SCARVES AND CELERY – The System is the Problem: A Critique of “Kerblam!”

It would have been easy for Doctor Who to overthrow space Amazon.

In some ways, that’s what makes “Kerblam!” one of, if not the, best put together episodes of series 11 so far. That’s also why I hated it, and found it the most morally repugnant Doctor Who episode I’ve ever watched. Here’s where my take may just diverge a little: the things that make it morally repugnant might just make it the best critique of neoliberal capitalism Doctor Who has ever made.

I think there are three pretty bold claims laid out in the previous paragraph, so I’d best set about justifying them. Let’s start with the least out there claim first: this was a pretty well put together episode, arguably the best structured of series 11 so far. I wouldn’t say it’s the best episode of series 11 so far: it’s almost certain to come at the bottom of my series rankings for its politics, but even if I could set aside those politics in my rankings, I’d still say that “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” (both of which I rather loved) were better told stories overall. But those are episodes that stand out because of their “very special episode” type feel. This is an episode that’s written with a clear awareness of the usual structure of a Doctor Who story, and that plays with that structure in ways that are – on one level – very clever, slowly unravelling the type of story it appears to be telling for the first half hour with a steady series of well deployed twists that reveal the story to be something different altogether.

In some ways, it’s ironic that Pete McTighe doesn’t seem to be a fan of Steven Moffat (not something I hold against McTighe, he’s allowed to dislike a writer I like), because that’s exactly the way Steven Moffat structures many of his episodes, “Hell Bent” being the clearest example of this. So it’s not the best episode of the season, but it’s the episode that best understands the structure of a Doctor Who episode, and how to play with that structure.

But here’s where I have to start justifying my second claim: that this I find this more morally repugnant than any other episode of Doctor Who. Because those repugnant morals are built in to the subversions it makes. So here’s where I’ll have to start talking about the specifics of the episode, rather than the general structure. The story the episode feints at telling is one that we know reasonably well: the Doctor and companions overthrow an evil corporation. We see employees being subjected to invasive surveillance, hours of repetitive work that they are desperate to get to feed themselves and their families. We learn employees can only see their families twice a year, see they aren’t allowed any friendly interaction with their co-workers outside of specific break times. We learn that the workers are under extreme pressure to meet deadlines and targets – and we see that the nature of those targets is incredibly ablist – Ryan (in an excellent use of his character background on the part of McTighe) points out that he faced the same deadlines and targets in his own warehouse job, and that he couldn’t meet them at first due to his dyspraxia, needing his co workers to cover for him. He has to cheat the system because the system as it is set up won’t allow him to exist.

This is what people talk about when they talk about systemic injustice: we live in a systemically ableist world because the system we have created does not allow disabled people to exist in it. That’s true of the world we see depicted in “Kerblam!”, and, as Ryan’s story attests, something that is true for minimum wage workers in our society as well. So the world of “Kerblam!” is, as Paul Cornell says, a well lived in and fleshed out world, one that obviously, and through Ryan explicitly parallels the one we live in, and it’s tied neatly to what we already know about our main characters: this is good writing. And it’s a world we expect the Doctor to overthrow, because she’s done it before: she’s fixed the broken or malfunctioning system, overthrown the shady bosses hiding a folder with the names of disappearing employees, and in doing so has freed the workers who’ve been oppressed by the system.

But this is where the episode begins to subvert our expectations, through three reveals that are carefully staggered through the back half of the episode to unravel the mystery posed in the opening scene. The first reveal is that the message for help sent at the start of the episode came from the Kerblam! operating system, not a worker being mistreated as a result of that system. This discards one element of the we expect to see: the malfunctioning system we expect the Doctor to fix – from this point in the episode we come to understand that the system (according to the episode) has a conscience, and is trying to save lives (again, apparently – we’ll get to that). The second is that the shady boss who’s been keeping a secret folder of missing employees isn’t actually covering up the disappearances to hide something he’s responsible for, he’s researching the disappearances and has been keeping his research secret because he didn’t know who he could trust. This removes the other element of the story we’d expect to see: an evil boss for the Doctor to overthrow. The final reveal shows the story we are actually being told – we learn that Charlie the janitor was responsible for the deaths and was planning an act of horrifying terrorism, and the Doctor and companions have to thwart him instead. It’s not the story of the Doctor and companions overthrowing an evil corporation, but the story of the Doctor and companions thwarting the desperate actions of one man. These twists are well set up and deployed, because once again, this is a well told story.

