The Systems Aren’t the Problem: Doctor Who, “Kerblam!”

Doctor Who could have taken a rest after the stunning “Demons of the Punjab,” but that doesn’t seem to be the Thirteenth Doctor’s style. “Kerblam!” could have been the title of a game show on Nickelodeon in the 90s, but Doctor Who instead decided to use the name to explore themes of automation, obsolescence, and the value of human labor.

Summary

The Doctor receives a package from “Kerblam!” a giant shipping company, and her packing slip reads “HELP ME.” She, Yas, Ryan, and Graham head to Kerblam’s warehouse, situated on an Kandoka’s moon, to find out what’s up. Kerblam! is only a ten percent human workforce, the rest done by automation and robots, and the group meets first with Judy Maddox (Julie Hesmondhalgh) to see about work. They fake credentials and get jobs, but the Doctor trades places with Graham to work in the packaging center with Ryan, hoping to find out who slipped her the note. They meet a sweet young woman named Kira Arlo (Claudia Jessie), who hasn’t seen much kindness in her life. Graham ends up working maintenance with a young man named Charlie Duffy (Leo Flanagan), who clearly likes Kira. Yas works in the warehouse, collecting items for shipment, where she meets Dan Cooper (Lee Mack), who is working to put away money for his daughter. Dan insists on going to get one of Yas’s packages from a tricky area of the warehouse, since the last worker he saw go down there never came back.

Dan is attacked by mailman robots in that section of the warehouse, and when Yas goes down to find him, she is confronted by three mailman robots as well, only narrowly escaping. The Doctor, Yas, and Ryan confront the manager Jarvin Slade (Callum Dixon) and Judy to find out what they know about the missing people, but they claim to be clueless on the matter. Graham gets Charlie to help him get a schematic of the warehouse, so they can learn the layout, and there’s another power outage; Charlie is attacked by one of the robots. The Doctor reactivates one of Kerblam’s first delivery robots named Twirly, so he can tap into the base code of the company’s system and find out what’s going on. Robots take Kira to receive “a present” and lock her in a room with a package addressed to her. Ryan, Yas, and Charlie take the package chute down to Dispatch, but the Doctor finds a faster way, realizing that you can get down there using the robots’s teleport systems. Charlie, Yas, and Ryan witness Kira’s death when she opens her box and pops one bubble in the bubble wrap of the package.

Doctor Who, Kerblam!

The Doctor arrives and they find all the Dispatch mail robots waiting in the warehouse with packages; they’re being held there so that they all deliver at once. With Twirly’s help, the Doctor has learned that the Kerblam! system itself is what called her for help—because Charlie has programmed the mail robots to deliver packages with the explosive bubble wrap. He plans to cause so many deaths that humans call for an end to automation, and he killed coworkers to make certain his plan would work. The Kerblam! computer systems killed Kira to try and make Charlie understand what it would feel like to lose a loved one, but he’s determined to see his plan through. The Doctor reprograms the robots to deliver the packages to the warehouse and pop the bubble wrap themselves. She gives Charlie a chance to escape with everyone else, but he refuses. After the explosion, the warehouse is shut down, and Judy tells the Doctor that she plans to fight to make Kerblam! a human focused company.

Commentary

I’ve wanted more science fiction stories that tackled the theme of technology and automation alongside the cost of human labor, and Peter McTighe’s first Who episode has managed it fabulously. Kerblam! is a company name that fits perfectly alongside all the names we see today—Fandango, Jet, Google, and more—and the environment of the Kerblam! warehouses are taken straight from the Amazon playbook, including the unforgiving hours, lack of breaks, inhumane conditions.

The show has been on an incredible topical streak that is hitting with uncanny accuracy: This episode is airing not even two weeks after mega-corp Amazon announced their new HQ would be split between Virginia, and Long Island City in Queens, New York. Despite the promise to bring jobs to the area, NYC’s response has been far from thrilled, by and large. There’s good reason for that, and those reasons are exemplified in this episode via the atmosphere at Kerblam! Humans had to fight to make the company even ten percent a human work force, and everyone there talks of how lucky they are to be employed at all, even while they’re being belittled and abused by their employer. The robots watch the human employees, capable of logging every second they spend chatting or zoning out, and bothering them to get back to work if they see any laxness. While Judy is supposed to be in charge of human welfare, she does very little to ensure that the work environment is enjoyable, safe, or stimulating.

Doctor Who, Kerblam!

