Long term readers will recall my pathetic attempts to predict what’s going to happen in Doctor Who. Previously, I’ve expected David Tennant to become a power mad despot and Missy to be Romana. So far, so wildly inaccurate. But there was some mild excitement earlier in the year, when something I suggested in a post about, of all things, The Doctor’s Daughter, came to pass during series 10. On that occasion I said:
What else might have a chance of disrupting the Doctor’s world? Could, for instance, he incur a disability of some kind? What would, for instance, a blind Doctor be like for a couple of stories, or even a series?
Now, thanks be to Moff, we know. In mid season thriller Oxygen, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is blinded and stays that way through the next two episodes. He does it saving companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) from suffocation in deep space and there’s no quick and easy reset switch for this problem.
Although there is a workaround. In Extremis, the Doctor learns to rely on his sonic sunglasses, which give him an onscreen readout piped straight into his brain. It’s only a partial fix; he still needs confidante Nardole (Matt Lucas) to give voice to self-knowing lines like, “oh look, it’s a mysterious light, shining round a corner, approximately ten feet away.” So really, I should have guessed what would happen to the show with a blind Doctor; the dialogue suddenly sounds like Big Finish.
It also means certain scenarios have to be meticulously constructed. Consider the tricksy climax to The Pyramid at the End of the World. The Doctor has concocted a way of destroying a deadly virus by blowing up the room it’s encased in. Problem is, he’s trapped on the wrong side of a locked door. He knows the combination to the lock, but he can’t see it. Time is running out and he’s helpless.
To make this situation work, though, there has to be a very particular number pad attached to this lock. It has to have no raised numbers or braille which the Doctor could feel. It can’t be electronic, which could register on the sonic sunglasses. It has to run horizontally across; if it was a standard 4×3 pad the Doctor could deduce the placement of the numbers. And it has to be out of view of the Doctor’s new friend Erica, so he can’t be guided to the answer.
So I don’t know about the Doctor’sblindnesss bring to the series that element of disruption. But it certainly meant a lot of contrivance.
But hey, don’t let me be churlish about this. I think it’s still a welcome and innovative development for the series. And as I’ve said before, finding new things for the show to do is hard. But it would have been nice is the Doctor’s blindness was presented as something more than a constant obstacle to be overcome. What did the Doctor learn from the experience? Was their any upside at all? Wouldn’t it have been great if the Doctor could have defeated the mummified Monks using some skill or insight he gained from being blind?
Anyway, none of this is being very fair to Oxygen, a taut and nervy episode about the fragility of human life in space. It owes a considerable debt to Gravity, the 2014 blockbuster in which Sandra Bullock persevered through an increasingly unlikely but nonetheless nerve wracking series of misadventures in space. In its original conception, Oxygen was to be about the Doctor and co jumping from spaceship to spaceship, which is exactly what happens in Gravity, where Bullock’s character strives to survive an orbital calamity and get back to Earth.
Both take their starting points from how inimical space is to human survival, to jolt us out of our usual unthinking acceptance of other sci-fi conveniences like artificial gravity, omnipresent oxygen, consistent atmospheric pressure, lack of radiation and doors that go shuck shuck. It’s nice to be reminded of all these cosmic realities, but give us a few episodes and we’ve forgotten the lot; compare this careful approach to realism with the giant magical layer cake which is the spaceship in World Enough and Time.
Even though it’s temporary, Oxygen’s concern that everything outside our biosphere’s ready to kill us is a good starting point for a story that races from one predicament to the next with barely time to draw precious breath. Along the way, it will, ahem, breathlessly tell a story about an unseen, unfeeling corporate entity, killing a space station’s crew as an efficiency measure. Cue one of Doctor Who’s long standing tropes, big business as the baddy. Oxygen’s ruthless but nameless “Company” could be the same one as featured in The Sun Makers or Terminus. There are no distinguishing features; its placement of profit over people is enough for us to recognise the stereotype.
In the Company’s modus operandi, you can see the reflection of a couple of contemporary concerns: that we’ll all lose our jobs as robots take over (look, for instance, at that scene of the occupant-free suit moving boxes around, without care nor paycheque) and AI will outwit us all in the end (sinister satnav gets another run). But the added sting in this tale is that the company’s ruthless commercialism is constantly apparent. Not just that it sells oxygen, the very stuff of life, in an environment where you can’t do without it. But also because it knows the marginal cost of maintaining the life of one crew member is more than that of murdering them. The most heinous of sums. That’s far more frightening than a troupe of dead men walking in animated suits.
Still, it makes the Doctor’s solution to the problem very neat. He just has to change one of the factors in that sum, and make it more expensive to kill the humans than keep them alive. It’s elegant, and rather heartbreaking when in response, the corpse-carrying suits hand over their remaining oxygen to the survivors. It’s an ending which works so well thematically, it’s hard to forgive the terrible cheat of pretending to kill Bill. Just keep her alive and leave her with the Doctor and co, racing against time, zombies breathing down their necks… that’s enough to make us hold our breaths.
Now weirdly enough, I’m on a roll with this prediction lark. Along with the Doctor’s blindness I also managed to predict a Capaldi/Bradley mash up. Unbelievable! I see no reason to stop now, but I’ll stick to some safer ground. So hear are some not-so-bold predictions. In Doctor Who, capitalism will always be bad. Monsters will always stomp. Crew members will always be forgettable cannon fodder. And bringing scares to the small screen will remain Doctor Who’s lifeblood, as essential as oxygen.
LINK TO The Tomb of the Cybermen. Mechanical bad guys.
NEXT TIME: I’m not spending all afternoon exploring a Cro-Magnon cave with some octogenarian from Miami Beach. Instead I’m spending it on a Planet of Fire.