Sunday, May 14, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x5)

It's amazing how deceptive promotional material can be. When the ad for this week's episode "Oxygen" aired, following last week's episode, I internally groaned quite a bit. It appeared to be a bottle episode, set almost entirely in space, where there's some sort of countdown until everyone dies and the Doctor and Bill just happen to stumble into this problem even though
"space station" wouldn't be on anyone's list of places or times to travel when the entirety of universal history is open to them. It seemed a fairly standard piece of NuWho, a one-off that doesn't leave any lasting impressions and is quickly forgotten a few days after airing. Boy, was I wrong about all of that. It's true that this is a very classic episode of Doctor Who with a whole lot of running down corridors and an inexplicable and close save at the end of the day, but there are a few points that make this week's episode more than just a typical danger-in-space sort of romp. Take a deep breath, monitor your oxygen levels and let's go!

On one level, this week's episode works as a commentary against the dangers of a modern capitalist society. Like any good science fiction story, Doctor Who doesn't stray from meta naval gazes that reflect the world we, the audience, currently live in. Remember two episodes back when the real crux and villain of the week was white privilege and the otherization of anyone who did not fit into the white hetero nomenclature (like Bill). This week's enemy is less tangible because they are unseen, though I would argue the villain goes hand in hand with the white privilege thesis set up two weeks ago for surely the overlords who decided that their workers lives are expendable, because they are no longer making as much money as they were previously, are members of that white privilege sect. In this case, however, the workers are from all races, genders, and at least in Bill's case, sexuality. These workers are not "others" because of any visible difference but rather by station and circumstance. Workers versus job creators, as it were. These unseen but deeply felt overlords get to decide how much human life matters and how much it's worth; it's the final line in a capitalist society where we make commodities out of everything. Human beings become objects, goods that can be exchanged and are easily expendable when their worth has depreciated. Our capitalist society is already set up like this, though many are loathe to admit it. Workers give their time, their effort, their labor, their blood, sweat, tears, their bodies, and their creative genius in exchange for wages. If the worker stops being productive or is no longer able to give any of the above, they are terminated. Granted, terminated in our society does not mean death but instead "firing" but the end result is largely the same. The worker's life has been deemed not valuable for the company anymore and whoever is in charge gets to determine the worker's net worth. Doctor Who is making a very bold political and social statement here where even the oxygen we breathe costs money and humans can be gotten rid of when they are taking up space and resources. It seems absurd except that it also felt too real and too likely. What I like most with this particular salient point is that the Doctor bests the overlords not by waving his magic wand but by beating them at their own game. If the overlords want to save money, it's now cheaper to keep the workers alive because the alternative is to lose their space drill, which I'm sure costs more than a pretty penny. It's not emotion, it's practical. The Doctor does not convince the overlords of the value of a single life, but speaks to their profit and loss,the language that matters for these job creators. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Doctor Who is advertising we all storm Wall Street and overturn tables of money and hold the exchange hostage but the episode does make a compelling point about being alert to how these sorts of mentalities--the expendable nature of human life--comes about. Given that the current American President is a multi-millionaire "job creator" who hired other business men to fill the most important positions in government, I'd say it's a lesson well learned.

The second item of interest in this week's episode is whatever the hell is happening with the Doctor. I've been sitting on my hands for the first four episodes of this season, only making random mentions of Checkov's Vault and the Doctor's great oath in my notes but not lingering on it more than that. I'm still not sure how to unpack this year's major plot points except to note that Nardole isn't just a nag; he's absolutely determined to keep the Doctor on Earth for the safety of said tiny blue planet! It had seemed like an exaggeration, that some figure behind a locked and impenetrable set of doors could so ruin the Earth, but given Nardole's final speech to the Doctor in the school office whatever is behind those locked doors could cause irreparable harm. Which brings us to the Doctor and his newest condition: he's blind. There's a fairly famous axiom that says there are none so blind as though who will not see and I have to ponder if we can apply it to the Doctor here. Whoever is behind the Vault--Master, Mistress, some other figure from the great Who lore--has gained a certain amount of affection from the Doctor. He speaks to the person; he tells them stories; he's given him or her a piano to keep them company. The Doctor is not a cruel Time Lord, though with his godlike powers he certainly could be, but there's something genuinely sad going on with this figure behind the Vault, as if the Doctor hates what he's doing and is trying to atone. His blindness might not be literally and directly associated with this looming mystery but its placement in the story--at the end when Nardole is reading the Doctor the riot act--is telling. The Doctor is blind to the repercussions of not keeping his oath; the Doctor's blindness is working not only on a literal level but on a metaphorical one too. He can't see the danger that lurks just downstairs, silently tucked out of sight but not so out of mind.

Miscellaneous Notes on Oxygen 

--"Space....the final frontier." Yes, let's combine all my favorite science-fiction things into one. I approve!

--The BBC should probably get the rights to the idea of "The Walking Dead in Space" before AMC snatches it up and makes it into a seven series show.

--"What do you want from me?" "The truth." "Don't be unreasonable."

--I've been questioning what Nardole's purpose is, and I still don't quite know, but he's got excellent comedic chemistry with Bill and the Doctor so that's a step in the right direction.

--"I thought I sent you to Birmingham for a packet of crisps!" "Yeah. I saw through your clever ruse."

--I don't have much to say on Bill this week but she continues to shine as our new companion. I thought her "death" scene was very emotional. I also like that the Doctor doesn't seem bothered by all the hugs.

--"Do people ever hit you?" "Only when I'm talking."

--So, what does dying in space have to do with crop rotation?

--"I've got some spare eyes somewhere. I think they're from a lizard..."

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