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Doctor Who: Kerblam! (Review)

Watching Kerblam! makes for a very strange sensation.

As with the earlier stretch of the eleventh season, there is a sense that Chris Chibnall is consciously harking back to the era overseen by Russell T. Davies. This explains the opening present-future-past triptych of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, The Ghost Monument and Rosa. It also accounts for the positioning of Arachnids in the U.K. as an opportunity to spend time in the contemporary United Kingdom for the twin purposes of character development and broad political commentary.

A clean record.

Kerblam! is the kind of futuristic story that Davies would frequently tell early in his own seasons, like New Earth, Gridlock or Planet of the Ood. It might also be reflected in episodes like The Long Game or Midnight. Interestingly, the episode is populated with the sort of politically-coded iconography that defined those stories, iconography that had largely been stripped out of The Ghost Monument in favour of some broad asides about how late-stage capitalism is a destructive rat race without any real depth to them.

Kerblam! is very overtly a story about hypercapitalism, with the eponymous company obviously standing in for Amazon. This is much more overtly political than any subtext that could be read into the season’s other “future” stories like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum. Following on from episodes like Arachnids in the U.K. and Demons of the Punjab, it seems like Kerblam! might be positioned as bit of biting social commentary, using the broadly drawn science-fiction future in the same way as even Moffat era tales like The Beast Below, Smile or Oxygen.

Doesn’t scan.

On a purely surface level, Kerblam! looks like it might engage with the legacy of the Davies era as more than just a production aesthetic, understanding the potential to use a cartoonish and exaggerated science-fiction framework to slip in some genuinely provocative social commentary for family consumption. One of the great ironies of the Chibnall era has been the narrative that it is “too PC!”, despite the fact that it has actually been surprisingly moderate in its political ambitions. The surface level design of Kerblam! looks like a breath of fresh air in that context.

Unfortunately, the episode takes a number of very sharp swerves and veers crazily off course, featuring the surreal assumption that “the systems aren’t the problem.”

Difficulty Fezzing up to reality.

Kerblam! gestures at a number of very real social problems. “The end of work” is one potential crisis looming within the lives of many of the people watching Kerblam!, a moment in the future when automation will develop to such an extent that the number of jobs required (particularly in manual labour) will fall dramatically; when trucks can drive themselves and when drones can deliver pizza, there will be many people who will watch their livelihoods evaporate. While there is some debate about exactly how near this future might be, its outline is beginning to emerge.

What do people do when there is no work? How do they survive? This is not merely an economic question, although there is that facet to the potential crisis. Will the state provide for these unemployed people? Will corporations be forced to reallocate their profits in order to provide a sustainable future for the people who would otherwise need those jobs in order to provide for them and their families? Is the social welfare net in the United States (and beyond) strong enough to support the weight that will be placed upon it?

However, there is a deeper philosophical and sociological aspect to this question. Even if their material needs are met, what happens to people who work in fields where they are surplus to requirement? What do these people do with their time? What do they do with that aspect of identity that is so tied up in the work that they performer? If a person is a “trucker” or a “delivery person”, what happens when that is taken away from them? There is a very strong social pull towards the idea that an individual’s self-worth is tied up in the labour that they perform, even beyond material survival.

This social challenge can arguably be seen in professions that are affected by forces other than automation. In the United States, coal mining and steel manufacturing have been affected by factors beyond mere mechanics; in the short terms, those workers blame environmental regulations or foreign trade for their misfortune. While the economic needs of these communities are not being met, there is evidence that members of these communities do not want training or other opportunities. They do not want “handouts” or “social security.” They want to do the job that they have done for their entire lives.

Going postal.

This is an absolutely massive challenge facing contemporary society, to the point that it has taken four paragraphs to outline even the most basic contours of the argument. There are so many more details to iron out, around issues like the role of government and the moral responsibilities of corporations, the ethics of consumerism and the impact of these changes on larger society. This is a big idea. In its own way, it is heartening to see Kerblam! trying to grapple with the concept in a way that reflects the modern era.

