Capitalism In Space
In space, no-one can hear you scream. And seemingly, in space no-one is around to enforce labour laws. In many a modern, Western science fiction story, space is the ultimate Wild West of unbridled capitalism. Colony worlds abound, such as those in Firefly or The Expanse — often ran by corporate governments, or plutocracies built on the exploitation of both the planet and the people on it. And, in some cases, even oxygen comes at a premium.
That is certainly the case in the Twelfth Doctor story ‘Oxygen’ (2017), perhaps the most overtly and unapologetically anti-capitalist story of the entire New Who run. The episode is mostly set on a mining station, where a mysterious force has killed off most of the crew. The station is empty and eerie to begin with, and that’s before they even start finding the corpses in space suits. Roughly around that moment, they figure out that the space station was designed to be completely free of air (or at least oxygen). Breathable air is only generated by the suits, and oxygen is to be purchased from the company that owns the space station. The rest of the episode explores this concept of oxygen capitalism further — the (AI-enabled) suits are eventually instructed to kill off the people inside them, as they are now able to complete many of the tasks that the workers were originally required to perform. Finally, The Doctor figures out that the only way to stop the suits from killing the remaining crew members and his companions is to set up an elaborate dead man’s switch — their deaths would trigger a reactor meltdown, destroying the station and all the suits inside. Since a complete destruction of the station would represent a bigger hit to the company’s bottom line than the deaths of all the crew inside, the suits cease their attacks and offer their (fuller) oxygen tanks to the living characters. At that point, The Doctor is able to get everyone, including two surviving crew members to the TARDIS, where the episode winds down. The space station crew request to be dropped off at the nameless conglomerate’s head office, where they would ‘make a complaint,’ while Nardole helps The Doctor try to restore his eyesight, damaged while he took off his helmet to save Bill’s life as hers failed during a space walk sequence.
I really enjoyed this episode the first time I saw it, and I still find it very good. While there are some minor issues (if the station was completely airless, why have an airlock with a decompression sequence? why send crew replacements to a space station where the suits have already taken over?), they may stem from ambiguities in the language used rather than being any specific plot holes. The exploration of unbridled, algorithmic capitalism in space is definitely the focus of the episode and I feel that Jamie Mathieson did it reasonably well, especially in showing a way in which the Capitalist Algorithm can be attacked in order to allow the group to escape the situation.
This sets up an interesting contrast with the story ‘Thin Ice’ in the same season. ‘Thin Ice’ also focuses on unbridled capitalism, but does so by setting the story in Regency London rather than in space. A creature lives at the bottom of River Thames, eating animals and people who fall into the river, and producing excrement which can be used as very efficient fuel. The creature has been trapped by Lord Sutcliffe, a steel baron, who uses the fuel in his mills. While already exploitative, Sutcliffe also organised a frost fair when the Thames has frozen over in 1814, for the sole purpose of luring people onto the ice and allowing the creature to pull them under the ice and eat them to eventually convert into fuel. Finally, his plan was to blow up the ice cover and get everyone on the ice eaten. Bill and The Doctor prevent this from happening, with The Doctor freeing the creature and killing Sutcliffe, along with other members of his gang in the process.
While the episode mostly focuses on the the human drama that Bill faces as The Doctor’s companion — seeing people get killed before her eyes, including directly at The Doctor’s hands — its setup of Industrial Revolution lord being a law unto himself while exploiting nature and people could not be sending a less anti-capitalist message. And to contrast Oxygen, the writer Sarah Dollard has The Doctor solve the problem through a much more revolutionary action from the outside of this system of exploitation — while in Oxygen, the system is subverted from the outside by shifting the incentives.
Of course, the characters within Thin Ice aren’t without their flaws. The adorable, Oliver Twist-like street urchin gang that ends up helping The Doctor is still a criminal enterprise, albeit one run by cute kids. One could argue that they are more of a product than an element of this society, however before meeting The Doctor they were more than happy to advertise the frost fair on Sutcliffe’s behest. If he had not showed up, the kids would likely never figure out what was happening, and help lead unwitting members of public onto the ice, then die with them as Sutcliffe’s men blow up the fair. Perhaps the most flawed character in the episode is The Doctor himself, who — unlike Sutcliffe — ends up causing the deaths of several people while claiming to be doing good. And this is not some sort of romanticised revolutionary violence against the bourgeoisie either, as one of the people killed was a working class man employed by Sutcliffe. Finally, The Doctor is a massive hypocrite in this episode — proclaiming that he ‘doesn’t have the time for outrage’ yet getting outraged at Sutcliffe’s racism towards Bill. But then, The Doctor being a pompous hypocrite is not exactly news.
