❉ A mature, well-researched essay on a story loved by some and frowned upon by others.
“Not every viewer liked Kerblam! and not every reader of this essay will like the analysis of those viewers’ gripes with the episode. If you can put your feelings on the story’s messaging aside though, there is much to be enjoyed here.”
I think enough time has passed now to refer to Series 11 as divisive. When it was first transmitted, there was a lot of angry hostility online from certain fans if anyone wasn’t entirely taken with the series or Whittaker’s Doctor. You can see why: Months of swotting away sexist comments led to any sort of criticism being put alongside the first lot on the shelf. It made for rather uncomfortable arguments to witness though and it’s only now, a year on, that this anger seems to have cooled off a little. In that afterglow comes this essay on Kerblam!, a story loved by some and frowned upon by others.
Some felt the ending of the story was a massive betrayal of all Doctor Who stood for, with the Doctor not tearing the company to the ground. Some felt it showed a maturity of the show’s politics, recognising that things akin to Amazon may not be good, but it’s more realistic to try and change them than rid the world of them entirely: “change the cogs, not the system” seems to be that mantra.
This essay addresses that but perhaps not in the way some fans will like. Rather than blindly accept the “Space Amazon should be condemned!” line, the essay looks at Doctor Who and the show’s politics in a wider sense to see if this is in fact a message we should expect to see after all. It’s a mature and well-researched argument made, so exactly the sort of thing I expect to see in these Black Archive essays by now: thorough arguments backed up with strong sources.
Indeed, “thorough” is a fine description of the essay overall. Written by two authors already known to the Black Archive range, Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L Rodebaugh, much of the essay is a look at AI in our present world, automation as it exists at the time of writing, and how realistic a portrayal of the future is Kerblam as a company. If you think this sounds a little heavy or a lot to chew over then… well, you’re right.
Near the end of the essay, the authors do admit that expecting cast-iron realism in a prime-time children’s television series is, perhaps, unrealistic. Nonetheless, Jacobs and Rodebaugh give the story a very close reading and going over, and draw their own conclusions on how true to life the operating system of Kerblam as we see it here really is. From comparisons between the AI in Kerblam! and Smile, and what Kira’s death means in relation to the Doctor’s (non-)reaction, to a discussion on what machines are best suited to Amazon Warehouses and their brethren, the essay is nothing if not happy to dive headfirst into the rabbit hole.
I think whether you feel the story deserves this sort of in-depth analysis or not will depend entirely on how much you feel any work of children’s literature deserves this sort of in-depth analysis. I did feel it strayed a little at times, and perhaps was over-reaching or a bit unrealistic at others, and I was also surprised to see the comparison between Smile and Kerblam! not take into account the differing complexities of plot and theme Series 10 and 11 had: say what you want about Capaldi’s era, but Whittaker’s opening series was far more simplistic and on-the-nose with its didactic messaging. The book touches on this briefly, looking at the character of the Thirteenth Doctor as a whole, but I felt a broader look at the relatively simplistic nature of Series 11 would have been welcome and relevant. As noted, the essay touches on this in passing, but perhaps not with as targeted an approach as I’d have liked.
That’s on me though, not the writers. They’re making points all of their own, and to expect anything else is a bit selfish of me. Suffice it to say, not every viewer liked Kerblam! and not every reader of this essay will like the analysis of those viewers’ gripes with the episode. If you can put your own feelings on the story’s messaging aside though, there is much to be enjoyed here. Jacobs and Rodebaugh are scholars to be reckoned with and I’m very interested to see what story they put under their microscope next.
❉ ‘The Black Archive #37: Kerblam!’is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99.