There are problems with this episode before the Doctor announces the ‘systems’ aren’t the problem. Robots of Death this very much isn’t.
When I just thought it a weak episode, rather than an objectionable one, it was primarily because it all felt a bit cobbled together. The Amazon Warehouse theme has potential, but the realisation is unconvincing.
One of the things this series has, at times, done so well is to create a very real sense of place; and through depicting truly hostile environments, genuine threats and powerful suspense. That’s been built on authenticity – believable characters, clear motivation, coherent world-building. But nothing here has depth.
There’s no sense of the 10,000 who Kerblam workers because they’re only ever mentioned as a number (even if the budget didn’t run to extras, how come no-one ever refers to their mates?) The environment feels tacked together – not helped by making the recreation room look like a park. If that’s supposed to be an artificial indoor environment, well, it was done so much better just a few episodes back in The Doctor Falls. I’m guessing the budget their got spent on creating the Toy Story 2 conveyor belt stuff. There’s very little on screen to help us believe that all these locations are actually under the same roof.
Ultimately, it would have had more impact if it had been set in an actual Amazon Warehouse, so it’s not really taking advantage of the freedom science fiction story telling offers to extrapolate and allegorise…
When there’s no real sense of tension arising out of the situation in the warehouse, trying to inject it by raising the stakes – death by being liquidised, or whatever, makes very little difference.
But then there’s the politics of it, and that’s where it gets objectionable.
There are interesting questions to explore around automation and full employment that this story only seems to acknowledge to veer away from. The Doctor ends up excusing the ‘systems’ that standardise the management of low skilled work, handing discretion to algorithms, while dehumanising all interaction (Kerblam’s “hello co-workers” were one of the really effective elements of this episode). Why does she excuse it? Because – spoilers – it has killed an innocent girl (Line of Duty‘s Claudie Jessie, now playing ingenuous rather than evil but still looking half her age). But that’s ok because it did it to make a radical terrorist (whose motivations are barely even appraised) feel sad because he liked her enough to tell her he liked butter. The very definition of fridging. Ugh.
The more I consider it the more I dislike it. And you can hear me considering it more, and disliking it more, on a forthcoming episode of Fusion Patrol…
I will say the Doctor still looks as good in a fez as she did a couple of regenerations ago.