And before we get to the moral issues I have with the story those subversions give us, it’s worth emphasizing the minor details that highlight the ways the episode is really well made, because that will be important for later in the essay. The robots are suitably unnerving yet funny in a way only Doctor Who can manage. The resolution being the title of the episode would be delightfully clever in any other situation. The old model robot having an existential crisis when it finds its purpose is very different 200 years after it was made is hilarious. And killer bubble wrap is the perfect Doctor Who idea.

But these brilliant ideas are put into a story with a message that is really rather horrifying. And here, it’s worth going back to Steven Moffat’s scripts, as this episode definitely borrows his structure for subverting narrative expectations. El Sandifer names Steven Moffat’s approach to subverting narrative expectations “narrative substition”, describing it as a form of storytelling that:

works by initially appearing to tell one type of story, and then rejecting that story, typically on ethical or ideological grounds, generally by revealing that the story was in fact an entirely different type of story all along.”

El Sandifer suggests the best example of Moffat doing this is in “A Good Man Goes to War”, but I disagree. I think Moffat does the same thing, but much better, in “Hell Bent” – we’re led to expect a Gallifreyan Western that’s heavy on lore and shows the Doctor wreaking terrible revenge on the Time Lords for Clara’s death. Instead, “Hell Bent” rejects that fridging narrative and the toxic masculinity built into it, and tells a story about the Doctor and companion separating as equals, a story that’s heavy on themes of the importance of consent in interpersonal relationships, and on female agency and empowerment. “Hell Bent” takes a bad story, and shows how that story can be turned into something good.

With “Kerblam!”, we visit the warehouse of a retail giant that we expect to be overthrown by the Doctor and Companions, so that we get a story about overthrowing Amazon and fighting back against the system that produced the ethical nightmare that is Amazon, because this story is explicitly a satire about Amazon and retailers like Amazon – members of the cast and crew have said as much in interviews. But the narrative substitution throws the nature of that satire into a new light – instead of being a satire about overthrowing Amazon, it becomes a story about stopping Charlie. And now it’s necessary to talk about who Charlie represents. And here, we’d best start with the quote “people like me, my generation, we change things”. First off, Charlie is working class – he’s a maintenance worker, and even though he lied to get his job, he’s clearly protesting the awful conditions he and other Kandokans have been living in. Secondly, when Charlie says “my generation”, there’s a very obvious generation to parallel him to. He’s a young man, presumably in his twenties, living in an exaggerated version of our world, facing uncertain employment prospects that mean he and the other people he knows are struggling to get by. He’s, to all intents and purposes, a millennial. Finally, while the Doctor dismisses the possibility that Charlie is an activist, he sure as heck feels like a villainous version of a millennial activist who wants to do something a bit more radical than write a petition on change.org.

Let me be clear, what Charlie does is definitely wrong: he kills off multiple innocent people in an attempt to commit a massive act of terrorism. And some people with left wing politics use those politics to justify committing horrific atrocities. But it’s all too common for all left wing activists to be accused of being as bad as the people they protest. Centrist commentators respond to black lives matter activists by saying “all lives matter” (even though the phrase “black lives matter” doesn’t suggest otherwise) and claim that BLM protestors are actually the “real racists”. When there’s a fascist march, and a counter rally is held to protest the fascists, the people fighting the fascists are accused of being just as bad as the people they’re protesting (even though those people who believe in ethnic cleansing, and the people protesting them categorically do not). It’s “both sides” centrism being used to justify presenting any left wing thought as a slippery slope to awful atrocities. This slippery slope argument is, in my opinion, essentially a form of political tone policing that sets a really limiting parameter for what constitutes a legitimate way to combat inequality: don’t do anything more radical than vote every five years and sign the occasional petition on change.org, because then you might end up like Charlie. Don’t be more left wing than Tony Blair or Barack Obama, because otherwise you’re a far left extremist. Don’t suggest the inequality in society is systemic, instead of the result of a few bad people exploiting a system that is otherwise completely neutral, even benevolent, because if you say that, you’re on the slippery slope to becoming a terrorist like Charlie.

