Doctor Who: 11-07 “Kerblam!” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Doctor Who is not a show afraid of having fun with story titles. Of all the title conventions that the show hadn’t touched, colour me surprised that having an exclamation mark at the end of a title is one of them. The seventh story of Series 11, Kerblam!, finally scratches that itch as The Doctor and friends find themselves responding to a “help me” message on a packing slip direct from Space Amazon itself, Kerblam.
Kerblam! is the second of a four story run this series not written by head honcho Chris Chibnall, all by new writers for the show, with the writer of this swing of the bat being life-long Doctor Who fan and Wentworth writer Pete McTighe, a big fan of the show. A recurring complaint for this series has been how some parts of stories, or the full story, lack a central Doctor Who flavour that easily identifies as the show. But from the opening TARDIS shot, which is wilder, more frantic and properly shows off the new set (and cool new scanner screens) there’s a zip and energy to Kerblam! that satisfies those complaints- and not just with a fan-pleasing fez reference dropped inside the Kerblam package hiding the distress message.
Those expecting Kerblam! to be a righteous takedown of corporatism and capitalism as Series 10’s excellent Oxygen was will be disappointed, as this story is a very different beast despite sharing common DNA. Kerblam! heavily rotates around the future of automation in production, which is a smart topic to zero in on given the wonder and concern that surrounds it in equal measure in reality. As guest star Lee Mack’s Dan says, in the world of Kerblam! technology nicked all the jobs while we were looking at our phones. Given that this is quite literally happening right now, it’s not some vision of a distant future.
The workers of Space Amazon are living out some workers Stockholm syndrome, their rather horrific working conditions balanced out by the fact that they feel lucky to even have a job. They believe that work gives them purpose. It’s work over self-satisfaction, despite the monotony. Sound familiar? It’s a privilege to work for Kerblam, Julie Hesmondhalgh’s friendly HR lady Judy tells the gang- as Graham is fitted with an ankle monitor to track his every movement. Considering that Amazon have their own “pickers” wearing GPS trackers to track productivity in their warehouses, this analogue is again not out of the ordinary.
Director Jennifer Perrott did a sterling job with the same four (or, what felt like it) rooms in her prior story The Tsuranga Conundrum, so it’s no surprise that she makes the grungy working environments of the Kerblam headquarters work with a plethora of interesting shots, using the space well. The oppressive nature of the company is driven home with aplomb visually, with the blaring searchlights panning over the stock shelving complimented by the skulking robots hiding behind every shelf. The Kerblam robots feel a bit like the Smilers from early Matt Smith yarn The Beast Below, an unsettling visage hiding just below the friendly pretence. With Segun Akinola’s happy hummable Kerblam jingle (which gradually grows sinister, then pounding in its intensity) the world of Kerblam grows beyond a potentially boring warehouse setting.
Despite the muddled politics and morality of Kerblam! (we’ll get there) in the craft alone it feels as close to classic wacky fun Who as this series has achieved. As wonderful as Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were, heavy-hitting stories like those have to be contrasted with the sillier ones, and in trying to build up the character arcs or a reliance on over-explanation, the series has often lost way of simple enjoyment. Thankfully, Pete McTighe balances character and excitement very well indeed, with the main four and the guest stars served rightfully. Ryan’s dyspraxia comes back, yet importantly not to cause him too much detriment (he’s a ninja at packing). It still causes him small challenges to overcome for personal growth, which is how it should be. He’s still gung-ho too, jumping down the dispatch chute with glee. McTighe also remembers that Yaz is a member of the police, allowing her to exercise investigative skills and an arrest hold (I’ve likely butchered the real name!). Even The Doctor herself feels better balanced this time, her childish disappointment at not being able to climb on the conveyer belt mixed together with a much more authoritative and imposing Doctor. If Thirteen has an Oncoming Storm within her, this as close as we’ve gotten.
There are sinister robots skulking about, a call for help and a mystery to solve, so from basic premise it could hardly be more Who. Team TARDIS works a lot like it did in Rosa, each of the gang having their own task to get up to, with even simple touches such as cutting between The Doctor and Yaz asking the same questions adding to the feeling of a tighter-knit investigation, a working team. Graham tries his very best to shine brightest once more, put into the maintenance side which unintentionally teams him up with the eventual villain. The mystery at the centre crucially lasts for the duration of the story, keeping us in pace with the character’s discovery of the plot.
