With a cast that includes Claudia Jessie, from the sublimely intelligent comedy Porters, and Lee Mack, one of the funniest comedians this country has to offer, I was expecting a funny episode this week. The teaser at the end of the previous episode strengthened that expectation, but sadly it was not to be. Lee Mack was under-utilised in the episode and there was probably less comedy than the average Doctor Who episode. So what did we get instead?
Well, superficially we got Scooby Doo, with a villainous janitor who would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for that pesky Doctor. We also got the plot of Robots of Death, plus some killer bubble wrap that is actually supposed to be bubble wrap at last. Oh, and the conductor from Greatest Show. An army of him. But feeding into all this were some fascinating themes and ideas.
Idea #1: exploitation of a workforce. The idea that brought the Doctor into the narrative, a hidden message in a package, is actually a real world phenomenon. You will find news stories if you do a quick google, but here’s one from the BBC website. If you take a look at the real-life message, you will see that it says something a bit more useful to the recipient than “help me”. I’ll come back to that.
Idea #2: technology stealing people’s jobs. This of course goes right back to the Luddites, and, as much as that word has become an insult, they had a point. It’s an issue that very much affects people today. I remember a couple of years ago the staff in my local bank branch kept nagging me about online banking. I said to one of them “you do realise if you persuade enough people to do that you will be out of a job?” She laughed it off as if I was living in some kind of a fantasy world. Earlier this year she was made redundant and the branch closed.
Idea #3: artificial intelligence becoming too intelligent. This is an important one, and it’s fluffed. It is the assumed culprit, which is a red herring. Great. But then again the system thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to kill an innocent woman as a tactical move to counteract the damage being done to it. Again, this is an issue that is very current. Are there scenarios where a self-driving car will choose to kill the driver, to protect a greater number of people? That’s the choice the system makes in Kerblam!
The problem with all this, and there are more interesting ideas in the mix, is that writer Pete McTighe throws them all in and then has no comment to make about any of them. That’s why I say #3 above is fluffed in particular. It goes unnoticed that a computer system has actually made a very cold-hearted, murderous decision. Kira is a great character who deserved the happiness of a meaningful gift from a loved one that she had never experienced. Her death is cruel, and it’s at the hands of a computer system, but that’s lost amongst the bombardment of unexplored themes. Just what is going on here? Is big business bad? Is their treatment of the workforce unacceptable? On the face of it, Tighe seems to be going with some kind of a condemnation of left-wing activism, with the big bad of the episode somebody who is fighting for human rights, and then he gets talked into a corner by the Doctor. Is that supposed to be the message? It’s a pretty nasty one if it is, but even that is fuzzy, because his violent activism is shown to be successful in the end. The company does change the way it works, following on from what he does.
So all Tighe does is throws a lot of ideas at a wall, without offering an opinion on anything. You might think that’s a good thing to do, but in the realms of drama it just isn’t going to work. The end result is a muddle, and it is all achieved at the expense of any kind of logic. Charlie’s whole modus operandi makes little sense. He has the ability and knowledge to simply bring the system to its knees. There’s no reason for him to be killing anybody. The Doctor’s solution is a gratuitous way to bring about his death because that’s the result the writer is looking for, but it doesn’t flow from any kind of a sensible narrative. She could simply get them to teleport into space, or how about not setting off the bubble wrap at all. Instead, there is a big explosion because those are cool, and the perp is neatly dispatched in the process. It’s about as contrived as a computer system that sends out a smudged “help me” note, instead of one that says “Charlie Duffy is a murderer”.
Ironically, for a story that tries to include some kind of confused message about AI being a threat to humanity, I came away with the impression that a computer could have written something better than this. RP
The view from across the pond:
With a visually stunning opening and another shot of the time vortex right out of Bill and Ted, Kerblam opens with the requisite bang. But was it a good episode? I enjoyed it, despite a number of problems. So, let’s start there.
Before I watched Sunday night’s episode, I had our friend and sometime contributor to the blog, Paul Roeber over my house with his 2 year old son. His son found it loads of fun to shoot me with a marshmallow gun. To combat this, I pulled out the sonic screwdriver and ran after him, making him giggle the whole time. It was fun for all! But I wasn’t writing a story for a 55 year old television show; I was just having fun with a kid using the only thing nearby that could even be perceived as a foil to his marshmallow weapon. Pete McTighe, the writer of Kerblam, decided the sonic really needed more screen time. Which is a bit crazy, considering what an all-powerful device this has been already.