Sadly, the way in which Kerblam! approaches the concept is underwhelming and ill-judged. It is broad and clumsy, without any real understanding of the underlying mechanics at play and any desire to engage with the bigger ideas at the heart of the premise. There are two big problems with Kerblam! The most obvious problem is a simple storytelling choice, with writer Pete McTighe more interested in sharp left turns and dramatic subversions of familiar clichés than with actually engaging with big ideas. The other problem is the larger political context of the Chibnall era.

To take the first issue, it is very clear that writer Pete McTighe loves the very idea of writing for Doctor Who. The script is having an absolute blast, thrilling at the idea of playing with these familiar toys. Although early episodes of the season like Rosa have been stuffed with quiet continuity references, Kerblam! riffs overtly and affectionately on continuity with the Davies and Moffat eras. These are not obvious references. The delivery that starts the episode is a reference to a quick joke in The Big Bang. The Doctor references The Unicorn and the Wasp.

However, perhaps the most obvious indicator of McTighe’s fandom is the fact that Kerblam! hinges on what amounts to an in-joke about murderous bubble-wrap. Kerblam! finds a way to make bubble-wrap scary. On the surface, this is part of the rich tradition of Doctor Who making ordinary things scary, like mannequins in Spearhead from Space or statues in Blink. However, it is also a very knowing inside joke to some of the more notorious special effects failures of the classic era, even affecting beloved episodes like The Ark in Space. It’s a wry, knowing joke. And it works.

“This isn’t quite a photo of my loved ones back home, but it’ll do in a pinch.”

To be fair, it is also clear that McTighe is familiar with the template and structure of Doctor Who. Some episodes of the eleventh season have struggled a little bit to balance a primary cast of four characters, the largest consistent TARDIS ensemble since the Davies era and quite close to the crew compliment for the start of the Hartnell era. Episodes like The Ghost Monument and The Tsuranga Conundrum struggled a little bit to ensure that each of the leads had something plot-relevant to do and suffered from clustering them too tightly together.

McTighe clearly knows his Doctor Who, and so understands that the best way to employ a cast of this size is to split them up, to have the characters branch off, follow different plot threads, and then reunite with more information to move the story along. Arachnids in the U.K. is probably the eleventh season episode to most effectively employ this template, but Kerblam! also uses it very effectively. The episode is able to sketch a fascinating portrayal of the moon-sized and -shaped warehouse by assigning each member of the team their own role; Graham works janitorial, Yaz visits the stacks, Ryan and the Doctor do dispatch.

This allows for the episode to cover a lot of ground very effectively and efficiently, in characterisation as well as world-building. Splitting the cast up into smaller groupings means that they have to interact with guest stars in order to move the plot along; this means that the audience gets a sense not only of the world itself, but also the people who inhabit it. Graham gets to spend a little time with Charlie, while Yaz walks the warehouse with Dan, while the Doctor and Ryan pack boxes alongside Kira. It is a solid illustration of how effectively this template can work.

Indeed, the entire structure of the episode seems consciously designed to play with the familiarity of these Doctor Who tropes. Just as Arachnids in the U.K. was playing with the “monsters and broad political commentary in the contemporary U.K.” template that Davies established with Aliens of London and World War III, and just as The Tsuranga Conundrum was doing a (slightly) modernised riff on the tried-and-tested “base under siege” formula, Kerblam! is playing with the science-fiction narrative template that carried over from Andrew Cartmel era to the Davies era.

A Kira.

Even just in terms of production design, Kerblam! evokes stories like Paradise Towers or The Happiness Patrol or Planet of the Ood. The story unfolds a vaguely familiar setting, like an apartment complex or a politically-charged environment or a factory, and just uses its futuristic settings to turn everything up to eleven. Kerblam! is quite transparently space!Amazon, which inevitably ties into the cartoonish portrayals of hypercapitalism that carry over from eighties Doctor Who and were arguably inherited from films like Alien or RoboCop.

