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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

28 Comments

  1. Cyrano
    February 19, 2024 @ 7:36 am

    This is very much the one I’ve been waiting for – possibly the one we’ve all been waiting and it’s a terrific diagnosis of exactly what went wrong with the production that allowed Kerblam! to exist. I particularly like the conclusion: the idea that Chibnall is secretly evil feels naïve. The fact that he’s nothing at all is chilling.

    I’m also gratified that my theory from a few weeks ago, that the Chibnall era is characterised by failing to understand or appreciate the ingredients going into stories has been endorsed by the blog. GOAL!

    Reply

  2. Colin Logan
    February 19, 2024 @ 7:40 am

    Something a bit unusual about this story, I think, is that Kira is fridged in-universe: the Kerblam system kills her to make a point to Charlie. That could easily have been the focus of the ending, with the Doctor rejecting its focus on Charlie and burning Kerblam down because she insists on Kira’s value, and this would align with the depiction of the dehumanising conditions in the warehouse, giving the episode something more to say than just the generic “Amazon bad” statement that it obviously also needed.

    As is, 13 not caring can be read as a ringing endorsement for thoughtless fridging, adding another moral failing to this calamity of a story. And again, of course, it’s entirely unintended. I still find it hard to accept that almost any attempt to read further into most Chibnall era stories leads to the inescapable conclusion that any apparent meaning was either accidental or largely obscured by incompetence. People gave years of their lives to making this show, but it still seems like almost no thought went into it.

    Given that emptiness, it’s extremely impressive to me that there’s an Eruditorum for this era at all – how could anyone have something distinct to say about every episode of Flux, or anything at all to say about Ranskoor beyond a list of the many ways in which it fails at being television? I’m looking forward to finding out, and then to never watching most of these episodes again.

    Reply

    • Cyrano
      February 19, 2024 @ 9:05 am

      Arguably, Flux is the most successful bit of the Chibnall era simply because he embraces a level of excess. So many different elements are thrown at the wall that even though their meaning and worth go almost entirely unconsidered some of them manage to add up to entertaining television simply due to volume. Like playing Tetris at random.

      Reply

      • Einarr
        February 19, 2024 @ 11:31 am

        I think Hedonistic Maximalism Chibnall is in play from ‘Spyfall’ onwards (arguably ‘Resolution’, though I think that one still has half a foot in Broadchurchesque Poignant Shots But Now With Added Robots Chibnall) – but yeah it’s Flux where he goes absolutely bananas with it, even more so than ‘Spyfall II’, and then he revisits that approach again in ‘Power of the Doctor’.

        Reply

  3. Lackey
    February 19, 2024 @ 10:23 am

    I made the following notes on this episode after watching it: “kind of what like ‘Macra Terror’ might have been if the titular monsters were an okay bunch of crabs and Medok was the villain all along”

    Reply

  4. William Shaw
    February 19, 2024 @ 10:56 am

    This episode aired the same year Sorry To Bother You came out. (I actually remember going home after a screening of the film to watch The Battle of Radio 4 Extra, lol, Lmao).

    That juxtaposition always stuck in my head for some reason.

    Reply

  5. Chris Dearman
    February 19, 2024 @ 11:10 am

    This is the point at which I officially lost patience with the Chibnall era. Up until now I had been prepared to make allowances, such as “I’m not sure they thought through the implications of that bit” or “Perhaps that’s the price of doing a historical episode” or at least “Maybe next week’s will be better”.

    That all died with the words “The system is fine” Oh, I see, you actually meant all of this, all the impotence in the face of systemic evil wasn’t a mistake or a compromise to make a wider point, it was the intention all along.

    In The Beast Below Matt Smiths’s doctor tells Amy “One rule I have kept to in all my travels, I never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets. We are observers only” and immediately this is shown to be false. (Rule 1) The Doctor will interfere as soon as there are children crying. Well, not according to the Chibnall era. Take any kind of stand against systemic racism? Nope. Save any of the two million people affected by the partition of India, even just one? Nope. Suggest that a corporation even slightly reform its abusive working practices? Nope, and this list will go on.

    People have argued that It Takes You Away is one of the better episodes of this era and they might be right but for me it was too late. I can’t get on board with a “hero” who does nothing because in 2018 and still in 2024 there was and is no shortage of children crying.

