Doctor Who Review: Kerblam!

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The systems aren’t the problem.

So, let’s talk about Kerblam! – or rather, let’s talk about “Kerblam”.

“Kerblam” is a great big online shopping service. The biggest retailer in the galaxy, in fact. It’s got massive warehouses, it does special deliveries, and relies on a group of human workers.

The workers are closely monitored in terms of their productivity while processing packages. At “Kerblam”, the workers have to hit targets of three hundred items an hour. Some of them have been known to have panic attacks if they don’t make those targets. Three hundred items an hour works out as one item every nine seconds, give or take, across a ten and a half hour working day from 7:30am to 6pm. Their breaks are carefully monitored too – workers pee in bottles to avoid taking bathroom breaks.

Of course, that’s not the only thing workers have to deal with at “Kerblam”. They’re not treated especially well by their immediate managers; workers are encouraged to bluntly criticize employees’ ideas in meetings, and performance reviews included half-hour lectures about unfulfilled goals. They’re expected to be accessible all the time, beyond the realms of the eight-hour weeks they already work.

“Kerblam” also give the employees work bracelets – the Group Loops – to keep track of what work they’re doing, how efficiently they’re doing it, and how well they’re doing it. This makes sure everyone keeps to high standards – unreasonably high ones, “Kerblam” would no doubt proudly boast. If you don’t keep to the high standards, you’re going to be let go. There are “annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former “Kerblam” human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover”.

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All this means, of course, that “Kerblam” is doing extremely well. It’s making vast, vast profits. Its owner is the richest man in the world. As is well deserved, of course, because of the sheer effort and labour that he personally puts into “Kerblam”.

The system works.

The systems aren’t the problem.

Obviously.

It’s the people who exploit the systems that are the problem. A system like the one at “Kerblam” is absolutely fine. It’s the sort of thing that develops entirely in isolation and leads to entirely fair and equitable treatment of all the works. As we’ve seen above.

The system works. The systems aren’t the problem.

Of course, people can exploit the system, and that’s not great. You don’t want people to exploit the system. If the system is just left as is, that’s fine. Its people interfering that leads to problems in the system. Just leave it be, and we end up with a system that works perfectly fine, where the workers get to see their family twice and year and there obviously isn’t a problem with that.

And why would there be a problem? The system works. The systems aren’t the problem.

The systems aren’t the problem. It doesn’t matter what happens at “Kerblam”, because anything that is happening – and, let’s be honest, it’s not really all that bad anyway – is clearly just a one-off quirk, the result of an individual actor exploiting.

The system isn’t bad. The system would never kill someone; that’s only when people exploit the system.

Obviously.

That’s fine. I really don’t think I have any more to say. I thought I might have, to be honest, but I just… don’t. I don’t care! I don’t care. “Kerblam” is fine. There’s nothing wrong with the system. The system isn’t bad. It’s just the people who exploit the system. They’re the problem. All the things you’ve seen so far? Not a problem. That’s just the system. And the system is fine. Why do you have a problem with the system? Are you a terrorist? Some young terrorist who has a problem with the system? Well, you’re just naïve, aren’t you?

The system isn’t the problem. The system works. The problem is people who exploit the system. Exploitation of the system is a very distinct thing from the system itself, because the system, as we know, works. The system is fine.

The system isn’t the problem.

The system isn’t the problem, according to Doctor Who.

Fucking hell.

2/10

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Doctor Who Review: Demons of the Punjab

doctor who demons of the punjab review vinay patel chris chibnall jamie childs jodie whittaker shane zaza mandip gill tosin cole bradley walsh

This is us. Forever. Our moment in time.

Airing this episode on Remembrance Sunday was, as many people have already pointed out, something of a stroke of genius.

In isolation, Demons of the Punjab was already a mature and thoughtful episode; there’s something quite affecting about its quiet consideration of personal history, in contrast to the broad sweep of celebrity historicals we’ve seen before. It harkens back to Father’s Day in some ways, with a poignant and intimate story about Yaz’s family – much like the earlier episode, it’s quiet and sensitive and deeply concerned with its characters. Even if Demons of the Punjab had aired three weeks later as episode nine, as I understand had been originally planned, it’d still be able to make an easy claim to being the best of series 11. There’s simply a degree of confidence and understanding to this episode that marks it as something special more or less immediately.

