TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #7: “Kerblam!”

Order # 202-7639423-1748323: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, ed. Gallimard, translation in French and preface by Jacques Chambon

If I open this book, which is currently laying somewhere in my bedroom, I’ll find that sentence in there – a definition, by the translator, of what a dystopia is: “It projects a contemporary situation in the future, making it more impactful, zooming in order to turn it into an alarm bell for the present.”

That’s not what “Kerblam!” is, obviously. No, “Kerblam!” is something quite different, and genuinely unique. It’s not satire – it’s certainly not an utopia. It’s rather … An inversion of the dynamic of dystopia. Instead of current events and extrapolating from those a set of concerns which will structure a sci-fi plot, this episode takes a set of current concerns, and attempts to use science-fiction to essentially debunk them. It’s essentially a version of 1984 where George Orwell’s answer, in front of the rise of totalitarianisms, would be to show you a future in which we’ve made our peace with those and are living happily.  Anti-dystopia.

That, of course, will raise and has raised voices saying that it’s an absolutely fascinating subject for narrative analysis. And well, they’re not wrong, it is rather fascinating. In the same way someone deciding to shoot a movie through the singular medium of go-pros strapped onto tigers who are then sent to hunt down the cast would be fascinating. It’s a bit dangerous, the end result is probably going to have some “light” structural issues, and it’s just a fucking stupid idea through and through.

And that’s not even a condemnation in political terms – it’s just structurally inane. The big political twist in the third act is not just something that’s pleasant in ideological terms, it’s a logical progression: you get your set-up, something is clearly wrong with it, and it escalates to a crisis point, with dramatic revelations and all. “Kerblam!” gives you a set-up, shows you something is wrong with it, and then is going to de-escalate – sure, a threat is substituted to the system and the robots, but the tension in the early scenes is not created by a millennial terrorist. The first half of the episode spends entire scenes showing you all that is wrong with the company – the violations of human decency, the creepy robots, the unpleasant boss. If you’re not going to build onto those for your messaging, you are effectively making a good half of all you’ve written totally irrelevant to the plot and dynamics of the story – you’re even making the direction irrelevant, because Jennifer Perrott is, understandably, trying to create some tension here, making the warehouse a place of potential danger where eyes shine between the crates. But all that potential sense of threat and thematic implications are made irrelevant by the ending: the episode doesn’t build towards the ending; the ending erases the rest of the episode to make a point.

It’s not even a good point. But at least, that you can concede to the episode, it’s a deliberate move. That’s not exactly a quality. Who having questionable politics isn’t exactly the newest thing, but at least, most of the time you can at least use intentionality as a shield. There’s a lot of things to be said about the racial politics of “Talons of Weng-Chiang”, but at least, you can generally be comforted by the assertion that Bob Holmes didn’t wake up one morning going all “not to be racist or anything, but Asian people suck”; and of course there’s stuff like “The Ark”, which is very racist but also so muddled in its messaging you can genuinely go through it a few times without realising any of the implications. Here, it’s all very clear – this is an episode with a message. It’s not so much a matter of wanting to dislike it for not lining up perfectly with political positions: it’s just that it’s very loud about what it believes. It basically pulls a Moffat (except, well, badly) and does a “the plot does not matter, this is all a thematic statement, please listen to it now” – you can’t ignore it.

 

Of course, that’s the point where we need to tackle the politics. I don’t especially want to, because it makes me a bit sad, and also because I am very far from being working class, but we do need to, so, concretely, what are the problems?

  • The fact that the Doctor excuses “the system” (which is not, in that context, simply a technological one, I should precise, since I’ve bafflingly seen people argue otherwise – allegories, they’re a thing), saying that the way people abuse it are the issue. One: the system is built by humans, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; much like free market isn’t some kind of manna from Heaven spat out by Jesus Pantocrator. Two: if the system allows for abuse, then it’s a bad system.
  • The fact the culprit is a young working class man. There, the episode genuinely comes close from being interesting: a white twentysomething who, instead of imagining a better world (ie one where work wouldn’t be necessary), channels his angst into demanding economic conservatism, ready to violently bomb people if he doesn’t get his way. While feeling entitled to the affections of a girl, and being vaguely creepy about it. That could be great satire of the Gamergate-adjacent fringes of the alt-right, but the episode prefers to actually validate the worldview of its villain: we do actually need more work and more people in service of capitalism, you just have to be nice about how you ask it, and accept slow and gradual change for the worst as a rule of your life. Or maybe not, because, after all, his violent efforts to change things do succeed, and it’s framed as a good thing for some reason.
  • Related to the previous point: the idea that human life should always be defined by work. That’s not an ideologically neutral stance, that – at the very least, it isn’t when you define work as lending your abilities to a third party. Intellectual or emotional labour is work too, and it’s not less valid – but apparently, even in the future, we still want to lend our bodies to big corporations in exchange for a chance not to starve. Given the way automation today is already gnawing at the amount of jobs that exist – as French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu said, dactylographers are an extinct species. The idea that we need work to thrive is essentially a product of American conservatism, as Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – it’s a derivate of the Protestant and puritan logic that only a select few are allowed salvation, and, that, since no one can no who these are, everyone has to prove their devotion and faith by working themselves as hard as they can in an act of pious purification. It’s not exactly a great message.

