Well, wasn’t this a pleasant surprise? From the previews, it seemed like we were in for yet another episode set on a space station, in which some malevolent presence picks off the survivors one by one, involving lots of running down corridors and hurriedly sealing heavy doors. And sure, there was some of that too, but “Oxygen” turned out to be a deft and engaging story, with a well-realized political message and a real gut punch of an ending.
After a cold open introducing us to our monster of the week—zombies in space suits—we find the Doctor in his lecture hall explaining to his students what exactly happens to the human body when it is exposed to the vacuum of space. (Hint: Nothing fun.) This will, of course, become important later when one or more of our protagonists has to endure just such an ordeal.
But for now, the lecture catches the attention of Nanny Nardole, who suggests that the Doctor is missing travelling to space, now that he is Earthbound guarding their unnamed “friend” in the vault under the school. He’s right. The Doctor immediately decides to answer a random distress call (“my fugue,” the Doctor calls it) with Bill somewhere in the reaches of space and time, a whiny and peevish Nardole accidentally along for the ride.
They end up on a mining space station called Chasm Forge, where they fairly quickly discover several things. First, the station does not have its own oxygen supply. And this is by design: The owners of the mining concern sell oxygen to the workers, which they breathe from personal air tanks attached to the space suits they continuously wear. They live basically from paycheck to paycheck, air tank to air tank.
Secondly, the suits themselves, which are self-supporting and self-propelling machines with their own limited AIs, have killed most of the workers on the station after receiving a line of code that told them to “Deactivate your organic component.” The space zombies from the first scene turn out to be corpses that are just being carried along for the ride by the semi-sentient suits that killed them. Four crewmember survived, and they only lived because they happened to be off the network when the rogue order was received.
The Doctor assumes some sort of hack, whether for theft or sabotage, but doesn’t have a lot of time to speculate as the crises pile up. First, one of the suits animates its corpse to grab and destroy the Doctor’s sonic. Then the station’s computer realizes they’ve been breathing oxygen produced by the TARDIS, which is against the rules, as it would cut into the bosses’ oxygen profits. So the station opens an airlock, venting the air and also effectively cutting our heroes off from their transport. In order to breathe, they are forced to put on three suits conveniently in that room for repairs. But of course they’re being repaired for a reason, and Bill’s begins to malfunction—first comically, and then less so.
After a wary meeting with the four remaining members of the crew—one of whom is a blue-skinned alien, leading to some fun exchanges about interspecies racism—they do a little of the aforementioned running around through corridors. Another crewmember gets caught, so we get to see the zombification process: An infected suit simply touches his suit, thus transmitting the “deactivate” message, and the suit delivers an electric shock to shut down the man’s central nervous system and take control of the suit-body combo.
Eventually they end up trapped in an airlock, with the only exit out to space. They put on helmets to protect them against the vacuum, but Bill’s predictably glitches, and she passes out, ice crystals forming on her cheeks. And this is only the first time poor Bill basically dies in this episode.
She wakes to find that the Doctor saved her by volunteering his own helmet, but he was exposed to space for so long he’s gone blind. All very noble of him, but I couldn’t help thinking it probably should have been Nardole. Isn’t he a robot, or at least a cyborg? It seems reasonable to assume he could have survived longer in space.
Reassuring Bill he can fix his own eyes once he gets back to the TARDIS, he sits down and tries to puzzle out what he’s missing. Why would anyone want to hack the suits and kill all the people on the station? There’s nothing to steal, no real advantage to be gained.
As they get a message that a rescue ship is on its way, he figures it out: This wasn’t a hack at all. This was everything working exactly the way it was supposed to. The station’s crew had stopped being efficient—and to the mining concern, keeping them alive was no longer cost-effective (they were, after all, eating up precious oxygen). They weren’t really people to the company, just an element in an algorithm tuned to maximize profits, which in this case meant eliminating the inefficient element. (The rescue ship, of course, was no such thing; it was carrying their presumably more efficient replacements.)
It’s almost shocking how good (and how overtly Marxist) a critique of capitalism this turns out to be. We’ve known the terms of the crew’s situation from early on in the episode: They are being charged by their own company to breathe the air, making them less skilled workers than serfs. And they actually work and live inside robotic suits that move on their own, thus becoming even less than that, almost literally cogs in the machine. The message explicitly calls the human workers the suits’ “organic component.” We’ve reached the logical endpoint of Fordist capitalism.
The metaphor is already so clear that when it is made literal when the Doctor realizes that they’ve been condemned by simple capitalist math, it is less of a twist and more of a dawning understanding of what we’ve known all along.
It’s so well done that it almost makes it OK that the plot starts to falter a bit here at the end, with Bill sort of unnecessarily half-dying a second time so that the Doctor can save her again, and then the Doctor rewiring their life signs to ship’s reactor so that if they die the whole place blows up. The mining concern, its spreadsheets reshuffled to a new bottom line, realizes their deaths would now be too expensive and lets them live. The Doctor flies the two surviving crewmembers to the “head office” to register a complaint. This apparently sets in motion a chain of events that ends capitalism for good among humanity, a ludicrously broad wish-fulfillment ending for a Marxist parable.
Sadly, not all is wine and roses back on Earth. Nardole begins scolding the Doctor, saying what if you had died up there, or come back weakened? The threat that they’ve been keeping in the vault would have not had anything stopping it from…doing something bad to Earth. But the Doctor stops him—it’s worse than you think, dude. I’ve been lying to you guys about getting my sight back. That’s right: The Doctor is still stone blind. Dun-dun-dun.