That was so much fun! Last week I asked for another Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, instead Pete McTighe’s debut episode provided me with something that seemed to come straight out of season 25, one of my absolute favourite eras of Doctor Who.
We begin with a mysterious package being delivered by an intergalactic teleporting robot deliveryman, think “scary robot postman pat”. The package delightfully contains a Fez and the obligatory “Help me” note. It was such a clear callback to Matt Smith’s Doctor and Moffat era in general and made me very happy. Us lifelong fans really don’t need much to keep us smiling. And, while I cringe slightly at the idea of the Doctor getting excited about a cheap and tacky slogan from a big commercial Amazon-type giant, it is very much in fitting with a lot of the show’s history, particularly the Paul McGann/Lucie Miller Big Finish series (again, very much my amongst my favourites).
So, mystery in place, we go hurtling into a big Amazon warehouse for our investigation.
Our guest star, Julie Hesmondhalgh, performs the part of People Manager, Judy Maddox, beautifully, managing to portray a pen-pushing, slogan crunching executive and a genuine altruist fighting within the system who is overwhelmed with anxiety and the creeping fear that ultimately all her efforts for nothing. Generally, in Doctor Who, our representatives of the ‘system’ are one or the other, and the success of her portrayal is a credit to both the actor and the writer.
And this marked one of the key strengths of this story. Whilst it was obviously, on the surface, a critical look at low skilled work and exploitation in places like Amazon warehouses, there was significantly more going on. A rich, poignant, backdrop of poverty and unemployment was the setting of this dystopian society not so far away from our own. Decisions had clearly been made motivated by profit margins and, as a result, companies such as these were proud to claim that 10% of the workforce was human. Yet, the company wasn’t evil, the people in charge were just working to do a good and reasonably ethical job in trying circumstances. True, they were perhaps doing the bare-minimum (hence Judy’s decision at the end to increase the percentage of human workers beyond the 10% industrial standard), but they were doing their bit. Poverty and powerlessness leads to extremism, and whilst our ‘villain’ is a true villain in this story, he is still a victim of the system. Interesting to see the theme of radicalisation and extremism being returned to this week. These are all themes that are very topical at the moment: the threat of machines and AI to our currently working lives – and these are not unfounded fears. The main point here, very true to Doctor Who, is never to forget the human element.
What works really well here is the way the script plays with your expectations. Are the Robots evil? They certainly look menacing, or is that just robophobia? Is someone controlling the Robots? Is the system corrupt? That Jarva Slade certainly seems a bit dodgy, clearly unhinged, he must be to blame….. The ultimate reveal of the janitor took me by surprise, and was very well done. And Kira’s death was hard. The part was well played, the character very likeable, and I really didn’t want her to die. Of course, here we have again the ambiguous morality of the piece: the system is established as not the villain of the piece, but it also takes Kira’s life to prove a point. Again, AI/robots, are (or possibly can be) amoral by human laws. It’s genuinely that they do not care – the system’s job is to satisfy its customers, efforts it recognises will be undermined by their mass extermination – but it has no genuine recognition of human worth in and for itself (hence the need for a Person Manager). Powerful stuff and plenty to debate about. This was a wonderfully fun romp, but was also deeply troubling and left plenty to talk about.
But, indeed, after a run of very underplayed, exquisitely detailed stories that focus on the smallest details in big events, we finally got a big, fun traditional Who adventure with scares and bombs and deaths and where the Doctor actually saves the day. And it was glorious!
What I am finding really interesting here is how the general themes of the series are being played out. Once again, we have a cold, heartless world and the people who benefit from the system being, ultimately, to blame, and that system being too big to tackle. The Doctor wins the day and stops the deaths, but is powerless to change the system. That happy conclusion where Judy tells us that she intends to recruit thousands more humans, helping to bring people into employment and save them from absolute poverty: she is offering soul destroying, monotonous, minimum wage work which, as the Doctor clearly states, could easily be replicated by the simplest of machines. It is a sticking plaster solution, it is better than the alternative, but the big PROBLEM remains (as did the partition, the greedy capitalists, etc, from earlier stories). Interestingly, the impression we are getting is not just the consistency of themes, but that there is a clearly well realised galaxy underpinning all these stories and our heroes are just scratching the surface. And, if the impressions we are getting are anything to go by, this is a very miserable and destitute galaxy indeed. Gone are the stories and the Doctor flying straight into the heart of the system and taking down the government. Is the Doctor going to face whatever it is that causes so much loss in the galaxy at the end of this series? I hope so. And if she does, I hope she wins. I have a horrible fear that she’s going to shown quite how small she is in relation to THE SYSTEM, and that will be heartbreaking.