The Doctor uses the sonic to:
- Update a spreadsheet (Timelord knows how that works!)
- Change the color of the group-loop device to switch roles with Graham
- Unlock a file cabinet because picking it or having it unlocked would have been too convenient
- Attempt to disable a robot (so it can update spreadsheets but can’t work on actual problems…)
- Attempt to pull data from the robots head (while putting a sparking head on a desk covered in paper…)
- Open Twirly’s cage
- Turn Twirly back on
- Hijack a teleport
- Scan/identify liquified human remains
- Scan bubble wrap and identify the explosive within
- Scan the air to determine the nature of power drains
- Fix a broken bomb activation device
- Reactivate Twirly
- And finally reactivate a teleport
I love the Sonic, but that’s just ridiculous!
It’s not the only thing they got wrong with the episode. When the Doctor gets the package from Kerblam, Ryan pops some of the bubblewrap. But at the end of the episode, they think better of it and stare at the ominous bubble wrap like it might be dangerous. Sorry, Pete, you showed us early on that it wasn’t. That’s not the part I take issue with: the system was trying to get the Doctor’s help, so it makes sense that the bubblewrap used in the Doctor’s box was not dangerous. But why make a tense moment when we already knew there was nothing to be tense over. And considering how many people pack the products off the conveyor belt, in bubble wrap, does no one ever accidentally pop them? Ok, kudos to McTighe for one thing: after Ark in Space, the big joke was that bubble wrap is not scary… but now it is!
Am I done? No! Dan is taken by the robots, and Yaz hears him scream but when the adorable Kira is taken, she is put in a soundproof room. So what did Yaz hear? And, when the group gets down to the lower levels, Charlie says he can hear “Kira’s voice”. Sorry again Pete, get a better script editor. You can’t hear someone if they are in a soundproof room. Make up your mind! Oh, and continuity in Doctor Who is hard enough, but to contradict ourselves already… that’s embarrassing. Jodie says in Arachnids in the UK that she loves a conspiracy. Three episodes later she claims to hate them! Or Ryan, when you tell the boss that there’s no time to mess with a packing label, you look silly when there was clearly ample time to stand around chatting without a single package coming down the conveyor belt! This wasn’t the conveyor belt from I Love Lucy! Speaking of conveyor belts, do they really have lasers to zap the packages, but can’t hit a human sized target? Sure, the roller coaster scene was fun, but a bit over the top, no? And what humor value was uniquely gained by the pole dancer joke? Again, we want kids watching this show – there’s no need to have them questioning what that’s all about. To quote Gob from Arrested Development, “C’mon!”
But despite that, I enjoyed the episode. Why?
For one, the cast is consistently marvelous. There are so many great lines, but Graham’s superpower might be his best. Ryan, at least still maintaining some continuity with his dyspraxia, recognizes “that’s not how we roll” when given the choice to stay behind. The Doctor really feels like the hero a number of times too, when she declares “I might suspect you have something to do with it” to the “head of people”. “Those words better be worth something… you’ll have me to deal with” “you better be worthy of those jobs you’re holding”, and “If I ever find out you’re lying…” are all strong statements. Gone is that timid Doctor we saw with the Trump-wannabe in Arachnids in the UK, this Doctor stands her ground and conveys the power to stand behind her words. I guess, her words are worth something! And there are other great lines, like when Twirly tells that Doctor that for people with her medical condition, he recommends blood pressure medication. You have to be quick here: she has two hearts, two sets of heartbeats. To Twirly, that’s got to be disconcerting. (If only he knew about that health plan!)
And I’m all for allegory! “While we were busy staring at our phones…” technology took the power away from people. Yeah, I can see that happening. Not to mention, as I am midway through a course on leadership, I love how relevant this line was, “Respect goes both ways. The best managers, the really good ones, value their staff…”
Yet, a lot of this is pretty standard Doctor Who. This season has been about learning and this is a chance to attack big business, like Walmart and Amazon, the Kerblam’s of our world. Well, there are moments that draw parallels, like wearing an ankle monitor as if under house arrest, being told “there’s no such thing as privacy here” or having a “head of people” in place of human resources. There’s a degree of the corporate lifestyle imitated here, but if you don’t like the episode because it was a weak attack on the corporate world, you may have missed the point. I don’t think it was about that at all. It started with the Doctor’s comment about Robophobia. (For more on that, see here). I saw a distinctly pro-AI message here. We’re all so afraid of what technology can do, but it’s not the technology that goes wrong. The AI is the one trying to save the people and get the Doctor to help. The system gave the Doctor the role of janitor because that was where the problem was: she changes the group-loop but had she worked with the system, she might have discovered Charlie’s malfeasance earlier. The system is the reason Kira’s abduction takes place; trying to get Charlie to see the folly of his ways. The system doesn’t even bother putting a gift in Kira’s box, just the bubble wrap. It even alerts the Doctor and company that Kira has been taken, something it has not done up until that point. Instead it’s the human that abuses technology that is the villain. Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics might hold true and we are worried about nothing. It’s not the robots and the AI that we have to fear, but those whose mantas are “my generation; we change things!”