But contextualised in terms of Remembrance Sunday it became something altogether more resonant.

Much of the story is about remembrance – that, in effect, is what the Thijarians do when they bear witness, when they mourn for the forgotten dead. The forgotten dead, in this case, of partition, and of the victims of British colonialism and its consequences. It’s quite a story to tell as part of Doctor Who’s first substantive engagement with non-Western history. And airing the episode on Remembrance Sunday, when (despite everything) so many of these forgotten dead stay forgotten lends Demons of the Punjab an even greater degree of significance. In that sense, it’s one of the first episodes this series that really manages to be about something, to have substantive ideas worth real and genuine engagement – not just because of the quirk of its airing, of course, because all those ideas were still in the episode regardless. But it’s difficult not to notice the way this accentuates and emphasises so many of the ideas that Demons of the Punjab was already invoking.

There’s a vision of history to Demons of the Punjab that feels vital, that feels like something Doctor Who should commit to much more wholeheartedly, especially now as it begins to pivot back towards a more educational programme – a vision of history that includes the forgotten dead, that looks beyond the traditional narratives.

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Hence, then, why it’s so interesting to see the episode parallel the Doctor and the Thijarians.

It’s not a straightforward, one-to-one match – they aren’t, after all, identical. But there’s a link drawn between them, and it’s reinforced repeatedly across the episode in myriad ways. A lot of these connections are small, subtle ones. Consider the fact that the Thijarians are travellers who’ve lost their home, not entirely unlike the Doctor; Jamie Childs, offering much stronger direction this week than in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, reinforces that idea through a scene transition from the Thijarian ship to the TARDIS. It’s not so much that they’re identical, exactly, but there are echoes – echoes that resonate in the face of the fact that, in the end, the Doctor and the Thijarians do the same thing. They remember forgotten history.

It also, perhaps, speaks to what’s still one of the wider problems of the series – something that isn’t quite a problem in Demons of the Punjab, though it’d still be worth commenting on, but is certainly part of a frustrating trend. Once again, there’s an episode that ultimately relies on the Doctor’s passivity and non-interference – she gets involved, yes, but ultimately very little. At the end, she simply walks away.

Like I said – on its own, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Indeed, in the context of Demons of the Punjab, it almost makes a degree of sense, though admittedly I’d have preferred if the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan had stayed to bear witness to Prem alongside the Thijarians.

But taken as part of the series as a whole, it’s a little troubling – it’s strange and unsettling that a character who’s always been defined by the way she interferes and the way that she’s active rather than passive is now being depicted as quite the opposite. At this stage, it feels clear enough that it’s a conscious choice – as of Arachnids in the UK, it felt a little more akin to a recurring scriptwriting weakness, but now I’m starting to feel like there’s something a little more deliberate going on. Perhaps we are building up to a broader point about how difficult it really is to interfere in the face of such broad, structural problems like historical racism or the effects of imperialism.

Perhaps the point of contrasting the Doctor and the Thijarians is to say that the real radical act of interference – the sort of thing we can genuinely do in real life, especially today, on Remembrance Day – is to carve out a space for the forgotten dead and remember them.

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Outside of that, I think there’s little to find fault with in the episode – and, even then, that’s not so much a fault with Demons of the Punjab as it is a fault with the stories around it. The same could be said of other flaws I’d be inclined to highlight – there are still some struggles with balancing the cast, but to be honest this episode does a much better job of any other so far, so it’s difficult to criticise too much. (I suspect part of the reason Demons of the Punjab does so well balancing the cast is the fact that Vinay Patel paired Yaz with Graham for a while – and in turn she got caught in his narrative gravity for a while, and finally got given something to do. It’s still not ideal, especially in what’s meant to be Yaz’s second focal episode, but again, I don’t think it’s worth criticising Demons for the faults of series 11 as a whole.)

Indeed, I’m generally really pleased with Demons of the Punjab. It is, as I’ve already said, my favourite episode of the series so far – but it’s also been my favourite one to write about so far. In a few of these recent reviews, I’ve been despairing a bit (and it’s shown) over how little I’ve been able to find to say – or, maybe more accurately, how little I’ve been able to say that goes beyond a more superficial bullet point list of sloppy aspects and technical mistakes. I’m glad I’ve been able to do more than that here with this one; if nothing else, Demons of the Punjab is certainly the first episode so far where I feel like I’ve still got lots of positive things to say, rather than negatives I’m holding back on.

