Doctor Who: “Kerblam!”

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

“Kerblam!” turned out to be a much better episode than its trailer (or its exclamation-marked title) led me to think. With its use of social satire, it felt almost like a throwback to the best of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, and I could easily see Christopher Eccleston’s or David Tennant’s Doctor in this same story. A science-fictional examination of an Amazon-like mega retailer with a monopoly on order fulfillment and deliver was well past due. The episode also confronts the issue of automation versus the needs of human workers, that age-old quandary of how to continue to make the money that a capitalist system demands when there are fewer and fewer ways to do so. The episode doesn’t dig into it too deeply, it’s a lightweight exploration of a much weightier issue, but touching on the point gives it an effective edge.

Interestingly, “Kerblam!” turns the usual science fiction trope on its head by making the enormous computer system not the enemy, but rather a force that’s trying unsuccessfully to stop the enemy. How the system knew enough about the Doctor to send her a message asking for help is never explained. (Perhaps it analyzed her order history and determined she was someone who comes to the aid of others? Sorry, that’s the best I’ve got.)

“Kerblam!” also makes good use of the large TARDIS crew by splitting them up and giving everyone something important to do, which I have to say is something that not every episode this season has excelled at. No one felt superfluous. Graham continues to crack me up, especially when he’s given the mop and bucket. Yaz actually gets to make use of her police skills this time around, which I was happy to see, and Ryan finally mentions his dyspraxia again, even if it doesn’t really come into play. It doesn’t seem to stop him from hopping from one conveyor belt to another when the plot needs him to, for example, but at least his condition hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Twirly, the original version of the delivery bots, is hilarious, recommending the Doctor order high blood pressure medication during a particularly tense moment when thousands of bombs are about to explode.

Charlie makes for a somewhat sympathetic villain. His reasoning that Kerblam!’s mandated 10% human workers rule will only be revised down in the future, rather than up, is spot on, although his plan to murder countless Kerblam! customers with exploding bubble wrap is obviously the wrong way to effect change. To be honest, it’s kind of a dumb plan when you think about it. Not everyone pops bubble wrap. Plenty of people can resist the urge, and lots hold onto it for future packaging purposes, which would likely result in the deaths of people weeks or months later who didn’t even order from Kerblam!. As usual, it’s probably best not to think too much about the villain’s plan in a Doctor Who episode. I will point out, however, that Peter McTighe’s otherwise quite good script has a glaring Women in Refrigerators  problem, with the computer system deciding to murder Kira, who had nothing to do with Charlie’s plan, to try to stop Charlie by showing him how terrible it is to lose someone you love — which is so demented and cruel I’m surprised the Doctor didn’t immediately shut down the system upon learning this.

One last nitpick: When the crew returns to the TARDIS at the end of the episode, Graham is tempted to pop the bubble wrap that came with the Doctor’s original package at the start of the episode, but they warn him against it, asking him if he really wants to take that risk. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we already see Ryan popping that same bubble wrap back at the beginning, which proves it’s safe and not the bubble wrap Charlie tampered with? It made the bit at the end feel really forced and inauthentic to me.

Still, nitpicks aside, I enjoyed “Kerblam!” a lot. It’s a fun episode with lots of great character bits in it, as well as an element of timely social satire.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! There’s more to point out in this episode than in any other of the series so far. We get a callback to the Eleventh Doctor’s fondness for fezzes, and a direct mention of the time when the Tenth Doctor met Agatha Christie in the 2008 episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp.” The Doctor tells Graham, Ryan, and Yaz that some of her best friends are robots. This could definitely be a reference to K9, the robotic dog who accompanied the Fourth Doctor for several seasons, and who reappeared with Sarah Jane Smith in the 2006 Tenth Doctor episode “School Reunion.” He could also mean Handles, the repaired and reprogrammed Cyberman head from the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Time of the Doctor,” and even Kamelion, the shape-shifting robot who was a short-lived (in every sense of the word) companion of the Fifth Doctor, appearing in only two serials, 1983’s “The King’s Demons” and 1984’s “Planet of Fire.” Lastly, the Venusian aikido that the Third Doctor used so often makes a return in “Kerblam!” when the Doctor briefly paralyzes Slade with a single finger to the neck.

