Jodie Whittaker’s first season has thus far given us a lot of heavy-going educational narratives, eliciting tears with powerful episodes about Rosa Parks and Partition that (necessarily) reduced Team TARDIS to bystanders. The last two episodes have gone back to more familiar ground with the classic scary robots of ‘Kerblam!’ and the spooky aliens of ‘The Witchfinders’.
‘Kerblam!’ was absolutely and unequivocally NOT about Amazon. (I’ve checked it with the lawyers and everything.) No, ‘Kerblam!’ was a completely unallegorical tale about an online shopping and delivery service with really shady working practices but really convenient delivery services, featuring tailored up-selling based on your browsing and shopping preferences. Following a mysterious call for help in an unexpected fez delivery, Team TARDIS headed to Kerblamazon’s HQ to investigate.
Turns out, working for The Man (The, uh, Postman) is pretty rough. Even though the local Kandokan labour laws insist on 10 per cent human staff, it’s either back-breaking or mind-numbing work. Every move is overseen by the ankle monitors and the bots. What’s next? Timed loo breaks? Wait… No, again, this is completely fictional. Kerblam! has a ruthless yet efficient system, that’s clearly bringing in the big bucks (Kerching!) though you have to go a long way to find a happy worker. The first — played by Lee Mack — lasts just a few moments before disappearing in suspicious circumstances. The second — the implausibly cheery Kira — lasts a little bit longer. The rest are “grateful” to have a job, and that’s about as far as they are willing to go.
But there’s more to Postman Bot than meets the eye. Sure, the bots are desperately creepy.
But once again, it’s the people you really need to watch out for. The bosses, Judy and Slade, prove to be red herrings, and it was the janitor that people should have really been paying attention to. And that’s where this episode got weird… Charlie the janitor is a protester, fighting for human workers’ rights against the exploitative practices of Kerblam! Yay Charlie! No, wait… he’s blowing up the customers (Kerboom!) and framing Kerblamazon? With evil bubble wrap? Huh? Has he gone Kerazy?
Turns out, it was The Man calling for help, not a poor oppressed worker. The machine has a heart and a conscience! And it’s cute now! Instead of the Postman Bots, we’re redirected to concentrate on the OG Postman Bot, the cute, smart drone Twirly, who is essentially Capitalist K-9.
He’ll save the day politely and offer you a deal on other products you might like at the same time. See, the bots are adorable! Forget about the humourless slave-drivers in the warehouse, they’re just programmed that way. With Twirly’s help (and a flourish of the sonic) the Doctor saves the day at the last minute.
There was a similarly speedy (conveniently so) resolution to this week’s episode, ‘The Witchfinders’, which featured Alan Cumming as a deliciously camp King James I. This episode was rooted in some familiar history, but unlike ‘Rosa’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab’, it was history-adjacent rather than history-centric. Rather than focusing on the real horrors of the Pendle witch trials, this episode was set one village away, in Bilehurst Crag. Sure, James I wrote the book on finding witches, but he probably wasn’t skulking around the countryside wearing a plague mask as a really terrible disguise. Yes, there were witchfinders, and even a Witchfinder General in a big hat, and there were witchprickers and ducking stools, but this wasn’t a fixed event story, and so the show was able to take some liberties. Most of these were entertaining — why not explain a witch panic via some warmongering aliens escaping their subterranean prison in the form of evil mud that reanimates corpses and makes them look like witch zombies, because a magic tree got cut down? Why not?
And while the witchfinding business was a grotesque trend in history where women were murdered for being clever, weird or inconvenient, the injustice of this was offset by Cumming chewing the scenery and trying to flirt with Ryan, his ‘Nubian Prince’. The witchhunt was scary, but the witchfinders stayed ridiculous. Malevolent yes, but ridiculously so.
This episode did give Thirteen a chance to (finally) address the impact her new body has had on how she is treated — by pompous gits like King James, who keeps derisively calling her ‘Lassie’, and by proxy, by the crying fanboys who threw their toys out of the pram when Jodie Whittaker was cast in the first place.
“These are hard times for women. If we’re not being drowned, we’re being patronised to death.”
“Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself.”
And we got to see the positive impact of a female Doctor play out as well, as Willa overcame her fear of persecution and resolved to become a doctor herself. Like her poor sweet Granny, she will tend to the sick and try to make her world a better place. You go, Willa.
It’s at this late stage in the series that something started to feel missing, though. Chibnall has stuck to his ‘monster of the week’ standalone episodes plan, but as we are only two episodes away from the end of this series, enjoyable as these episodes are, there is something a little disjointed in them. I am not going so far as to suggest bringing back the mega-complex arcs of the Moffat era, but we have got to know the characters a bit more now; even a two-parter would give a bit more depth to the team dynamic, and offer narrative possibilities that don’t involve the Doctor just saving the day with a sudden wave of the sonic.
Timey-Wimey Fun Stuff
“Some of my best friends are robots.” I’ve already given you the gift of a K-9 gif, but the bestest robo-doggo ever isn’t the Doctor’s only robo-buddy. Remember Nardole! And that terrible time when Bill… No, still too soon.
“Did I ever tell you about me and Agatha Christie?” HEY, WE REMEMBER THAT! There was a giant wasp!
And of course, the Doctor knows Houdini as well.
“Honi soit qui mal y pense”: The real motto of the Order of the Garter was literally on King James’ garter. That’s for you, Fact Fans
“A brilliant man once said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke’s Third Law here. Did she mean that the brilliant man was Arthur C Clarke? Or did she mean herself? The Doctor has referred to this a couple of times, most recently when Twelve said it to Clara when they were hanging out with the Vikings and Arya Stark.
Next time: We’re going to a mysterious creepy cottage in Norway… There’s one more after that, and then that’s your lot — until the festive special, which is on New Year’s Day rather than Christmas Day, because they have apparently run out of Christmas gimmicks. (And it means that my traditional Christmas Day itinerary is ruined. RUINED.)
Header Image Source: BBC