(Like, how amazing was Shane Zaza as Prem? In a just world, he’d be getting all sorts of awards for this episode, and would certainly be remembered as one of the stand out guest performances in Doctor Who over the past decade. If ever they’re looking for a man to play the Doctor again…)

So, yes. Demons of the Punjab has left me feeling really quite reassured about series 11 – it’s perhaps overly optimistic to make this judgement, but maybe it’s simply the case that all the more interesting episodes in series 11 have been positioned closer to the end. That’s the hope, anyway; I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours in Dr Who vs Jeff Bezos.

9/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

doctor who the tsungara conundrum chris chibnall jennifer perrott pting tim price jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole

In my review last week, I mostly threw Arachnids in the UK under the bus, despite actually mostly liking it.

The reason for that was, enjoyable though the episode mostly was, Arachnids in the UK was the fourth episode in a row that was essentially basically fine. It was good, it was decent, it was entertaining, and it was a perfectly diverting way to spend an hour. Asking for anything more than that is, I suspect, maybe a little unfair. But I’m used to more than that from Doctor Who – the basically fine is the exception to the rule, I think, albeit not a rule where quality is the norm exactly – and I’ve been hoping for more than that to manifest itself.

Largely the same was true of The Tsuranga Conundrum, an episode which I’d actually be inclined to say was my favourite of the series so far. It was good, it was decent, it was entertaining, and it was a perfectly diverting way to spend an hour. Indeed, it was a perfectly diverting way to spend two hours, given I rewatched it ahead of this review, in the hopes of finding lots of things to say.

I am not sure I did find lots of things to say. Or, at least, not a lot of things to say beyond a series of bullet points – Bradley Walsh was excellent in that bit, I quite like the P’Ting, we’re clearly still struggling to balance the companions properly, and isn’t it a relief that – as far as I can judge, anyway – the episode wasn’t especially transphobic? That’s the sort of thing that you’d put together in a twitter thread, or maybe a general bullet point roundup on a forum thread.

What the episode was was good, decent, entertaining, and a perfectly diverting way to spend an hour. What it so far isn’t is especially conducive to a thousand odd words of discussion and consideration and dissection each week. And, hey, maybe that’s more to do with my limitations as a reviewer rather than anything else – there’s certainly plenty of them, after all, and it’s not like I’ve ever found reviewing particularly interesting or engaging exactly. It’s not my preferred style of writing, as evidenced by how often I’ll write around the topic when I’m trying to review something rather than actually engaging with it, and trying to review something as… superficial is the wrong word, because it sounds more critical than I mean it to… trying to review something like Doctor Who of late, which has become a very “does what it says on the tin” programme, is a little frustrating.

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This is actually the second draft of the review I’ve written – something of a rarity, because I tend to write these pieces with fairly limited revisions. (We can tell, I hear you cry.)

I had about five hundred words done, and the broad overview of the rest planned, before junking it entirely and starting essentially from scratch with the piece you’re reading now. There was an opening, essentially, about expectations, and how I’m starting to get to grips more and more with what the Chibnall era actually looks like, the shape and contours of his writing style. Because of that, then, little things like clunky exposition or awkward educational notes didn’t bother me as much, and I appreciated basic things like “the story has an ending” more than I would have otherwise.

It was a boring review, though. Boring to read, I assume, if only because of how boring it was to write. Like I said, I am not especially interested in reviews at the best of times – I think you should watch Doctor Who, I think it is a good way to spend your time if you’re someone who already likes Doctor Who, but if you don’t like it already this probably isn’t going to change your opinion on it. Spending ten minutes reading what I thought about it likely isn’t the best use of anyone’s time. Yes, I did really like the P’Ting. Yes, that scene where Ryan tells Yaz about his mum was nice, but the direction was weak and Mandip Gill really needs to be given some proper material very, very soon.

What’s frustrating isn’t that I’m not enjoying the current series, or that I don’t like it. Because I do! I really very much do. It’s just that the way I’m used to enjoying it doesn’t quite work anymore, because – and, again, I don’t want to seem like I’m being particularly critical, because I don’t mean or want to be – this isn’t an iteration of the programme that really rewards the level of introspection and consideration I’m trying to afford it. It’s a shame, because so much of it feels so specifically tailored to what I’d like to see from Doctor Who. Perhaps that, then, is the real conundrum here.