Kerblam! is hardly subtle in evoking its inspiration, with the Doctor venturing to “the biggest retailer in this galaxy.” For the first half of the episode, Kerblam! is populated with various references to scandals involving companies like Amazon, such as the intense surveillance of the workforce and the application of horrifically inhumane measures to ensure efficiency. It is also populated with broader satirical details that point to the excesses of capitalism; “fully automated; people powered” seems like a threat of the Soylent Green variety, as does the title “Head of People.”

There is a subtle and mounting sense of dread throughout the episode. Charlie warns Graham that the staff work to deadlines. “There’s strict time guidelines on how long it takes us to get there and how long it takes to clean everything up.” When the Doctor is worried that there is a problem and threatens to report the issue to local authorities, Judy Maddox chides her, “We are the authorities. Kerblam! is its own jurisdiction.” After all this is corporation that has taken possession of an entire moon. “Kerblam! turned it into a giant warehouse.” The moon is anything but an egg.

This sense of dread mounts with the revelation that workers have gone missing. When the Doctor goes undercover, she and her companions are warned that seemingly minor infractions will carry the punishment of immediate “termination.” There is a sense in which the threat is literal. Factory worker Kira observes one of her colleagues broke the rules and “the next day, he was gone.” Of another departed comrade, she observes, “She never arrived home.”

“His contract was… terminated.”

All of this is stock science-fiction plotting and stock Doctor Who storytelling. The Beast Below was a story in which children went missing, being fed into an inhuman machine to sustain society as a whole. Oxygen presented a future where people literally worked in order survive, their work determining how much oxygen they received. Paradise Towers presented a tower block as a broad metaphor for contemporary British society, complete with cannibalism and street gangs.

As such, it is easy to see the sort of story that McTighe is setting up with Kerblam!, a tale of a system run amok. The emphasis on how much of the warehouse is automated, and how few human jobs remain, sets up a classic science-fiction allegory about the dangers of establishing inhuman systems and how easily those structures can spiral out of the control of the human beings who set them up. That isn’t a bad premise of a Doctor Who episode. It is arguably the root of a significant portion of Cyberman episodes.

To be fair to McTighe, this story is arguably common enough in science-fiction that it has become a cliché. Star Trek was produced during the sixties and was populated with stories about automation and computerisation; The Return of the Archons, The AppleI, Mudd, The Ultimate Computer, For the World is Hallow and I Have Touched the Sky. In fact “evil system” is almost a genre unto itself, perhaps finding greatest expression with films like The Terminator and The Matrix.

And so it makes sense that McTighe would tell a story that makes a very sharp left turn along the way, that sets up this familiar story of a system that has run amok and turn it on its head. There is a major reveal in Kerblam! that “the system” is not explicitly evil or insane. It is not “B.O.S.S.” from The Green Death or Guss from Mummy on the Orient Express. Instead, the system is trying to protect itself from a rogue member of the janitorial staff who is trying to dismantle it from the inside. The “help me” note that the Doctor received to spur the plot came from the system itself.

Sadly, Kerblam! doesn’t deliver.

On a narrative level, this plotting makes a certain amount of sense. It is a conscious effort to shake things up in terms of storytelling, to find a new angle on a familiar narrative template. There are relatively few Doctor Who stories wherein the Doctor has to save a large faceless corporation from a mass murdering janitor. There is a sense of novelty to Kerblam! that feels very much like an extension of McTighe’s enthusiasm for the tropes and conventions of the series. Kerblam! takes the standard logic of a story like this and turns it upside down, to keep the audience on their toes.

However, in doing so, McTighe ignores the actual meaning of stories like the ones that he is subverting. If episodes like Planet of the Ood and Paradise Towers were about problems with modern political and social systems, then inverting that basic template becomes a story about defending those political and social systems. McTighe is so excited about subverting the archetypal “horrors of capitalism are evil!” plot that he never thinks about what the opposite is. Kerblam! is effectively a story about how space!Amazon is a great idea and everything is fantastic, and the worst thing about it is that some people are not happy with it.

