“The future is very confusing for my protocols.”
This episode is a little different to what you might imagine. It looks like a pretty unsubtle dig at Amazon (which it is) and a critique of technology, our over-reliance on it, and the ever-encroaching robot army stealing our jobs (which it is as well; there’s a pretty clunky line where Lee Mack’s Dan says, “While we were all busy looking at our phones, robots took our jobs.”). What you might not expect is that it’s also a criticism of single-use plastics – namely bubble wrap. It’s that sort of crazy episode. Also, there’s a weird message in there saying how terrorism sometimes works. Wait, hang on. That can’t be right…
The episode opens with our introduction to the Kerblam Man, an intergalactic postman from the galaxy’s biggest retailer with a present for The Doctor. Straight away, this is another iconic monster design. Giant, creepy, glowing blue eyes and a postman’s uniform. And don’t get me started on that little Kerblam jingle. In a callback I could have done without, the package contains an item of clothing I would sooner rather forget – a fez. But more importantly, there’s a creepy “HELP ME” written on the delivery slip. Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the inspiration came from for this. But if real life is turning this dystopic, it might be best that subtlety goes out the window. I might have been critical about how transparent this episode is of companies like Amazon and of negative practices like workplace bullying and incompetent management, but sometimes the world needs these topics presented as clearly as possible. It’s Doctor Who after all, and it’s got to spell these issues out for fans of all ages.
The episode attempts to tackle other issues too, some more successfully than others. Multiple characters mention how, as bad as things are, at least they have a job. This relates directly to the state of the world at the moment, or at least from to what I see here in the UK. There’s a consensus that working is more important than the actual work you’re doing, which is great in the short-term but is creating a generation of dissatisfied workers in the long-term. The episode also looks at what happens when the vast majority of the workforce is robotic – there’s 10% organic quota. When we learn that it is the Kerblam system itself asking for help, things get a lot more interesting. It’s a great twist! But I’d have had it go further, to look at the situation more from the robot’s point of view. The robots are being built to do our jobs, but do they want to? This idea links to The Doctor’s scolding of her companions being “robophobic”. So clearly these robots are intelligent beings, or at least the overall system is – so why not examine whether this system actually wants to do all these jobs.
Instead, the episode goes for a more human-based approach (which is still interesting). It was the innocuous cleaner who was the villain, using the Kerblam men to kill the customers, thus sowing distrust for robots and get more jobs for humans. In yet another strange moment of confused morality, The Doctor gets all the robots to blow themselves up, saving the day. But hang on a sec! What was all that about being robophobic? Was that just a joke? Even if we assume that only the overall system is intelligent, and the Kerblam men are just extensions of it, was there not an easier way? Like the spiders, Tim Shaw, and the alt-right greaser, this Doctor seems self-righteous only when the writing feels like it. I want The Doctor to be a woke pacifist, and there’s room for her to be a bit ruthless too, but it needs to be more consistent. Trapping a spider in a room to suffocate it and shooting it in a mercy killing is not a grey area, both are on the same place on the moral spectrum – and it’s the same with the Kerblam men here too. And in perhaps the most confusing message of the episode, by blowing them up, the extremist’s plan actually works. There’s a throwaway line about how they’re going to hire more organic workers, sort of making him a martyr for the pro-human cause.
I’ve been harsh, but the episode was actually a lot of fun on the surface. There were some great lines from all the characters, especially Graham who continue week in and week out to be the most wholesome man in the universe. And unlike last week, all of the characters felt important. This was a perfect example of using the characters right, each of them playing to their strengths. Yaz got to do some police work, Ryan showed The Doctor how repetitive manual jobs like this worked, and Graham got to be grandfatherly with Charlie the cleaner. Where I’m now completely sold on Yaz, I’m still not convinced with Tosin Cole as Ryan. I think he’s a really likeable character, and it’s fantastic to have a character with dyspraxia on a mainstream tv show, who frequently has to overcome challenges – but some of his delivery just seems off.
I felt that this episode was an unforgivable waste of Lee Mack. In the episode for all of two minutes, given a token sad backstory, and then killed off. But after reflecting on it, I think I prefer that they handled it this way. It was difficult to not see the comedian, so I never truly believed he was Dan the factory worker. It just felt like a sitcom whenever he was on screen, so it was probably for the best. But as guest stars go, it was a fun one. The same goes for Coronation Street’s Julie Hesmondhalgh, alive and well after her glass of suicide milk, playing a sympathetic manager of organics (sorry, humans). This series has had some really good guest stars now I think about it, and Alan Cumming looks to be on fine scene-chewing form as King James next week.
So, it was a fun and twisty science fiction parable, with some lessons about the dangers of technology – all set in a very cool setting with some fantastic production design (the Kerblam man in particular). It was just let down by some confused morals, and perhaps never really knowing what it wanted to say. But I know that not everyone cares to analyse what many see as a children’s show in so much detail. So most importantly, it was never boring, and it was always entertaining. Like the workers packing the boxes in the Kerblam factory, it did its job – just don’t think about that job too much.
Reviewed by Jack