(No? Fine, fine, it was a bit of a crap joke.)

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Like I said, this is probably chiefly down to my own limitations. After all, they are vast and numerous, and responsible for a lot.

It’s not like, after all, Jodie Whittaker isn’t doing lots of genuinely interesting things with the role. Once again, much like in The Ghost Monument, she’s doing things I’d struggle to imagine Capaldi, Smith, or Tennant doing – the scene where she apologies to Astos is fascinating in its implications, even if there’s something admittedly at least vaguely concerning about the fact that it’s the first female Doctor who does things like apologise to the throwaway guest character. I wish it was the sort of thing that was being foregrounded a little more, to be honest, a focal point to actually unpack and engage with. It’d have been particularly interesting here, actually, to emphasise the Doctor’s injuries, because that’s not something we tend to see – there’s a version of The Tsuranga Conundrum which is, I think, a lot more compelling that it was. It’s just a few more drafts out of reach.

The same is true again of Tosin Cole; while Bradley Walsh is still probably the standout companion (a result of his sheer charm, and the fact his agent clearly negotiated for him to get all the best lines), Cole is doing a particularly impressive job realising Ryan. Granted, in saying that, I’m wanting to criticise a little bit again – I think at this point we’re yet to see “three companions” actually work, particularly given that Ryan didn’t have a line until about 19 minutes in and Yaz still has nothing to do – but that’s a little beside the point. It’s an impressive performance – more subtle and more nuanced than I think Cole is entirely getting credit for, actually, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this all resolves. The presumably inevitable return of his dad should, in theory, be something Chibnall writes really well, and it strikes me as being something generally unlike what we’ve seen from Doctor Who in quite some time.

Also, I really liked the P’Ting. I know it’s been fairly unpopular, but everyone who disliked it is actually wrong: it’s funny and charming and a pretty neat bit of CGI. I would very much like to see the P’Ting again, actually. Maybe a swarm of P’Tings. A P’Ting Dilemma.

Anyway. So, another episode that I quite enjoyed but didn’t exactly have a lot to say about. Hopefully Demons of the Punjab tonight will break that somewhat difficult streak – that’s the episode I’ve been looking forward to most, actually, since it was first announced however many weeks ago. So, very excited about that, and hopefully it’ll give me something to write about.

8/10

(Like I said, I really did actually enjoy this episode!)

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Doctor Who Review: Arachnids in the UK

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill chris noth chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

Now if you’re so great, explain this.

Again, I’m confronted with the need to change my approach to these reviews.

Broadly speaking, there’s a familiar structure I tend to follow. The reviews are divided into three sections, meaning I tend to talk about three ideas: acting, writing, and directing; two strengths and a weakness; two weaknesses and a strength; themes, concepts, and symbols. I try, too, to write them in the first person, to be a little more casual and conversational about it in contrast to the articles I write for Yahoo (in my mind, there’s something very different between an article and a review) – it’s meant to be, I guess, a piece that’s not a million miles away from having an actual discussion with someone, either in person or on a forum or something.

More or less, I think this usually works. Not entirely; more often than not, I tend to feel like I’ve missed something, as though there was some observation I’d have liked to make but didn’t quite manage to fit in. That’s not really the end of the world, though – better to have too much to say than too little. Which is, of course, the time when these reviews really don’t work, and I end up posting them more out of a faint sense of obligation than anything else.

If you hadn’t worked it out by now – an opening along these lines, which I refer back to more often than I should, tends to be a bit of a giveaway – I don’t really have a lot to say about Arachnids in the UK.

I enjoyed it! It was mostly a fairly good and entertaining piece of television; I’ve watched it twice now and didn’t feel like I was wasting my time on either occasion. Jodie Whittaker remains wonderful, as do Tosin Cole (wasn’t that shadow puppet bit brilliant?), Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh. It improved on certain things I’ve found frustrating so far – I really enjoyed Sallie Apraheim’s direction, I think it was the best of the series so far – and managed to generally maintain the level of quality the show has so far. There are critiques I’d make, certainly – one big one in particular – but for the most part, this was a good episode of Doctor Who.

(I really, really do want to stress that, particularly as I’m realising that, as I write the rest of this review, it’s probably going to be a fairly negative one – I did enjoy Arachnids in the UK, I would watch it again gladly, and it’s actually been one of my favourites of the series so far.)

