Discussing Doctor Who: Kerblam!

Doctor Who Kerblam!

The Doctor receives a package (a fez!) from galactic delivery service Kerblam! containing a request for help. Going undercover in the warehouse, the Doctor investigates with Team TARDIS.

I’m joined again this week by Hannah Long (@HannahGraceLong) and Jenna DeWitt (@Jenna_DeWitt).

If you need to catch up, previously, we discussed “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” “The Ghost Monument,” “Rosa,” “Arachnids in the UK,” “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” and “Demons of the Punjab.”

This week, Hannah takes over all the questions.

Hannah: It was appropriate that this episode name-dropped Agatha Christie, because in a lot of ways, it was a simple mystery. One essential element in mysteries is clues. Do you think this episode did a good job dropping hints about the ultimate solution, or did the the big reveal come out of the blue?

Jenna: Okay, I think I have two answers to this. 1. Yes, I think they did a good job of dropping hints throughout about the dangers of Amazon-like mega-warehouse culture and the harm it does when we think of humans as “organics.”

2. No, I didn’t see the true enemy reveal coming! Which I thought was a good balance. It would have been boring if the expected baddie was the real one. By including the twist, the episode was able to go even deeper into the issue than the normal “corporations are bad, robots are scary, people in authority are evil” schtick, though those elements are true to a degree in this situation, but as the Doctor says, it’s the people who enabled and designed these systems that are to blame.

Aaron: I always appreciate links to previous episodes of Doctor Who, particularly in a season where so many things are different. I loved the quick nod to “The Unicorn and The Wasp” (and the fun gag with the fez).

And like, Jenna, I didn’t see the turn coming. They did a nice job of making the other possibilities—the robots, the managers—seem more nefarious. But in a way I think they did too good a job. As in, there didn’t seem to be any clues that Charlie, the innocuous janitor, was the actual bad guy. Having him say some things that could be taken in different ways would’ve provided some foreshadowing that gets overlooked because of the other options, but makes sense in the end. It needed an “I see dead people” moment.

There also seems to be some significant plot holes. If the “system” was aware enough that something was wrong with what Charlie was doing to send the Doctor a “help me” note, why didn’t it let the managers know? Why did it think the solution was to catch and kill other human workers? This is one of those episodes that is fun on a first viewing, but if you think about too long, it all falls apart.

Hannah: To me, this episode felt rather like Doctor Who by-the-numbers. Writer Pete McTighe (a life-long fan) was attempting the standard trick of reinventing a common item as deadly. Think of the Weeping Angels. Did any of us look at statues quite the same after Blink? And there’s that fantastic sequence where all the shop mannequins come alive in Spearhead from Space. Did you think the bubble wrap produce a similar effect? Why or why not?

Jenna: Oh yeah! I loved that bit. Making bubble wrap scary just in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday and the holiday shopping rush? Very Doctor Who. But it also felt unique enough that it wasn’t like “sigh, another household item? Really, Doctor Who?”

I admit during Eleven’s era, I think I had that reaction by the time we got to the snow. But I felt like it’s been long enough since they have done the “ordinary object becomes a weapon” trope, so I’m cool with it.

Aaron: As I’ve mentioned before, this is one of my favorite Doctor Who concepts. I still don’t look at statues the same way and even mannequins are a bit creepier after seeing the Autons.

And while this didn’t quite do the same to bubble wrap, our family did have several fun moments of cautioning each other as we took out carefully wrapped Christmas ornaments this weekend. If you are going to have a throwaway, short-lived villain or concept, at least make it a fun, memorable one.

Hannah: Our TARDIS “fam” are growing in confidence, perhaps too much so. Graham finagles his way into stealing a map; Ryan faces his dyspraxia by jumping down a chute; Yaz outruns a pair of hilariously slow robots in an action sequence worthy of Classic Who. Meanwhile, the Doctor seemed like she was in charge from step one. Did the episode still manage to pit our heroes against genuine obstacles? Was there a real sense of menace or are things too easy?

Jenna: The conveyor belt scene was fun, and Yaz down in the 999 section validated my “warehouses are creepy” opinion, but it’s true that these guys are all getting confident.

It’s good to have it work out a few times to build them up as experienced in their minds before having an episode where it shockingly doesn’t go as planned, so I think making it a bit easy is a great setup for a more meaningful climax later on.

Aaron: I liked Ryan’s anxiousness and nervous talking before jumping down the chute, but that whole scene was laughable for me. The CGI was atrocious (glaringly so after so much high budget cinematography earlier in the season) and Charlie falling off after a weak high five just seemed dumb.

There didn’t seem to be too much danger to the Doctor and companions, but I didn’t mind that as much. The issue was the mystery and the danger to the people in the warehouse. It can be a nice change of pace to have some episodes where different people are in trouble.