    Reply

  6. Christopher Brown
    February 19, 2024 @ 1:05 pm

    I still remember what an utter betrayal this episode felt like. It was 2018, in the midst of Trump’s first term, and I was around the age it feels like Charlie is supposed to be. Though Chibnall’s episodes hadn’t been great, previous eras that were truly wonky had been redeemed by their guest writers – the Barbara Cleggs and the Christopher Baileys, or the David Whitakers and Steven Moffats during the Troughton/Tennant eras at their weakest. And Demons of the Punjab had made a fantastic case for that being true of the Chibnall era. That, plus a Cartmel-style Amazon takedown, left me feeling giddy excitement as I watched this episode unfold.

    And then, the ending left me feeling like I’d been slapped in the face. This one felt personal, in a way bad episodes of Doctor Who rarely had. Not only was it clear that good supporting writers weren’t going to save this era of the show, it was clear that the era itself actually flew in the face of the spirit of everything good about Doctor Who beyond surface-level optics.

    This episode did something that no other episode had done before: got me to give up regularly watching the show. Soon after, the first fifteen minutes of The Baffle of Refuse avoiding Kangaroos sealed the deal.

    Basically, the only reason this isn’t my least favorite episode of Doctor Who is that The Dominators is, like, a lot more boring.

    Reply

    • Christopher Brown
      February 19, 2024 @ 1:08 pm

      (I should note that I have not “seen” The Celestial Toymaker beyond its existing episode, and that long ago, before I understood the full context of it.)

      Reply

  7. Lambda
    February 19, 2024 @ 1:10 pm

    If you leave a political void, it will be filled by the hegemony.

    Reply

  8. Jake
    February 19, 2024 @ 2:32 pm

    This is purely speculative, but I’d bet that Space Amazon weren’t allowed to be the bad guys in case it mucked up the BBC’s relationship with Real Amazon, with whom they’ve collaborated a few times now.

    That said, the fact that The Doctor is fine with “the system” killing Kira is, to me, the most heinous moment in all of Doctor Who. Like, we can go back and forth on the character’s supposed non-violence and it’s many counter-examples, but when all is said and done The Doctor fundamentally does not believe in murdering innocents for the sake of the greater good. The fact that she defends doing so to Charlie is a violation of everything the character has ever stood for. Which is what really gets to me, because although this essay is a fantastic examination of how the Chibnall era is ideologically vacuous, what I can’t wrap my head around is how it was allowed on aesthetic grounds. Putting morality aside for a second, it’s discordant with the rest of Doctor Who. How could two long-term fans even write something like that?

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    • Riggio
      February 20, 2024 @ 11:58 am

      You’ve hit on why Kerblam! was probably the most disappointing Doctor Who story that I think I’ve ever seen. Same for El’s overall assessment of the Chibnall years: he’s bled all the weirdness out of the show and created a very generic grimdark-leaning sci-fi show featuring the Doctor and the TARDIS.

      The moral hypocrisy of the Doctor in Kerblam! and the rest of the Chibnall years is probably the most profound because it’s so vacant. Here’s someone whose main ethical reason for opposing Charlie’s terrorist plan is her refusal to kill innocent people for any kind of greater good, but she does exactly the same thing by allowing Kira to be killed to make the point for the greater good that Charlie shouldn’t carry out his terrorist act. Chibnall’s vacant vision of Doctor Who is probably why this story beat appeared: Chibnall can’t see the discordance because he can’t see the substance of the Doctor’s heroism. All Chibnall sees in the Doctor is the hero of Doctor Who, but her heroism doesn’t have any content for him. He just puts the Doctor in a story as the hero, but the heroism doesn’t have any meaning.

      That’s the fully qlippothic nature of the Chibnall era. It’s all vacancy, barely a skeleton of form without any real substance. I’m interested to see how El handles the Jo Martin Doctor and Timeless Child arcs, since this seems to be the one attempt Chibnall makes to give his take on the Doctor real substance. At the same time, they all seem to be about creating the basic structure of a mystery to solve, without any real substance or meaning to the mystery’s structure. As if we’re supposed to care about the Doctor’s origins or secret prior lives because it’s got the name Doctor Who on the opening credits.