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill team tardis chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

So, I want to talk a little about Jack Robertson, the Trump analogue who’s arguably one of the more memorable aspects of the episode.

Immediately, there’s something interesting about the way he’s positioned as a Trump analogue – not just a diegetic equivalent, a way to talk about Trump while still talking around him, but established as a counterpart and a rival, another blustering American businessman and arch-capitalist with presidential ambitions. Presidential ambitions specifically prompted by Trump’s own, more to the point.

It strikes me as potentially quite a compelling way for the series to actually engage with real world politics – if nothing else, it’s interesting to see that this sort of engagement is something Chibnall is willing to do. It’d have been easy to ignore Trump (as the series appears to be ignoring Brexit, probably for quite obvious reasons) so the fact that there’s a willingness to foreground him as a villain speaks volumes; it is, I would maybe even argue, actually somewhat more telling of the aims and concerns of this era than Rosa is, which felt, at least a little, somewhat neutered through its conspicuous lack of reference to the present. The character doesn’t always work, not exactly – his big villainous moment, shooting the spider, falls flat, and I’m not entirely convinced the episode does the best job it could have of conceptualising his wealth and his evil (see here) – but Chris Noth gives a great performance, and Robertson will be quite interesting as a new type of recurring character we’ve not quite seen befo-

Recurring character?

Ah, yes. So that brings me to the main issue I had with this episode: it just sort of stops, rather than ending. Robertson shoots the spider (in what’s probably the most poorly directed sequence of the episode – does the Doctor, like, try and stand in front of it? Does she do anything other than tell Robertson not to shoot the spider? There’s a lack of clarity that hurts the scene), and then walks off, his petard thoroughly unhoisted. There’s no resolution to Robertson’s story, or indeed the story as a whole – the next scene is some time later, the companions about to leave again, basically suggesting that after Robertson shot the spider everyone just walked away, leaving the big spider corpse in the ballroom and the smaller (but still big) spiders in the downstairs panic room.

Perhaps that’s to set Robertson up as a returning character; I admit, I am kinda intrigued by the idea of “Doctor Who does the West Wing” in series 12, with Robertson as a villainous president. It wasn’t, though, my immediate thought – because actually, when you think back on it, The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument both had sort of the same issue.

So maybe it’s not a problem with Arachnids in the UK, it’s a problem with series 11 – and a problem with Chris Chibnall.

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Back when Chibnall was announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I was a lot more positive about it than other people were – I liked Broadchurch, generally speaking, and his Doctor Who episodes previously. And that positivity felt validated in the run up to the new episodes – the female Doctor, the marketing campaign, it all spoke to an era that I felt like I was really going to enjoy.

And I am enjoying it. It’s Doctor Who, of course I enjoy it, and I’m kinda always going to enjoy it irrespective of things like “quality”, or “basic dramatic structure”.

The redemptive reading, as some people have put forward, is that the Doctor’s inability to stop Robertson is much like her inability to stop racism last week – a suggestion that there are certain structural problems that a fantasy hero like the Doctor can’t combat, that her role is different. That’s something that seems genuinely fascinating to explore, depending on what “her role” eventually turns out to be; if nothing else, it’d be a new way of articulating that character that’d form quite a stark contrast to both Moffat and Davies’ takes on the Doctor.

I am not wholly convinced that’s the case. Even if it was the case, there’s still a certain sloppiness to Arachnids in the UK and its almost conscious lack of any meaningful resolution. The fact that the Doctor hasn’t technically stopped or defeated any of the villains yet doesn’t seem intentional, it seems like the same sort of oversight that saw the first three episodes in a row involve implanted technology, or that whole mess with Pythagoras’ sunglasses in The Ghost Monument, or Ryan using a gun (a space gun, but still a gun) in Rosa.

I don’t know. I am enjoying the new series of Doctor Who! I really am; I wouldn’t be writing about it if I wasn’t, even if some of these reviews have, so far, trended a little negative.

But I’m also not wholly enjoying it, or enjoying it with caveats, to the point that I’ve devoted a fair amount of space in a review of an episode I mostly liked to criticising the series as a whole. It’s not that I don’t like it – I’d just like to see it be a little more ambitious, to finally have an episode that’s an outright classic, a genuine 10/10.

7/10

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