This review contains spoilers.
Kerblam! is the first Doctor Who episode this season – apart from maybe the first one – that hasn’t really worked for me on any level. It sees the Doctor and her friends infiltrating the moon-sized warehouse of Kerblam!, the galaxy’s biggest retailer, after receiving a parcel with the words HELP ME stamped on the shipping receipt. Posing as new workers, they find an enormous fulfilment centre almost entirely run by machines – just 10% of the workforce is human, in accordance with local laws. But people are disappearing into the depths of this huge building…
Kerblam! is aimed squarely at the likes of Amazon and Sports Direct – in fact, it turns out that Ryan worked for Sports Direct pre-Doctor, or at least somewhere with a very similar name. Which is what makes the episode’s big reveal so disappointing. The Doctor discovers that the message was sent by the factory’s automated systems after they came under attack by a rogue maintenance man named Charlie. Charlie is an activist, a neo-Luddite who has a dastardly plan to discredit people’s faith in automation by making it look like the system has catastrophically, fatally malfunctioned. He hopes thereby to generate jobs for everyone displaced by automation, and everyone will live happily ever after, the end.
Charlie is Wrong, the Doctor explains:
The systems aren’t the problem. How people use and exploit the system: that’s the problem. People like you.
This does continue the series’ work of reframing our expectations, forcing us to rethink how Doctor Who works: it’s not the creepy robots who are evil, but this rather nice-looking cleaner! And normally, I’m all for stories that position systems and processes as benign, helpful and necessary. But here, in a tale about Amazon and Sports Direct? It monumentally misses the point. The thing that’s dystopian about these companies isn’t automation – it’s the very opposite: it’s their dehumanising labour practices, many of which Kerblam! deliberately highlights. The corporate surveillance: “there’s no such thing as privacy here”, Lee Mack comments in a particularly pointless cameo as a hapless worker with a sob story. The relentless focus on efficiency: no friendly chats allowed. The soul-crushing, petty cruelty of managers who know they can treat people like shit because there are hundreds of others out there who’d kill for the job.
The Doctor and her friends experience all this. Ryan has lived it. Oddly, none of them seem to care very much about redressing it. At the end of the episode, cheery, competent and generally likable HR manager Judy Maddox pledges to make Kerblam! “100% people powered”, which both seems at odds with the episode’s own conclusions (automation is good but they’re not going to use it any more…?) and does not exactly fill one with confidence that those people are going to be looked after properly.
The thing is: there are important questions to be asked about the role of automation in society, and whether meaningful work is necessary to human happiness. In another context, Charlie’s story could have been interesting and timely and pressing. (Just one example why: a company in Australia has recently developed a bricklaying robot that can build a house in three days. Previously, no robot could lay bricks faster than a human – now, hundreds of thousands of workers potentially face being laid off.) But confusing the issue of systematic corporate exploitation with the issue of automation and meaningful work does no good to either debate.
To add insult to injury, this season has a mini-problem with fridging female characters. First Grace; now Kira, Charlie’s crush, who the factory murders literally in order to make Charlie feel bad about what he’s planning to do. And we’re still supposed to think the system is benign and empathetic and fluffy?
Incidentally, the casting for this episode is the least diverse we’ve seen so far in this season: I think I’m right in saying that every single one of the secondary characters with speaking parts was white (outside, obviously, the Doctor’s gang).
One thing the episode did well, though, was Ryan’s dyspraxia: I liked the way it affected how he thought about things, but didn’t stop him doing them. It’s present, and a part of who he is, but, equally, not the whole of who he is.
Overall, however, Kerblam! is an unexpectedly disappointing offering from a season that’s mostly been doing good, heartwarming, progressive work. Here’s hoping next week is better.