And the Doctor responds to Charlie by telling him “the systems aren’t the problem, how people use and exploit the system, that is the problem” (if you write the Doctor saying any variation on “the system isn’t the problem”, you’re doing it wrong). The objection isn’t that Charlie’s awful actions are the wrong way to change a blatantly unjust system, it’s to say that the system works just fine, it’s only a few bad people who ruin everything for everybody. Personally, I’d suggest that if a system for running society can be exploited by a few bad people so much that society becomes as unequal as the one in “Kerblam!”, or even as unequal as the society we live in, then that system is pretty flawed. To be clear, while I’m definitely left wing, I don’t know that I’d call myself a socialist, because I don’t know if socialism will work, but I definitely think that capitalism isn’t working. People who defend capitalism are quick to say that socialism cannot work because they think it’s too easily exploited by selfish people. To which I’d respond: exactly the same thing is definitely true of capitalism, to an even greater extent.

It’s also worth comparing Charlie’s fate to the season’s previous villains who ultimately get some form of comeuppance, and placing that in the context of the Doctor’s pacifism (or the version of the Doctor’s pacifism these season has portrayed, which has generally involved the Doctor making anti gun statements that I agree with in ways that are frequently out of place or poorly timed – ironically, I thought this episode was the first that used the Doctor’s anti gun moment well and organically). Tim Shaw – a man who hunts and kills people before pulling teeth from their corpses, and Krasko – a racist who has murdered 2000 people – aren’t killed off at the end of their stories – heck, the Doctor outright reprimands Karl off for trying to kill the man who tried to hunt and murder him. But here, the Doctor’s plan to defeat Charlie outright leads to Charlie’s death, and while they make an effort to save him, no one seems particularly sad afterwards – Thirteen has quite rightly worked incredibly hard to find as non-violent a solution as possible to the conflicts she faces, arguably more so than any previous Doctor. But here, there’s no acknowledgement that this is the first time she’s had to kill a villain to defeat them in this incarnation.

This leaves us with a major gap between the way Charlie’s defeat is portrayed compared to that of Tim Shaw and Krasko. Tim Shaw, a villain who is the embodiment of toxic masculinity who hunts down people far weaker than him to increase his social standing in his society, and Krasko, a villain who is made to resemble modern day white nationalists, have to be fought as non-violently as possible, but a villain who functions as an avatar for disaffected working class millennials driven to desperate and wrong actions by genuine inequality can be killed as a direct result of the Doctor’s actions, and the narrative will barely make the slightest remark on his death after the fact. That’s a blatant double standard for villains who represent different ends of the political spectrum.

This is 2018. Capitalism is still awful. Amazon are still exploiting their workers. In that context, it is necessary to tell stories that criticise capitalism and the companies that profit off of the exploitation built into capitalism. “Kerblam!” takes a necessary story about corruption and systemic injustice in capitalist corporations and switches it for a story that says the problem isn’t the system, the system is good and just being exploited by a few bad apples, and anyway, the real problem is that young working class people who’ve been left in a desperate situation (but not because of the system, oh no) are too entitled. Steven Moffat’s narrative substitutions take bad stories and replace them with good ones. Pete McTighe’s use of narrative substitution in “Kerblam!” takes a good story, that is necessary for the world we live in, and replaces it with an ethically repugnant one.

And like Steven Moffat’s best uses of narrative subversion, it’s only fair to acknowledge that this episode plays entirely fair in setting up the type of story it is actually telling when the rug pull comes. While I spent the first half of the episode hoping to see a critique of Amazon, in retrospect the clues as to where the episode’s sympathies lie were there: the Doctor was excited to get a delivery from Kerblam! Man, and expressed literally no skepticism about where he came from. Her speech to Jarva about the difference between good and bad managers sets up her later claim that the system isn’t the problem: it’s constructed on the belief that capitalism can work, if only it is run by benevolent people. The episode was always building to being a defence of “the system” and a patronising reprimand to the people who criticise “the system”: it carefully builds up to that reveal, and its central argument hinges on said reveal.

So, with that in mind, this is probably where I should begin to justify what is the boldest of the three claims I made at the start of this essay: that this episode is the best critique of neoliberal capitalism Doctor Who has ever produced. And that claim is linked to the other two points I have attempted to justify so far: this is a very well written episode, and a morally repugnant defence of neoliberal capitalism that is more invested in talking down to disaffected working class millennials than it is in understanding what makes those people feel disaffected.

But before I justify that claim, I do want to take a moment to make it clear what I’m doing here. I’m not giving the episode a redemptive reading. I do not like this episode, and I don’t think I ever can. But this reading gives me a chance to use the text in a way the authors definitely did not intend: as a way to expose how messed up their worldview is.

