Janine Rivers (@janinemrivers on Twitter) is a writer, script editor, and musician. She spends her days working in a library, and is the head-writer and editor behind her passion project, The Twelfth Doctor Adventures. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
James Blanchard (@Plastic_Jim on Twitter) is a student and political theory researcher, who spends his days hopping between old books and new Doctor Who episodes. His favourite Doctor is Matt Smith.
Audrey Armstrong (@lesbiaudrey on Twitter) is a writer and trans woman. She hasn’t written much yet, but she’s getting there. She otherwise mostly spends her time watching Doctor Who or taking walks. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
Header picture by Esterath (@finlay_hs)
“I told them I could not walk so many miles and I could not pick from low locations. I had a meeting with a safety manager and was also told: ‘It’s not what you want, it is what we decide’.” — As reported by The Guardian in May 2018; a pregnant Amazon employee’s statement to her union.
Janine: So far this series, we’ve had very few surprises. If you’d asked me to bet on the standouts of the series, even as a (former) Chibnall defender, I’d have put money on Malorie Blackman and Vinay Patel winning our hearts. If you’d asked me to guess the dud, I’d probably have said “The Ghost Monument“. So “Kerblam!” is, in many ways, something very exciting — an episode which utterly defies expectations, setting itself up as an anti-capitalist McCoy throwback and season highlight, and delivering something significantly less enjoyable than its bubble wrap.
I think there’s something impressive in quite how spectacularly this screws up. It’s not so much a lack of direction and focus (“The Ghost Monument“), nor is it a rushed production (“The Tsuranga Conundrum”). There’s at least a half-decent version of this episode which writes itself: at one point I was expecting a few malevolent robots in the basement to be infiltrating the company, which seemed bad at the time, but would have been a mercy in retrospect. No: there’s something maliciously deliberate about what’s wrong here.
James: Certainly on paper this seemed like a potential break-from-cover for the season. Initially I thought cribbing ideas from “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” shows a great instinct, and we’d get away from the earnest, often po-faced stance we’ve gotten in episodes one to six, into something funnier and more subversive. But by the end I don’t think there’s been a more bleakly conformist bit of Doctor Who.
Audrey: The way it sets up the Kerblam company as this seemingly sinister thing, only to flip it around and say, no, it’s a disgruntled worker causing all the deaths is – really there’s no way else to say it – just one of the most offensive things I think the show has ever pulled.
James: Definitely. It joins an ignominious line of Doctor Who stories that are just vile in their messaging, alongside “The Ark”, “The Dominators” and “The Mind of Evil”.
Janine: The overwhelmingly positive social media response to this story (which I’ll get back to in a bit) is a very interesting reflection of that point, Audrey. I’ve seen people heaping praise onto the “subversive” “twist” that the company was blameless, as if to say that subversion of tropes is inherently good. That’s not a line of reasoning I recall cropping up during the Moffat era, where subversion was usually condemned as being inappropriate, irrelevant, or confusing (I’m sure most of those same viewers complained when “Hell Bent” wasn’t about Gallifrey). Here, it seems that any subversion is praiseworthy, regardless of whether the trope was problematic in the first place.
James: Reading it as an exercise in form as opposed to a political statement is definitely the more charitable reading. But either way, it’s kind of a naff twist? ‘The Unabomber hijacks Amazon’ (and I think that is kinda there, Charlie does bring up technology as an evil more generally) is a good pitch on its own but it wasn’t that at all. We got no insight in Charlie’s motivations or interior life, he’s just a worker with a grudge, which is bad politics however you cut it.
Janine: I’d like to raise a couple of points, before we go on. First of all, I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge that this episode has excellent production values: all the performances are fine (Lee Mack is particularly lovable), the sets are gorgeous, and the exhilarating electronic music is the best we’ve had since “Rosa”. Even Jennifer Perrott’s directing is strong here, in a second case this series of a director’s second outing seriously outdoing their first (in this case, The Tsuranga Conundrum). I’m happy to take these facts as a given and move on to the script, so, onto my second point: I don’t think anything in this script works. I think the first forty minutes are some of the best Doctor Who you could wish for, but only if you’re expecting an entirely different ending. Once you know what it’s all setting up for, nothing is salvageable. Once you know that the “satire” is literally corporate propaganda, the whole experience of watching the episode is ruined. It’s quite possibly the single worst script of the New Series, lifted slightly (but not remotely saved) by good production values.