If there’s one real problem with the story it’s that Charlies plan actually does instigate change, which is exactly the wrong message. Maybe McTighe was giving us a hint of Gandhi: be the change you want to see in the world. Charlie is the one killed by the machines; so the Doctor may be responsible for instigating the actual change, not Charlie. Attacking the populace was never the right course of action, and we get lucky that only Charlie has to die in the end, but to illustrate that it did create the change Charlie wanted to see is a dangerous message. Fascinating episode at least, and well timed for Christmas. I wonder if I’ll still pop the bubble wrap? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Witchfinders
Maybe it’s because this year is the 50th Anniversary year for 2001: A Space Odyssey and also the year where Douglas Rain, the Canadian star who voiced HAL 9000, has passed. But I find it more significant for Jodie somewhere in her first season to tackle the issues of AI, as T. Baker in his first season with Robot. Although The Robots Of Death still earns my vote for the best robot villains, in Kerblam we get a similarly haunting example of how AIs who are made to be friendly can suddenly (in their own friendly-seeming way) become dangerous. HAL 9000 has been called the AI villain in SF that all other AI villains in SF (and maybe even science-realism) will be measured against. The fact that the actual villainy is one of the human ensemble (like the central villainy in The Robots Of Death) can make more sense as it specifies how our own responsibility for our technology is more serious an issue in reflection of all the real AI concerns of today.
In was similar to the subject matter of my Continuum City, where the Gemingans were shocked to learn from Susan 2 that their gravity-controlling achievement could be cataclysmically dangerous, but in realizing that Zodin was the main danger, as Susan 2 and Vanello defeated her, that all the technological wonders of this great city could still be good and safe so long as it all remains in the right hands. So in that sense I enjoyed Kerblam which, like the race-against-time dynamics I had for Susan 2, Vanello and Jootz, had a thrilling sequence for Ryan and Yasmin in the midst of that obstacle course through all of Kerblam’s automation. Again it comes down to enjoying a Dr. Who story for your own personal reasons.
As for the conflicting confrontation between Jodie’s Doctor and Charlie, the Doctor-ish tradition of trying to convince the villain that there should be a better way is honored by Jodie. Charlie’s fate proved once again that even homicidal villains in Dr. Who are still people in their own rights. So I thought it made the outcome all the more realistic in the sense of learning from grave mistakes to assure that they’ll never be repeated. As for the bubble-wrap, I still found it more unforgettable to see how green bubble wrap was made into the Wirrn’s larvae-slugs in The Ark In Space. As kids of course, my sister and I both enjoyed popping bubble wraps and so I hope Kerblam won’t scare children too much as the troll doll did in Terror Of The Autons.
Thank you both for your reviews.
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As an inexperienced traveler in the Who universe, I often wonder if I’m being too critical when I see things I don’t like, or more importantly that drop me out of a story. So I was kind of glad to read Mike’s complaints about the Sonic Screwdriver. Sure the Doctor needs SOMETHING out there, sentient beings are nothing without their tools, but it does seem to be something of a magic wand at times.
I thought this episode had a heartfelt message of caring and decency toward one another. The extras (who unfortunately don’t survive) were very moving, particularly Kira, though Dan, who helps Yaz, also came across as a genuinely good person.
Beyond that though, agree with both RP and ML that the message got very muddled. There was something in there about protecting workers and the right to work. But that message got confused by the terrorism. I suppose you could have a story about how easy it is to be corrupted by ideals, but this wasn’t that story.
Still I can’t complain too much – it was enjoyable. I didn’t see the mystery villian until the end and loved the sequences of traveling down the myriad conveyor belts.
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I sometimes wonder the same.
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