In the seventh episode of the eleventh series of Doctor Who, the Doctor receives a mysterious message that prompts the team to visit the biggest retailer in the universe. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
As fantastical as this season has been, I’m enjoying the fact that so much of series eleven has been grounded in reality. From the discussion of the perils of capitalism in “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” to racism in “Rosa,” to the partition of India in “Demons of the Punjab,” Thirteen has been a Doctor who is innately interested in empathy and justice. Which isn’t to say the others haven’t, but her personality feels so much less closed off than Twelve was. This is a Doctor who greets everyone with her arms wide, wide open… right up until someone starts harming others. Thus, it made a lot of sense that to have Doctor Who explore the often terrifying world of automation and online retail. Like… this is barely a satire of Amazon, y’all. There’s a lot packed into the construction of Kerblam! that references the things we’ve learned of the working conditions of Amazon, from the lack of a union, to the rigid productivity rules and monitoring, to the emotional state of the employees… you get the idea.
What this does is construct a world for the viewer that feels real, despite that this is very much a science fiction story. The Kerblam! robots are creepy, but that’s largely due to perspective. Pete McTigh’s script is clever in that it immediately turns us against the Kerblam! robots, but for the wrong reasons. The world of Kerblam! is inherently disturbing, basically: it’s near a human colony where 90% of the population is without a job. The robots are technologically brilliant—able to teleport long distances in an instant to deliver people the things they need—but the workforce itself feels threatening. Have they really replaced human jobs? Are the robots themselves part of some terrible conspiracy to actually do that? For those familiar with science fiction tropes, McTigh’s script guides us into familiar territory, and I figured that I knew that Slade or Judy was behind the worker disappearances. And of the two, Slade was way more suspicious.
However, this episode turns on its head two-thirds of the way through, and I’m still reeling from the reveal of what was actually going on. Again, this story is inherently about empathy: Charlie did not feel anyone understood his panic and terror over human unemployment. At the same time, the show doesn’t glamorize his fall into terrorism. Instead, the climactic moment of this episode is about Charlie’s inability—or refusal, really—to feel empathy for anyone else. His anger is targeted at the wrong people, and his attack will cause an unmeasurable amount of human suffering. And all because he purportedly cares about humans??? No, that’s not how this works, and I love that we get a final scene that is both largely dialogue and action. I LOVE RESOLUTIONS THAT ARE ABOUT PEOPLE JUST TRYING TO TALK IT OUT. And for a moment, I thought Charlie was going to change his mind!!!
On top of all of this, I was just enamored with how many small, joyous moments there were in this episode. Juggling three companions per episode is a gargantuan task, and yet, every episode has done such a fantastic job at making sure they all get screentime and meaningful things to do. “Kerblam!” featured one of my favorite moments between Yaz and Ryan. Well, I should note that the scripts have all been consistent in depicting Ryan’s neurological disorder, first of all. So it was really pleasing to see Yaz offer her support to Ryan without condescension; it came from a place of care! There’s also that hilarious moment when Graham likens Charlie’s crush to Ryan, which builds their relationship for the audience even more. And I like these brief scenes because of how they add depth and nuance to the stories! This whole episode shows us that after multiple trips, these three companions are starting to get the hang of traveling with the Doctor. They’re now suggesting theories, offering to help without prompting, and are proving to the Doctor that this is what they want to do.
And then there’s Jodie Whittaker, who continues to impress me so very much. I want each of the Doctor’s to feel distinct. While I can see elements of Eleven’s wackiness and Nine’s joy in her, she doesn’t feel like any of the past Doctor’s. Jodie has this wide-eyed purity that she brings to the role; this is a Doctor who is ready to barge into the future, rather than one dragged down by the past, by guilt, or by shame. I expect that’s also because Chibnall has felt free to define the Doctor on his own terms after being passed the reins by Moffat. And that’s a good thing! The show feels gleefully open and adventurous, and it’s made for a gleefully open and adventurous Doctor, too.
All this to say: y’all, I’m having the time of my life watching this show. It just makes me so HAPPY.
The video for “Kerblam!” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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