Audrey: On that twist, it’s especially egregious to me given the conditions the workers endure. Lee Mack’s character, Dan, only gets to see his daughter twice a year. All employees have ankle bracelets monitoring their movements. Robots tell workers to get back to work and stop socializing. Yet at the end, none of this ends up being called out, or changed.
Janine: That’s why I was so surprised, and enjoyed most of the episode the first time around — I was utterly convinced that it was just really, really biting satire. Because whilst today I’m fortunate enough to work in a genuinely friendly and laid back environment, I have in the past experienced workplaces like Kerblam, where staff members are regularly reprimanded, have their privacy invaded, and face moral compromises as a result of the job. But the reprimands are often microaggressions, or carefully-masked passive-aggressive constructive criticism (“Great conversation guys, but…”). I couldn’t even imagine that the episode would end up endorsing that sort of workplace.
Audrey: In that respect, it’s especially galling that the two executives, even the one who bullied Kira, are the only guest characters to make it out alive at the end, while every worker we follow (Charlie, Kira, Dan) is murdered.
James: Truth be told the first 40 minutes were on course to be my favourite of the series. It was genuinely hilarious, I laughed aloud several times, and I was so glad to have a humour driven episode. But then they squandered it.
Audrey: Part of the way through I was convinced it was heading towards them fighting the system. To hear then, later, “the system isn’t the problem” come out of the Doctor’s mouth was just crushing.
Janine: And I had a very similar experience with Kira, whose worldview is, with all due respect, deeply fucked up. She is, of course, a good woman with a very kind heart, but she’s deceived, alienated, and subordinated. She genuinely thinks she needs minimum-wage labour work in poor conditions in order to have a purpose in life, and the Doctor treats that as a valid philosophy. And, as with the rest of the episode, I’d expected a subversion. It’s an old trick, after all: like Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns, the good, diligent Christian girl whose temperance and servility literally kill her, who teaches Jane that sometimes you need more than just a kind heart, good characters can function to highlight the need for a stronger, angrier response to injustice. But Kira’s philosophy is indistinguishable from the episode’s philosophy, in the end. We’re meant to think she did the right thing, and in that sense, her death isn’t even framed as unjust.
Audrey: The fact that the Doctor validated her in that should probably have been a sign of things to come, alongside the union joke early on with Lee Mack’s character.
James: There’s basically two strands I want to probe with the episode, systemically, and as we know there’s nothing wrong with systems, arf arf. First is the problem with the episode: mainly that all the hideous practices of Kerblam established early, like random surveillance, get no interrogation. All blame is heaped on Charlie in the last ten minutes. The fact that Kerblam — which literally tags their workers as property — is allowed to continue with the only proviso that they hire more people to do menial rubbish is nauseating. Kira’s death is especially awful, because Charlie isn’t even responsible for her death. The system kills her because it’s…fighting back? Out of revenge? There’s no reflection on the fact that she wouldn’t even be there if she hadn’t been brainwashed into thinking packing boxes was a worthwhile activity. When the bosses say it’s a ‘privilege’ to work at Kerblam we’re meant to take that at face value. The fact that all authority is invested in Kerblam is not meant to be a cause for concern. ‘Gifts’ are of a higher value than the basic dignity of a secure livelihood. No, this episode is vile, and classist to its core.
Second is the broader problem, with the series at large. I can only really think to describe it as an editorial failure. It starts at small levels, like no one picking up on how bleeding awful ‘The Battle of Ranskor Av Kolos‘ is as a title, to medium stuff like the Kerblam employees getting two weeks’ pay despite not getting work for a month, to the big stuff, which is that so far Series 11 has cohered into exactly nothing. There’s been no conflict between the TARDIS team and all the action seems to diffuse outwards to the point no one has anything to do (ironically “Kerblam!“ is an episode with that in its favour). On top of that is a textual through-line that seems absent. Absence is certainly a theme of the series (as Samuel has been writing), but has so far amounted to nothing. So when “Kerblam!“ rocks up with an extraordinarily grim view on direct action, subjectivity and political action the milquetoast nature of the season and its neuroses about having anyone change anything stops seeming like something to be subverted and starts to look like a series that, heartbreakingly, has nothing to say. I know we have three episodes left and I’m hoping two at least are great, but having thoroughly messed up what should have been a gem, I can’t help but feel that Series 11 is careening towards failure.