Both episodes deal with the themes of profit-driven exploitation. While exploitation in general is a major theme in Season 10, capitalism specifically is at the forefront here, either selling people their own air, or outright killing people as an input to a business process. Arguably, Oxygen is to an extent a retread of themes first raised in an Eleventh Doctor story ‘The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People’ (2015) where it was noted that the Flesh duplicates of factory workers could become sentient and demand equal rights — at which point the company that owned the factory killed all the Flesh people to hush up the incident.
Capitalist exploitation has a long history. It would not be far-fetched to say that the history of capitalism is one of exploitation. Today, companies calling themselves ‘disruptors’ or claiming to advance the ‘gig economy’ routinely exploit labour law arbitrage opportunities by classifying their workers as private contractors rather than employees. Manufacturing supply chains often involve countries with poor human rights and labour law enforcement track records, where child labour is not unheard of, and some workers can only earn a sufficient wage through overtime pay. The issue seems to be especially rife in the textile and consumer electronics industries, where demand for cheap goods is very high.
The most immediate link between Oxygen and real-world history is that of truck systems used by some employers mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries (although Wal-Mart of Mexico had been paying its workers partly in Wal-Mart vouchers up until 2008). In a truck system, workers would get paid with tokens or scrip rather than actual money. The scrip would be issued by the company, and only valid for paying for goods and services provided by that company — in company accommodation or company stores. Typically, truck systems were used in remote locations, where coins were hard to get — and in times when banknotes weren’t particularly common or standardised as part of the nation’s currency. This was often the case in mining communities and logging camps, and it allowed the company to charge unreasonable rates for products without the risk of the workers going elsewhere (since the scrip was either not exchangeable for real money, or the exchange rate was fixed in favour of the company). The practice was eventually outlawed due to its frequent abuse by companies running such systems.
However, that was then, and Oxygen is set in space colonialism future, when corporations run most of space exploration and exploitation. Clearly, there is no local or galactic authority to speak of that would enforce labour laws, or the practice of selling workers their oxygen is somehow legal in this story. The union is supposedly a myth, designed to keep the workers in line. Worse yet, the space station vents any ‘unlicensed’ oxygen — to protect market value, of course (one can be forgiven for thinking that this is somewhat of a metaphor for restrictive copyright laws). This is much more exploitative than truck systems of the 19th century, and more refined in its sheer cruelty. You can’t just stop buying oxygen from the company, or make your own through electrolysis. The company presumably also provides transport on and off the station, adding another way to control the workers. The crew of this space station are basically slaves to the company, where their lives don’t matter. Only profit matters.
A similar conclusion can be reached when looking at Lord Sutcliffe’s enterprise in Thin Ice — he does not care that people would die, he only wants to keep the creature churning out fuel for his steel mills. He is willing to exploit child labour to advertise the fair, and even tries to block the exit from the fair when Bill and the street urchins stage an impromptu evacuation. To him, perhaps even the entire population of London is expendable, as long as he gets his fuel. Again, only profit matters.
Looking at those two episodes alone, one can get the idea that Doctor Who might just be anti-capitalist, however there are more examples. There’s the Twelfth Doctor story ‘Sleep No More,’ (2016) which explores a space station where a sleep compression machine started failing in a very interesting manner — all because one man had wanted to improve productivity by reducing the time workers are asleep. Great idea, but the episode was executed somewhat poorly. Then there’s ‘The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People,’ where as I mentioned previously, the Flesh is treated as disposable and the company goes as far as killing sentient Flesh people to maintain a fiction that keeping using Flesh avatars is ethical. And reaching further back, ‘The Long Game’ (2005) reveals another way in which humans are exploited for some form of gain — through keeping them misinformed and afraid, and closing down the borders. Yes, the link to capitalism here is tenuous. However, as the average private news station shows, showing scary sensationalist news does help keep people watching your channel, so you get more viewers looking at your advertising. And at a higher level, Maxarodenfoe’s motives aren’t immediately clear, but the Editor casually mentions that Satellite 5 is effectively controlled by a consortium of banks looking for a long-term investment. Additionally, Max could be using people’s brain as computing power and selling access, creating a sort of AWS of people, exploiting their unused brain capacity for profit. I doubt that Russell T Davies had this in mind when he wrote the episode, however the anti-capitalist sentiment is still present in this story.
And that basically concludes it — Doctor Who, at least in the 2005-onwards incarnation, is against unbridled, exploitative capitalism. One could even argue that it’s against capitalism in general — at least in the Marxist tradition, all capitalism is built on exploitation. However, The Doctor makes a bigger point of being against oppression in general, as seen in the Monks Trilogy, where the Monks create a world not unlike the Soviet Bloc in the 1960s. If capitalism is behind the oppressive force, The Doctor will be a communist; if it’s totalitarianism, he will become a libertarian for an episode. And yet, he will never really side with those who make profit out of people.
And that’s it for the moment. I have another post up on Doctor Who and Roko’s Basilisk if you’re interested in that kind of thing. For now, if you’ve enjoyed this post, please applaud it or leave a comment. There will be more in the future!