Big Business, Kerblam! (2018) and The Green Death (1973)

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Part One

Big Business is a character in Doctor Who. I know this because it’s listed as such in the official Doctor Who Programme Guide by Jean-Marc L’officier, a primary source document for many fans of my vintage. It’s right there, between the Bi-Al Foundation and Biroc the noble Tharil. Its concise entry reads “Big Business: often portrayed as the villain,” and then it lists the production codes of stories which do so, such as TTT, otherwise known to you and me as The Green Death.

If only the Programme Guide was extended to cover New Who (ah, but wait! It has been), it would find many other stories to list under that entry: The Long Game, Rise of the Cybermen, Planet of the Ood, The Bells of St John, Time Heist, Oxygen and the list goes on. It goes on so long in fact, that it shows that 21st century showrunners have clearly learned their Who lessons well: that Big Business is a distinct character in the show and specifically, it’s the enemy. Big Business is always up to no good. It will enslave you, bewitch you, rob you, while all the time selling you thinning tablets or elixirs of youth.

Or so it seemed, until 2019 when series 11 arrived to challenge our preconceptions about the way Doctor Who operates. And in Kerblam!, it presented us with a much more ambiguous view of Big Business, stubbornly refusing to paint it as the villain. In telling us a tale of murder in the gangways of a space age Amazon, it seemed all the way through to be positioning that old enemy Big Business for yet another devastating take down by the Doctor. We fully expected to see her run frantically away from the place as it exploded into smithereens, just as her third self had run away (oh, that peculiar Pertweean trot) from the smoking ruins of Global Chemicals.

It didn’t end that way, of course. It ended on a far more conciliatory note. And it was so at odds with where that story seemed to be heading, and where a legion of similar Doctor Who stories had previously landed, that it left many fans bewildered and contemplating a new, more conservative slant on Doctor Who’s normally liberal politics. In one of this random blog’s occasionally pleasing orderings The Green Death and Kerblam! have arrived in sequence. So I’ve grabbed the opportunity to talk about them both, over two posts, and compare their very different views of our old mate Big Business.

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Both stories signal their intentions upfront. The opening scenes of The Green Death show its corporate behemoth, Global Chemicals, as an object of protest. In fact, it’s an object of multiple protests.

Local coal miners are there to protest about Global Chemicals killing their industry and their livelihoods. The local greenies, led by Professor (of Which University) Cliff Jones (Stewart Bevan), are protesting about the company’s environmental impact. And back at UNIT HQ, Jo Grant (Katy Manning) is appalled by reports of pollution emanating from Global Chemicals and decides on the spot to abandon her job and throw in her lot with Jones and his long-haired, hippy compadres.

Compare this to the start of Kerblam! where the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) receives a delivery from a Kerblam! postman and reacts with unbridled excitement. “Kerblam! It’s the Kerblam! man!,” she gushes before delighting in the delivery of a new hat and gazing at the Kerblam! logo spin around in the air. The thirteenth Doctor is a brand fan, right from the start. It’s hard to imagine the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) jumping up and down with glee at the start of The Green Death about the prospect of helping out Global Chemicals. That’s one thing that’s changed between 1973 and 2018 –  we’re much more used to brands commanding that sort of joyful devotion. In the 70s, the sort of evangelism which say, Apple generates would have been unheard of.

In that opening scene, the coal miners are soon placated by the promise of jobs at Global Chemicals, but Jones is concerned about the pollution which will ensue. The environmental concerns of The Green Death are front and centre. Its deadly green slime and its giant maggots may provide the imagery which has made it one of Doctor Who’s most well-remembered stories, but it’s a sideshow. Polluting the world and filling it with overgrown insects is not the BOSS (voice: John Dearth) of Global Chemicals’ plan. It’s a side effect and not one that it or managing director Stevens (Jerome Willis) are that concerned about. No, BOSS’s plan is much closer to the erosion of worker’s rights and opportunities which is at the heart of Kerblam!. He wants a workforce of unthinking, unprotesting slaves, who won’t care about irritating distractions such as fair pay, safe working conditions and so on.

(I can’t go any further without talking about BOSS – a talking computer who’s behind the whole dirty operation at Global Chemicals and who is the undisputed star of The Green Death. In a nice inversion by writer Robert Sloman, this machine has the most personality of anyone, be they villager, corporate stooge or undercover UNIT operative. Like your Nan’s favourite chocolate bar, BOSS is both fruity and nutty. If he wasn’t threatening to take over the world, he would be pleasantly batty company. He hums along to classical music, opines about Nietzsche and toys – almost flirts – with Stevens, which makes you wonder what the two get up to on those long lonely nights, examining productivity figures spat out of a dot matrix printer. It’s a shame, in fact, that his ambitions to turn humans into an unthinking slave force extend beyond Llanfairfach, because once extended to the whole world, it stops making sense as a profit making measure. With the whole world under his command, who’s left to buy any of the oil Global Chemicals produces?)

The problem of neutralising the company’s pollution is solved when some of the Professor’s wacky fungus proves to be an effective biological counterstrike. The problem of there being no jobs for the people of Llanfiarfach is just as neatly solved with a narrative expediency from Sloman at the story’s end. The phone rings and the Professor’s delighted to hear of unlimited research funding from the UN, meaning jobs for the unemployed miners are on their way. Which is handy considering the coal mine is still closed and the Doctor just blew up the other employer in town. He’s lucky there’s not a pack of angry miners on his tail. (They’d catch him too, with that running style of his.)

And that’s the problem, I suppose, with the Doctor utterly destroying Big Businesses from here to Pluto and Kandoka and beyond. What happens to the people who depend on those businesses for food and oxygen and sunlight and so on? Maybe a more realistic Kerblam!-y ending where some sort of middle ground is sought makes sense.  Does that dogmatic entry in the Doctor Who Programme Guide need to be rewritten? People can’t live on nuts, after all.

LINK TO The Witchfinders: both feature characters called James.

NEXT TIME: Part Two.

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