Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Goodbye VitaminIt’s remarkable that I can have all but forgotten the details of a novel that deals with so heart-rending a subject as dementia, and yet, six months after reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, here we are. Khong’s protagonist is Ruth, a 30-something who returns home for a year when her father develops Alzheimer’s in order to help her mother care for him and adjust to her new reality.

The story of that year is narrated by Ruth in short, diary-like snippets: she relates her mother’s newfound obsession with preparing and serving unprocessed food; her own efforts to help her father keep teaching after he’s fired from the university he once lectured at for his increasingly erratic conduct; and the realisations she comes to about her parents’ marriage, including her father’s alcoholism and infidelity. Ruth’s voice is wry, lightly humorous and frankly not terribly original; you’ll be familiar with the general tone if you’ve ever watched an episode of Call the Midwife.

That sounds perhaps more damning than I mean it to be. I actually quite like Call the Midwife: I wish more television shared its gentleness and its hopefulness in the face of poverty, discrimination and political upheaval. Similarly, the grace and tenderness with which Khong’s characters face the dissolution of memory and the slow disappearance of a loved one is quietly touching and intensely humane; these are ordinary people making ordinary mistakes, and ultimately trying to do their best for each other in their own ways.

But, as with Call the Midwife, I think the humour and the gentleness flattens the intensity of what these characters are facing: it’s a consolatory move, a reassurance that actually everything is all right, when in reality it is not. The thing about dementia is that the person you knew is both gone forever and still there, in front of you, changed; and Khong’s wry tone here smooths over that disconnect, papers over that grief, in a way that is ultimately unsatisfying. I enjoyed the novel – while I was reading it. But nothing about it has stayed with me.

Review: Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

Penned by showrunner Chris Chibnall, Revolution of the Daleks is 2021’s first – and, so far, only – TV outing for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor and her fam. What did the Doctor of hope have to offer us after a year which saw multiple religious celebrations cancelled at short notice?

Daleks.

At this point I am actually pretty unconvinced by the Daleks, as a concept and as major antagonists for the Doctor. Their clunky design – those massive pepper-pot machine-bodies, those fragile eyestalks and remarkably un-maneoeuvrable deathrays – makes their origin in a different era of television obvious; in an episode that also contains YouTube and smartphones and sleekly designed modern scientific gadgetry, they stand out like a sore thumb. And attempts to modernise them have only robbed them of their specificity: how many supernatural/alien creatures have we seen that can impersonate humans, even in Doctor Who itself? The Doppelgangers in The Rebel Flesh? The Vashta Nerada? The watery Heather-creature in The Pilot? What do the Daleks stand for any more, apart from “generic Doctor Who villain”?

That said: even though it is clearly a ridiculous proposition, given their shape, the idea of the Daleks being adopted as security drones by power-hungry UK politicians is a great one, both somehow absolutely classic Dalek and absolutely something the Johnson government would do. It turns out that, thanks to the events of 2019’s New Year special Resolution, the UK government has managed to get its hands on a bit of Dalek, which is then intercepted in transit under the aegis of Jack Robertson, the slimy American businessman we first met in Arachnids in the UK. Not only have Robertson’s employees thus been able to recreate the Daleks’ shells, but his too-clever-for-his-own-good pet scientist Leo has also managed to clone an actual Dalek from organic matter found in the original casing. The cloned Dalek overpowers Leo, takes over his body and, as is traditional, embarks on a plot to take over the Earth – a plot which the Doctor and her friends must foil.

Unfortunately, then, Chibnall doesn’t spend a huge amount of time on the Dalek-Tory alliance, moving quickly on to more traditionally Dalek-y machinations involving massive Dalek warehouses, carnage among the civilian population (“EXTERMINATE!”) and different-coloured Daleks shouting at each other about racial purity. It’s all slightly tired – notwithstanding Chris Noth’s star turn as Robertson, who, in another bit of on-point political skewering, attempts to betray the Doctor to the Daleks only to claim credit for her eventual victory over them. Even this feels second-hand, though, recalling Dalek‘s Van Statten, another millionaire unwisely attempting to use the Daleks for his own ends.

