Doctor Who #1002: Kerblam!

"Work gives us purpose, right?" "Some work, maybe."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Nov.17 2018.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor's gang infiltrates Far Future Amazon.

REVIEW: Having all the makings of a Russell T Davies episode, Kerblam! shows us a future that's really the present, through a satirical 2000 A.D. comics vibe. But it's also a Doc13 story in that it feels politically relevant in a way something like Gridlock does not. There is no doubt that Kerblam! is the future of Amazon, with its millions of products, drone deliveries, and poor treatment of its workers. What it has to SAY about the multinational company is confused however, and therein lies the episode's problems. As presented, the company is benignly evil. Workers are monitored and can't even hold a conversation before being happily told to carry on by robotic "team-mates". They are also told they should feel privileged for having these tedious jobs - and they believe it - jobs that seem pretty pointless, as it could all be automated, and only laws supporting a kind of human tokenism force companies to even hire people. Only 10% of the workforce is "organic", which sometimes gets confused with 10% of the population of the galaxy being employed (galaxies are pretty big, so this in itself is nonsense), and in our heads, it's supposed to be akin to people not getting a proper minimum wage, or full hours. Poverty seems to be an important factor out there, and yet, the Kerblam! economy is evidently booming (pun not intended, but if the explosive expression fits). The Doctor doesn't know how the company works initially and is really happy to see the fez she never ordered come in the mail (which makes her better than our woke asses knowing what WE do and still compulsively pushing order buttons), but you'd be right to think that once she does, she'll call out some corporate types on it and help start a revolution.

Except that's not really what happens, is it? It all starts to go wrong in the last 10 minutes. The corporate types aren't the bad guys, which is a fine twist (we just had a bad CEO in Arachnids in the UK). Despite the robots carrying out some murders, the System isn't the bad guy because it asked the Doctor for help (but put a pin in that). No, a young and up til then very sympathetic cleaner called Charlie has been weaponizing bubble wrap (it's a very Doctor Who idea, I approve... after all, bubble wrap's been dangerous since it was used to create Wyrnn maggots) and plans to kill thousands of parcel recipients so they lose confidence in Kerblam! and do away with automation entire. I guess. Here's the problem (or one of them): The Doctor defends the System with a "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument (in the same episode where she says some of her best friends are robots - replace robots with any minority and get what I'm saying), as if she really really doesn't want her deliveries to be late. I don't think I'd have that much of a problem if Charlie didn't explicitly talk about his "generation" being the one who would change things, because it sounds like the show is criticizing Millennials and saying their Occupy movements, etc. are stupid (lot of talk of percentages too, if you know what I mean). I'm not siding with a murderer, mind you, but even of the Doctor specifically says he's not an activist, it still sounds like an attack on activism. Leave my beloved company and the lame economy it props up alone, you're a threat to a society. In the end, the Doctor blows the crap out of the warehouse to destroy as much of the bubble wrap as possible, and Charlie is liquidated (a bad joke in the RTD mold), looking scared and confused. It doesn't seem fair, and I don't feel good about the Doctor doing things this way as the episode doesn't sell the need for urgency once the carriers have delivered the parcels to themselves. Feel-good moment with the HR people in the garden, incoming. This may be the most accidentally right-leaning Doctor Who story in history, and yes, I know I get my Doctor Who DVDs through Amazon.

And the fact of the matter is, the System WAS a threat. It is AMORAL. It only cares about productivity and profit and its own survival. That's why it hounds workers with random monitoring. That's why it hires the smallest possible human work force. And that's why it killed poor Kira, as positive a guest character as we're ever likely to meet in Doctor Who. In another world, she would have become a companion (no family? dead giveaway) and she dies horribly to teach Charlie a lesson. The episode makes us care about her, and about the possibility of Charlie's crush leading to a sweet relationship. So much so, that we resent her death and his evil turn. And it's wrong of the Doctor to imply her death was justified, as if the System was actually trying to save all those lives. No. It was trying to keep itself alive. If all deliveries were turned into bombs, Kerblam! would be shut down, and it would cease to be. And the Doctor doesn't see it. The SCRIPT, I should say, doesn't see it. What's really missing is the top layer. At most, we see some middle management people who, in the grand scheme of things, aren't much higher than the blue collar workers. And the System itself, including its robot avatars, is also a tool of some faceless corporation that set the System up. But the real villain isn't addressed. We sort of have to take it on faith than Judy and Slade will turn things around, at least locally. I don't buy it any more than the contrived last scare with the bubble wrap in the TARDIS (guess what, Ryan already burst some bubbles in the opening scene).

