Season 10, episode 5: Oxygen
ELLIE: Everything’s so messed up. The trivial stuff just falls away. You realise life can be so brief and so, I just want to tell you, if we do get through this, I want to have a baby! With you! And as soon as my radio’s fixed I’m going to tell you just that.
I’m tired. Not so much physically tired as emotionally, mentally, and spiritually tired. I don’t know if I am burnt out or if I am just going through a phase. But being awake…is a chore. Communicating is difficult. I just…want out. I can’t imagine it getting any better-in fact, I only see it getting worse. Life has never been peaceful or tranquil-as long as life has existed and competition for resources was a requirement of survival we have had violence and bloodshed. And while some scholars argue that numerically speaking violence and death have decreased as a result of technological, societal, and medical advances, these improvements mean very little to the millions of people throughout the world who are dying from human greed and selfishness.
At earlier points in human history one could argue that we didn’t know better. The notion that there are universal human rights that should be applicable to every person regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion is relatively new and evidently isn’t universally practiced. But in theory, most countries, including some of the most vicious dictatorships often at least give enough lip service to the notion of human rights that they take great pains to hide, deny or minimize acts of torture and injustice. I can imagine that if we were to bring someone from the late 1400s or 1500s to see the modern world they would be confused, impressed and maybe even frightened by the medical and technological advancements we have made. And perhaps they would find the large-scale discussion of human rights and democracy to be strange. Though of course once they scratch the surface they would find how for all of our talk about democracy, equality, and human rights and for our vast medical and technological resource that human cruelty continues unabated.
In this episode of Doctor Who, Bill, Nardole, and the Doctor come face to face with the outer limits of late stage capitalism. Initially, Bill is, of course, enthralled with being in space, especially when she is able to look out a window and see a section of the vast universe before her. But this awe is quickly forgotten as she, the Doctor and Nardole, become aware of the danger they are in; a danger not the result of a weird alien creature but a danger created by human greed. In this stage of capitalism everything is commodified-including the very air that those on the ship need in order to survive let alone work their jobs. That’s what unchecked greed does-it zaps the wonder of life
SUIT: Oxygen is available for personal use only, at competitive prices.
DOCTOR: It’s only in the suits. Personal use. They only have oxygen in the suits themselves.
SUIT: Any unlicensed oxygen will be automatically expelled to protect market value.
In order to survive those on the ship need to have access to air-and in this case that means they need to buy it. The notion that air-a basic human need can be commodified and sold seems not only ridiculous but cruel and raises certain questions about the morality of such a society. What is it like back on the planet where the crew comes from? Is air sold there? What happens to the poor in such a society? Do they even get to exist? They would have to, since capitalism, as practiced seems to rely on a steady stream of poor bodies that can be used and discarded at will. But while the notion that air can be sold appears ridiculous and cruel-it is of course but an extreme version of what already occurs on a daily basis. In the US for instance, medical care, housing, and food are treated as privileges not rights. Both the poor and increasingly the “middle class” are finding themselves struggling to survive. Medical bills not only devastate people economically-destroying credit and eating up any savings a person may have been able to put away-but it kills. The medicine individuals need to live often costs hundreds or thousands of dollars. In one of the most technologically advanced nation in the world, who boosts of being the “oldest democracy” people are dying because insurance companies and the multi-billion dollar health industry, to say nothing of the government, have determined that the lives of individuals are not as important as profit.
While Bill and Nardole initially want to leave and go back to the Tardis at the first hint of danger, the Doctor pushes back against such a sentiment. In this case, he doesn’t exactly lecture them on the virtues of helping others, but he provides a light rebuke. by running away and hiding from danger, knowing that there are four survivors somewhere on the ship, what would they be revealing about themselves? When as a society we allow people to die from lack of medical care, or when we demand that access to guns is more important than the lives of elementary and high school students, what are revealing about ourselves? When we turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Syria, which despite the near defeat of ISIS appears to be getting worse what are we saying about ourselves? What are we saying about humanity? When we ignore the cries of black and brown bodies demanding that we hold the state accountable for their violence, what are we saying?
DOCTOR: There was no hacking, no malfunction. The suits are doing exactly what they were designed to do. What your employers are telling them to do.
IVAN: And what would that be?
DOCTOR: Save the oxygen that you are wasting. You’ve become inefficient. You even told me. Your conveyors were down.
ABBY: So everyone had to die?
We are saying that certain lives don’t matter. When we claim that healthcare is not a “right” we are saying that we don’t give a damn about those who struggle with physical or mental disabilities. We are saying that we don’t care if people who are sick-die. We are in essence practicing a form of survival of the fittest-where only the healthiest or wealthiest survive. When we demand action after a puppy dies after being placed into an overhead bin for a three hour flight but we ridicule children and adults who demand gun control measures after every mass shooting, we are saying that a puppy’s life is worth more than that of children gunned down in school or adults slaughtered at a concert. (Not saying what happened to the puppy was correct-it should not have happened. But neither should mass shootings.) We are saying that damn it MY GUN is more important than the lives of other people. And I’m tired. I’m tired of living in a world where my life is worthless because of my lack of wealth, my skin color and sexual orientation. I’m tired of living in a world where I need to explain to people why we need to care about how state violence perpetrates non-state violence beyond issues such as “terrorism.”
DOCTOR: They’re not your rescuers. They’re your replacements. The end point of capitalism. A 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.
Towards the end of the episode the Doctor talks about a ‘good death”-which he and the others do manage to avoid-this time. But I find myself attracted to the notion of a “good” death, whatever that means. Can suicide ever be considered a “good death?” I don’t know-perhaps not-but at this point I just want to say, “fuck you” to a society that will continue to devalue life and put profit over compassion. To me, telling society, to go to hell, seems like a good death. It won’t change anything, but damn it, at least I won’t have to be so tired anymore.