The Doctor makes a point that has been on humanity’s mind as technology displaces more and more jobs; everything the people at Kerblam! are doing could be done by robots, and that should be a good thing… but people still need the jobs, the money. The story doesn’t gloss over the twofold problem of an automated world; people at the company may claim that work gives them purpose, but in reality, these jobs only let them survive. So the problem isn’t simply that automation is wrong; people shouldn’t have to spend their lives doing meaningless busywork. But if the world doesn’t provide for them, if there are no systems in place to help them pursue their passions and remain fed and clothed and sheltered, then they are relegated to jobs like these, and robots are standing in the way of their ability to live at all. They shouldn’t, but a system that doesn’t provide for everyone creates those inequalities… and not coincidentally encourages mass consumerism on a grand scale.

There’s a clear critique of consumerism onto this, at least as it pertains to thoughtless consumption or the belief that things can lead to happiness. Kira tells Ryan and the Doctor that to make her job less boring she remembers how exciting it was the only time in her life that she ever received a package (it was from work). She thinks of how happy people will be to receive the items in their boxes, and that helps make her job bearable. And while it’s certainly a nice thought, and it’s also true that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a person enjoying a present or an item that provides them with entertainment or other value, the idea that another human being can only expect to putter away their life in unfulfilling tedium in order to make that experience possible for others is horrifying. And it should be.

Doctor Who, Kerblam!

What’s more, the moral of the episode is one that’s coming more and more clear the more we rely on technology as a species. Charlie plans to commit mass murder because he’s decided that the system must be destroyed in order to fix anything, but the Doctor disagrees, saying, “The systems aren’t the problem. How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” It makes perfect sense coming from our engineer Doctor, someone who understands full well that technology isn’t inherently evil of itself—it’s all in what we choose to do with it. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been hoping for an episode with this exact moral, as it’s an issue that’s incredibly important to me, being a person who works on the internet. Though there’s always room for more exploration, Doctor Who pretty much nailed it on this one.

What’s less happy-making is the fact that every guest star this week was white for some reason. This season has been great about representative casting, so it was sort of jarring to note that Ryan and Yas were the only people of color in this episode.

Ryan and Yas were extra flipping cute in this episode, and they make an excellent adventure team. Yas is also really coming into her own as the one in the companion trio who really goes out of her way to get into trouble, and puts thought into what she can do for the people they encounter. (Her tearful request that they return the necklace that Dan’s daughter made for him was heart-rending in the loveliest way, as was the Doctor’s clear sympathy when she saw how affected Yas was by it.)

Doctor Who, Kerblam!

The dynamics of Team TARDIS are solidifying every episode, and they only get more enjoyable as their bonds strengthen. It was particularly fun to watch the Doctor give one of her Don’t Mess With Me speeches, only to turn around for this exchange—

The Doctor: Too bombastic?
Yas: Felt about right…
Ryan: I kinda liked it!
The Doctor: Thanks.

It’s also fun when companions get to rib the Doctor for forcing them to do the sort of things they left home to escape; Ryan’s complaints due to time he’s already spent working the warehouse at SportStack were particularly amusing on that account, as was learning that he sprained his ankle jumping down a dispatch chute back then. But the episode’s end was oddly ambiguous; while it’s good to know that Judy is going to do her best to make Kerblam! a more people-focused employer, it really remains to be seen if that can work to everyone’s benefit. After all, they were only able to get their employees two weeks paid leave because their warehouse literally exploded… perhaps that means this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Kerblam!

Doctor Who, Kerblam!

Asides and fun for this episode:

  • The Doctor mentions her adventure with Agatha Christie (“The Unicorn and the Wasp”) when Yas brings up wasps.
  • We get mention of the Doctor’s two hearts in this episode. By the look on Graham’s face, that’s never come up before.
  • Kerblam! delivers a fez to the Doctor, which was Eleven’s preferred chapeau. It seems as though he ordered for himself; it’s not hard to imagine Eleven doing some late night tipsy online shopping. Also the Doctor’s excitement over seeing the Kerblam! Man was one of her cutest moments yet.
  • The aikido move from “The Ghost Monument” is back again.
  • Psychic paper again! This time it claims that they’re all related to the “First Lady,” whoever that may be at this point in time.
  • The Doctor tries for slang again, departing Slade’s office with “laterz,” then muttering “Not doing that again. Sticking to ‘bye.'”

Emily Asher-Perrin would really appreciate it if Amazon HQ stayed away from New York, thanks. You can bug him on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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