      Reply

      • Jake
        February 24, 2024 @ 2:07 pm

        Yeah I’m looking forward to seeing how El responds to the Fugitive Doctor and the Timeless Children too. It’s interesting that you bring those up since I’d say those beats are an extension of the Kira issue (The Problem With Kira?)- a completely vacancy in handling the character that pushes the story into places it Should Not Go.

        Like, whenever the show had previously delved deep into the Doctor’s past there was an implicit acknowledgement that it was a Bad Idea, and the tension in the episode comes from just how much it will engage with the Bad Idea. The barn scene in Listen, for instance, works specifically because you’re afraid that Moffat’s going to reveal the Doctor as a child, and that fear turns the barn into a site of serious danger, one you want to leave almost as much as Clara. It demonstrates a clever understanding of how the audience will respond to seeing The Doctor’s history- which is to say, with pure revulsion. Chibnall’s decision to wade right into the Doctor’s past is an extension of that vacancy; clearly he did not consider how the audience might feel about seeing The Doctor’s backstory in the same way Moffat did, because he’s not thinking about anything save for what sentence should come after the previous one.

        The question that leaves us with of course is simple: if Chibnall doesn’t care about characterisation, doesn’t care about his audience, doesn’t care about plot or messaging or the history of the show he’s working on, then why the fuck is he a writer?

        Reply

  9. Jarl
    February 19, 2024 @ 4:30 pm

    This episode is quite evil and I don’t much care for it.

    Reply

  10. Kate Orman
    February 19, 2024 @ 5:39 pm

    Nooo! Not The Monster of Peladon! Ow my childhood

    Reply

    • Christopher Brown
      February 19, 2024 @ 9:34 pm

      Justice for Aggredor! (And the reputation of the Martians!)

      Reply

    • John Wirenius
      March 11, 2024 @ 1:55 pm

      Now I’m stuck singing “Haroon, haroon, haroon….”
      Yeah, this era made me despair of the show, because Chibnall’s completely violating its ethos spatters all over his every episode. It’s the worst of Torchwood taking over Doctor Who.

      Reply

  11. Austin G Loomis
    February 19, 2024 @ 6:31 pm

    Narratives are, for them, component parts whose job is to be assembled so that people watch them.

    “There is no reason why a writer cannot make a living doing TV on a constant week-in-week-out basis; all that writer needs is a low Alpha-wave pattern and a perception of writing as the mental equivalent of bucking crates of soda up onto a Coca-Cola truck.”
    — Stephen King, Danse Macabre

    Reply

  12. kenziie bee
    February 19, 2024 @ 10:04 pm

    yes it is just, so much more evil and awful that i enjoyed this episode at first, that i had time to think “ooh nice an episode where the Doctor takes on Space Amazon, finally some good fucking food”
    and then got That Scene where the Doctor tells an angry leftist activist caricature “the system isn’t the problem” while brushing off the system killing an innocent woman
    and then she watches him wander into a crowd of time bombs she just set and basically lets them kill him

    i flat out said “fuck you fuck this” to my computer. that was it last straw off the chibnall train. Didnt watch a single other episode from the era, still haven’t, basically stopped giving a shit about new Doctor Who until i heard Rusty was coming back

    Reply

  13. Madeline Jones
    February 20, 2024 @ 1:53 am

    I’m not surprised at how much you’re struggling to make reads out of these episodes. The whole premise of your Eruditorum has been to take deeper dives into authorial intent, production politics, and what every Doctor Who story is saying about our world and our philosophies.

    And in that regard, Chris Chibnall really does feel like this blog’s worst enemy. He has no intent of any sort. We know nothing about the behind-the-scenes of this era. And these stories are saying nothing at best, accidentally endorsing the passive attitudes that beget fascism at worst.

    The fact that Pete McTighe has said nothing but praise to say about working on this run of Doctor Who and willingly came back to write another episode in Series 12 seems like strong evidence to me that most of this script either is unchanged from his initial draft or that Chibnall’s changes were meager enough for him to be completely happy with what was put to screen.

    And even then, I doubt any maliciousness or deliberate messaging from this part. I think it’s just proof that this era was sorely lacking in a strong, idiosyncratic center-left voice like RTD or Moffat who could actually catch what this script is accidentally saying like “Woah, let’s maybe… change this part where the Doc says ‘The system is fine’ and glosses over Kira’s death.” Whereas Chibnall is probably just sitting back, giving it a quick sim, pasting one or two post-its and saying “Yeah, this looks great, Pete. Fans are gonna love it, I think.”