That’s a quick rundown. Of course, if you want to ignore all these implications, it’s really easy to do. It’s not that classism is worse than racism, homophobia or transphobia, but it’s a lot easier to put a smiley face on it – it’s a little bit more abstract, even when it is used, and it is often used, as the way to actually exert racism or sexism (there’s a reason why income inequalities are a thing). And well, there are some fun bits here and there: the character interactions are genuinely a highlight, and some of the most balanced and elegant in the series. They still make no sense whatsoever, mind you, with Ryan delivering a monologue about his working-class concerns early in the episode only for the story to then walk all that back and go “this is fine!” with a big smile. This is not a competent story. But there’s a general patina of quality to it. It’s absurd, but it has a certain flair, and that can make it enjoyable. As long as that enjoyment is tempered by an acknowledgement that there’s something really quite wrong with it, that’s even pretty okay.

 

Order # 252-7698423-1095323: Doctor Who series 10 Blu-Ray boxset

Of course, if you want to be charitable and not just stop at “this writer has bad politics and wants to speak very loudly about his bad politics”, there’s another potential implication to the anti-dystopian structure of the story. Which would be that the episode aims, to, ultimately, be a comfort to the viewer. Cajole him – “no, look, the world is not all bad, this is going to be fine”.

There can be value in that, to an extent – if it’s tempered by some form of lucidity. “Rosa” isn’t perfect as far as politics go, and goes perhaps a bit far in the inspiration porn direction, but it doesn’t sugar coat the violence and oppression black and Hispanic people were enduring in the United States. It tells of a better future – it doesn’t go “eh, things are just not so bad”. As it stands, this is very much a direct continuation of Gareth Roberts’ vision of Who, embodied by the principle that likeability is the supreme rule of all story. Character drama, conflict, politics – all of that is irrelevant in front of just being likeable. Even if it makes no sense and leads to stagnation – smile and be happy.

It of course doesn’t work, because the way you are going to sell that like likeability, that absence of challenge, is going to be by relying on systems. For Roberts, that ended up being social conservatism, with its usual transphobia and racism. For newcomer writer Pete McTighe, who apparently appreciates Roberts enough to reference one of his episodes directly (and who indeed received praise from the man immediately after the episode aired), it’s more of an liberal free-market economy deal.

There’s a nice bit of irony to it all, really. If series 11 is all about absence, McTighe finds the best way to fill that absence – systems. And you better believe, this episode has a massive hard-on for the systems: it’s not just the resolution, the entire episode works around it. The images of conveyor belts, of massive displays of industrial strength, are not framed as a transposition of the Sheffield Gothic in space: the story is in awe in front of them, appreciates the grandeur of it all. It worships the Koyaanisqatsi-like grid of exchanges and production. Even the scene where the lead characters are actually trapped onto these conveyor belts is essentially a thrill ride: being chewed up by the system might be dangerous and deadly, but, eh, it’s still fun! If you compare it to the very similar sequence in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, you’ll notice Lucas at least seems to frame the whole situation with a degree of terror and uneasiness – and it shouldn’t be hard for Doctor Who to top George Lucas circa 2002.

It doesn’t even stop there: we get to see the relics of the Kerblam company exposed under glass, we get the tour of the facility, there’s a cute little prototype robot who’s not sure of how to accomplish his duties to the Customer – the whole story is essentially a giant commercial for the company. And I mean, it’s a whole moon! Emptied out to welcome industry. The story really fucking loves Kerblam. That’s all the more ironic when you notice the last time we saw an all-powerful company holding historical artefacts under glass, it was in Rob Shearman’s “Dalek”. Not much progress in thirteen years, huh?

