Doctor Who – Season 10 Episode 5
Doctor Who heads into outer space to a space station filled with corpses where oxygen is considered a valuable commodity.
This season has pretty much been defined by mysteries though as I’ve said before most Doctor Who episodes are a mystery in the beginning as there’s always a period of time before the Doctor and his companion(s) get their bearings and start to work through the situation.
I draw attention to the mystery aspect this season as it does feel that a lot of emphasis is put on the lack of understanding of the situation and I think this is a good fit because it puts the focus on the sense of discovery that makes the show exciting to watch.
The premise this week is an interesting one and there’s a lot about it that can be unpacked. It’s a complex story masquerading as a simple one which proves to be really effective as it works on a number of levels. The most basic is that the Doctor, Bill and a collection of other characters are essentially running away from Zombies. They aren’t really Zombies but on a visual level that’s what they most resemble. To look at them you see decaying, shambling corpses looking to catch up to people. The notable difference here is that the corpses are entirely incidental and it’s all down to the suits.
I loved the immediate contrast created by the existence of these suits. They are needed to survive but they are also trying to kill them so there’s an undercurrent of tension created by the fact that the thing necessary for survival could turn on them at any moment. I spent a lot of the episode on edge and most of the threat came from Bill’s suit with the apparent malfunctions being deployed at the obvious yet correct moments.
As a side note that doesn’t really feed into anything I’m talking about, was anyone else reminded of Thunderbirds when the Doctor, Nardole and Bill were getting into the suits?
Bill is more uneasy than she has previously been and it’s interesting to see. At least in previous adventures she could be pretty confident that she would have air to breathe but there’s a strong possibility that her supply could run out so she’s simply terrified. It takes the Doctor and Nardole to constantly calm her down but it doesn’t really work. Her heightened terror helps set the tone for the episode and allows the audience to appreciate just how dangerous the situation is.
There are lots of great moments throughout the episode. Bill being exposed to the vacuum of space was the definite highlight of the episode. Seeing it from her perspective as all sound disappeared except from her breathing as she faded in an out of consciousness while the Doctor took charge was really memorable and gives the audience a really visceral view of how dangerous space travel can be. This episode hammers home the idea that none of the characters are ever safe and this is the best example of that.
Another effective moment was the Doctor telling Bill that he would have to leave her behind. There was no way to move her or remove her suit so it was a difficult choice that needed to be made to benefit the larger group. Of course there was no chance of Bill being killed because her suit didn’t have enough power to kill her but as far as she was concerned her death was a very real possibility despite the Doctor’s assurance. He asks her if she trusts her which is normally a sign that he isn’t really sure what the end result will be and the panicked look on his face as he tells her everything will be fine says a lot about how sure he is.
Those were the best moments for me but there was a lot to recommend. The shot of all the corpse inhabited space suits hanging around outside the station when Nardole looked out of the window was really striking and the setting itself was impressively unsettling. Mood and atmosphere were among this episode’s strong suits and definitely helped move things along.
The suits as the antagonist this week was a really nice touch. I liked the reveal that they hadn’t malfunctioned and were only doing what they were programmed to do. It continues the loose theme of threats that have no direct malicious intent that has been in the background of the season. It’s definitely similar to “Smile” in that sense as that episode also had antagonists simply following what they were programmed to do. The major difference here is that there is a far off threat that doesn’t appear but that also has no malicious intent.
I found it interesting that the suits were programmed to get rid of their biological component due to lack of efficiency. This episode explores the negative aspects of capitalism in a big way. The organisation that runs this space station has basically decided that the human beings who work for them are no longer important so they’re more than content to let them die in order to preserve their profits. It is mentioned early on that the station is no longer profitable which means that the most expendable resource needs to be cut.
This is further explored by turning the air that people breathe into a valuable commodity. Everything they do is measured in breaths as evidenced by pointing out roughly how many breaths it takes to get to other parts of the station. Humans are basically a waste of valuable oxygen so need to be disposed of. It sounds malicious but it is strongly suggested that the well-being of the people being left to die doesn’t even cross the mind of whoever gave that order so there’s no malice involved which makes it more shocking.
In true Star Trek fashion, the Doctor manages to use the programming against the suits. He rigs the station to explode and tells the suits that their deaths will be very expensive since there will be nobody left to stop the destruction of the station. It’s a bit of a long shot but it works and the suits power down because the algorithm that dictates everything they do recognises that causing that much of a loss to the company they represent is out of the question.
I mention Star Trek because Captain Kirk managed to outwit machines by using their programming against them on more than one occasion. This wasn’t the only Star Trek reference in the episode either as the Doctor recites part of the famous “Space, the final frontier…” monologue at the beginning of the episode. It is well placed and outlines that space is very dangerous without coming across as too corny. Capaldi delivered it convincingly.