Next episode…witches!

Black Static Issue 66 Out Now

Black Static issue 66 is out now, featuring my story “The Fifth Horseman”! Buy it now from your local magazine retailer or directly from TTA Press!

UPDATE: It is now also available as an e-book!

Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab”

*** MILD SPOILERS AHEAD***

I found the sixth episode of the new season of Doctor Who, “Demons of the Punjab,” to be a return in quality to the stronger episodes that began the season. If I have any real criticism, it’s only that “Demons of the Punjab” is nearly identical in structure to “Rosa” just three episodes ago — an adventure that takes place in relatively recent history that hinges on the Doctor and her companions being forced to allow something bad to happen in order for history to be preserved, in this case Yaz’s very existence. But both episodes work well, so it’s less of a complaint, I suppose, than an observation. This one has a great script and a good (and timely) message about the dangers of nationalism. As a historical, it’s more than just a good adventure, it also taught me a lot about the 1947 partition of India, which I knew very little about. The use of Yaz’s grandfather’s watch as a kind of touchstone for the events is very effective, and the vocal version of the theme song that plays over the end credits is haunting and beautiful.

Speaking of Yaz, we get to know her a little better here by delving into her heritage and her relationship with her grandmother. So far, I have found her to be the least developed of the three companions, and putting her center stage went a long way toward helping fix that. I still don’t have as clear a picture of her as I do of Graham and Ryan, but she doesn’t feel superfluous either. I continue to wish the writers would make more use of Yaz’s police skills, though, and let her play the detective more.

Graham remains my favorite character of the season. I love his line about how he’s willing to sing at Umbreen and Prem’s wedding and knows all the old classics, although to the bride and groom the songs would simply be contemporary hits. I’m also enjoying those moments when the Doctor mentions she used to be male, often to the confusion of those around her. On the other hand, I keep wondering what happened to Ryan’s dyspraxia, which no longer seems to be affecting his physical coordination. The frequent dropping of plot points and character details is one of the things that really bugged me about the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who, and I really hope we’re not going to get more of the same under Chris Chibnall.

We’re six episodes in, and I find I still need more from the Doctor. I need her to interact more with the other characters on a personal level, rather than just on a plot level. Jodie Whittaker is very charismatic and an excellent actress, but the scripts aren’t letting her be the Doctor so much as “play” the Doctor, having her go through the motions without revealing anything of herself. Aside from some good dialogue in the season’s first episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” she barely talks about herself or her background. With only four episodes left in the season, I’m hoping this will change soon.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! When the Doctor tells Yaz it’s dangerous to go back in time and meet your family members, she might have been remembering the events of the season one episode “Father’s Day,” in which the Ninth Doctor brings Rose back in time to see her deceased father. There, Rose is unable to resist saving his life, inadvertently releasing the Reapers in the process. The TARDIS’s telepathic circuits make an appearance again, first introduced in the season 8 episode “Listen.” Then, the 12th Doctor plugs Clara into the circuit to investigate a nightmare she once had, while here the Doctor plugs Yaz’s grandfather’s watch into the circuit to take them to the proper time and place in history to meet him. Lastly, there’s a bit of a thematic throwback to the 2017 Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time.” The Doctor assumes the Thijarians have malicious intent when in fact they are simply observers, not unlike the Testimony and their glass avatars.

I don’t want to judge it by the trailer alone, but I have to admit that the next episode, in which the Doctor and her companions visit the equivalent of Space Amazon.com, does not look very promising.

Philcon 2018 Update

I’m very sorry to report that I will not be attending Philcon on Saturday as planned. Karen Heuler’s car was totaled by a falling branch during last night’s storm, and she was my ride. I have informed the programming staff. Sorry to miss everyone!

 

 

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