To be fair, McTighe seems to understand the challenges in telling this sort of story. In his own way, Charlie is another expression of a villainous archetype who recurs throughout the eleventh season. Like Mammish in Demons of the Punjab or even Krazko in Rosa, Charlie is an angry and petulant (and implicitly socially awkward) young man who channels his insecurities and frustrations into acts of grotesque violence against the people around him. In fact, Kerblam! arguably goes further than Rosa or Demons of the Punjab, making a point to emphasise Charlie’s insecurity and thwarted romantic fixation on Kira.

It is no coincidence that the eleventh season of Doctor Who has returned to that archetype, especially in the first season of the series to be headlined by a female actor. The modern is populated with insecure and listless young men who turn towards violence when the world fails to offer them what they think that they are owed. Men who shoot up colleges when women reject their advances. Men who target African-American churches because they feel left behind. Men who drive vans into crowds because they believe they deserve more than they have been given.

“Have you seen Modern Times?”
“I was thinking Attack of the Clones myself.”

It is important to call out this archetype, rather than to indulge it. The Doctor understands Charlie’s ploy, which is recognisable. It evokes any of those countless stories of young men who have turned to violence in order to draw attention to the perceived slight that they have suffered. The Doctor notes that Charlie is trying to destablise the status quo and attack public consensus. His plot is to “erode people’s trust in automation. Make people angry.” This is a tactic that is familiar to anybody who has watched these types of radicalised young men rage at the world in recent years.

The metaphor applies to the Charlie’s cause specifically. Charlie is raging against automation, and trying to assert the value of real human labour. He is doing something monstrous in his pursuit of that otherwise sympathetic ideal. This perhaps mirrors the way in which steel workers and coal miners in the American Rust Belt are willing to support the policies of a political candidate endorsed by the KKK and to make themselves complicit in brutal policies like the separation of children from parents at the border. And all for short-term protections of industries and jobs that are not sustainable in a changing world.

However, there is a disconnect here. Most obviously, Kerblam! struggles in the way that it paints Charlie as a two-dimensional villain in order to sell the twist and tries to project “the system” as the hero of the narrative in order to offer convincing counterweight. Even if the first half of the episode is just populated with cynical red herrings in order to misdirect the audience, it goes too far for the script to convincingly argue that the system is a misunderstood hero in its own story.

This is most obvious in the portrayal of working conditions. Kerblam! consistently (and correctly) portrays “the Teammates” as creepy. These always-smiling robots with ominous glowing eyes randomly eavesdrop on their co-workers, to the point that some members of staff seem genuinely nervous talking to each other in their company. They watch the staff, and make it very clear that they are watching, turning the work environment into something resembling a prison. Dan and Yaz are effectively warned not to talk to one another.

Scanning for cancer diagnosis foreshadowing…
Trace found.

This all builds towards the obvious misdirect at the climax of the episode, when the system kidnaps Kira using its robotic servants. This is obviously a big red herring, designed to convince the audience that the system is up to no good and to provide motivation for the big “conveyor belt” set piece that evokes Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Locked in a room in the basement of the complex, Kira gets a delivery. She opens it. As Charlie screams, she explodes. She is dead. In the moment, it appears that the system has committed cold-blooded murder.

However, this is all designed to build to a twist. The climax of the episode reveals that Charlie is the villain and the system is the hero. The Doctor even asserts, “It took her, knowing how you felt about her, to show you how it would feel.” The idea is that the system was trying to save lives, to prevent Charlie’s murderous intent. Except the system still murdered Kira. It did not lock her in a box and wait for the Doctor to show up. It did not send her a box with a printed message. It did not even fake her death. It did not even target Charlie itself. It killed an innocent woman to send a message. That is monstrous and horrific.

