‘Doctor Who’ tried to tackle Big Tech, and failed

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Doctor Who has had something to say since its first episodes aired in 1963, often reflecting the anxieties of its creators, from the environment through to looming dystopia. The show's newest executive producer, Chris Chibnall, clearly has concerns about the state of technology today. Unfortunately, he has struggled to properly articulate them, often coming across more amateurish than insightful.

Spyfall, a two-part episode that opens the revived series' 12th season, has a tech company CEO as one of its villains. Daniel Barton is the CEO of Vor, a company that stands-in for Google and Facebook. Towards the end of the show, Barton and his alien allies reveal a plan to invade the world with Vor devices, revealing his evil plan during a keynote speech.

The first issue is one of presentation. Barton's keynote is meant to represent all of the tech company keynotes we're so familiar with now. But the staging and setup is so unfamiliar that it doesn't read as a keynote for a beat, and the scene loses any power because it's not anchored in things we already know.

We've all seen what a tech company keynote looks like — they're often on mainstream news reports the day new products are announced. In a cursory search on YouTube, I found videos of Apple launches that had more than 50 million views combined.

And the formula isn't hard: Get a good-looking, casually-dressed techy type onto a stage in a theater. They'll awkwardly wander the stage while presenting a slide deck onto a large screen, or screens, behind them. The fact that 30 Rock was mocking this format in 2009 shows how embedded in the public consciousness they are.

Doctor Who, however, managed to whiff this with a presentation that looked nothing like what you would expect. From the weird island staging, the lighting, through to the vibe that it was being shot in an unused TV studio between show recordings. It even managed to get the dialog wrong. In the real world, if a tech company CEO wanted to declare the human race extinct, they'd at least frame it through the lens of Silicon Valley positivity.

Doctor Who

If Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook would begin grinding the bones of the dead as a cheap power source, he'd do so with a smile upon his face. “We're so pumped,” he'd begin, “to tell you all about how we're disrupting the old ways of doing things.” “We're on the cusp of such an exciting opportunity to help cut our emissions and improve land use in the United States,” etc.

The other problem is deeper, and concerns how the story itself was framed, with Vor as some vehicle for an alien invasion. In Barton's speech, he says that he's able to establish this invasion because we've blindly handed over our personal data to his company. “We gave you pieces of plastic and circuitry and games,” he says “and you handed us total access to your lives.” He goes on to talk about gaining our credit card numbers, and us putting cameras and microphones in our homes.

You think this is building to some point about surveillance capitalism. except it's actually some ploy to turn human DNA into a storage system, which sees everyone's phones zap them as the precursor to invasion. Rather than being any sort of comment on how we live our lives, often beholden to tech companies, it's just words that are totally disconnected from what happens next. I won't comment on the lousy science behind such a move, either, given that this is a fantasy show.

Chibnall's anxieties are valid, but he and his writers often struggle to express them in a meaningful way. That means that sometimes its arguments wind up making the opposite point to the one it's trying to say. Take last season's Kerblam!, written by Pete McTighe, in which a planet suffers crippling unemployment unless you're lucky enough to work for the episode's eponymous retailer.

Kerblam! Is, essentially, Space Amazon, and one that reflects the real horror stories that have emerged from employees at its warehouses. But at the end of the episode, the conclusion is that Space Amazon shouldn't just automate these undignified, horrible jobs. Instead, it should hire more people to do the horrible work instead, saying that's preferable to unemployment. Doctor Who's modus operandi has always been to destroy bad systems, not allow the status quo to continue.

Imagine if Chibnall had connected Spyfall's villain to its plot more organically, rather than just saying so. A creature that invades your mind via your smartphone, which it can only do once it's understood your innermost thoughts, provided by surveillance capitalism, is a neat idea. And then, you can serve comment both on how our phones kidnap our attention and how vast, unregulated data collection is a bad thing and against our best interests. Better that than a two-dimensional, capital-E Evil plan that comes out of nowhere.

The show has typically avoided dealing with technology and its after-effects. Narratively, you don't need a smartphone to keep you amused if you're running around alien planets trying to solve problems. Since its revival, the show has had people making calls across space and time, but rarely has the show tackled tech head-on. But the world has changed since 2005, and there is now a need to reflect how we are all the more engaged with technology. But episodes like this, and hamfisted jokes about the WiFi being down, aren't good ways of expressing that.

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