The anti-capitalist agenda in this episode is incredibly timely considering what is going on in the world right now. Thinking about Human beings in terms of how much they cost to keep alive seems to be becoming more prevalent in both the UK and the United States. In the UK the National Health Service is suffering frequent cuts to services and funding and healthcare costs in the United States is always something that is talked about. Science Fiction is at its best when it explores real world issues through a fantastical lens and this episode is a great example of that. It encourages the viewer to consider how barbaric it is to think of a Human being as a disposable commodity with a cost attached to it. After that it’s not difficult to apply that thinking to the world around us.
Capaldi gets to deliver another brief but brilliant speech that sums up the moral position of the Doctor in this situation. He says “The end point of capitalism! The bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet — like every worker everywhere! We’re fighting the suits.”. In this case the suits is both a literal and a figurative term as they are dealing with the threat of the automated suits but the real enemy is the management of the organisation who don’t value the workers. The Doctor champions the struggle of the common man and standing up for those who are victims of a system they have no control over. It echoes a similar speech in “Thin Ice” and summarises the issue in a really obvious yet powerful way.
Nardole coming along changes up the dynamic somewhat. A lot of the episode is spent on him delivering exposition and generally telling the Doctor off for shirking on the oath that he took. He is a good character and Matt Lucas plays off the other actors well but the character could have been given more to do in this episode. Other than having knowledge of the universe that matches the Doctor so being able to have conversations with him that come from a place of knowledge the episode could largely have been done without him.
I find Nardole at his most interesting when he’s berating the Doctor. He’s an artificial being like the suits so is basically doing what he is programmed to do. In this case he has been programmed to make sure the Doctor takes his oath seriously and guards the vault at all times. This particular adventure could have ended in his death and Nardole doesn’t hold back in reminding him that the occupant of the vault is dangerous. Any time the Doctor goes off exploring he puts himself in danger which puts the Earth in danger without him there to deal with the problem should the vault open.
Normally these warnings fall on deaf ears as the Doctor returns from his adventures physically unscathed but this is different as he is blinded by exposure to the vacuum of space. This is supposedly healed towards the end of the episode but the cliffhanger ending reveals that he still can’t see. I’m unsure if the damage will be permanent or not but I like the idea of the Doctor slowly becoming more injured as the season goes on until he has no choice but to regenerate. It’s believable that he would be able to work around his blindness capably so that his effectiveness isn’t reduced but his lack of sight could equally hinder him in big ways as the episodes progress. Of course it’s entirely possible that he will be healed by the end of the next episode but I’d like to see a gradual march towards regeneration with further injuries.
I thought that the blindness was handled very well especially after it was apparently healed. Peter Capaldi’s performance does indicate that he still can’t see as he never quite looks at the people talking to him and uses his hands to steady himself on the TARDIS console as he gets his bearings. It’s a very subtle thing that I didn’t pick up on until I rewatched the scene but it’s definitely there.
The episode did have a little too much going on. I found the guest characters to be largely unnecessary as there wasn’t enough time to give them a believable arc by the time the episode introduced them. It’s a shame as there were some interesting ideas to play with among them. Most notably was Bill’s accidental space racism when she is faced with the blue skinned Dahh-Ren (Peter Caulfield). Her reaction is understandable to us because we know that this is the most alien looking being she has seen -other than a Dalek- but from his perspective she’s just another racist judging him by the colour of his skin. It comes across as something of a joke because Bill has had to deal with similar prejudice in her own life so is shocked when it is assumed that she is that way. There was more that could have been done with it but the episode doesn’t have time to do anything meaningful.
We have very little in the way of Vault mystery progression which is fine as small hints each week could become tiresome. I do have something to add to it based on my thinking over the past few days. In “Last of the Time Lords” the Doctor resolves to take responsibility for the Master which means that it’s too dangerous to wander the universe looking for adventure. This is essentially what has happened here with the Doctor vowing to stay in one place to guard the vault. If the Master happens to be in there and I’m fairly sure that he or she is at this point then that would be an interesting callback to that particular episode where he almost made an oath to stay in one place to guard him. Time will tell but that’s my current theory.
Another great episode that delivers a compelling mystery and a solid threat. The anti-capitalist sentiment in the plot comes through clearly and the shambling Zombie like antagonists are effective enough. I like the idea of antagonists with no real malicious intent and the notion of preserving Human life not being cost effective is a terrifying one. The Doctor once again stands up for the common man with an impassioned and powerful speech. There are some really effective moments such as Bill’s exposure to the vacuum of space and the general atmosphere created by the dark and claustrophobic space station.
There was a little too much going on and the guest characters suffer by lacking a believable arc. The idea of Bill accidentally being space racist was an interesting one that didn’t have enough time to develop and Nardole’s presence didn’t really feel all that necessary. The cliffhanger ending was really effective and I like the idea that the Doctor could gradually sustain injuries that eventually force him to regenerate but it’s unclear if that’s what is happening here.