By Mark Laherty
It’s an old joke in the Doctor Who fandom that every season of the revived series has that one episode we don’t talk about. Maybe it’s the one with the Absorboloff or the one where the monsters were made out of sleep-eye-dust. But, as divisive as those episodes are, none of them went to bat for Amazon. It is with some sadness that I must file my first ‘this sucked’ Who Review.
In ‘Kerblam!’, written by Pete McTighe, the Doctor and Co. receive a mysterious package. Well, no. The package is a fez. But, with the fez is a mysterious message – a call for help. Deciding to investigate, the gang travel to the package’s source: Kerblam! That’s to say, Space Amazon, which is called Kerblam! There, they find a workforce that’s 10% overworked humans and 90% creepy robots with no personality. More questions quickly arise. Is there a conspiracy? This episode, first and foremost, is a whodunnit. In a way, it’s nice to see the show back on home turf; the Doctor drops into an alien world, wanders around a bit learning about the place, uncovers some dangerous mystery, and solves it.
How does it look? A bit hit-and-miss. The branding for Kerblam! is on-point and the sets are of Series 11’s usual high standard. Segun Akinola’s score, which I was sceptical of at the start of the season, continues to prove me wrong; the ominous motif for Kerblam! is like a smartphone notification jingle. However, an action sequence set on a conveyor belt was a real failure. Not only did it include a corny Star Wars allusion worthy of Abrams himself, the special effects budget just couldn’t keep up. All you can see are actors swerving around in front of green screens. Death-defying jumps mean nothing because there’s no sense of where one thing is in relation to another. Characters run away from lasers which miss them over and over. A real clunker.
The fatal problem is when the mechanics of the mystery start to clash with the themes in unfortunate ways. This is where it gets difficult to talk about ‘Kerblam!’ without giving away the solution to the mystery. I don’t want to just say, “It’s bad, I know it seems great, but it’s terrible, don’t ask why.” But, I do have to file a review this week, so here goes.
Everything about the world-building is essentially a satire of automated delivery services. In particular, as said above, it’s a jab at Amazon. Creepy robots stamp around berating you for socialising – that reduces productivity, you know. A worker played by Lee Mack only gets to see his daughter twice a year. And so forth. It paints a grim picture of what it’s like to work for corporations like Amazon. And yet, in the end, it doesn’t follow through on these ideas. If anything, it seems to defend Amazon and the system that birthed it.
This satire, if it is a satire (never a good caveat to attach to a satire), really nails much of what’s wrong with Amazon whether it meant to or not. After all, Amazon thought it might be a neat idea to put their workers in cages. That link there, by the way, opens by saying that Amazon has “come under fire for treating warehouse workers ‘as robots.’” This Intelligencer article about Amazon’s plans to set up in New York also immediately refers to them as the city’s “robot overlords.” It seems that McTighe might have been onto something, that the popular dislike of Amazon is in tune with popular anxieties about robots, automation, and capitalism.
But, this episode’s themes and politics are muddied at best and morally bankrupt at worst. This takes on a grim aspect when it ties itself so obviously to the real-world evils of Amazon, the company that famously makes its employees piss into cups or barrels to save time on bathroom breaks and increase productivity. In that kind of situation, there’s clearly something wrong with the system. When you’re writing a story about these problems, you must be careful about where you assign the blame, what resolution you offer, and how you frame the events.
This is also a problem for the show overall. If ‘Demons of the Punjab’ helped to coalesce the season’s themes of family and loss, then ‘Kerblam!’ strengthens a more problematic pattern. The Thirteenth Doctor is shaping up to be a non-interventionist Doctor. This (arguably) made sense in ‘Rosa,’ when she was working hard to keep history on track so that the NAACP could do their thing. It also (arguably) felt right in ‘Demons of the Punjab,’ where it felt like respecting the agency of others. After all, wouldn’t it be kind of gross to whizz around in a time machine, forcing your ideology on history?
This is all well and good in some circumstances but not in others. In ‘Kerblam!’, the Doctor is presented with a problem that she essentially declines to solve. It’s a sort of thematic dyslexia. What happens conflicts with what’s being said. The liberal-tinted hopefulness clashes with the more conservative bent of what’s being dramatized. This might retroactively change your feelings about the scene in the first episode where the Doctor berates Carl for pushing the villainous Tim Shaw off a crane. Or the solution to ‘Arachnids in the UK,’ where the “humane” death trap they set up for the spiders is surely much more horrifying than simply shooting them. Or the way that she, in that same episode, lets the Trump-alike businessman walk away with no consequences. And so forth. Solving problems, apparently, is for the reckless youth and furry anarchists.
None of this is to say that Doctor Who is cancelled or anything like that. The politics of ‘Rosa’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab’ are vastly better than what’s on show here. But, it does raise concerns. How many more episodes like this are going to slip through the net? This episode is certainly one of the worst stories of the revived series and proves a worrying omen of things to come.