Hannah: This episode borrows from stories like Planet of the Ood or The Sunmakers for its portrayal of crushing corporate life. But the direction it ends up going is unexpected—it’s not a simple anti-technology screed (though both the revelation that the robots are actually good and that it’s really a paranoid terrorist behind the killings sounds remarkably like last week’s plot). What messages about humanity’s relationship to technology can we glean from the episode’s resolution?

Jenna: We have to remember there are people behind our automated systems: the Kira’s and Dan’s of the world who may or may not have had a choice in their work for a giant corporation feeding the demand in more prosperous countries, especially when the unemployment rate is high and people are grateful just to have any job, no matter how poor the conditions or strict the requirements.

A good way to keep ourselves tuned into that reality is to check your “slavery footprint,” then support the work of ethically sourced companies and nonprofits doing justice work in collaboration with these global corporations to end the forced labor that enables our consumerism.

The planet’s culture in this episode has already had a revolutionary moment that resulted in the 10% organics rule. When we realize that pushing a button online isn’t just a vending machine spitting out our desired product, and that we need real people in the system, we have to ask what we mean by “human-powered workforces” and “meaningful work.”

We can also take away the message that when we talk about the dignity of work, we should know which work we mean, and not forget the reality that most of us in white-collar jobs aren’t really talking about the same thing as blue-collar workers, especially factory workers, when we talk about things like calling and vocation.

It was ironic to me that they shoved the people into repetitive tasks in the warehouse that, as the Doctor notes, easily could have been robot-driven, and the robot-driven tasks were the people-facing ones, the delivery men. It’s the humans having to imagine what it must be like for the recipients to be so excited to get their package and the robot actually bringing that joy.

I’m not saying delivery work is easy and maybe teleports aren’t the safest for humans, but just that it seems like the motivation Kira had that made her work fulfilling easily could have been realized had they flipped the roles of humans and tech in the system.

Aaron: Jena, I’m glad you brought up the recent Christianity Today story about factory work and the discussions of how theology of work discussions often leave out blue-collar jobs. For me, I saw the episode much more about work and human dignity than about technology.

I grew up on a turkey farm and spent five years working in a UPS warehouse, before spending my day writing at a desk. It was much more difficult for me to remember the work I was doing had significance and value when I was handling boxes in the middle of the night.

But I will say, that Kira’s advice about remembering the people who would be opening the packages does provide perspective and is part of the training I received.

To the episode itself—and the turn away from evil tech—we are left again with the “humans are the true villains.” In isolation or at least on occasion, it makes a good twist, but it has been the primary reveal recently.

Hannah: Again, we have a story with a strong focus on family, and more specifically, on family divided. Kira is an orphan. Dan’s daughter is orphaned in the course of the episode. We also see the way an obsessive love of tribe and people can lead to terrorism, much like Manish last week. And again, the Doctor fails to talk a radical out of self-destruction. Why do you think the season is dwelling on these themes?

Jenna: I think these are really relevant themes to our current climate, but it also forces the series into a more domestic focus, which is beloved by the Doctor Who community and takes New Who back to its roots, as we’ve discussed.

I think when you want to make a character, good or bad, more relevant to the audience or especially villainous or emotionally moving, you make it about something the average viewer can relate to or at least have empathy for: being betrayed by a sibling, having to work far away to support your family, losing a beloved parent figure, marrying into a family and trying to bond with a younger person who might resent you, dealing with an absent father, finding out your grandmother has a secret past … those things can connect us to characters in ways that spaceships and aliens don’t and are the heart behind the Who.

Aaron: Of all the death this seasons, I think I was most heartbroken by Kira’s. She just wanted a family—and a present to open more than once (or I guess twice) in her life. Even Dan’s was a gut punch as he was spending the time away from his daughter and for his daughter (which has obvious parallels to immigrant labor force in developed nations). They did a good job of making the characters connect emotionally this week.

It is interesting to see the Doctor fail to convince the radicalized person that violence isn’t the answer. I would love to see her wrestle with that and even wonder if it has something to do with her gender. With previous incarnations, they often avoided disaster by talking people out of their plans. (One can’t help but remember Twelve and his speech in “The Zygon Inversion.”)

Hannah: Bonus question: We’re well into the season at this point, far enough to have a pretty good idea of the characters. Out of the TARDIS team, who’s your favorite and why? (Mine is Graham. His character is the most fleshed-out, and he is so wonderfully empathetic and enthusiastic.)

Jenna: I love all of them! Oh man. Is it cheating to say the Doctor herself? I’m so in love with how Jodie is playing her and I hope she stays on for a long time to come.

Aaron: There were so many moments this week that solidified Ryan as my favorite. He’s a lovable goofball dealing with some significant emotional and physical issues. Like Nardole last season, I enjoy the companions who provide levity in the midst of seriousness.

And for some reason, Ryan strikes me as the most believable. The way he responds to situations and talks to others sounds less like a character on a show and more like an actual person.

Next week: “The Witchfinders”

1 Comment

  1. The System may have been sentient (like the Moment and the Tardis) and didn’t trust any human there, that is why it reached outside. Even the humans “in charge” didn’t seem to have any one to reach out to.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.