It isn’t just small plot decisions like this, as much as having a sentient moon/warehouse actively and cynically “fridge” a female character within the narrative can be described as small. It is larger issues. Consider the starting point of the episode. The Thirteenth Doctor receives a package from space!Amazon, delivering something so small and so trivial that she had forgotten that she’d ordered it. However, tucked away in the packaging, there is a note. The notes says, very simply, “Help me.”

This starting point is a familiar story, something of an urban legend for the era of globalisation. Everybody has heard variations on it. A Michigan woman finds a notes saying “help me” in underwear that she ordered from the Philippines. A woman in Arizona finds a letter from Chinese prisoners tucked away inside a purse that she bought at Walmart. A thirteen-year-old girl in the United Kingdom finds a note scrawled on her Amazon invoice begging desperately for help, describing her bosses as “evil.” It seems fair to treat Kerblam! as a story riffing on these ideas.

Coming Fez-to-Fez with reality.

Stop and think about what the various permutations of this basic story are actually saying, the fear into which they tap. These stories confront people who purchase from massive retailers with the reality of the conditions in which their luxury goods are produced. These are real people crying out for help, working in genuinely horrific conditions, most of which have actually been fairly well documented over recent decades. Most people are aware of the horrors of sweatshop production and assembly line distribution, but they choose not to know because it’s easier. The horror of the story is being confronted by that reality.

As such, there’s something incredibly cowardly in how Kerblam! chooses to build from the existential horror of confronting people with their complicity in grotesque systems of abuse. Kerblam! reduces the truly fundamental and unsettling horror at the heart of that oft-retold urban legend and reduces it to a cheap twist. More than that, it seeks to neutralise the fear into which that horror story taps. The Doctor actually investigates one of those notes, and determines that the system is absolutely fine. The audience at home can continue ordering from online retailers like Amazon. No need to worry.

Even if the warehouse itself isn’t complicit in a massive terrorist attack, the opening thirty minutes of the episode convincingly sell the idea that the system is fundamentally broken. In particular, these sequences emphasise the absurdity of work. At least, they appear to. “We’re all so grateful to have a job,” Maddox explains. “You know how hard they are to come by.” This is framed as something inherently absurd; that people have been conditioned to assume that they have to work, even in systems that can support themselves. “Real work gives us purpose.”

Repeatedly in the first half of the episode, characters state how lucky they are to be working for a mysterious corporation that randomly spies on them and occasionally makes them disappear. “At least I’m working,” Dan states. “Unlike half of the galaxy. Suppose we only have ourselves to blame. While we were busy looking at our phones, technology came and nicked our jobs.” This feels like the set-up for an obvious punchline: how screwed up is hypercapitalism that people actively do dangerous and soul-destroying work because they have been conditioned to see it as the way things are?

A poster child.

The stories of the people working at this factory are bleak and depressing, evoking the stories of the harsh working conditions and low wages of many of the people who do work in these large corporations. “I only got a present the once, but I can never forget how it felt,” Kira admits, demonstrating the poverty from which she has emerged. Dan reflects on how rarely he gets to see his kids, “Twice a year, I splurge on an economy shuttle.” These are people working in one of the most successful corporations in the universe. This should not be the ideal.

However, it is the ideal. The ending of Kerblam! is shockingly tone-deaf. One the one hand, after the Doctor spends so long admonishing Charlie for his murderous intentions and pointing out that automation is not inherently evil, the episode ends with the company deciding to roll back automation and hire more human beings to do the work that had previously been done by machines. (It also gives them a month off work, but only pays them for two weeks.) After the Doctor spent so long telling Charlie that he was wrong, the episode seems to suggest that he was entirely right.

