Story No. 292 Breathe
Production Code Series 10, episode 5
Dates May 13, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Jamie Mathieson Directed by Charles Palmer
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: On a deep-space mining station, the crew rely on oxygen in their smartsuits. But it's running out.


Breathless by Niall Jones 16/3/22

For all that they are sometimes compared, Doctor Who and Star Trek are not that similar. Although both involve the exploration of strange new worlds and the bringing of peace to places at war, Star Trek is fundamentally about order, whereas Doctor Who is about change, with the Doctor often acting as an anarchic, disruptive force.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the reference to Star Trek at the beginning of Series 10's Oxygen is subverted as soon as it is made. 'Space: the final frontier', intones an unseen Peter Capaldi, as a mining base in deep space appears on the screen, 'Final because it wants to kill us.' In a matter of seconds, Doctor Who has taken Star Trek's famous, optimistic tagline and turned it on its head. Here, space is not an expanse of boundless opportunity, a new American West for humanity to advance into, but a source of terror, a place of death.

This view of space is illustrated by the episode's brutal opening scene, in which two workers are attacked by the dead bodies of their former colleagues, whose helmetless heads are exposed to the void and whose milky eyes stare blindly out. The base itself is decidedly rickety and used-looking, with heavy doors that have to be opened by turning a wheel, a far cry from the glossy spaceships of the Star Trek universe. Plastered around the mining base - Chasm Forge - are signs that admonish workers to conserve their oxygen, a further reminder of the precariousness of life in space.

The Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive in this environment responding to a distress call. The first thing they find is a crewmember. A dead crewmember. A dead crewmember standing up. When Bill asks the Doctor how he's still standing, the Doctor replies that 'his suit's standing for him. He's just along for the ride'. This line foreshadows the episode's major theme - that capitalism is a dehumanising force - without giving away the plot twist that packs the most political punch.

Despite what some critics of Jodie Whittaker's era may say, Doctor Who has always engaged with politics. What makes Oxygen different to most other politically engaged Doctor Who episodes is that it doesn't dress up its critique in allegory or metaphor. Whereas, to give an example, The Mutants tackles apartheid obliquely by presenting a futuristic colony in which the indigenous people are discriminated against by human settlers, Oxygen presents capitalism as functioning pretty much as it does in the real world. The commoditisation of oxygen in the episode reflects the way in which capitalism seeks to monetise every aspect of human life. In our own times, we find this in the rise of the attention economy, in which information has become a valuable commodity. It makes sense that, being both scarce and essential, oxygen would become a highly valued resource.

As the episode unfolds, it becomes clear that oxygen is in fact valued more highly than human life. Human life is disposable: oxygen isn't. In the episode, humans have become machines for extracting resources and are no longer seen as having any non-financial worth. While Doctor Who has often criticised big business, it is unusual for the show to attack capitalism itself in such a bold way.

The force of writer Jamie Mathieson's anti-capitalist polemic comes from the fact that no individual is responsible for the dire situation on Chasm Forge. Crucially, Oxygen doesn't have any villains - although it is the dead crewmen, reanimated by their suits, that threaten the characters, they are as much victims as the Doctor and co - meaning that no one is to blame. Like Smile, Oxygen presents a world in which the problem stems from the fact that the system works.

As expected, the situation unfolding on Chasm Forge outrages the Doctor, allying him with the episode's anti-capitalist perspective. The presentation of the Doctor here develops from his characterisation earlier in the series, particularly in Thin Ice. He possesses a fierce sense of right and wrong, but is deeply unsentimental. He is also brave, but reckless, abandoning his oath to stay on Earth and protect the vault, much to Nardole's annoyance.

Nardole's presence in the episode is interesting and not something that we have previously seen in Series 10. So far, he has been a somewhat peripheral figure, mostly appearing in the aspects of the plot that feature the vault and providing some comic relief. Although he does add some levity to an otherwise bleak episode, his role in Oxygen is more serious than usual. Here, he acts as a check on the Doctor, reminding him of his responsibilities towards the vault and to Bill.

While Oxygen is quite ideas-heavy, these ideas do not overwhelm the story. Oxygen is a tense, frightening episode that paints a searing picture of life in space, while also advancing a strongly argued political position. Although its supporting characters are fairly thinly sketched, the TARDIS crew are well-written and the cast on strong form. Bill is, as usual, great, with her empathy and humane reactions, such as being horrified at the idea of a dead man standing up, continuing to complement the Doctor's more distant approach. The episode is also extremely well directed and makes effective use of sound to evoke the terror of space, particularly in the scene where Bill is forced to flee outside the base without her helmet.

What Oxygen ultimately demonstrates is that Doctor Who can be political without sacrificing quality. The way in which plot, theme and atmosphere come together make it a particularly memorable and distinctive episode, and a prime example of political Doctor Who at its very best.