So far as this reviewer is concerned, this storytelling framework (in SciFi) really began with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: the late 1960’s program practically perfected the formula of disguising elements of that era’s culture into some relatively benign story construct which could be ridiculed, satirized, or picked apart by a meaningful story. (I know some would argue that The Twilight Zone perhaps is owed greater credit, but Zone’s stories often relied more on ‘the twist ending’ to make its point whereas Trek really took on the issue “by the horns” and rode it to the big finish.) Categorically, I state that there’s nothing wrong with spinning yarns more didactic than others; I just wish writers would address these controversial subjects fairly and within the greater context of history than they typically do.
This past week’s Doctor Who titled “Oxygen” took the occasion to harp not so much on commerce as one might initially deduce; instead, the villain is eventually revealed as the all-too-predictable “corporate greed” that gets commonly mislabeled as capitalism to be the guilty culprit, but never trust a screenwriter to get it perfect of his own accord. (I don’t. Never have. Probably never will.)
Now let me say this right up front: I thought “Oxygen” was both brilliant constructed and executed. Don’t get me wrong: I disagreed with so very much of the political and ideological aspects of Jamie Mathieson’s script, but I do try to separate “message” from “narrative” for the purposes of reviewing the merits of any tale. Visually, Chasm Forge’s claustrophobia gives this hour the dark, unrelenting punch it needed to make much of the untenable believable, and the show’s three leads turn in effective, convincing performances of a trio-in-crisis doing what must be done against the odds. (Sure, I wish it could be said about the assorted guest players, too, but none of them were really given anything of substance other than some well-delivered quips.)
Sadly, that’s a kinda/sorta predictable turn for an otherwise stellar hour. Far too many movies and TV shows have already scored marks by attacking/satirizing/maligning capitalism, so much so that this episode’s central idea – crewmembers are “charged” for oxygen, hence the title – has probably been the punch line of far too many jokes worth mentioning. But where there’s an axe to grind there’s probably not a screenwriter too far behind, and “Oxygen” ends up a little short of breath in that regard.
Still, Mathieson doesn’t disappoint as a late-breaking development – one that’s not fully revealed until the tale’s closing moments – that spells certain doom for the Doctor: he hasn’t escaped his tour of the final frontier without injury, and I would imagine this is just one of the first dominoes to fall on the path to regeneration.
I understand perfectly well that Doctor Who is the product of an entertainment company housed deep within a socialist enclave, but the constant swipes at capitalism in “Oxygen” left a bad taste in my mouth. I “get” that – as socialists – not everyone agrees with the benefits of capitalism, but essentially making the most successful course of commerce in the history of mankind into the enemy works perfectly fine as a set-up: no need to keep beating your drum, BBC writers. We get it. You don’t like it. Well, it doesn’t much care for you, either.