Rather than addressing systemic issues of income inequality and exploitation, Kerblam! decides that the solution to this problem is even more depressing low-wage jobs to be worked by people barely surviving on the margins of society. Rolling back automation will not create high-skilled jobs. It will just create an environment where more people who never got birthday presents will struggle to find the time or money to visit their loved ones. These people will still exist at the economic fringe. Kerblam! does see any injustice in the lives lived by Kira and Dan. It sees nobility towards which more people should aspire.

There is something deeply patronising and condescending in all of this, the implication that impoverished working class people like Kira and Dan should be happy to remain impoverished as long as they can continue to work. They should not be afforded any opportunity to escape those circumstances or climb the social ladder. Instead, more people should be placed in these circumstances. There are no radical solutions, no engagement with the underlying issues. Kerblam! argues that those jobs that are facing redundancy in a changing would should… just stop being redundant.

That’s a (bubble) wrap.

Of course, there is also an inherent paradox in all of this. Kerblam! devotes considerable time and effort to humanising the system itself. The Doctor chastises her companions for being “robophobic”, as if acknowledging their implied personhood. (“Some of my best friends are robots,” the Doctor boasts. Somewhere, K-9 and Kamelion are smiling.) This is most obvious when dealing with Twirly, a mechanised delivery robot who is facing many of the same existential crises as those human workers whose roles have been automated. Twirly is an outdated delivery model.

Kerblam! does a much better job of giving Twirly a clever or constructive arc than it does with Dan or Kira. When the Doctor instructs Twirly to stop upselling, it laments, “Without upselling, my only purpose is delivery.” The Doctor replies, “We don’t need that either.” Twirly confesses, “The future is very confusing to my protocols.” Twirly is clearly undergoing an existential crisis similar to a human being who had been made redundant. Work can be an important part of a person’s identity, so losing that work means sacrificing part of a person’s identity. Twirly suggests that is even true of a delivery robot.

However, the Doctor finds a way to repurpose Twirly. She finds another way for Twirly to be useful. She finds a way to apply the little device’s skills in a more constructive and conducive manner. Twirly is eager to help, once it finds a problem to which it might apply its skills. What if Twirly retrieved and delivered information rather than packages? The most heartwarming moment in the episode might be the eagerness with which Twirly embraces its new purpose understanding that its previous experience is still useful. “Retrieve and deliver! I understand!” Twirly has found a new function in a confusing world. Amazing.

That is the closest that Kerblam! comes to actually addressing the challenge of dealing with the existential redundancy implied by “the end of work”, suggesting that the best thing that can be done for those people facing redundancy in the face of technological advances is to find new and constructive ways to apply their skills in a meaningful manner. It does not matter whether the redundant party is a person or an adorable robot with a crisis of identity. It is possible to face (and even surmount) these challenges with dignity and in a life-affirming manner.

Return of the Mack.

Unfortunately, Kerbalm! seems to miss its own moment of epiphany. Having spent so long telling the audience that robots are equivalent to people, that the system is actually good, and that Charlie is monstrous for trying to roll back progress, the episode scraps all of that for a trite happy ending. The company will reject automation and robotics. It will fill all of its jobs with people. So what happens to all of the robots? What happens to the system? Will it be shut down? Does it have any autonomy or any individual rights? These are real questions, but Kerblam! ignores them.

After all, despite the Doctor’s adamant defense of robots and the episode’s development of Twirly the delivery bot as an individual with a distinct identity, the episode climaxes with what can only be described as mass murder of these robots by the Doctor. It is a very strange scene, particularly given how much attention is paid early in the episode to insisting that the robots are not inherently evil and are capable of achieving personhood on their own terms. However, there’s more to the climax than that.

The Doctor inevitably defeats Charlie’s plan by preventing the explosive bubble wrap from ever reaching its targets. However, she does so in a decidedly convoluted manner, ordering the robots to to “deliver to themselves” and then to “open the order they’ve just delivered to themselves, making sure they do what everybody does with bubble wrap.” This is a very cinematic and dramatic way to resolve the dangling plot threads, providing a literal explosion to close out the episode. The only issue is that it makes no sense.

