Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh

Next in the sequence of Black Archive analyses of Doctor Who, and the first to tackle the Thirteenth Doctor, published in 2019 about a story broadcast in 2018. I did not much like Kerblam!, and thought it one of the weakest stories of Jodie Whittaker’s first season. I wrote at the time:

[Kerblam!] left me cold. I was not happy that the Doctor leaves an evil system un-overthrown, having defeated the revolutionary who was trying to bring it down. As Darren Mooney points out, “The episode’s happy ending has the company giving the employees four weeks off, but only paying them for two of those four weeks.” It is totally out of whack with the show’s progressive history. The script, performances and especially the effects were all good, but the politics left a bad taste in my mouth.

Re-watching it four years later, I felt much the same. I also felt that the fridging of the youngest woman guest character was a bit gratuitous.

The Black Archive on the story is by Naomi Jacobs, who co-wrote the volume on Human Nature / The Family of Blood which I enjoyed, and Thomas L. Rodebaugh, who wrote the volume on The Face of Evil, which I enjoyed rather less. The result is somewhere in between.

An introduction admits that the story is politically problematic, and also asks about Doctor Who’s attitude to robotics and artificial intelligence, finishing with the question, “Who killed Kira?”

The first chapter, “Political Animals”, goes to some lengths to try and quantify the political ideology of the Doctor (and the show) along left-right and libertarian-authoritarian axes, which I did not really find compelling. It makes a valid comparison between the Doctor’s approach to Charlie in Kerblam!, and his approach to Taran Capel in The Robots of Death, making the point that the resort to violence is generally a problem for the Doctor. But this ignores the fact that Taran Capel is literally genocidal, whereas Charlie is not.

The second chapter, “Thinking Machines”, looks into the concepts of artificial intelligence and thinking machines, and the extent to which we could realistically expect a future computer to behave like the computer behind Kerblam.

The third chapter, “Some of my best friends are Robots!”, looks at the depiction of robots in fiction in general and in Doctor Who in particular. The second paragraph, along with the quote it introduces, is:

Karel Čapek first used the word ‘robot’ in his 1920 play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which told the story of artificial workers in a factory who gain self-awareness and incite others around the world to rise up against the humans. The word was originally coined by his brother Josef, and comes from a Czech word ‘robota’, which means ‘forced labour’ or an indentured servant 1. The play deals with issues not dissimilar to Kerblam! in considering human dependence on commodified labour and its consequences. The word and concept have a long history in science fiction, and the research field of robotics takes its name from the works of writer Isaac Asimov, who popularised many of the modern ideas and concepts of robots in his work. Most famously, he coined the Three Laws of Robotics, rules that he described as forming the foundations of the programming of any autonomous robot. These are:
‘First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
‘Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
‘Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.’ 2
1 Pappas, Stephen, ‘Karel Čapek and the Origin of the Word Robot’.
2 Asimov, ‘Runaround’ (1942), reprinted in the collection I, Robot (1950).

The fourth chapter, “Making Connections”, looks at the Internet of Things and RFIDs and drones as they are today, and compares their depiction in Kerblam! with that in the Twelfth Doctor story Smile.

The fifth chapter, “Automated for the People”, looks at automation and employment, and the economic effects of greater mechanisation of work.

The sixth chapter, “Automated Message”, looks frankly at the weakness of the episode’s writing, proposing that it evades deeper analysis of the societal questions raised by its setting because of the demands of writing an exciting plot. It also looks at why the death of Kira is so problematic – unlike the traditional fridging, it doesn’t even change the behaviour of the key character (Charlie in this case). “[W]e are left with the sense that it is perhaps not so much that the episode doesn’t know what to do with the exciting inspiration from which it has plucked ideas, but that it thinks that merely using them in pursuit of structure and plot is clever enough.”

The seventh chapter, “Wrapping it all up”, finds a convincing metaphor for the story and indeed for the book. “The bubble wrap is not a plot hole, but, as with Kira’s death, is symptomatic of how the allegiance to the story’s structure makes many of the story’s clever concepts seem somewhat hollow: shiny on the surface, but liable to burst if some critical pressure is applied.”

Like Philip Purser-Hallard’s volume on Battlefield, this volume looks at a story I did not like so much and analyses what it was trying to do. I found it refreshing that the authors admitted the story’s weaknesses, but I ended up not really convinced that it could sustain the level of analysis that they had brought to bear. Be that as it may, you can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56)