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

Part Two

“Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame,” says factory worker Dan (Lee Mack) in Kerblam! “While we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs.” Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame. Some might say the whole of series 11 has had that feel about it. So racism’s a thing, and Trump’s a thing and exploitation of workers is a thing, but *shrugs shoulders* whatya going to do? It’s kind of your fault for wanting a new fez in the first place.

Dan’s one of the 10% – the mandated proportion of job holders that Kandokan society requires to be human. The other 90% it fills with creepy robots of long held Doctor Who tradition. Dan and his fellow Kerblam! worker Kira (Claudia Jessie) are grateful for their jobs, even though they are lowly paid, monotonous and their performance is constantly monitored by passive aggressive androids. Not for them the kind of protests you see out the front of Global Chemicals. They’d never dream of going on strike. In their own way, they’re as trapped and as compliant as BOSS’s brain drained zombie workers.

There’s 45 years and a world of difference between The Green Death and Kerblam! The Green Death said clearly – emphatically – that the power big business wields is a problem. It showed us a business which had politicians in its pocket, its own militia to deploy and a colonial upper class (all the management types are English, all the milkmen and cleaning ladies are Welsh) calling the shots. The Green Death is saying, f*ck that. It’s angry and is advocating radical change. It starts a sub-genre of Doctor Who which we might call “protest” stories, in which we can include The Sun Makers, The Happiness Patrol and The Long Game. All of which involve overthrowing an oppressive regime.

And, up until its last ten minutes, Kerblam! seems to be telling us a similar story, that the power Amazon wields allows it to reduce working conditions to the minimum because employees are afraid of losing their jobs. Make no mistake, there’s enough for Kerblam! to be angry about. (In fact, in preparation for this piece, I read a number of online stories of Amazon’s appalling treatment of its employees until I had to stop because it was so infuriating.) But this story pulls its punches in two significant ways.

Firstly, it makes the person protesting against this awful state of affairs the villain. That’s Charlie (Leo Flanagan) and misguided and murderous though he is, his arguments about what’s wrong with Kerblam! are hard to argue with. “Ten percent?” he says incredulously. “They want us to be grateful that ten percent of people get to work? What about the other ninety percent? What about our futures? Because without action, next time it will be seven percent, then five, then one.” If this was a Malcolm Hulke story you might expect Charlie to be overpowered at the end of the story and quietly walked away, the Doctor gently noting his misguided good intentions. But here, there’s no acknowledgement of moral ambiguity. He’s blown up like every other bad guy. It’s like if Professor Jones turned out to be the villain in The Green Death, and all his environmental concerns were blown away with him in the inevitable Part Six explosion.

Secondly, the Doctor declines to sanction Kerblam! for the shocking way it treats people. Here is the hero who once brought down Harriet Jones with one sentence, because she disagreed with her politics. Only last season, she fought against the suits, and started a chain reaction which meant that “corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalism”. But capitalism lives on at the end of Kerblam! The Doctor could end the story with a piece of sabotaging software or some other magic switch to meter out justice on Kerblam! Instead, we’re left with a promise from Judy, Head of People (Julie Hesmondhalgh) that “All our workers have been given two weeks’ paid leave, free return shuttle transport. And I’m going to propose that Kerblam becomes a People-Led Company in future.” Two weeks off and a promise to do better. I’m sure that will do the trick.

Look, let’s not be too lefty bleeding heart about it. I think it’s fair to say that Kerblam! chooses a different ending to a Big Business Doctor Who story partly out of a search for originality. If we’ve come to expect, from lengthy experience, a protest story complete with a Doctorly takedown and an exploding factory and the end, then perhaps it’s time to subvert that expectation. And perhaps, it’s just not realistic to wipe out a huge company over the course of an afternoon. Maybe slow, incremental change makes more sense. And perhaps, as I noted last post, the 10% of the human workforce still needs jobs and money and livelihoods, so blowing the company up is too blunt a resolution.

But I can’t help but think back to the episode’s beginning, where a packing slip with a desperate message for help found a sympathetic receiver in the Doctor. That opening premise could have led us to a story of how the Doctor helped an ordinary person being crushed by a corporate giant. Instead, it turned out to be a call for help from the company itself, asking the Doctor to protect it from someone trying to point out that it had a social responsibility to give more people jobs and to treat them humanely when it does.

The Doctor gives voice to the story’s model in the confrontation with Charlie. “The systems aren’t the problem,” she says. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” That’s precisely the opposite of the position taken by The Green Death. It says the system is fundamentally flawed and dangerous to boot. You don’t change how people use the system, you’ve gotta change the system. Even if we cut Kerblam! some slack and say it’s trying to present a more nuanced political argument than Doctor Who normally does, and that it’s trying to invert our expectations of what a protest story is, there’s still a fundamental conservatism to saying “the system’s basically fine, we’re the ones who have to get used to it” which feels very odd in a series which usually challenges the status quo.

The Green Death will always be the first and loudest of Doctor Who’s battle cries against the world’s wrongs. Kerblam!, despite its explosive title, is not the fiery exclamation mark on the end of that cry. It’s something far more ambiguous, signalling a series which, while responding to its times, is exploring murky moral territory. That will be interesting and thought-provoking, but let’s hope it never loses its anger. We need it as much as we needed it in 1973.

PREVIOUSLY ON RANDOMWHONESS: Part One of this post can be found here.

NEXT TIME: The very first humans on Mars? We’re soaking ourselves in The Waters of Mars.

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