Review: The Black Archive #37 – Kerblam! by Naomi Jacobs & Thomas L. Rodebaugh

Key Facts:

  • Black Archive Entry: No. 37, written by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
  • Based on the Story: Kerblam! (No. 283).
  • Writer/Director: Written by Pete McTighe. Directed by Jennifer Perrott.
  • Key Themes: The Doctor’s political stance; the depiction and use of automation, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics; who is responsible for Kira’s death?
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Kerblam!: The episode name should not to be confused with the company name ‘Kerblam’, also stylised as ‘Kerb!am’, and not conflated with the ‘Kerblam System’.

The Review

Doctor Who probably has the broadest variety of episodes of any TV show in the world in terms of style, genre and tone (well, how else would it survive 50+ years?) and I’m delighted to see that The Black Archive range similarly reflects this with its variety of authors, subject matter and writing styles. Whereas last month’s Listen guided us through the world of dreams and memories, this month’s Kerblam! takes us on a tour of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence firmly rooted in the style of ‘popular science’; a genre with which I’m a lot more acquainted.

Patel: You are a political, aren’t you?

Doctor: Not really, no.

The main text opens with the rather appropriate quote above from Frontier In Space – (which made me wonder – what would Malcolm Hulke have thought of this episode?). Those looking for a strong anti-capitalist take on the episode will be disappointed here as instead the authors highlight several examples of the Doctor’s behaviour across many incarnations that show a lack of a consistent, clear-cut stance. For example, in terms of their economic stance, the Doctor is someone who approves of commerce (New Earth, The Rings of Akhaten) yet doesn’t carry money (The End of the World) and also steals from markets (Thin Ice). But eventually, the authors appear to settle on them being very broadly centre or centre-left.

Then comes the main feature of this Black Archive, namely the four successive chapters on four technologies that feature in the episode: automation, robotics, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, earlier this year I read Hello World: How to be Human In The Age of The Machine by Hannah Fry, a marvellous mathematical book that also covers AI, algorithms and their applications to real world situations, ranging from criminal court sentencing to creating critically acclaimed art. I would very much consider this a benchmark text regarding the topics covered by this entry of The Black Archive range.

As such, discussions on key ethical issues, such as Uber not being criminally liable when their self-driving car killed a pedestrian, or AI discriminating against people of colour in situations ranging from soap dispensers to extended jail sentences, were already familiar to me but remain highly topical. The book also briefly mentions some of the classic problems within maths and philosophy, namely the ‘P vs NP’ problem, the ‘travelling salesman’ problem, and, as popularised by The Good Place in recent years, ‘The Trolley Problem’. I would have liked to have seen more on ‘P vs. NP’ as I felt this section glanced over it without conveying the wider ramifications of this problem. Given my aforementioned background, I would never say no to more mathematics; others are free to disagree.

However, I cannot reasonably criticise this book for being shallow on content. The bibliography speaks for itself, as there are well over 80 books, periodicals and web articles cited throughout the 150-page text. This is a thoroughly researched and well-guided discussion on these topics, uniquely framed through the events of a Doctor Who episode, and which will help inform fans unaware of current developments within the technological spheres.

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Inside the Factory: I imagine the TARDIS team are absolutely encapsulated by a fancy conveyor belt or something here. Also, where can I get Graham’s jumper?

The last chapter finally comes to the question ominously posed on the back cover: who killed Kira? It examines whether the episode presents a deliberate or unintentional message, or indeed whether any episode can claim to have deliberate messaging regarding politics and ethics, citing The Green Death and The Happiness Patrol. It also suggests that Pete McTighe prioritised the episode’s dramatic structure without considering the implications of not only the potential political and ethical interpretations, which is shown to be dubious, but also their depiction of automation, AI and robots, which is shown to be both outdated and far-fetched using current understanding and reference points. Unfortunately for any Kerblam! fans, there wasn’t a surprise twist reserved for them within the closing act of this book.

I’d also like to add a quick note about quality control, as I noticed a fair number of errors within the text this time round. I am not ashamed to say that I’m the sort of fan who audibly winces when someone refers to the 2007 Christmas Special as “The Voyage of The Damned” (especially when it was referred to correctly on the very next page!), or when the prior showrunner’s name is spelled “Steven Moffatt”. It started to get silly when I saw a paragraph didn’t open with a capital letter, and when the back cover neglected to italicise the ‘D’ in Doctor Who, well frankly I just lost my mind. It seems the style guide went away on holiday this month – I eagerly look forward to its return.

Concluding Thoughts

Jacobs and Rodebaugh’s take on Kerblam! will not satisfy those looking for an in-depth discussion on the politics presented by the episode. Rather this book is something of a technological sandwich, filled with great discussions of the challenges, limitations and representations of robotics, automation, AI and IoT, surrounded by two somewhat dry pieces of politically-themed bread that, whilst facilitating the meal being served, do not add any real favour to the proceedings.

If you have found this review not to your liking then all I can really say is: The review isn’t the problem. How people use and exploit the review – that’s the problem.

