Story No. 309 Let's get a shift on!
Production Code Series 11, Episode 7
Dates November 18, 2018

With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Pete McTighe Directed by Jennifer Perrott
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle

Synopsis: A package arrives for the Doctor, but someone needs help in the Keblam corporation.


A Review by Aristide Twain 17/12/19

There exist two Kerblam!s, superimposed, quantum-style, upon one another.

One is a fairly exciting Doctor Who adventure for the fans; as much like the Tennant or Capaldi eras as Series 11 gets, and all the better for wear. The omnipresent Kerblam-Men are, in both voice and design, the best "new monsters" in all of Series 11, hands down. (It continues to baffle me that Chibnall thought the Stenza and the SniperBots were the monsters worth bringing back in the finale when there were perfectly good Kerblam-Men and Remnants to spare. Even the freaking Morax would have been more satisfying! But I digress.) The pace is vivacious, the Doctor proactive, the world well-realized, the guest cast strong. And the story is nicely unpredictable, while still making complete sense (and being just as fun) upon rewatch. Unusually for the Chibnall era, there are even some full-on comedy moments such as the job assignments and the bashful robot Twirly.

That Kerblam!, in a vacuum, is by all means one of the top stories in Series 11, alongside Demons of the Punjab.

There, is unfortunately, another Kerblam! lurking beneath the surface, namely the one where Peter McTighe created an abstract science-fiction story based entirely on cyberpunk tropes without it ever quite clicking with him that those tropes are drenched in anti-capitalism activism. And, as such, that pulling a "clever, expectations-reversing plot twist" on the "corporate AI gone rogue, brave freedom fighters fighting robots" story would end up making something... well, not even something actively pro-capitalism, but something utterly politically incompetent.

The much-decried fact that the Doctor ends up making a speech about how "the System isn't the problem" isn't really the big issue, though certainly the fact that this phrase didn't look off to McTighe should be a warning sign. That line is actually grossly misinterpreted; as she has done throughout the episode, the Doctor is here referring to the sentient AI known as "the System", not about 'the system' as in 'the economy'. But, you see, that's kind of the problem: the resolution hinges on the revelation that the Kerblam central AI itself is a sentient individual with its own thoughts and (ultimately benevolent) motives. Unless you make the story about that, then you can't just plop such a concept as "Skynet has feelings too" in your "corporate AI goes rogue" story without it stopping to have any applicability whatsoever to the real world, whether as a leftist or rightist metaphor, and without bubbling incoherently about things that bear naught but an illusory resemblance to real things. Except it is a resemblance that can't just be ignored in the way you ignore that TARDIS-travel isn't a real depiction of airline safety, because on a surface level the episode couldn't trumpet "Kerblam is Space Amazon" any louder.

Not, of course, that Kerblam! is even consistent about this "the System is a person too, it was crying out for help, and it's a good guy" thing. It did, after all, kill the innocent Kira in cold blood as part of its attempts to placate Charlie, so while Charlie may have been framing the System for these particular thoughtless cold-blooded murders, it actually shows itself to be capable of them. It is baffling that the Doctor okays this. Imagine if an episode ended up with the Doctor coldly murdering a murderer's innocent family in an effort to "show the villain how it feels".

And, ah, yes, Charlie. Well-acted, but his motivations are beyond nonsensical. He's some sort of extremist labor-union terrorist fighting against technical unemployment through job automation, causing him to try and frame the Kerblam System for murder so people will stop trusting robot workers. Except... this is a world with easily-mass-produced robots and human-level AI. Any self-respecting far-left activist in this situation shouldn't be fighting for the right of humans to remain Amazon wage-slaves, fercrissake. They should be fighting for all hard human labor to be given over to robots and capitalism abolished. Is this just the villain's madness, you ask? No: the epilogue has the sympathetic Kerblam bigwigs promising they'll try to hire more humans in the near future, so Charlie is being presented as a well-intentioned extremist, not a raving loon.

Really, under the barest of scrutinies, all this "Go, organics!" business cannot bear any kind of resemblance to real-world job automation. The one thing that would have it make sense is that it's not actually economic concerns, but prejudice against robots. The Doctor actually quips about "robophobia" early on in the episode, stating that she has many dear robot friends (K9? Kamelion? Handles? ...Antimony? who knows quite who McTighe was thinking of, but it's not hard to see he's right). Yet even that is walled off by the Doctor's tacit approval of the "we'll hire more organics" decision at the end.

No, the fact is, Kerblam! is good for 50 minutes' fun-filled entertainment, but it so utterly breaks down upon being given any serious thought that you can't really call it a good episode. I would say this leaves Demons of the Punjab as the only Series 11 episode devoid of a serious episode-shattering flaw, absent the recycled plot twist. With said plot twist in mind, I fear Series 11 doesn't have any ambiguously good episodes at all. It has enjoyable episodes, though, and even the duller ones have enjoyable moments or ideas; Kerblam! is a prime example of that. There's a lot to like here. One just wishes it wasn't wrapped up in an imbecilic unallegory.