Matt Brennan and Josh Jackson review Doctor Who each week in a series of letters.
Forgive the pun, but there sure is a helluva lot to unpack in “Kerblam!” This week’s Doctor Who takes on—well, seems to, at least at first—an intergalactic Amazon named Kerblam, from which the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) receives a package with the message, “HELP ME.” She and the companions pose as new workers to infiltrate the retailer’s warehouse, befriend a trio of the highly automated company’s human employees, and discover that a series of “organic workers” have suddenly gone missing.
I want to hear your thoughts, as a longtime Whovian, before I go into too much detail, but the solution to this mystery irked me so much that it marred the entire episode—which was, on every other level, the most engaging of the season’s non-historical episodes thus far. “Kerblam!” nails the emptiness of corporate jargon, and at the outset features forceful criticism of labor practices (productivity monitoring, constant surveillance, mistreatment by employers) that appear to be drawn straight from recent reporting about Amazon’s workers. It even gives Ryan (Tosin Cole) the chance to put his prior experience working for a footwear manufacturer to use. But I can’t get past the ending. What a cop out! It feels like we hit up against the limits of Doctor Who’s worldview, its optimism and kindness, its unwillingness to upset the apple cart.
Am I way off base?
I get why that ending turned you off. To me, it seemed like the desire for a narrative twist overrode any kind of meaningful criticism—despite the nice little bow they tried to put on the end with hiring more workers, offering paid leave and generally not being horrible corporate overlords anymore, which seemed disconnected from the events that preceded it. Charlie (Leo Flanagan) was right to be angry, wrong to resort to terrorism, but the system developing a conscience seemed like too little too late. The system was mostly protecting itself.
It dampened the impact of the interesting societal criticism after a week when that criticism was particularly relevant. Amazon is getting huge tax breaks from New York and Virginia to locate its new headquarters there, while the company’s valuation continues to skyrocket, making founder Jeff Bezos the wealthiest person alive. Meanwhile, political activism has helped bring change to the company, lifting its starting wage to $15/hour, while working conditions in its warehouses still leave much to be desired. A Doctor Who episode imagining a future when automation has workers fighting for dwindling jobs, while corporate owners benefit from that automation, was intriguing. Unfortunately, the ending muddied the message.
But the storytelling was gripping. The twist at the end was both surprising and heartbreaking (poor Kira!). The delivery bots felt like classic Who, and the fez was a nod back to a time when Matt Smith’s Doctor tried it out for a bit, kind of like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor tried “Laters!” and decided to stick with “Bye.” The companions all felt necessary and part of the story. There was a lot that I liked about the episode, despite the cop out at the end.
I won’t deny that the episode had its merits, and not just related to the critique of labor exploitation: “Kerblam!” is one of the more impressive feats of balance we’ve seen so far, mixing truly foreboding elements (creepy robots waiting in the dark to strike) with both sharp satire (“If you want it, Kerblam!”) and broad humor (Graham with the mop and bucket). And for a season that’s had some goofy-looking VFX, I found several of the images quite arresting—like the criss-crossing conveyor belts, with their Wall-E-esque scale, or the army of Kerblam men preparing to deliver the bombs.
I suspect the reason the ending bothered me so much is that it caused me to wonder whether the Doctor Who view of the universe is out of step with the zeitgeist. Whether or not the reason was the creative team’s desire for a last-minute twist, I found the Doctor’s own explanation of the situation rather troubling, having supposedly seen the entirety of human history and its entire future. “Kerblam’s system does have a conscience,” she says, before Kira’s murdered. Later, she adds, “The system’s not the problem. How people use and exploit the system—that’s the problem.” I don’t mean to be a pill, but this sounds dangerously close to “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” And it’s not just about Amazon, though we know, for instance, that the company developed a recruitment AI that showed bias against women: The Doctor’s words betray, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between humans and technology, or at least of the need to regulate technology because humans will use and exploit it. And in the end “Kerblam!” waves away the fact that the company wouldn’t have changed had Charlie not gotten so close to succeeding, in addition to giving the exploitative executives a pass because they were apparently “trying” to figure out what was going on the whole time. It’s all a hopeless muddle, and not in a “nuanced” or “complex” way. It’s half-baked, at best.
I’ve gone way past “amusing co-worker banter,” so I’ll hop off my high horse with a question for you: We’ve got three episodes left in the season. This is when most TV series would ratchet up the dark drama, bring back the Big Bad, put one of the leads in mortal peril. What can I expect of home-stretch Doctor Who?
Since Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan made the decision to join up with the Doctor, we’ve essentially had our heroes going on various field trips, responding to calls for help and just enjoying the benefits of being able to travel through time and space. I do expect one of the Doctor’s iconic nemeses or some new Big Bad to present some real multi-episode danger and test their true mettle.
Looking at the titles of the next three episodes, though, I don’t think we’ll see that until episodes 9 and 10, both of which were written by Jamie Childs, who also wrote the season opener and “Demons of the Punjab.” Usually, we’d get a special Christmas episode after the season ends, but the show will deliver a New Year’s Day special instead.