 

Review: Doctor Who S8 E1 – Deep Breath

Context: I wrote this review for my student newspaper back in 2014 shortly after broadcast. It was never published, despite being asked to write it, because someone on the editing team decided to write their own instead – I was quietly dropped. You can read the review that got published on page 19 here. So here it is, my thoughts on Deep Breath from five years ago, fresh out of the local cinema. I hope you enjoy it.

“Is this the one with the dinosaur?” queried my younger sister as we sat down in the local cinema. This is from someone who doesn’t like Doctor Who as much as me, though to be fair I am the President of the Exeter University Doctor Who Society, this is true for most people. She also had thought the new Doctor was “a bit too old for the part” – Well I knew her love for Matt Smith was superficial all along!

“Yes, it is.” I reply, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“I don’t like dinosaurs. They’re a bit scary.”

“Isn’t that what Doctor Who is supposed to do?”

“I guess so.”

I mention this conversation because I think it’s important to point out that Doctor Who should be a show for everyone to enjoy, the well-informed fanatic, the more casual viewer, the newcomer, the old, the young and all those in between. That is what the show strives for and has succeeded to varying degrees over the last fifty years. But in recent years there have been criticisms of ‘over-complicated story-telling’ and episodes having a ‘too fast-moving pace’. Whilst I instinctively defend certain aspects of Doctor Who, even I witnessed my dad unable to follow what happened in last year’s Christmas Special (2013’s The Time of the Doctor). So does the latest episode do something to respond to these critiques? Well, yes actually.

The feature-length episode kicks off with a T-rex stomping through the Thames in Victorian London. It then coughs up a time machine shaped like a blue police box, naturally. Out of the police box arrives an older-looking Time Lord called the Doctor suffering from post-regeneration madness, who thinks he’s just escaped a T-rex, and a rather disgruntled companion called Clara. Subsequently the dinosaur is set alight, the latest in a series of remarkably similar murders, and the Doctor and Clara set out to uncover the truth whilst coming to terms with the Doctor’s new appearance and rebuilding their relationship.

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Look at the size of that thing: When sat in the cinema looking up at the screen, this dinosaur looked massive, and it felt massive.

The most anticipated aspect of this episode is Peter Capaldi’s first full appearance as the Doctor. A life-long fan of the show and accomplished actor, Capaldi revels in the comedy provided in this rather funny script penned by head writer Steven Moffat, particularly in an alleyway scene where he discovers his Scottish accent (“I am Scottish. I can really complain about things now”) and rather angry face, complete with ‘attack eyebrows’. But as the situation becomes more serious, we start to see a more unpredictable figure, rather akin to Tom Baker’s popular incarnation, appear beneath the witty exterior. Capaldi’s Doctor is more like a well-aged Scotch then, more mature, enjoyed more slowly and will knock you silly if not treated with respect. Quite a contrast to Matt Smith’s hyperactive portrayal, which is more like a large glass of fizzy cola with a colourful bendy straw, consumed far more quickly.

Speaking of slowly, the pacing has been brought down a notch for this new series opener, with longer scenes and more conversation happening in them. It seems Moffat wants to address some of the aforementioned criticisms, possibly taking a leaf out of his wildly successful Sherlock series, writing longer, dialogue-filled scenes that develop the characters further, but favours a simpler plot, which sees the return of the clockwork droids, last appearing in his 2006 story, The Girl in The Fireplace, which was in fact his first script for David Tennant’s Doctor. This story provides generous helpings of humour with some action, dramatic conflicts and subtle references to the show’s illustrious past. I should also note Ben Wheatley’s wonderful directing that gave the episode a cinematic feel but also amplified the darker elements of the story, like Half-Faced Man, outstandingly portrayed by Peter Ferdinando, who grabs an innocent bystander to steal his eyes for himself.

The extra breathing space (*groan*) allows for some much needed insight and character development for Clara, the incumbent companion played by Jenna Coleman, who was rather overlooked after her introduction last year with the focus on the fiftieth anniversary and then Matt Smith’s departure, but this is arguably her best performance to-date. The highlights for me were when she reunites with the Doctor in a restaurant and argues with his less friendly personality in a battle of the egos, and then later her having to hold her breath in a particularly tense moment where she must avoid detection from the ‘dumb’ clockwork robots and escape. This is a gripping scene where the room is quiet except for robots ticking and Clara’s heart beating as her face turns blue and her eyes water in distress, before eventually passing out and being caught by the mechanical droids themselves. I admit even I truly felt a bit scared sat in the cold, spacious cinema, which I hadn’t felt since Blink seven years ago.

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Impossible Lungs: The atmosphere in the cinema felt absolutely suffocating as we all watched Clara hold her breath for what seemed like an eternity.