None of this would matter as much, perhaps, if this were just a regular, mid-season episode; or even a standard Christmas or New Year episode, something to lift the holiday spirits without actually affecting the course of the show’s overall arc that much. But this is an episode in which we lose two major characters: Ryan and Graham, two-thirds of the Doctor’s much-loved fam, who decide to remain on Earth, to cultivate stable, normal relationships with their friends. The reheated, second-hand nature of much of the episode does their departure a disservice: neither of them have any significant role in defeating the Daleks, and their send-off is muted and unremarkable.

Is it time, then, to retire the Daleks? Perhaps, but they’re iconic enough that I can’t see the BBC ever taking the leap. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Daleks themselves, per se; it’s that showrunners and scriptwriters are leaning on their prestige and the things that everyone knows about them rather than finding new stories to tell and new things to say about them. Revolution of the Daleks isn’t, ultimately, a total write-off, but I don’t think it’s going to be remembered as a Great Episode.

Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

Praxeus’ foresight looks almost uncanny now, more than three months after it was first aired and who knows how long since it was filmed. The sixth episode of Doctor Who’s twelfth series, it sees the Doctor and her fam investigating an alien bacterium, the titular Praxeus, that feeds on microplastics, threatening to spread a deadly disease to every living thing on Earth.

The handling of its environmental message – viz., that the way we’ve contaminated our entire planet with a material that doesn’t break down poses dangers we may not be able to foresee – is a nice corrective to that of the heavy-handed and weirdly Cold War-reminiscent Orphan 55. Unlike the earlier episode’s oddly insubstantial warnings of mass migration and nuclear destruction, that of Praxeus is specific, actionable and educational without being didactic. And the environmental theme serves the story in an organic (hah) way. It’s interesting that Praxeus and the pandemic it threatens to cause is presented as a problem basically of our own making, in the light of recent comments from people like Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, on the link between novel coronavirus and humanity’s destruction of wildlife habitats.

But Praxeus does less well on the details of epidemiology. Bizarrely, towards the end of the episode we find out that Praxeus is sentient (raising some moral questions about eradicating it that go unaddressed) and that it has built a kind of den at the bottom of the Indian ocean out of waste plastic after being released into the sea by an alien spacecraft.

Why? How? This isn’t how bacteria work! If Praxeus eats plastic, surely it would be breaking it down rather than building with it? And why does it need such a space anyway?

The Doctor and her friends work together to create an antidote to the disease caused by Praxeus and test it on Adam, a handy astronaut who’s been exposed to the bacterium. “You need a clinical trial, a human body, and now you’ve got one,” says Adam as he’s volunteering for this role.

Again: not how clinical trials work. You need thousands of people, not just one.

These are nitpicks, obviously, and generally I try to avoid such Watsonian critiques: they’re rarely helpful to looking at what a text is trying to do. But now, in the midst of the most significant health emergency the West has experienced since the Spanish flu…it’s important to get these things right. It’s important that people understand how disease works, and that writers don’t misuse technical terms like “clinical trial”. Misinformation is a killer.

In other areas, though, I felt Praxeus was a strong episode relative to the first half of the series, with a strong identity and a single unified theme. The relationship between Adam and his husband Jake is touchingly handled – the matter-of-fact inclusion of LGBT+ people is something this series is getting right. It’s not clear whether vloggers Gabriela and Jamila are a couple, but I certainly read them that way and I think the episode gives us the space to do so. Praxeus isn’t as good as its predecessor Fugitive of the Judoon, but it’s a solid entry in the series.

Doctor Who Review: Spyfall

Spyfall, a two-part story, kicked Season 12 and Jodie Whittaker’s second season of Doctor Who off with…a fair amount of confusion, I thought. Part 1 begins with spies dying and disappearing in mysterious ways all over the world, leading the Doctor to two men: Daniel Barton, CEO of a major search engine company; and O, a former intelligence agent and friend of the Doctor living in the Australian outback. Two men, and the Kasaavin: a race of extra-dimensional beings apparently made of light who are the direct culprits of the murders. But Why?