Audrey: In terms of conflict between the leads, I too am frustrated that we’ve gotten all but none, especially here given Ryan is perfectly placed to potentially spar with the Doctor, himself being a warehouse worker. In many ways this should’ve been his episode, but instead once the Doctor is confronting Charlie, he’s off to the sidelines, and basically says nothing for the rest of the episode. It’s like they’re actively trying to avoid that conflict.
James: Audrey you’re really onto something there. Ryan is the person best placed to voice the concerns of a young working class person here, but is silenced. Without wanting to sound like I’m coming from somewhere I’m not, I think this is a condition of…I’ll call it ‘liberal representationism’. Naturally having a disabled, working class person of colour as a companion is a good in itself, however it’s more interested in Ryan and Yaz’s faces than their voices. What Ryan has to say, his discomforts and anxieties are sidelines to, as you say, actively try and avoid conflict among the team. It’s bizarre.
Janine: Last week, roundtable guest Mark Laherty suggested that the Doctor’s powerlessness in the face of injustice has to be a theme at this point, rather than just an unfortunate pattern. That seemed okay at the time, on the proviso that it was building up to a reversal, a subversion, a breaking point for a Doctor who just can’t stand to sit back any longer. I’m now absolutely convinced that it’s a theme, but I’m not expecting any reversal. This is, apparently, how Chibnall thinks the Doctor should be characterised: someone who works with the establishment to make trivial adjustments to working conditions and preserve established history. How Twelve must be turning in his grave.
James: It seems really untenable at the least.
Janine: At this point, how and where we diagnose the moral defect is a matter of speculation. I’d certainly suggest that it’s a matter of faith in law and order (reference unintended, though somewhat relevant) on Chibnall’s part. It’s a matter of devotion to the system (and indeed, the System), a view that laws and power structures are drawn up wisely and benevolently, and that following and respecting them will yield the best results. That’s true both of the linear Great Man narrative of history which must never be disrupted, and equally so of the power structures which govern societies and corporations. It’s embodied in the Doctor, now on the side of the establishment; and it’s embodied in Yaz, too, a copper whose worldview has remained unshaken by seeing the wider universe.
I think it’d be safe to say we’re in an era of the show which is aimed at (and almost exclusively pleasing) liberal centrists. I appreciate that ‘liberal’ is a loaded and terminologically vague term, but my point is this: the surface level liberal representationism of having a female Doctor and a diverse cast and crew has switched off right-wing viewers who accuse the show of being too PC (and frankly, good riddance); but the left-wing viewers, who actually care about political correctness, are finding the representation insufficient — because as you say, it’s more interested in faces than voices, and in preserving the status quo through mildly irritating acts of pacifism.
And I think that’s a big problem for the show, because it means that the discourse freezes — the most vocal (i.e. the most political) viewers think the show is either too PC, or not PC enough. Its ethos is pandering more to the right-wing libertarian crowd, but they’ve already rejected it on account of its diversity.
So it’s deeply unsurprising to me, at least, that the era makes its first overt blunder on the issue of classism. Because that’s the sort of blunder it can afford. Liberal consumers of media have been trained to spot sexism, racism, and anti-LGBT+ discrimination, but class is a blind spot in social justice discourse. We spend so much time talking about the cultural axis of oppression that we forget about how it intersects with economic oppression. I really shouldn’t have been surprised that Kerblam! was popular among fans, because it’s packaged and sold to consumers who are trained to at best ignore and at worst disparage (see: working-class Brexiteer stereotype) the working class.
James: A question I have for you both (because I’m unsure of the answer) is: why are these flaws showing up? I don’t want to say Chibnall just has a poor worldview because he has overseen shows with good things to say, but does he just lack a vision for the show? Or is the problem with the structure, ten standalone episodes with a bloated cast and nowhere to go?
