Wednesday 21 November 2018


Even while watching ‘Kerblam!’, I found myself speculating what the commentators on Eruditorum Press might say. And sure enough many (if not so much El Sandifer’s original post) were decrying it for being written with a pro-capitalist agenda. Yet if I was to write something to pacify the masses, I doubt I’d mention the labour process at all. I’d probably write a rip-roaring escapist adventure story, to make sure everyone was sated before they went back to work on Monday. More like, you know, all the other stories so far. To even mention how the infrastructure functions, how stuff gets delivered, seems to already be exposing the strings.

Besides, this rather over-emphasises the political agendas jobbing writers are likely to have. A more likely explanation would be headline-chasing. Just like a writer noticed the ubiquity of satnav and tried to wrangle an episode out of that, now it’s the turn of Amazon.

And from there, the script boxes itself in. The enforced “10% organics” quota suggests it started out with a corporate plot to conspicuously hire then quietly bump off the actual human workers, in favour of the more efficient machines. The Doctor originally, and somewhat uncharacteristically, claiming to “love Kerblam” before discovering how it’s managed. The dirty truth is hit on.

But if it’s set in an Amazon workhouse… sorry, workplace… particularly one with soothing-voiced robots in it, there’s nowhere really for it to go. “Amazon = bad employer” isn’t a plot twist, it’s a truism. Okay then, let’s swerve round that wall. Let’s go out to emphasise all that bad stuff and then make the actual villain the caretaker. What, no caretaker? Okay then, the cleaner.

But then those swerve marks show. As other Eruditorum commentators say, there’s orphaned plot lines and multiple other signs of late-on rewrites. Let’s take just one. Even if we’re willing to accept an innocent worker’s death as collateral damage in trying to prevent more, how could the computer system know the cleaner would be there at that precise moment to witness it? Way too many variables lead up to that point.

It’s true this twist swerves the episode away from any criticism of Amazon. But that needn’t be terminal. We already have the multiple bombs in the basement plus the teleport, which reads like a recipe. The humans could beam away while the whole warehouse gets blown. Even if that left just a smoking ruin for the Doctor to shrug and walk away from, the character’s done that before.

Instead the ending walls this off, with a rejigging of that organics quota. Which clearly accepts the Amazon premise, that our choice is between badly-paid, soul-crushing jobs and penury. But the key word there is “accepted”.

At Kerblam orders are issued down at you to stop chatting and work harder. Your every task is determined, your every movement monitored. But try to follow that chain of command up and it goes nowhere. The bullying boss isn’t in charge, he’s having to snoop around on his own system. But the system isn’t in charge either, it’s reduced to cries for help. Kerblam just is.

And more widely there’s a focus on distribution and customer services combined with a complete lack of interest in production. Kerblam packs and delivers stuff. But where do they get the stuff from? It just seems to appear.

In ‘Fires of Pompeii’, finding they can’t change the big event they settle for a small difference. And they do the same thing here, by deciding to hand Dan’s pendant over to his daughter. Ultimately, the (likely) fact that this wasn’t written from a neoliberal agenda is precisely what makes it neoliberal. Amazon and its agenda is treated like the volcano, as an inescapable fact of life. Just like the banks were too big to fail, Amazon is too big to be thought beyond. Even in a science fiction setting such as this it can only be tinkered with.

In short its problem doesn’t lie in a failure but in its success. The twist is, on its own terms, effective. This is a way more workable story than Chibnall’s efforts. But it’s true success is to tell a story for our time. Where we already know Amazon are bad, but on the other hand you can order stuff just by one click. It demonstrates how neoliberalism has conquered and stultified our imagination.

Postscript! It’s not that everyone got that Kerblam was Amazon. It’s that you were supposed to get Kerblam was Amazon. It’s not a parody of Amazon in any way. (The name’s not a play on Amazon, the logo not a twist on it etc.) Yet we don’t even notice that we notice so easily.

“The Corporation” is of course a longstanding feature of dystopian SF, the company that has now grown to the size of an empire. Roman-level conquest and subjugation but with a service motto. A usually implicit component was that the corporation had no competitors, it could call itself the Corporation because it was the only one. ’Alien’ would be a classic example. 

For this to be the case, corporations had to notice we bought up stories of evil corporations, and start selling them to us. In fact the thrill of such stories was always centering the question of how the characters could possibly fight something that big. Capitalism was the ultimate inescapable death trap.

But now we are in that dystopian future. We don’t need to try and guess who Kerblam is because there’s only one possible contender. And the question of fighting or even escaping that Corporation consequently has to be diverted. It’s a murder mystery where we know who the killer is from the start, but we’re asked to collude in finding a fall guy for the sake of our sanity. Terrorists. Yes, any time we worry about corporations let’s switch to terrorists instead.

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