The story looks at first to be a fairly formulaic Who tale: a tycoon in league with an alien race, both of them up to no good; classic, if slightly unoriginal, fare. That’s until it takes a hard left at the end of Part 1, with the reveal that O is actually the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master in disguise (played by Sacha Dhawan), and that he’s been orchestrating the entire caboodle for nefarious reasons of his own. “Everything you think you know is a lie,” he says, before vanishing from a plane that’s plummeting from the sky.

So ends the first episode, rather propulsively. The second episode, which sees the Doctor propelled through history by the Kasaavin, with Ryan, Graham and Yaz working to foil Daniel Barton’s apocalyptic plans, is quite frankly a mess. There’s a heck of a lot going on here and writer Chris Chibnall doesn’t seem terribly interested in much of it. The Doctor meets a couple of famous women, Victorian computer programmer Ada Lovelace and WW2 British spy Noor Inayat Khan, only to wipe their memories of her at the end of the episode, non-consensually, to “[wipe] away the things [they] shouldn’t have knowledge of” – treatment notably not extended to Nikola Tesla when he appears a few episodes later. Graham, Yaz and Ryan discover that Daniel Barton intends to turn the entire human race into biological hard drives, only for this plan to be foiled off-screen, anti-climatically, by the Doctor’s judicious use of time travel. I’m not even entirely sure where the Kasaavin come into all of this, or why they were needed in the first place.

No: this story is very much about the Master and the Doctor. It’s hard not to see it as basically a sparring match with the entirety of humankind at stake, which I think is what bothers me about Spyfall, and all the Who stories (most of them written by Steven Moffat) that are essentially about themselves. This isn’t, like Russell T. Davies’ The Waters of Mars, a story that draws attention to Time Lord hubris. Nor does it have the kind of deliberate, consistent imagery of a story like The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, which for all its overblown sentiment does carry strong religious/moral overtones. There is no such consistency here, as we see from the pile-on of ideas and themes and images. There is only fannish self-absorption in the show’s own history; a self-absorption that treats other people as backdrop or soapbox (it’s nice that Chibnall wants to showcase notable women in history, but not if he won’t give them any agency).

This self-absorption plays out rather uncomfortably at one point, when in WW2 Paris the Doctor takes advantage of the Nazis’ racism to have the Master taken away. Like…really? you went there? There’s just this…lack of awareness of how story-imagery works on viewers. The Nazis in this story are handy tools to be used in service of the plot, regardless of the heavy, heavy associations they carry in the West today.

Yeah. I didn’t like Spyfall very much. And although it didn’t turn out to be exactly predictive of the concerns of the rest of the series (or, at least, the half of it I’ve got around to watching!), it’s not an auspicious start to it.

Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.

2018 Roundup

Behold, from deep in the Valley of the Christmas Holidays, a roundup post…

I’m going to try and post a bit more regularly in 2019. Starting next week, that is.

My Favourite Things of 2018

Book: The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. The last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it is not a happy book. It is not one I’ll return to for comfort or reassurance. It is just stunningly good.

TV: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum. I’ve been really terrible at reviewing TV on the blog this year: it’s basically just been Doctor Who. But what a series of Doctor Who! Tsuranga encapsulates everything I love about it. It is hopeful, inclusive and searching, a story that asks us to reimagine what Doctor Who is and what it’s for.

Film: Jupiter AscendingYeah, the film reviewing has fallen a bit by the wayside this year, too. And I’m pretty bad at seeing films, anyway. So let’s go with Jupiter Ascending, a film from the Wachowski sisters that is absolutely bizarre, utterly gorgeous to look at and contains Eddie Redmayne.

