Doctor Who Review: “Oxygen”

Jamie Mathieson’s “Oxygen” is a fantastically frustrating piece of science fiction. It’s an excellent episode of Doctor Who, and as a drama it’s quite remarkable. The suits are terrifying, the premise solid, the set work and supporting cast pretty solid–all things considered. It ought to be about an 8 out of 10 (as an experience), but I can’t even grade it because its premise is fundamentally flawed–both in its underpinning philosophies and its science (which is a shame, because it actually handled explosive decompression pretty correctly).

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about Mr. Robot and Mirror’s Edge and the common critique of capitalism that emerges in science fiction. The corporate villain in this episode forces its employees to pay for oxygen on a space station that’s otherwise devoid of atmosphere (which begs the question of why they’ve bothered to install air locks and pressure seals on the doors at all). Once they’ve mined enough, they turn around and use the suit’s AI to kill the human occupants to save profits in the post mining phase of the operation (which begs the question: Why not just use AI and robots for the entire procedure?) The episode goes on to talk about how this is the end stage of capitalism: devaluing human life for profits.

But here’s the thing: this isn’t capitalism at all.

Forcing people to pay for a product or service–especially something that’s mandatory for survival, like air (or health care)–isn’t capitalism. Particularly if there’s only ONE PLACE the commodity can be bought. The corporation who owns the station in this episode has a monopoly on oxygen sales on its own station (and what sort of business makes its employees buy the equipment necessary to operate its own machinery? Let me answer that: none of them. Air would be an operating cost shouldered by the company, or else no one would work for them. UNLESS you wish to propose they were FORCED to work for that company…in which case, we’re not talking about capitalism. Again.

The workers on this station are not purchasing air on the free market. They’re being taxed. Calling the authoritarian power a corporation does NOT mean we’re dealing with a capitalist system, just because money changes hands doesn’t mean we’re dealing with a free market. These people are in mercantilist indentured servitude and they’re expected to pay for it. It IS certainly a travesty of human rights and the Doctor was quite right to step in and save them, but the episode is dead wrong to call the system that hurt them capitalist. This isn’t a free market. This is a monopoly. We’re looking at the East India Company in space, not Carnegie Steel, not Google. Not Facebook.

I’m not saying capitalism is above criticism, but this episode doesn’t even criticize it. This is like watching an episode of Game of Thrones where somebody starts talking about how Westeros is really bad democracy–and using Westeros as an example of how democracies are always bad. It isn’t a democracy. This isn’t capitalism. This is ridiculous.

Really, I expected better of Jamie Mathieson and of Steven Moffat, and I resent how they made the Doctor–the smartest man in the universe–incapable of making a distinction that should be obvious to anyone who’s had even half an economics lesson.

This episode gets one angry frown emoji out of go fuck yourself.

😡/Go Fuck Yourself.

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