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  14. Przemek
    February 20, 2024 @ 2:48 am

    The Chibnall era broke my fucking heart. It’s one thing to let the show’s quality plummet like that, but to make the Doctor into someone who routinely just lets villains go – and when she finally decides to stand up against someone, it’s the fucking anti-Amazon activist? Yeah, fuck that.

    I’m reminded of the scene where Amy asks the Doctor “Then what is the point of you?” after he fails to save Rory. After “Kerblam!”, it feels laughable to even consider a question like that. There is no point.

    Reply

  15. Ross
    February 20, 2024 @ 1:04 pm

    It really highlights this era’s obsession with “surprise for surprise’s sake”, much like the obsession with preventing spoilers. Of course it has to turn out that Space Amazon isn’t really evil, because everyone EXPECTED that to be how the story goes. Psych! Space Amazon isn’t evil; gotcha! Tyler Durden isn’t real and Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze and the protagonist was dead all along. Aren’t I clever? If Chibnall did care at all about the fact that “Actually Amazon is good” is a morally repugnant twist ending, there’s not much he could do about it: you can’t do 50 minutes of “Space Amazon is good” and then SHOCKING TWIST, Space Amazon is actually evil, because it is not physically possible to write compelling television in the year of our lord two thousand and eighteen where you ask the audience to pretend to believe Space Amazon isn’t evil for fifty minutes. Not any more than you could have your uncouth orange space-businessman SHOCKINGLY turn out to be an unhinged cryptofascist at the fifty minute mark. If the main thing you value is your twist being unexpected, your setup has to be EXPECTED, and this means that you probably need to avoid doing any story where the audience is going to expect the morally right thing to happen.

    I know when it happened, I did, in a way, appreciate the craftsmanship of it. It was a moment of “Wait, are they actually going to have it turn out that Space Amazon is a good and moral company that is trying to do the right thing? How unexpected. That’s clever.” and also I thought about how Jack Graham declared Iron Man to be the most evil movie ever made. (The defense of Kerblam in this light is that it is not as engaging or enjoyable a piece of media as an MCU blockbuster).

    Chibnall seems to just want to hear the Peppa Pig narrator inform us that “Chris is indeed a Clever Clogs.”

    Reply

    • Dan Cooper
      February 22, 2024 @ 6:44 am

      I wonder if we can draw a line backwards from here to the ending of Broadchurch s1 where Chibbers intentionally made it possible to swap the killer in and out depending on what the online theories were. And to hell with the narrative (or in this case, moral) consequences.

      Reply

      • Ross
        February 22, 2024 @ 9:22 am

        I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it’s a good point. The idea of stories being made up of what are essentially interchangeable parts which can be strung together according to purely mechanical rules rather than in service to a coherent narrative or moral structure is, I think, maybe not so out-of-line with genre expectations for pulp murder mystery, and this might well be part of why Chibnall was able to be a successful television-making person despite having the skillset of an apprentice. The history of pulp mystery is chock full of “It doesn’t actually matter if the plot all hangs together as long as the writer outwits the audience by keeping them from figuring out the killer,” enough that it was being mocked in the mainstream at least as early as the 70s.

        This has me thinking, too, because while Chibnall’s Doctor Who doesn’t especially feel like “golden age sci-fi” to me (if nothing else, there’s too many people who aren’t lantern-jawed white men), it is a very golden age sci fi sensibility to build a story that (not unlike pulp mystery) is in service to the Twist At The End That Shows How Clever The Author Is, to hell with moral or narrative coherence. In a murder mystery, the bulk of the story is a misdirect so that you will be surprised when the final chapter reveals “whodunnit”; in a golden age sci fi story, the bulk of the story isn’t necessarily a misdirect, but it is deliberately holding back so that you can be Surprised By Science at the end – that it was Earth All Along, or that the computer is God, or your wife was a robot.

        Come to think of it, I recall those sorts of fans complaining a lot during RTD’s first run about how he was “wasting” too much time on “womanish” concerns like characters and story since “proper” science fiction was supposed to be about the scientific details of how the world worked, and a story was just a structural device to pace out the delivery of exposition.