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 76 books in 2018 – ten short of my total of 86, dammit.
  • The longest book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, which at 1069 pages is technically three novels in one, and probably one of my favourite books of 2018. Meanwhile, the shortest was Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity, at a slim and forgettable 105 pages. Overall, I read 30,048 pages – unsurprisingly not quite as good as last year’s 30,893 (although, not that far off…)
  • The oldest book I read in 2018 was Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841. The average age of the books I read in 2018 was 42, down from last year’s 44. (I’m pretty sure this average is dragged down quite a lot by my annual Tolkien reread.)
  • Genre: The genre split of my reading has shifted quite a lot this year – I relied much more on the local library than I have in previous years, and the SFF section only goes so far. So: 36% of my reading was fantasy, down from 45% last year; 21% was science fiction, the same as last year. 17% was lit fic, significantly up from 9% last year, and 12% was non-fiction, again significantly up from last year’s 6%. The rest was split between historical, contemporary, crime and humour (all the annoying interchangeable categories, in other words).
  • 9% of the books I read in 2018 were re-reads – down from last year’s 11%, which is great.
  • 53% of the books I read in 2018 were by women – up from last year’s disappointing 46%.
  • And 24% of the books I read in 2018 were by authors of colour, another increase on last year’s 18%.

Doctor Who Review: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

This review contains spoilers.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is the last of Thirteen’s episodes, except for one at New Year, which will hopefully save us from the variously schmaltzy Christmas offerings we’ve seen for the last few years. After that, Saint Jodie won’t be back on our screens until early 2020. Doom. Dooooom. As Bridget Jones might say.

I digress. This last episode, this summing up of what the Thirteenth Doctor stands for, loops us right back to the start of the season, as the gang re-encounter Stenza bounty hunter Tzim-Sha. Tzim-Sha has set himself up as a false god after the Doctor banished him into the depths of space and time, demanding the worship of the Ux, a race with the unique (magical?) ability to manipulate the fabric of the universe with the power of their faith. To get his revenge on the Doctor, he’s planning to destroy Earth and threaten the integrity of space-time.

So the stakes are suitably high for a series finale. I’m not sure we’re ever convinced that the Earth is actually in danger, but that doesn’t really matter: like the season as a whole, this episode is interested in the personal and the intimate.

It’s a story about how we should respond to those who commit atrocities, and whether revenge is ever justified. In asking those questions, it tackles one of the moral difficulties at the heart of New Who head-on: the Doctor’s pacifist stance often means that their companions do the killing for them.

So, we have Graham, still deeply angry at Tzim-Sha’s murder of his wife Grace. Graham tells the Doctor early in the episode that he’ll kill Tzim-Sha if he gets the chance, ignoring her horrified protests. (To Bradley Cooper’s credit, we believe him.) Revenge might be his primary motivation, but he’s also got a moral argument to make: Tzim-Sha is only able to exploit the Ux and threaten the Earth because the Doctor left him alive at the beginning of the season.

Tzim-Sha makes the same point. “Don’t you pin this on me,” the Doctor cries; but the question remains open. Do some threats – some people – just need to be destroyed once and for all, to prevent them destroying others?

Inevitably, in hindsight, Graham can’t bring himself to kill Tzim-Sha when it comes down to it. But this is couched in terms of his being “the better person”: it’s a question of personal moral hygiene, not of ethics. And, certainly, we do wonder whether Tzim-Sha’s better off dead than confined eternally to a stasis chamber: is it not, in fact, the same thing? The writers this season have made a big deal about Thirteen’s refusal to kill, but the ethical underpinnings of this stance remain vague. Perhaps deliberately; I do like the ambiguity we’re left with over how complicit the Doctor actually is with Tzim-Sha’s various atrocities. Is the “curse” (Tzim-Sha’s word) of exile worse than a quick death?

Another ambiguity I’m interested in is how The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos handles religion. New Who has always had explicitly atheist tendencies; I’ve written before about how episodes like Gridlock use religious imagery in service of a secular worldview. And this episode does, after all, feature naïve believers blindly following a false deity who abuses and exploits them. “You’re the creators,” says the Doctor to the freed Ux at the end of the episode, referring to their epithet for Tzim-Sha, “look at what you can do!”

And yet. In The Tsuranga Conundrum we saw the Doctor attending a funeral, joining in with an invocation that had heavy religious, if non-denominational, overtones:

May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you hope as they guide you out of the dark and into the light, on this voyage and the next…

Ranskoor Av Kolos ends with a speech along similar lines, delivered to the Ux by the Doctor:

Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you.