And it's really too bad because until Kira's death, I was really liking it. Ryan had to deal with being back in his old job. Yaz was showing some of the police work she hoped her bosses would give her - detective work, running towards danger, and even in the last ten minutes, grabbing Charlie in a hold and wanting to go and tell her co-worker's family about his death. Graham, saddled with the Doctor's cleaning duties (hey she got experience in a previous life, and I've liked the idea of the Doctor as someone who takes care of other people's messes on a cosmic scale since The Caretaker), gets some great moments of comedy throughout. I love a lot of what the Doctor is doing in this too. How she stands up for Kira to Slade. How she pulls some Venusian Aikido on him. How disappointed she is that employees can't ride the conveyor belt (others do, but she never does). How she uses language to convince "Twirly" to "deliver" information she needs. And her "aww" at the awkward love between Kira and Charlie. Easily my favorite moment of the episode. Oh well.

REWATCHABILITY: Came close to Medium-High - I was liking it a lot better than I thought I would based on the trailer, and then it sent out confused morals in the last act and lost the plot.


Anonymous said...

"because it sounds like the show is criticizing Millennials and saying their Occupy movements, etc. are stupid"

Well protest movements ARE stupid, compared to voting anyway. I know you don't want your blog to descend into political fights, so I won't say anything about the actual goals of the Occupy movement (other than I support their overall goals, notoriously vague as they were); but protesting is the second-to-last resort of people working outside the system (the last resort is the one Charlie took), whereas participating in the system via voting might actually accomplish some positive change.

There is a lot this episode could have said about automation and jobs. I do like that the two humans in this, who seemed like they could be bad guys, were doing their best in a bad situation -- and I notice that whatshername is going to push for human majority workforce in Kerblam, which seems like a statement of intent to do better. I'm not sure I would have bought a "everything gets fixed" ending. This ain't Peladon, where you just need Sarah Jane Smith to tell the princess to be more assertive and order people to do good things.

Credit also to that nefarious manager type with his file cabinets: the fact that he was doing things in old-timey fashion made no sense at first, but then they explained it, and then OF COURSE it made perfect sense. I love it when writers do that to me.

About the message on the packing slip, my particular guess was that there was genuine sentience developing in the Kerblam computers (like happened a millionty times on TNG), but I called that wrong. That said, I am willing to accept the explanation that the Kerblam system was programmed to not hurt humans, and so calling for help was essentially a move rooted in good customer service. There is always the possibility of selfish motives, but then again see very single discussion of human motivations.

The dialogue in the opening bit was the most delightful part. "It's the Kerblam man!" "What?" "You know, the man from Kerblam!" "Now you're just making noises!"

So, why was the package so late? Allow me to float a possibility via a counter-question: how do you define "late" if your delivery target moves not only in space but in time? I would not be surprised if Matt Smith ordered a fez when he was last in this particular time, then jaunted off, and the package could only be delivered when the TARDIS was next in this time. Kerblam processing time: 5 minutes. Doctor processing time: around 4 billion years.

Finally, about the bubble wrap: I bet they include bubble wrap in every order not because it's necessary, but because people love it so damn much. In ten thousand years, people will still love chocolate, and they will still love bubble wrap too. Probably even color it red and sell it as "Tension Sheets" like Thickie Holden.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I was happy to see Lee Mack:

See David Mitchell there, interrogating Lee Mack? He was one of the robots on "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship".

snell said...

I think it's pretty clear that The System purposely assigned The Doctor to maintenance because that would have put her in close contact with Charlie, who was the threat. Put the cure right next to the disease, as it were. Sadly, the Doctor's "cleverness" at switching switching jobs with Graham actually made it harder for her to get to the heart of the matter.

And yes, expecting us to feel sympathy for the system after it kills Kira is perhaps the most tone-deaf moment on this show in a long time...

Siskoid said...

Occupy was haphazardly organized, it's true, but as someone who worked IN activism for a long time and still considers himself an activist, I don't think what you're saying is true. Voting is only ONE element of democracy. The problem with voting as the be-all and end-all is that most people's votes aren't INFORMED. It's why we have so many people voting against their interests, sticking to their "color" or parent's color, and so on.

Activism puts issues in the public eye, creates awareness, and is an important tool for telling our elected what's important DURING their term in office. Activism isn't just about protests in the streets either, there's also a lot of lobbying going on behind the scenes as well (something vaguely represented by Judy in this).