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  16. PriorMarcus
    February 23, 2024 @ 3:35 pm

    This episode might be intensely vile in its messaging but can we discuss how unbearable cheap it is? This is space Amazon, and all we ever see are a handful of employees and every tiny room is walled off with plastic sheeting to hide the lack of any set beyond. Not only is it a narratively ugly episode but its visually ugly too!

    Reply

    • ed
      March 2, 2024 @ 11:13 pm

      I’m pretty comfortable with the Amazon-analogue set looking a bit shit given that actual Amazon warehouses probably aren’t that appealing, either. But I thought the warehouse aesthetic actually looked fine. Certainly we’ve seen worse this season.

      Reply

  17. Jon C Culbertson
    March 6, 2024 @ 7:02 am

    I have a very different read on this one.

    This is an episode about automation with two strands. One strand is the dehumanization of people when you make them part of an assembly line. This is an old story. (What is the difference between an auto worker and an Amazon team member?…Money and benefits.) The other strand is Luddite. Technology is displacing people.

    Here is the funny part. Everyone here thinks the second strand makes The Doctor a capitalist. I think she is an anti-Luddite. And I think the story has Marxist overtones.

    I am not a writer, so bear with me.

    Here is the story in crude terms. Factories (means of production) are almost totally automated requiring few human workers. Huge numbers of people are unemployed (large pool of excess labor.) Workers seize control of factory and reorganize it to their benefit. (Proletariate revolution.) Marxist.

    The ending is very rushed and easy to overlook after Charlie gets blown up. Everyone is disgusted and distracted because the leftist is killed. Thus, the message must be reactionary. (But Charlie isn’t a leftist. He is a Luddite.) Everyone seems to miss the ending has the plant being taken over for the benefit of the workers even if it is not a mass take-over led by the workers from the floor. And the AI is displaced. (See below for who the AI is.) I repeat the AI is displaced. Listen to the HR director’s final words. (NOTE: The center manager and HR director of Kerblam! are not executive level nor do they act like upper management in a large distribution center. Look closely. I would classify them more like hourly employees with some management responsibilities. I did four years on the floor at the Sears distribution center in Columbus which was an early iteration of the Amazon model. I have seen the suits. And I have seen the manager and head of HR for that facility many times. The Kerblam! versions are not even close.) I categorize the Kerblam! manager and HR director as workers. So, the workers have seized control, not enlightened executives.

    And then there is the issue of The Doctor saying the system is fine. I don’t think she is referring to the system of capitalism. There are two separate uses of the word “system” in this episode in my view. The first refers to the AI which runs the place. There are a couple of ways to interpret this. It could be the capitalists as Marx understands that or as the executives who run the company or it could just be an AI. (I think it starts as one of the first two for the viewer but should switch to the third because of Charlie. This is easy to miss because it is easy to miss Charlie is Luddite, not anti-capitalist.)

    The second is that of The Doctor. Here I think she is literally referring to the distribution center and what it does. It is not a metaphor for a particular economic system. The system is everything required for the receiving, packaging and delivering of goods. (And that system requires advanced technology.) Note that we see one place in this episode and one place only, the distribution center. And we learn very little about life outside this. We see no town, no streets, no shops and hear nothing about government, economics, policing or propaganda. This is no Happiness Patrol. It all happens in the distribution center. That makes the center the system. And the key to that system is technology.

    Why is this system fine? Not because it is a good as it is being run, but because with a few changes it can be. (And those changes are unspecified. It will be whatever is needed. There is no commitment to any one economic system.) And this is why The Doctor opposes Charlie. Charlie only sees that technology has taken away the jobs people need to have a life. And he wants to destroy that technology so that people can build a new system and a new life. Charlie believes killing the customers with the teleporting bots will lead to the rejection of high level technology. (Blowing up the factory would do little good. It would be rebuilt and would not destroy the faith in technology.) Charley is
    Luddite. The Doctor realizes that technology is not the reason for people’s misery. It is people who misuse it to the advantage of a few. In fact, technology is the way to a better future. Charlie wants to destroy the very thing that will improve people’s lives.

    So that is my story. I am sticking to it. At least until the next time I watch this episode and realize I got it totally wrong.

    Reply

  18. Dave Simmons
    March 26, 2024 @ 12:22 am

    A lot of the harm in this episode could have at least been patched over if the AI had refused to kill the person in the room when ordered to. Show it has a capacity to be better than the company that created it.

    But no, we weren’t doing that.

    Reply

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