Hope is the keystone of this season, as good a word as any to sum it up: contingent, sometimes fragile, sometimes unfulfilled, but always full of potential, an opening up of possibilities, a spread of futures as numerous and wonderful as the wheeling stars. A show that aims to exclude nothing and nobody – even if, sometimes, it doesn’t quite succeed.

Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

This review contains spoilers.

It Takes You Away didn’t inspire the same monumental “meh” feeling in me as its predecessor The Witchfinders did, but a few days later I’m finding I care about it even less. To me, it feels like an unwelcome callback to the Moffat Era: a series of progressively more unlikely and-thens instead of a unified, consistent narrative.

Some background may be useful at this point.

The Doctor and her companions rock up in, apparently, northern Norway in the middle of winter.

Fictional!Norway in winter
Actual Norway in winter

They find an isolated house in the woods, with planks nailed over the doors and windows – except it’s not empty: a teenager, Hanne, is hiding from the terrifying noises she hears in the woods every day, and whose owner she suspects is behind the disappearance of her father.

So: are we in for a standard Doctor Who procedural, with scary alien monsters roaming the woods like creatures out of a fairytale? Or even a moody Scandi drama, with ‘orrible murders and Secrets and people drinking whiskey in the dark?

Of course not. The team behind Thirteen knows better than that. It Takes You Away is once again a reframing of what we expect of Doctor Who. There’s no monster, just bad parenting. There’s no villain, just a lonely sentient universe.

Wait, what?

I’m all for twists and turns that reveal the world we inhabit as a place bigger and more beautiful than we thought it was, but that kind of thing only works if it grows logically out of what came before it – and It Takes You Away doesn’t progress logically. Instead, it moves us hastily through a number of different settings and ideas that could all have sustained an episode on their own: a mirror that becomes a portal to another world; a wound in the fabric of the universe that manifests as a warren of slimy caves inhabited by flesh-eating moths and a weird humanoid bargaining alien named Ribbons the Seventh; an alternative universe where the dead come to life; a sentient frog who becomes Best Friends with the Doctor.

I think the reason I found this all so unsatisfying is that there’s no thematic or symbolic reason for it all to be here at once. In other words, there’s no overriding organising theme that would allow us to read the fantastic imagery productively. It Takes You Away kind of wants to be an episode about grief and the value of life, a culmination of the series’ quiet focus on loss and death that puts Graham face-to-face with Grace in the mirror universe, gives him closure. But it’s all handled so tritely. Graham has to “let her go” and return to the living (his grandson Ryan) as Hanne’s father has to let his dead/resurrected wife go and return to his daughter. Because we’ve never heard that take on grief before. Oh, wait.

Anyway, what does that have to do with the mirror and the caverns and the moths? That critical mass of Stuff just obscures the episode’s emotional throughline, making that climactic scene with Grace, and the Doctor’s abandonment of her frog friend, feel unearned and irrelevant.

I want to say that the episode did at least get Hanne right: she is blind (and played by a blind actor, Ellie Wallwork), but that doesn’t stop her being moderately energetic in the story, or from annoying Ryan in a peevish-teenager way. I don’t know, though, how to feel about the fact that she immediately recognises her mirror-mother as fake when her father hasn’t realised this in several days: is this the Blind Seer trope raising its dubious head?

Oh, conclusions. I hate conclusions. It Takes You Away is an irritatingly disjointed episode, and one that’s out of keeping with the rest of the season, stylistically speaking. I’m a little disappointed with where this season’s been going, actually: it started off pretty strongly, but the last few episodes have been lacking in focus and direction. Let’s see what the last episode’s like, though, before we pass judgement on the Whittaker Administration.

Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

The Witchfinders is the first Doctor Who episode this series that’s felt like it doesn’t know what it wants to say. As you might guess from the title, it’s another historical episode; set this time in 17th-century Lancaster, in a little village being terrorised by its landowner, Becka Savage, a woman obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. So far she’s killed thirty-five women, and as the episode opens she’s killing a thirty-sixth.