So, how is this episode such a good critique of neoliberal capitalism, if it’s so obviously in favour of that system? Well, here we have to return to the episode’s quality, because for all “Kerblam!” is, in many ways, a very well structured Doctor Who story that plays with audience expectations very cleverly, it doesn’t actually make a lick of sense.

And the things that don’t make sense come from its very coherently expressed centrist neoliberal worldview (and unlike El Sandifer, I think its political alignment is firmly centrist, not conservative – that’s why it still on some level acknowledges the inequalities in our society, even as it’s it’s ending firmly rejects a leftist explanation for their causes – it’s got the classic centrist obsession with showing both sides of an argument as equally valid, even when one side of said argument is incredibly unethical and throws facts out of the window). The first signs of nonsense worth drawing attention to are the things the episode portrays as signs of morality. The Doctor sees Kerblam!’s system murdering an innocent girl (in a blatant fridging that is somehow not the worst of the episode’s politics) as proof it is a system with a conscience, a position the narrative clearly endorses. Similarly, we’re meant to believe Kerblam! will be a better company at the end of the episode because the employees are given a month’s leave while the company restructures to become human led, and those employees are only given two weeks worth of pay. Quick maths lesson: two weeks is less than one month. An employer slashing their employees’ pay in half due to a situation the employer has caused is not a sign said employer is becoming more moral, but  when you uncritically endorse capitalism, you start to think nonsense like this is ethical, rather than just slightly milder exploitation.

Also ridiculous is what Charlie fights for: his terrorism comes from a desire to get more of the jobs the episode has shown are mind-numbingly boring and soul-crushing. The episode sees two options for society: working in dull jobs so that you can just barely pay for your room and food, or having no jobs for anyone at all. This is both a limited and unimaginative way of trying to imagine human society, and it also betrays a lack of understanding of radical politics, which are generally built around the idea that we should structure society in different way – for example, on the basis that everyone should be guaranteed food and shelter, just as a basic starting point for any moral society.

Finally, when we do get limited positive change at the end of the episode, it comes from the actions the episode (rightly) portrays as awful and wrong: Charlie’s terrorism. Kerblam! doesn’t change its business model because the Doctor convinces them to do so with well reasoned arguments, and the company doesn’t change its practises because of Judy working within the system and pushing the company to get more human employees. It changes because Judy and Jarva are so shaken by Charlie’s just barely thwarted actions that they decide to restructure the company, though in another example of the episode’s nonsense politics, it’s bizarre that Judy and Jarva are able to effect any change at Kerblam!, as they’re just middle managers, and if the system is just being exploited by a few nasty people, surely those people (who we never meet) will be in charge of Kerblam!, and they will stop any attempt to bring about positive change on the part of Judy and Jarva. Still, accepting the episode’s premise that things will change, the only solution the centrist worldview of “Kerblam!” provides to inequality (insofar as the episode is willing to acknowledge there is inequality) is an attempt at a terrorist attack happening that is thankfully stopped by some nice strangers who just so happen to be investigating the disappearances leading up to the terrorist attack.

The episode rightly condemns terrorism masquerading as activism, but never manages to present a better alternative, because its blinkered acceptance of capitalism means that it doesn’t really think anything needs fixing, and the only thing it sees as an appropriate response to the parts of capitalism it can’t deny are bad is to shake its head and make a disapproving tutting noise. This episode is blatantly trying to to defend Amazon and capitalism, and being a very well constructed episode of television, it is as clearly expressed a centrist defence of Amazon and capitalism Doctor Who could produce. And it’s politically naive, can only up with examples of moral capitalism that are actually horrendously unethical, and can’t come up with a way to make a positive difference in the world that isn’t terrorism.

It would have been easy for Doctor Who to overthrow Space Amazon. Because Amazon is awful, and the basic starting point for any episode of television presenting itself as a satire of Amazon should be acknowledging Amazon is awful. But “Kerblam!” doesn’t do that. Instead, in 2018, it decided the Amazon satire that needed to be told is one that defends Amazon and the capitalist system that produced it. And it’s completely incoherent, because any defence of twenty first century capitalism will be. As a result, this awful, mean spirited episode that blatantly sides with the neoliberal capitalism over the people crushed by that system is the best critique of neoliberal capitalism Doctor Who has ever produced.

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