But perhaps the absolute highlight was the final confrontation between Half-Faced Man and the Doctor as they fly over London in the restaurant attached to a balloon made of human skin. Capaldi absolutely owns this scene with the most fantastic line – “Question: if you take a broom and replace the handle, and then later replace the brush – and you do it over and over again – is it still the same broom?” The answer is a resounding no. Both the hero and the villain have lived so long and changed so many times that they are no longer who they were when they started – a robot who now has mostly human parts and an alien who is no longer the dashing young professor we knew and loved. So when we see Half-Faced face his demise, impaled on a spire, the audience are left to decide whether the Doctor murdered him or not. He is now questionable and unpredictable and that’s what excites me to tune in next week.

“So did you like it?” I asked my younger sister when the credits started rolling.

“Yeah, I kinda like Peter Capaldi now.” She replied,

Although I could see she had a tear in her eye over Matt Smith’s surprise cameo at the end, but I felt his reassurance helped my sister with the transition of actors on screen.

“Cool, and did you also think it was a bit funny but also a bit scary?”

“Yeah, I thought the clockwork robots were pretty creepy.”

“Me too. So would you want to watch the new episode next week?”

“Totally.”

I then tried to remember the last time both my sister and I really enjoyed the same episode of Doctor Who. The answer appeared to be some time ago. But I’m glad to know the show I love appears to have found a new stretch of life. A breath of fresh air, you might say.

Review: The Black Archive #36 – Listen by Dewi Small

Key Facts:

  • Black Archive Entry: No. 36, written by Dewi Small.
  • Based on the Story: Listen (No. 245).
  • Writer/Director: Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Douglas Mackinnon.
  • Key Themes: Freud’s “The Uncanny”, repressed memories, authorship of The Doctor’s identity, the apocalypse.

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Listen: The soldier so brave that he doesn’t need a gun takes prominence on this cover.

The Review

On the back of the book, there is a short biography about Dewi that, among other things, says: “This is his first book.”

You certainly wouldn’t know it.

Indeed, despite reading this before bed after a challenging day at work where I was in the office for nine hours (thank God for Flexi-time!), the fact I read this book in one sitting without a lapse in concentration is itself a testament to Dewi’s clean and easy-to-read prose as he guides you rather fluently through his examination of Series Eight’s Listen. Whilst on the shorter side compared to other entries in the range (perhaps the shortest yet if I’m not mistaken), it is absolutely no less worthy of your time.

The first chapter of this book provides the core of his examination, viewing Listen through the lens of Freud’s ideas on the Uncanny (“Das Heimliche”), the unconscious mind and repressed memories. It is arguably the greatest part of the book and would in itself make a fine essay to read. Dewi communicates Freud’s ideas well and supports them with great examples within the show. I particularly enjoyed his observation of the troll doll in Terror of the Autons within the context of the 1970s household being a textbook example of what makes something ‘uncanny’. I was even somewhat moved by the idea that the Doctor subconsciously remembers being back in the barn during the events of Listen imagining the stars he can see through the window that are now sadly absent as he dies on the battlefield during the end of The Doctor Falls.

The subsequent supporting chapters then follow on from this by looking at whether the Doctor is the author of his identity, how Clara moulds the identities of Danny and the Doctor, and finishes with a discussion on the presentation of the apocalypse in this episode by contrasting it with the RTD-era episode Utopia. All of these continue the clear and concise prose from the first chapter, whilst also drawing upon Classic era episodes (An Unearthly Child and The Edge of Destruction), episodes from Clara’s arc as a whole (The Name of The Doctor, Flatline, and Dark Water), and outside references such as HG Wells’ The Time Machine, Brown’s two line story Knock, and even the 2014 IPCC Climate Change report published around the time of this episode’s broadcast.

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I used to think this bit was just for a gag about mirrors but perhaps this is supposed to show that The Doctor, Clara and Danny are just three reflections of the same character.

I’ve also seen a few reviews about this one that appear to criticise the lack of any discussion regarding the production and development of this episode. I would like to refer them to the following statement on the Obverse Books website:

“Though story treatments, draft scripts and new interviews with scriptwriters and directors may all be of interest, the Black Archive’s focus is on the story’s themes and ideas, rather than the behind-the-scenes history catalogued in admirable depth by others.”

I am also unsurprised by the possibility that perhaps Steven Moffat and Douglas Mackinnon were unavailable for any comments/questions about this. As such, I struggle to imagine where else this Black Archive entry had to go. Information on the production side is far more readily available for the classic era serials; given much more time has elapsed for these since their initial broadcast.

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“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door…” – Frederic Brown

Concluding Thoughts

Listen by Dewi Small is a focussed and enjoyable light read that successfully manages to examine a number of angles on a TV story that is seeped in such ambiguity that evades any clear definition. Dewi is also more forthcoming than other books in The Black Archive range with a few of the weaknesses in his line of analysis, which actually provided a refreshing sense of balance in my personal opinion and allows the reader to come to their own judgements on these ideas.

I struggled to imagine how someone might tackle this episode in such a series but, after reading this entry, I can’t imagine any other angle being taken for this particular story. That in itself is surely a sign of success, is it not? And if you are a fan of this particular episode, I suggest you go pick this one up. After all, we wouldn’t want to let it hide in plain sight.