Why not change the delivery address to the inside of a sun? Or a large empty space? If the Doctor has to have the robotic delivery men deliver to themselves, why go to the bother of having them pop the bubblewrap? Why not just have them remain stationary until the character can come up with a way to safely disarm these explosives? Again, McTighe is doing something because it creates drama rather than because it makes sense. Having the robots pop the bubble wrap allows for the tension when Charlie is hiding amongst them, providing the sort of karmic death that the Doctor is most likely to tolerate.

Delivering justice.

There are lots of these little plot holes and inconsistencies in the episode, reflecting the sense in which McTighe effectively reverse-engineered the episode from its big moments and central twists. The reveal that Charlie is the villain is a legitimately effective twist in terms of surprising the audience. However, it is so effective because it makes no sense. It does not fit with anything that the audience has seen, and even flatly contradicts several earlier developments. If Charlie can get to the centre of the moon so easily, why take the conveyors to rescue Kira? If Charlie is an evil mastermind, why help Graham steal a map? It’s clumsy.

However, this all gets back to the way in which Kerblam! reflects the bigger problems with the Chibnall era as a whole. Repeatedly, Chibnall has focused on the idea of the Doctor as something equivalent to a police woman; indeed, this might explain her incredibly strong affection for Yaz in both Arachnids in the U.K. and Demons of the Punjab. It is a literal abstraction from the police box in which the Doctor travels, and extension of her boast about “sorting out fair play across the universe” in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

The Thirteenth Doctor seems defined by her deference towards and respect for systems. Her insistence on leaving history exactly as she found it in Demons of the Punjab and her willingness to participate in systems of oppression in Rosa. The implication that she is offended by the way in which Tim Shaw “cheated” in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, suggesting that she might be perfectly fine with the Stenza targetting innocent people if they followed their own rules. Her unwillingness to topple Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K.

Kerblam! builds on this, and presents the Doctor as a champion of systems. She is introduced very excited about the delivery from “the Kerblam! man”, which seems strange given how the Tenth Doctor chided Donna for the sweatshop labour that made her clothes in Planet of the Ood. It seems like the Doctor should be slightly more skeptical of this sort of company or set-up, that this operation would attract her attention even if there was no immediate sense of foul play.

How does “one-day shipping” work with time travel?

However it initially appears like Kerblam! is setting up a big reversal. The Doctor’s affection for the company will allow her to be caught off-guard by systemic injustice, in the same way that many people who shop at Amazon are both delighted by the arrival of their latest order and horrified by the working conditions exposed by journalists. Kerblam! seems to be setting up the idea of exploiting the Doctor’s privilege, perhaps allowing a moment similar to the start of Planet of the Ood, when the Doctor acknowledged his own indifference to the suffering of the Ood in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit.

Kerblam! certainly works hard to establish the Doctor’s faith in the company. The Doctor seems adamant that the problems at the organisation are a result of some evil plot conducted by a rogue individual. She initially suspects Judy Maddox and Jarva Slade, warning Slade, “I never warmed to you.” In fact, it seems like a revelation once the system is revealed to be self-aware. “The system’s attacking us,” Yaz notes. The Doctor replies, “It’s like the system’s gone rogue.” Maddox insists, “Of course its gone rogue. Nobody would do any of this deliberately.”

This is all pointing towards a big twist where the Doctor learns an important lesson about the dangers of unchecked systems, and how they can strip out humanity in pursuit of profit or efficiency. However, that moment never comes. Instead, the Doctor’s initial instincts about a human trouble-maker are correct. It just turns out to be the working-class janitor rather than the upper-class management types.

This all builds to a surreal moment where the Doctor confronts Charlie and tells him – entirely seriously – that “the systems aren’t the problem; how people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” It’s not a bad argument, universally. After all democracy is a system that is relatively good, but can be cynically exploited. The election of Donald Trump and the passing of the Brexit referendum were the result of outside manipulation of the democratic system. However, the Doctor is not arguing about democracy. She is arguing about the idea of systems in general and of unchecked capitalism in particular.