I agree that you can't protest and then not vote, but without any kind of activism, how we do we even know what to vote for? Cuz the political class sure isn't going to tell us if it can help it.

Siskoid said...

Snell: Ooooh, that's a great point!

Anonymous said...

Yeah sure, the writer could have gone harder on the whole multinational mail order phenomena i.e. zero hour contacts et al, but considering the general viewership likes turning the other way on the ethics of such multinationals when they want something cheap, why should they resort to such didactic denunciations to assuage viewers linger guilt. Besides, without the twist it would have been a very pedestrian episode. As for villain reveal, I think they went to great pains in the dialogue to state the Doctor was criticizing the use of violence to achieve activist aims rather than necessarily the general activist phenomena.

Siskoid said...

I'm less critical of the twist as a plot point than I am about how it was sold. To me, it feels like the episode is saying something, and then because of [PLOT], it backtracks, gets lost, chickens out, contradicts itself, and we end up with a confused message.

I certainly don't think the general viewership shouldn't be confronted with its own sins. That's how you provoke reflection and change minds. As a piece of activism (which satire certainly is), it stumbles at the finish line. "Well, we don't really want to provoke discussion on this topic after all, it could affect sales/streaming fees."

I'd much rather we be having a discussion about multinationals and rampant consumerism than whether or not the episode is well-conceived.

Siskoid said...

On that last sentence, I don't mean we should change the subject. I mean that as a whole, the episode should have provoked a discussion about its subject matter, not its own plot mechanics.

Anonymous said...

First Anonymous again:

"I agree that you can't protest and then not vote, but without any kind of activism, how we do we even know what to vote for? Cuz the political class sure isn't going to tell us if it can help it."

I can agree with this.

What chapped my ass when you mentioned Occupy is, they DIDN'T vote in the US. Indeed, much of the Occupy movement considered actual political action to be a betrayal of their cause. When OWS I was kind of proud of them for at least standing up -- if belatedly, they would have done a lot more good Occupying voting booths in 2010 than Zucotti Square in 2011 -- but then the little knuckleheads went on to keep demonizing Democrats in the US and supporting whoever was most hostile to the Democrats. Here's my political crush Barney Frank on OWS:

Siskoid said...

Yes, working in activism, you meet all sorts. There are those going too far, those who are too impatient to properly plan actions (like rejecting the premise of government, which doesn't get you anywhere), those who see only one facet and fail because there's a lot more to think about. Relating this back to Rosa, the civil rights cause was much more than picketing or marches, it was speeches, it was political outreach, it was communications.

Though Occupy may be a bad example on some levels, it cannot be denied that the 1% vs 99% image it pushed, and the issues it wanted to expose, are now part of the collective consciousness. So it did SOMEthing, but again, if you want change NOW, you're not going to get it, not even through the next election. The wheel turns slowly. When I was working in university student advocacy, it was a hard pill to swallow for student unions that change would only really come when their generation came to power, with minds already tuned to the problems we were trying to solve. By focusing on much on backroom politics and media awareness in addition to organized protest, we got a lot more done than the activists of the "old days" they admired, whose actions were at times spectacular and made for good stories, but in the final analysis, got absolutely no results. At least not until 15 years later when the issues they put forward suddenly had traction with authorities... because those authorities were those very students all grown up. You see what I'm saying.

Anonymous said...

"Though Occupy may be a bad example on some levels, it cannot be denied that the 1% vs 99% image it pushed, and the issues it wanted to expose, are now part of the collective consciousness. So it did SOMEthing"

Absolutely agreed about this; they did change the political discussion significantly.

Sadly, too many of them then turned around and started attacking every liberal who wasn't Bernie Sanders. And -- wrenching this back to discussing "Doctor Who" -- the HR lady was completely on board with changing things for the better. I would bet Charlie never even considered talking to her (during breaks of course).

Toby'c said...

The episode's writer Pete McTighe used to work on Neighbours in the late 2000s-early 2010s, and on the strength of a few of his episodes I really would have expected better of him than this.

Very much agreed on Kira's death, and what particularly annoys me about it is that the system could have got the same result by bluffing Charlie with a completely harmless bit of bubblewrap.

One thing I did love was the Doctor's line about meeting a bloke named Roger Wilco. So Space Quest is in the Doctor Who universe?

Siskoid said...

I thought the joke was about the procedure words for radiotelephone communication, meaning "received and will comply".

Toby'c said...

That too, but the Space Quest games made the same joke with their main character, and it amuses me to wonder if the Doctor's line was an intentional reference. And I know at least one of the games referenced the show, with a Dalek making a cameo.


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