci-fi twist, a product of its reputation as a show that people hide behind their sofas from, et cetera -- and as a result, there's a certain amount of pressure on the writers to have monsters of some kind in every episode.

Except sometimes the monster is just a glaring distraction from what could be a very serviceable and very interesting science fiction plot. 

Such was the case with last year's 'Sleep No More,' which had a very solid science fiction premise (a future where the need for sleep has been all but eliminated, and people who do sleep are viewed as lazy and work-shy) that had more than a few shades of scathing social commentary to it -- but fell short because it felt the need to shoehorn sand monsters into the mix.

Such is also the case with this year's 'Oxygen,' which imagines a future in which corporations charge people in space for oxygen, deeming it as being 'for personal use.' It's a great concept, with a lot of room to make a really powerful critique of late capitalism -- but it's killed stone dead by the show's need to have monsters in it, resulting in the story being less about the cruel and hostile machinery of capitalism and more about zombies.


(Incidentally, 'Sleep No More' and 'Oxygen' do have different writers -- 'Oxygen' is written by Jamie Mathieson, of the excellent 'Flatline' and less excellent 'The Girl Who Died,' while 'Sleep No More' was written by regular writer Mark Gatiss.)

'Oh, but without the monsters, there'd be no conflict.' Well, there really easily could be. Have the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole land on the ship when it's in the middle of technical problems, with a crew who are almost out of oxygen. Have there be 'safe zones' where oxygen is free. Have the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole, who've never bought oxygen, have to be given oxygen by crew members, ramping up tensions on the ship. As more and more of the ship catastrophically breaks, have members of the crew have to make trips outside the safe zone to repair them, using up oxygen and causing tension as the quicker they fix the problems, the more oxygen is left. Have people make mistakes because they're angry and nervous. Have characters decide that the best way to save themselves is to force someone else to hand over their oxygen.

Incidentally, the kind of episode I'm describing would be the perfect one to get
Russell T. Davies in to write. Human conflict fits him like a glove.

Then, at the end, instead of revealing that the mining company built their suits with a zombie function to kill them off, just have it revealed that they were abandoned. In true capitalist fashion, the company didn't expend effort trying to kill them, it just leveraged its power and cut them off from what they need to survive.

Basically, build the episode around the 'paying for oxygen' idea, not around the presence of a creepy monster. The zombies are just one element too many, and they're not a very imaginative one at that -- we are, frankly, over-zombied right now. There are too many zombies. Hell, there have been too many zombies on Doctor Who.

The big 'wham' moment of this episode is meant to be the Doctor going blind, and being revealed to still be blind at the end of the episode, but that doesn't really seem like a huge problem. Remember, the Doctor has the ability to learn things (like, say, braille) very quickly, he doesn't identify people by their appearance (since Twelve especially seems to exclusively identify people with his telepathic powers), and moreover, we had just seen him solve a problem -- including one that involved typing on a computer, no less -- while blind.

Seriously, being blind isn't going to slow the Doctor down that much.

Being blind would make some things more difficult, I grant, but I can't buy the Doctor being that bothered by it, especially as it is, by definition, a temporary state for him. It will only last until he regenerates, so by his metric, this is an interesting, decidedly temporary experience that could even be considered its own kind of exciting adventure. If anything, I'd expect Bill to be much more concerned by it.

This episode definitely wasn't the worst episode this series of Doctor Who has had, and it wasn't the best, either. It sits somewhat above the 'middling' standard set by several episodes so far, as an enjoyable but deeply flawed zombie adventure in the traditional Doctor Who style.

Next week, it looks like the characters are heading back into the past again, to Renaissance Italy, where the Pope has a request for the Doctor, and they're going on a The Da Vinci Code style adventure of piecing together old manuscripts to find a hidden, heretical place and suchlike. It also looks like the show will be giving up the ghost on pretending that it's not the Master in the Vault, and have her released to cause trouble.

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