The “Dalek” reference is interesting, though – because it echoes to a problematique central to New Who: the branding of the show. Doctor Who is, by its Britishness, its long history, and its political leaning, kind of deeply counter-cultural, but it’s also, especially in a post-Russell T. Davies world, extremely popular, and a sure money-maker. There’s a conflict there, that was felt especially deeply within the Davies era: you get Shearman and his museum of Who history which gets reactivated, brought back to life, by the touch of a working-class woman; but mostly you have Davies himself making the idea of Doctor Who, as a brand, as an intradiegetic concept, part of the storytelling in episodes like “Love and Monsters” or “Last of the Time Lords” (respectively with fandom engagement and with calling the viewer to essentially pray to the character for himself to materialise). I personally don’t like either, but, whatever grievances you have with those, and there are plenty of legitimate ones to have, at least, the way they frame the show as a source of almost mystical power and dread – a divine source, even, in the case of the series 3 finale. “Kerblam!”, though, is a lot less lofty: of course Who should be a commercial entity, first and foremost and above all else!, it says. The system is our friend, let’s use it and have everyone bond over our mainstream, inoffensive, lovely little show!

It doesn’t really care about being right, just about being popular. Which sadly, might be an observation you can extend to the rest of the series …

 

Order # 452-8756423-1089756: A fez (velvet, supple, red)

The worst thing about “Kerblam!”, by a fair margin, is the Doctor.

It’s not just the fact she’s essentially okay with leaving an oppressive system stand. That’s bad – but that’s at least the kind of bad that can be integrated within a characterisation and then addressed: a “Kill the Moon”, “Waters of Mars” moment; or, comes to worst, later explored and/or retconned by the Expanded Universe (Big Finish has managed to redeem way, way worse).

No – it’s how happy she is to be faced with consumerism. She is loving the ride! Oppressed workers? Eh, who cares, I want to ride the conveyor belt. “Oh, it’s the Kerblam! Man! I love the Kerblam! Man”. Her carefree joy feels deeply wrong, because it seems etched away at a deeper level, like it’s going to turn out to be a fundamental writing problem with this incarnation of the Doctor.

It’s not that it doesn’t make sense. If Twelve loses his privileges and his special aristocratic status through regeneration, then Thirteen is able to approach situation from a much more human point of view, that’s a principle we’ve already established: but the thing is – while the Time Lord privileges might be gone, there still remains the fact the Doctor, even if you consider her in a strictly human microcosm, remains a considerably privileged person. In fact, the fact she has much less of a mythical status now draws her weaknesses of character in much sharper contrast, because it’s not possible to handwave them away in the name of some kind of alien morality of legal principle. That doesn’t have to be an issue, though – conflict is good, a flawed lead character is a good thing. But the series refuses to tackle it directly. Which is, in itself, a way to tackle it – just the worst one. Political meaning is fundamentally tied to a text, you can’t separate one from another. If you don’t construct that meaning yourself, then either someone else, or the audience, is going to do it for you, and chances are it’s not going to be pretty.

It’s not that series 11 has nothing to offer – it has many pleasures to offer, and we’ve been establishing, over the last few weeks, what I think is a relatively coherent grid of interpretation and thematic analysis. But most of these qualities, while real, are also more aesthetic than they are concrete: it’s really enjoyable to find ways to weave them together, and it has been for me, especially as someone who has become a lot more involve in actually writing Who stories and engaging with the show’s canon this year. But you do need a thesis statement. Who isn’t just aesthetics, it has to embody something, anything, at the end of the day. Otherwise, it’s condemned to just be an abstract quantity – a reproduction of the show’s ethos rather than an actual continuation; the Doctor to be “the Doctor” instead of “a Doctor”. A generic non-sequitur lying in the middle of an epoch which clamours for meaning.

Sure, let the show gather its strength and ponder what it wants to do next, while gaining back popularity and traction. I’m all for it. It’s not unenjoyable. But it’s also not sustainable, and for the first time in many, many series, you can legitimately see the cracks in the fabric. And if you peer behind these cracks, that’s approximatively what you’ll see as the endpoint of the Whittaker incarnation:

 

She gazed up at the enormous face.

Three thousand years it had taken her to learn what kind of smile was hidden under the postman’s cap. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.

She had won the victory over himself.

She loved the Kerblam Man.”

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