Janine: There’s a certain amount you can pin on structural flaws, because those clearly are a problem, particularly in episodes like “The Ghost Monument“ and “The Tsuranga Conundrum“. At the same time, we’ve seen larger TARDIS teams before. Granted, the classic series had longer stories, but I never felt that “Boom Town”, “A Good Man Goes to War”, “The Angels Take Manhattan”, or “Extremis” were jeopardised by the size of the cast. I think I would, perhaps, question his worldview. He’s dealt well with isolated issues such as rape in “Broadchurch”, and even addressed (with quite some sensitivity) rape as a product of toxic masculine culture in that same series. But has he ever had to address illegitimate authority? Have his characters ever faced the choice between preserving a system or tearing it down? There were shades of corruption in his Torchwood (see “Sleeper”, “Fragments”); but now I have to wonder whether he even took those seriously (they were lampshaded, but never addressed). I’m not yet going to condemn the man, but at this stage I’m just about ready to condemn the political cowardice which has infested his storytelling.
Audrey: I’m personally not sure of what vision, if any, Chibnall has for the show, as up to now it just seems to be aimlessly wandering and not going anywhere. I’d also question how exactly the writer’s room operates, because there’s weird inconsistencies – in Arachnids for instance, the Doctor says she loves a conspiracy, in “Kerblam!” she says she doesn’t like them. And it’s not really played as the Doctor’s preferences changing on a whim, because that was a few episodes ago. Stuff like that, and the lack of conflict between the leads, just leads me to think they really don’t know where they’re going or what they’re trying to do.
James: It strikes me that the vision comes down to making the show a Netflix competitor … and that’s it.
Janine: And it’s just gutting, absolutely gutting, that they wasted “killer bubble wrap” on this episode. What a premise!
Audrey: Oh yeah. In theory, it’s a wonderful idea, for a show that’s the subject of some jokes about old monsters made of bubble wrap. But yet …
James: On that area, it seems vapid to bring up the ‘positives’ in a story that turned out so horrible, but there was quite a lot to love in front half of the story, which for me (I don’t know about you guys) made my experience of the back half only the more bitter. Twirly the Robot for instance is exactly the sort of thing I love.
Janine: As I was saying earlier, it’s all stuff that’s great as satire, but horrific played straight. It was fun the first time, but on re-watch? I couldn’t enjoy any of it.
Audrey: There was a lot to enjoy in that first two thirds or so , which makes the ending all the more jarring because it actively ruins those good parts. The conveyer belt sequence, for instance, should be a lot of fun, but it stops being that in context to the rest and their implications.
James: I’m also seriously worried that the wrong lessons may end up being taken, and instead of only one humour driven story in Series 12, we could end up with…none. Which would be a real shame.
Janine: I’ve debated this episode with a few people now, and one defence I’ve seen a lot is to skew the actual issue into a different territory. It is, so the episode’s proponents claim, not a story about class, but a story about human vs AI, and the topical issue of AI taking unskilled jobs previously held down by humans. How do we feel about that reading?
James: If it were actually that story, I’d be into it — but sadly it really isn’t. As I said before ‘Doctor Who vs. the Unabomber’ is a great pitch, and certainly a story about technology is a good hook, but…Charlie isn’t bothered by the affect on human lives technology haves, but the fact it prevents access to (excuse the expletive) what a lot of economists would call bullshit jobs.
And moreso, the actual character of the AI is kind of horrible? It murders Kira, polices everyone’s conversations, sure it has a friendly voice and poor Twirly gets anxiety, but what is the story hook in this reading?
Audrey: Even if it is, it’s muddled. Charlie is treated as wrong, and as James says also isn’t bothered by technology’s actual effect on human lives, and yet, if we’re meant to side with the Doctor when she confronts him, why do the executives say the company will become less automated? Wasn’t that Charlie’s intent?
James: Ironically, despite getting condemned for it, Charlie does actually achieve some change.
Janine: The other major issue I have with the reading is that the debate really hinges on the sort of society Kandoka is. Any writer, even a good one, is going to have a tough time arguing that liberating working-class people from the menial labour which prevents their social mobility would be a good thing. The actual worry (and it is a significant worry right now) with AI is that those people will simply lose their “bullshit jobs”, and there will be no state support when they find they’re unqualified for the jobs which are left. If there is a problem with robots taking human jobs, it’s going to be something along the lines of Kandokan society needing to implement a welfare state. But McTighe seems to think the problem is that working-class people are spiritually incomplete if they’re not spending ten hours a day on a production line, and with all due respect, that’s a pretty disgusting message.
