Here be spoilers, because I can’t do this otherwise, k?
This Doctor Who episode, Oxygen, was saying a lot but I’m not sure I fully appreciated everything beyond omg zombies in space. The tension, the fear, the slow chase and quick deaths were compelling. Meanwhile, the tech looked satisfyingly advanced while also being reassuringly grimy and industrial and workaday solid.
The most obvious episode with reminiscent space station high stakes is 42, which saw The Doctor similarly putting his physical self on the line to save everyone, plus hugs in the end. In this episode it was a new kind of vulnerability for The Doctor and it mostly worked. Beyond that there’s the rescue mission Sleep No More, which I won’t mention…more…because of the ick monsters.
If I work all day at the blue sky mine…
So, if last week’s Thin Ice was an allegory about slavery, as pointed out by fascinating analysis by Liam Hogan, then this episode puts front and centre capitalism and the commodification of the most basic of all human requirements: oxygen (not really a giveaway, if you remember the title).
Of course, the harder people exert themselves working, the deeper breaths they take, which increases the cost to the workers of the jobs they are paid to do, which in turn acts as an incentive to be less efficient as a breath/cost saving to themselves, thus undermining the entire conceit. Hence management’s solution…a better system would offer incentives for productivity no matter the cost or use of oxygen but there I go, bringing sense into this.
If the blue sky mining company won’t save me…who’s gonna save me?
Do we have any space economists out there to run numbers on this? A bit like the ‘almost people’ of the 2011’s The Rebel Flesh these employees are resources to be exploited and discarded when the numbers don’t add up. They are literally wage slave oxygen thieves. The Doctor, again, is there not only to save the day, but to upset the system under which business operates, as in Thin Ice. We really need him in free trade agreements I think, otherwise to quote (again) Midnight Oil: ‘nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground.’
As a side note, industrial workers in Doctor Who generally might be found in exotic locales, but they don’t do very well life-span wise.
But everything else…
Look, I want to say something like: interesting ideas, but um, science that sh*t, ok? If, on a space station, everything is measured in breaths, what exactly is a breath? How deep, how shallow, by whose lung capacity are averages taken? Can you be an asthmatic miner on a space station like this? And if not everyone is human, then how are breaths averaged? Do people train for work like this, like long distance swimmers or mountain climbers, to increase lung capacity? So many questions, none of them answered.
And after all of that, if suits can do the work remotely, sans bodies, why have people at all? Surely an off world mining gig could be run remotely, like they run huge Pilbara mines several thousands kilometres away in Perth, right now in Western Australia, on Earth?
If humans are needed, then aerating most of the station would be cheaper, more efficient and less prone to issues than only providing oxygen to suits, which I imagine sometimes have to come off anyway for human ablutions, and if you noticed, suit repairs? And if needed management could make them redundant from a central control a la The Satan Pit (but off world). Thus, I am deeply suspicious the writer just wanted the suits joke. To be fair, it’s a good pun, with The Doctor again delivering the survivors to head office to have words, just like in The Almost People.
I was going to be extremely critical of the fade out of consciousness cut away for Bill’s survival, because it looked like a cheap way to skip on exposition and special effects. I say was, because in the end I liked Bill’s coming to balanced with The Doctor’s sight returning. Only then did it make sense.
So, while in space, only The Doctor can hear you breathe, this was but a suspenseful place holder, as The Doctor, Bill and Nardole bide their time before confronting the inhabitant of the increasingly foreboding vault. Let’s hope it’s not a big overture, little show, to quote Xander Harris from BtVS.