- 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?
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.
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.
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.