One of the things the episode is most interested in is the problem of Being a Woman in the 17th century. So, at the beginning of the episode, writer Joy Wilkinson sets up two pairs of women: the Doctor’s paired with Becka, as she tries to establish what’s going on in the village; these are both women in traditionally male positions of power and/or authority. And Yas is paired with Willa, the granddaughter of the woman killed by Becka at the beginning of the episode; these are both younger women with strong family links.

It all looks like it’s going to unfold in fairly typical Who style: Becka and Willa will provide clues, the Doctor will figure out what’s going on, and everyone will work together to defeat the inevitable aliens when they turn up, in a lovely female cooperative. (Oh, Ryan and Graham are around somewhere, but really only to provide comic relief. Or something.)

That web of relationships, though, is broken by the intrusion of, er, King James I, who turns up for reasons that are never made clear. Symbolically, though, he’s there because he’s the literal embodiment of male patriarchal authority, and as such he comes between these women. He refuses to believe the Doctor’s claim to be Witchfinder General, instead assuming that she’s an assistant to Graham’s Witchfinder General. His one-note insistence on wiping out witchcraft effectively breaks Becka’s budding sympathy with the Doctor, and turns her into a witch-hunt fanatic. And, later on, he uses his power and influence to bully Willa into turning against the Doctor and her companions.

This is all tied into the episode’s understanding of the word “witch” as simply a label for a woman who knows too much, speaks too loudly, gets too clever. The witch-hunts were a form of insidious misogyny manifesting as a way of keeping women in their place, individually and collectively. Destroy their networks, turn them against each other, and you stop them gaining power. (James is not aware of this, certainly not consciously, although in a bit of cod-psychology the episode roots his general paranoia in what he sees as an early betrayal by his mother.)

Which…well, it’s not an original historical reading, but it could have been interesting to see it played out all the way.

Instead, like Kerblam!, The Witchfinders, um…muddles its terms of reference a little. Specifically: we know, because we’re watching Doctor Who, that in fact there is something “not of this earth” going on in this village. We know that there is something for King James and Becka to hunt for. They’re not wrong. They’re just looking in the wrong place.

The Witchfinders could still work, at that, though. But the episode doesn’t just want to talk about misogyny; it’s also interested in interrogating the borders between science and magic. Or, at least, it gestures at doing that. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is a magic wand. Willa’s skill in healing is witchcraft, or it’s just knowing stuff. The tree on Pendle Hill is important because it’s Willa’s grandmother’s favourite, or because it’s made out of Science. The aliens (c’mon, you knew there were going to be aliens) are Morax warriors, or they’re demons. At the end of the episode, the Doctor quotes that old Arthur C. Clarke chestnut about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. We’re almost supposed to read this episode doubly: through the Doctor’s rational eyes, as a mystery to be solved; and through the historical gaze of the villagers, as a fairytale that ends with the destruction of evil.

I love this approach! But it complicates the misogyny reading of witchcraft in ways I don’t think Wilkinson intended it to. By blurring magic and science, it turns these women back into witches. It justifies the witch-hunt by confirming that there was something to look for after all. If there is evil at work in the village (and the Morax seem pretty evil to me; certainly the Doctor makes no effort to negotiate with them or treat them as sentient beings) then can we really blame James for burning the queen of the Morax as he’d burn a witch?

To be clear, I don’t think this reading is meant to be there. We’re meant to think James is misguided, annoying and a bit sad because of his stunted relationships. But this is a recurring weakness in this series: like Kerblam! and Arachnids in the UK, The Witchfinders hasn’t thought through its moral code. It’s interested in stuff, but not interested enough to follow right through and actually work out a coherent thing that it has to say.

(Arachnids in the UK certainly has things to say, and Kerblam! thinks it does. It’s just that the three episodes share a certain…fuzziness when it comes to working them out in the plot.)

That’s two weak episodes in a row. This’d better not become a pattern, BBC. Pretty please.

Doctor Who Review: Kerblam!

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.