Reviewed: Kerblam!

There may be no Doctor Who Christmas Special this year, but this week’s Doctor Who episode, Kerblam! arrived just in time for Black Friday … and it couldn’t have been more perfect. While you’re making your next order online, Kerblam! asks to think of the elves – machine and people alike – packing, scanning, and stowing it in a warehouse somewhere: an enormous global machine of conveyor belts and sore knees churning out the world’s commerce to bring you, dear citizen, your novelty socks (or Fez?), your books, and your new AeroPress with back-breaking cost efficiency.

Dire predictions of “technological unemployment”, as John Maynard Keynes coined it in the ’30s, have long since persisted in the popular imagination even if every luddite’s call to arms has proven premature, generation after generation; the relationship between employment and technological advancement is complicated and elusive. Many would argue, on balance, technology is a net positive for employment: robots improve productivity, raising further demand and employment; they’re a disruptive rather than destructive force in the modern economy which relocates workers to newer, less routine, and more interesting work. As BU economist Pascual Restrepo says, “the process of machines replacing human labor is not something that is new. It’s been going on for 200 years. Why is it the case that we still have so many jobs?”

And yet organisations like the OECD and the World Economic Forum have recently predicted a significant share of jobs – a number ranging from two fifths to two thirds – face a high risk of displacement from automation. Our economy is undergoing a painful transition as it adapts to new technology, automation and artificial intelligence:a “bifurcation” where middle class workers are pushed out of work by automation into service and “low-paid, unskilled” work, effectively driving wage growth down to a standstill and bolstering economic inequality and anxiety.

It’s that bleak future which has tech giants like Elon Musk and Bill Gates contemplating big policy responses to the oncoming robocalypse, such as a “robot tax” on employers and their job-stealing automation to fund a universal basic income for us, “organics,” driven out of work. One Doctor Who fan, the late Stephen Hawking said in 2015 that “everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”

Kerblam! offers a compromise to Hawking’s dilemma that’s to no one’s liking: a commercial dystopia, Kerblam is a galactic retailer that employs only a small share of the labour force as a concession to labour unions. While most of society remains unemployed, those who do work, complete menial tasks for Kerblam not unlike Amazon in real life, which has been accused of “treating staff like robots” in its warehouses, exhausting their employees (or Amazon as calls them, “fulfillment associates“) with punishing expectations for packing, an omnipresent management, “mandatory overtime,” and a 55-hour work week.

Kerblam! proves itself as a successful satire of Amazon, even if less ghoulish than the real thing…

Like in Amazon, Kerblam’s limited human staff toil alongside robots in warehouses; they’re expected to stand and pack for long, grueling shifts under the spectre of an all-seeing, all-knowing management prone to corporate euphemisms and faux niceness. We get to know Kerblam through its workers, played by a cast of superb guest stars that took a stellar script and thoroughly owned its parts: Claudia Jessie as Kira Arlo, the employee of the day; Lee Mack as Dan Cooper, a veteran of the warehouse; Callum Dixon as Jarva Slade, the cruel manager with a secret; Leo Flanagan as Charlie Duffy, a love-struck janitor; Julie Hesmondhalgh as Judy Maddox, a well-intentioned if hapless human resources director. They’re guest characters with a rare sense of dimension.

At the centre of Kerblam’s success is its burning satire, characterisation, and intrigue – it’s a human story full of surprises and gags. Like Kerblam itself, what the story sets out to deliver, it delivers. When it wants to thrill, it thrills, throwing our heroes down a long convener belt in a particularly harrowing scene. When it wants to make you laugh, the jokes land (Bubble wrap!). When it wants to send a message, it’s clear and never hamfisted. And when the episode wants you to surprise you, it surprises.

Indeed, audiences can be forgiven for believing Kerblam! would retread old stories like Robots of Death, Planet of the Ood, or The Beast BelowKerblam! ultimately reveals itself not to be a straightforward story of revolution but rather, a tale of a young man making a terrible mistake: weaponising a robot workforce to commit a “propaganda of the deed” with the hopes of rocking the very foundations of the status quo. But as the Doctor once said, “Even if you’re a jumped-up little subroutine, you can do it. You can always e-mail!” Kerblam’s robots prove self-aware enough to rebel against Charlie’s plans; it’s their own reluctance to play a part to the cyberterrorism that brings the Doctor and friends to Kerblam and sets the stage for the events that follow.

For me, Kerblam! and Rosa have been standout stories this series so far and perhaps it doesn’t come as a coincidence that they share the same morale: that progress is attained not by violence, intimidation, or revolution, but respect and reform. Charlie Duffy and Rosa’s Krasko are both isolated loners who are putting people’s lives at risk in a hopeless attempt to turn back the clock on fundamental changes to society and the economy – facts of life (e.g., diversity, technology) that can only ever be accommodated, not eradicated, practically speaking. Kerblam isn’t necessarily a pleasant place to work (they could start with taking the ankle braces off, for instance) and its galaxy hasn’t necessarily solved its employment problems by the end of the episode, but that’s beside the point. The point is that answers to those problems aren’t brought about through violence and radicalism and they aren’t going to be solved in a running time of 50 minutes.

Overall, the episode was smart, fun, engaging, and surprising and escaped many of the pitfalls of preceding episodes by giving its own main cast enough to do on screen, making the best of its guest stars and its production with zippy and perilous action scenes and an unpredictable, cerebral plot. Pete McTighe can return to write Doctor Who any time, any place.

More of this, please!