There’s been something very untraditional about Doctor Who season 11. Well, more accurately, there’ve been many things untraditional about this season. It all started with a female Doctor and it kind of snowballed from there. Under the guidance of new showrunner Chris Chibnall, we’ve had a lot of grounded, human stories – like last week’s tragic, historical “Demons of the Punjab” – which some fans haven’t taken to very well. For those, “Kerblam!” should be something of a gift, as it’s a very traditional package whose concept would have sat right at home in any era of modern Who.
“Kerblam!” sees the TARDIS team investigating the titular company, who’s the largest retailer in the galaxy. Many of the 10% of the workforce that are actually human have been going missing, with the obvious answer being that someone’s manipulating the system – and the eerie Kerblam Men robots – for their own nefarious ends. Every viewer surely worked this out before the Doctor and her pals, but the fun comes in the reveal of the culprit – it’s the apparently nice, clumsy janitor Charlie, who’s really a maddened activist fighting for human rights in a future in which robots get all the jobs.
Writer Peter McTighe shows a fundamental understanding of the nuts and bolts of Doctor Who with this episode which makes him a welcome addition to the show’s writing team. There’s humor, darkness, emotion, memorable supporting characters and people turned into soup – just about everything you could want from a really solid episode of the series, then.
Of course, that previously mentioned twist does mean that once again the monsters of the episode are not the real evil here and it’s another nasty human who’s the true villain of the hour. By this point, though, we should probably just come to terms with that simply being how Chibnall writes (or, in this case, how he encourages his writers to pen the scripts). Taken out of the context of this curious trend, however, the twist in “Kerblam!” is actually a great one.
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Though it goes against everything science fiction has ever taught us before now, this giant corporation run by robots is actually as trustworthy as it seems and it’s just one crazed worker who’s behind all the deaths. The actual message of the episode – that technology isn’t inherently bad but it all depends on how people use it – feels like Doctor Who borrowing from Black Mirror‘s playbook for once.
But then again, the twist of the deadly bubble wrap was classic Doctor Who. The show has always loved to take something everyday and make us afraid of it – there’s surely going to be a lot of kids having fun with the stuff over the next week – and that’s yet another way that this episode gave back to the fans. The little wink at the audience in the final scene recalled the iconic last moments of “Blink,” too, in which David Tennant tells us to be wary of statues. Sure, it’s a barmy idea, but that’s what we come to the show for.
While the episode was refreshingly free from a typical “evil tech” vibe, it was curious how relatively toothless the satire of big corporations was. Amazon was very clearly the main target here and there was a nice bit of business about the managers mistreating their workforce, which obviously recalls real life controversies. However, other than that, the company mostly escaped the Doctor’s ire. Even the abusive manager was allowed to keep his job at the end.
On the other hand, there was a certain grit and sense of command about Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor here that was good to see – as perfectly as the actress has nailed the wonder, heart and humor of the character, the scripts haven’t given too much chance for her to show the Time Lord’s inner steel before now. As bloodthirsty as it sounds, it was fascinating to see the Doctor leave Charlie to die as he’s blown up by his own bubble wrap bombs.
As for the rest of the crew, the old fashioned structure of the plot which saw them break up and investigate on their own allowed for each of Ryan, Yaz and Graham to get a chunk of the action, leaving the whole team better served than most episodes so far this season. The guest cast were good value, too. British comedian Lee Mack brought the laughs early on and we mourned his loss when he got liquefied. Julie Hesmondhalgh, meanwhile, was chirpy and warm as “head of people” Judy Maddox and Claudia Jessie was endearingly sweet as sunny worker Kira (RIP!).
On the visual side of things, this wasn’t the most stunning of the episodes we’ve had unfortunately, which was perhaps a necessary consequence of the need for the odd “cheap” set-based installment to afford all that international filming elsewhere. The Kerblam Men were well designed, but the CGI in the conveyor belt sequence really fell short of the work achieved before this season. As ever, though, Segun Akinola’s brilliant score truly brought things to life.
The best way to describe “Kerblam!” is that it’s the coziest episode of season 11 so far. It doesn’t break the mold as “Rosa” did a few weeks ago, for example, but it really felt more connected with the show’s history than any previous outings (the nods to Matt Smith’s Fez and David Tennant meeting Agatha Christie didn’t hurt, either). Moving character pieces are all well and good, but sometimes you just want an episode of Doctor Who thats title is an onomatopoeia with an exclamation mark at the end.
Kerblam! has all the ingredients of a really solid episode of Doctor Who. It doesn't break the mold like other outings this year, but its traditional tale will endear it to hardcore fans.