The man with the Kerblam!

This is a shockingly establishment statement for a character who is largely defined as a time-travelling bohemian. The Doctor drops out of the sky and fights injustice in all its forms, even if that injustice is a system rather than an individual. To be fair, there have been individual episodes where the Doctor has failed to deliver on that promise; such as making all of mankind complicit in genocide in The Impossible Astronaut and The Day of the Moon or fetishing Ice Warrior culture in Cold War. Writers make mistakes, particularly working to deadlines and when blinded by other aspects of the story that they are telling.

However, this is not a single episode misstep. Kerblam! does not exist as an outlier in the larger context of the eleventh season. It is not a momentary stumble, a poor narrative choice made simply to facilitate this individual story being told. Instead, it is a consistent pattern of behaviour. It is an extension of the Doctor’s unwillingness to use the TARDIS to take down Ilin in The Ghost Monument, despite his calculated cruelty. It is the Doctor’s participating in systemic racism in Rosa rather than tearing the whole system down. It is the Doctor joking about Mountbatten as he tears India and Pakistan apart in Demons of the Punjab.

Perhaps Chibnall’s work on The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood were instructive in this regard. Doctor Who has not been so staunchly pro-establishment and conservative in outlook since the Pertwee era. That’s a bleak thought. While the Pertwee was massively successful for the series in material terms, it often seemed shortsighted and narrow-minded in its perspective, offering a version of the character who settled a little to readily into the trappings of privilege and who integrated far too easily into systems of authority and violence.

At least the Third Doctor had the excuse of being trapped on Earth for a long stretch of his run and having to settle down in a way that he never had before. In contrast, the Thirteenth Doctor has all of time and space available to her, and yet never seems capable of imagining things being any different than they are at the present moment. For somebody with a time machine, that’s a very blinkered view.

You might be interested in our other reviews from Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who:

6 Responses

  1. “”This all builds to a surreal moment where the Doctor confronts Charlie and tells him – entirely seriously – that “the systems aren’t the problem; how people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” ”

    Yeah, that was…….bad.

    • Spectacularly ill-judged, I think.

      • Especially considering the Doctor’s origin story. As a message, it’s both ill-judged and out-of-character for the Doctor.

        I’m also finding it amusing that (certain) individuals are saying that the new season is too “PC”. Not that the show’s ever been “The Boondocks” politically speaking, but on that scale, this era is one of the least radical the show’s ever had.

      • Yep, there’s a bizarre irony in it. One suspects that if they actually watched the show, they’d like it a great deal more than they would have enjoyed the Cartmel/Davies/Moffat years.

  2. This was one of the better episodes of this series.

    Started off as a cross between The Beast Below (Teammates remind me of the Smilers) and New Earth (message sent to the Doctor and people disappear when they go to the lower levels).

    Liked the looks of this episode. Always enjoyed the futuristic looking episodes and the idea that the bubble wrap is deadly was perfect. Everyone loves to pop bubble wrap and who would every think that it’s the weapon!?!? Wasn’t impressed that Charlie was the villain in this story. Felt a little forced in my opinion. The reason he did what he did made sense, but didn’t really care in the end.

    Liked the idea that the system was the one that sent the message for help. This is a complete 180 of anything we usually see. It’s the system that’s attacking and the people that are the victims. Was a refreshing change to see it the other way around.

    Glad to see that all the companions had a part in this story. At first, I thought that Graham was going to be put on the back burner when he was sent down to work at maintenance. Glad to see my favorite companion having an equal part as the other two.

    There were some humorous parts to this episode. The best was the high five scene on the conveyor belt.

    This was a smartly written episode with such a small cast of characters in it. Definitely a rewatchable episode from this series.

    • To be fair, the system does also murder an innocent woman to make its point, which would suggest that there is indeed something very wrong with the system.

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