“Space…the final frontier…”
This week’s episode of DOCTOR WHO opens with the Doctor quoting Star Trek – a doff of the cap to one of the classics of sci-fi, a show that portrayed a future where race is no factor and humans explore, not for the sake of profit or personal gain, but for discovery.
That utopian premise is deftly flipped on its head through the rest of the opening monologue, as we open on a dystopian future where oxygen is sold by the breath and greed has overtaken the value of human life. Written by Jamie Mathieson (my favorite writer for Doctor Who right now, who has written two of the Twelfth Doctor’s best episodes, “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline”) – this episode is properly scary. Not just creepy like last week’s – that was fear of the unknown. This episode is scary because of how close to home it hits with current political issues – following in the footsteps of both Star Trek and Classic Who, which used their medium to discuss politics.
What’s striking about this episode is how fearless it is in making its point. From the start we have to wonder, why are the space suits killing their inhabitants? Is it a glitch? Is someone behind it? Not someone, concludes the Doctor, but something – greed. In this dystopian future, where you pay for each breath you take, where you pay to stay alive – a human life is only worth anything if it’s profitable. The minute you are seen as unproductive, where you are costing more money than you make, the suit kills you. It’s no longer murder – it’s just efficiency.
Coming from an American perspective, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn here. For me, it made me think of the current healthcare bill going through our government. I know people come here for reviews, not politics, so I won’t get too deep into it, but think about it – people paying for something that really doesn’t cover much for them. But without it, they could die. Like I said, there’s a lot to think about here. And Doctor Who is one of the shows brave enough to discuss it.
There’s also commentary on the growing industry of automation. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole come across an empty space suit that’s transporting boxes back and forth:
That’s another current issue in our world – with automation on the rise, people are no longer needed for those jobs. This episode takes it a step further – if a robot can do it, what’s the point of people? People only leave room for error. So why have them? Efficiency above all. With the space suits’ artificial intelligence, it also raises the issue of everything going online nowadays. What are the risks? Why do we need people if computers can do everything? How much is a human life worth if a computer is more efficient and thus more profitable?
I’ll tell you what it leaves us with – it leaves us with a heartless world. Which is why I think the Doctor’s actions in this episode are especially poignant.
It’s really hard not to love Bill. I’ve missed this kind of companion and this kind of relationship between the companion and the Doctor. While I feel Clara ended up taking the TARDIS and all the adventures with the Doctor for granted, Bill takes in everything with wide eyes and a huge grin on her face. She wants to learn, asks all the questions, makes jokes and gets excited – which is why it’s so heartbreaking to see her so afraid in this episode.
Bill ends up out in space without a helmet, only a thin force-field of oxygen between her and the black. We see her eyes rolling back, losing consciousness, dying, FADE TO BLACK – and then she wakes up back in the space station. The Doctor gave her his helmet – and now, because of it, he’s blind.
In the coldness of space, in this place cold and devoid of compassion, the Doctor risks his own life to save Bill, knowing the cost. But cost doesn’t matter – not to the Doctor.
And that’s why, in the end, they – the Doctor, Bill, Nardole, the crew – win.
And I think that’s an important message for us all to see.
I’m not sure what this means for next week – for it was revealed that, though the Doctor was able to fix the physical appearance of his eyes, he’s still blind (and won’t tell Bill, of course – I wonder how long that ruse will last). This particular episode didn’t wrap itself up in a neat bow – the consequences will carry over into the next episode, “Extremis.” I have to wonder what the consequences of the Doctor’s blindness will be if whoever’s in that vault gets out…
Season 10, Episode 5 (S10E05)
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9PM on BBC America
Cailin is a screenwriter and an aspiring TV writer. When not writing, she’s busy convincing random passersby that Firefly was the best show ever, converting her co-workers into Whovians, and waiting for the next season of Sherlock.
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Cailin Coane | Contributor