Oxygen

OxygenTARDISOh dear. That plot point where the Doctor turns blind. I have a real problem with storytelling based around arbitrary obstacles, like this. Because you just know the character will be blind, until the show requires him not to be again.

Anyway: Another from DWM #513.

In 1962, Aldo Novarese designed the future, and he called it Eurostile. A geometric, san-serif typeface, and a successor to the similar Microgramma (1952), it became the Doctor Who credit font from 1966 through to the end of the decade.

As the brilliant website www.typesetinthefuture.com notes, so many sci fi productions have opted for the modernist Eurostile (more often than not in its Bold Extended variant) that it’s become a more effective indicator of the world of tomorrow than any marquee effects shot. You’ll see it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Moon and Space 1999. And it’s all over Red Dwarf (NB. Matt Clark, one of the graphic artists credited on this episode also worked on the upcoming 12th series of the space sitcom).

Visually pleasing, yet almost utilitarian, it’s the right aesthetic for a workaday future, and it’s deployed liberally all the way throughout Oxygen. Yup, Jamie Mathieson’s tale is set very much in a Eurostile universe, where doors do not glide apart with a pacifying shhk-shhk, but instead part unwillingly, grinding their gears. As the Doctor’s opening remarks make clear, we’re galaxies away from the carpeting and loungewear of Star Trek. “Space, the final frontier,” he says, because sooner or later he had to. “Final, because it wants to kill us.”

This is one of the precepts of the chilly, scary, but not entirely successful adventure. Space is inimical to life. That’s encapsulated by Ellie telling Ivan, “I want to have a baby with you,” – a beautifully delivered line, by the way –  just before she’s subjected to the void. But it’s even more vivid in the scene where Bill and company are in the airlock, about to go outside, and her automated suit removes her helmet. Director Charles Palmer’s choices of shot are exemplary, a burst of close-ups and then… silence. Her breath turns to crystals in the vacuum, a visual ellipsis which communicates this dreadful pause. We see her skin become mottled and start to die. It’s almost beautiful. Then we’re back in the chaos of living, with the sound of laser bolts and footsteps (an artistic license in space, unless the thin bubble of oxygen generated by their tech is enough to communicate such things).

Since its return to TV in 2005, Doctor Who has excelled in bringing us a quasi-practical depiction of living, and more specifically, toiling among the stars. Oxygen is of apiece with that. The Chasm Forge station is foremost a workplace, a slightly loveless and clunky environment (with a lot of corridors, because this is a very corridors-y adventure). Which brings us to Mathieson’s other big concern: Capitalism. And does it feel a little like student politics, this unilateral cynicism about the making of money? “Last log entry: station declared non-profitable,” says the Doctor, prompting Nardole to wisecrack: “Yeah, your workers dying will do that for you.” It’s droll, and the show has a long history of socking it to The Man, but the truth of the matter is, we’re all here today on the back of commerce. The words I’m writing, the device I’m using to write them with, the means by which they’re delivered to you – it’s all propelled by cash flow. Sure, bad capitalists are bad, but is that capitalism per se?

I don’t know. I’m getting out of my depth now. I only did English and Film & Media Studies.  But I would have welcomed something more than the thudding money-making=evil. Nonetheless, it does gift the Doctor a peach of a line: “Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.” Amen, brother! I also concede it’s the right call to keep the real enemy off screen, because that’s an entirely accurate representation of corporate culture, where head office remotely makes the global decisions that impact upon the grunts on the frontline.

Against this backdrop, we find one of the most affecting and personal scenes the show has brought us in recent times – and that’s when the Doctor has to leave Bill behind as the corpse astronauts surge in. It’s heart-breaking. Peter Capaldi seems so hopeless and Pearl Mackie so vulnerable. Plus, has there ever been a truer expression of total fear than her final scream, “Mum!”? Sadly, the story’s closing revelation, that the Time Lord is now blind, and intent on keeping this information from his companion, feels more as if it’s from Kylie Finkler-era Neighbours. It just lacks the same kind of emotional truth as Bill’s last gasp. Maybe it’ll play out in a way that will justify this storytelling decision, but right now it seems entirely arbitrary. An obstacle thrown in, until it’s not needed again – because we all know this isn’t going to be the new status quo.

Let’s not end on this sour note. Let’s pull out, and look back on Oxygen as a whole. By my reckoning, it’s a solidly constructed story, both in physicality and plotting (the commodification of o2 is a very clever central device). It’s not going to go down as my favourite this year, but it’s solid, utilitarian Doctor Who, so it’s still a bit of a design classic.

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