Audrey: I think it’s pretty horrifying that, in 2018, with numerous reports of Amazon’s inhumane working practices, we have here an episode of television that has chosen to go the route of making out a similar corporation to be the good guys, and the disillusioned young person a stereotyped villain. Especially on Doctor Who, a show (and character) which has normally gone against the status quo, and stood up for the lower classes. For the Doctor to condemn a working class man, to side with the corporation that gives its workers two weeks’ pay and a month off, that still probably monitors the workers’ privacy and movements, is disgusting and not remotely in character. And yet, I fear, indicative of the direction this series could be taking, with other episodes in context.
James: “Kerblam!” does raise an interesting point of tension for me. Despite my own personal politics, I don’t feel a need for Doctor Who to be Marxist revolutionary literature or anything; it’s something born of liberal Britain, and that mostly serves it well. I’m quite happy for the Doctor to act as a kind of reverse-Platonism, her being the shadow on the wall, the unreal thing that affects change by tinkering with the edge of frame. I don’t think she needs to unite the workers of the world every episode. But “Kerblam!” …is not that. “Kerblam!“ is pointedly apologism for disgusting working practices in 21st century Britain. Regardless of exactly what’s meant by saying “the system isn’t the problem”, casting disgruntled workers as the villains in 2018, mere months after Amazon workers went on strike for a living wage, is loaded in all the worst ways. It’s stomach-churning. But I think there’s some cause for hope: even when it messes up spectacularly, Doctor Who as a show is capable of having something to say and giving voice to real conditions. And it’s capable of doing it with humour. Yes, Kerblam! deserves unequivocal condemnation for its politics, and it’s heartbreaking that we’ve taken a step backwards. But it’s good to know Doctor Who is capable of delivering a better Kerblam! than it gave us this week.
Janine: New Who has been ethically vacuous (“New Earth“), ethically confused (“The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People”), ethically iffy (“The Idiot’s Lantern“), and downright ethically problematic (“The Lie of the Land”), sometimes even all of those things at once. But never before has it been so deliberately, vindictively sure of its own disdain for the working class, or unashamed by the show’s borderline fascist endorsement of oppressive, coercive liberal institutions. Never before has it wholeheartedly sold its commitment to justice down the river just to revel in the fun of a cheap twist and a shock death.
For me, class is a sensitive issue. But it’s not a sensitive issue within the realm of mainstream social justice discourse — in fact, it was long forgotten. We’ve come on leaps and bounds in our understanding of identity politics, which is fantastic, but we’ve forgotten that ordinary people (often people of colour, often LGBT+ people, often women) are economically oppressed on a day-to-day basis, are literally worked to death by companies like Amazon and Kerblam!. Those people have a right to be angry about this story, and indeed, about its reputation. Were this an attack on another ethnic group or sexuality, its moral failings wouldn’t be a matter of “debate”. Working-class critics should have the authority to deem this the offensive trash it is, without an ensuing investigation into whether their opinions are valid or, in fact, whether they even matter.
It would be bad enough were this a rogue episode slipping through the net, but ‘Kerblam!’ is visibly and undeniably a culmination of everything the show has been building up to this year. Thirteen is now a habitual enabler of bullies and monsters with a bleak and narrow worldview. Gone are the days of overthrowing cruel regimes, leading revolutions on the behalf of the marginalised. This is sanitised Doctor Who for a sanitised audience.
The problem isn’t with the episode. The problem isn’t with one writer.
The problem is with the system.
Team Verdict: 2/10
Thanks, James and Audrey, for joining me in this less-than-optimistic discussion (next week, we’re skipping straight to an occult ritual). There’s only three weeks left, but there’s still time if you’d like to join us for a roundtable discussion! Anybody is welcome to contribute, but I’m particularly interested in hearing from minority voices, or anyone with a fresh perspective on these stories. If you think you might be interested, drop in and say hi at email@example.com. Don’t forget to tune in for Tibere’s feature on Saturday, and if you haven’t already, head this way to catch the most recent.