Kerblam! for my money has the best guest stars of the series so far, along with Demons of the Punjab. Away from Lee Mack’s sadly short-lived everyman and Julie Hesmondhalgh’s endearing boss, the stand-outs are Claudia Jesse as young worker Kira, and Leo Flanagan as maintenance worker-cum-terrorist Charlie. Kira is incredibly likeable, with an outlook on life that The Doctor greatly admires. She loves to imagine the families opening presents they receive from Kerblam, seeing them as little boxes of happiness, despite not having much with her lot in life. Kira never knew her parents, and the only gift she was ever given was from Judy. When The Doctor compliments her, she barely even knows how to react. A real shame then, that the story ultimately uses her as a means to an end.
Kira’s treatment is emblematic of the problems Kerblam! has in its message. While the story doesn’t finish where it teases going in the beginning, subverting the expectation of being about a takedown of “the system” or evil management (with even Callum Dixon’s snotty middle manager Slade being ultimately blameless for the deaths) it struggles to reconcile its themes. The Doctor doesn’t change the status quo or cause any meaningful consequences to a clearly exploitative system, where even in this automated future workers are still forced to be involved in menial jobs. Kerblam simply give their workers a month off- with just two weeks of that paid. How benevolent.
While I did appreciate the attempt to make the message one of how people use and abuse systems to their own ends, rather than the systems being corrupt themselves (truthful for technology), when the robotic Kerblam is the stand-in it’s tough to not look at it as a direct analogue for capitalism. The robotic system has a conscience, but “the system” doesn’t. It’s a tough sell. The twist of Charlie, the shy, freckled young man being the true villain works well, but leads to another confused message when even the thing he is fighting against seems pointless- and seems to be what the in-world government are doing anyways.
Despite these “People Power” protests causing 10% actual people at all levels working, why in this universe could automation not simply take over fully and allow humans a future without tedious work? Considering Oxygen was just a series ago, and saw The Doctor tear space capitalism down, why was she seemingly happy for so little change here? The Doctor’s pleading to Charlie doesn’t get through to him, which is another nice subversion, but when she ultimately is passive in the very climax, what was this all for? It’d be unfair to mark Pete McTighe like this without knowing his full intentions (perhaps the “evil corporation” twist rug-pull was all that was intended), but at the very least it’s clumsy, not least when young, scared and impressionable Charlie is painted as the “other” for daring to challenge the system even despite his reprehensible actions, while the bosses in charge of Kerblam who hold the real power causing such exploitation get off scot-free.
Despite the muddled politics, there’s still ridiculous fun and pleasing nastiness present. The original Kerblam delivery bot, Twirly, has a Handles feel to him (and in the heart medication line, probably the funniest comedy delivery of the series). The twist that “people power” has a literal Soylent Green-esque meaning is a delightfully dark reveal even if it is predictable, as is the rather beautiful danger, being- deadly bubble wrap bombs. Deadly bubble wrap. Not content with making kids afraid of blinking, the dark and breathing amongst everything else, now the simple act of popping bubble wrap will make some kids think twice. The beat of the cast returning to the Kerblam reception, looking positively haggard after their ordeal, contrasted with the system voiceover telling them to “please consider a personal mindful moment” is positively applaud worthy. A shame then, for what follows it.
Kerblam! is a story that shows Pete McTighe as a stand-out guest writer of roller-coaster Who, like Jamie Mathieson in the Capaldi era. The first forty minutes are sugar-rush superb, with exciting set pieces (who doesn’t love a race down a chute?) managing to give the right amount of time to each member of the cast and not under-serve them. While the historical stories have been fabulous, this is the first time in Series 11 that the science fantasy side of the show has worked on almost all levels, with a varied, lively guest cast and the right amount of laughs and scares. Despite this, the conflicted moralistic message of the final ten minutes and unfortunate treatment of Kira put a bit of a dampener on, making this a very good, flawed slice of Who rather than an exceptional one. Alan Cumming and witches next week, and with this series’ success with historicals, I expect this to be ace!