With Black Friday now looming large on the horizon, the Doctor and her friends’ latest adventure saw them investigate strange goings-on at the largest retailer in the galaxy. But did Kerblam! deliver the goods?
If Series 11 has demonstrated anything so far, it’s that very few shows can handle major tonal shifts week on week quite like Doctor Who can. On the back of last time’s tragic events in the Partition-era Punjab, the show’s latest installment is a much lighter, pacier affair which feels both bang up to date and yet quintessentially Doctor Who.
On writing duties this week was Pete McTighe, whose Doctor Who credentials are certainly not in doubt. Although this is his debut script for the show, he’s already contributed material towards several releases from the Classic Series, including the upcoming Complete Series 19 Blu Ray set. He’s also a self-confessed massive fan of the show, so much so he named several episodes of his Australian prison drama Wentworth after revival-era Doctor Who stories.
So how does Kerblam! stack up? Read on for Blogtor Who’s very own customer feedback…
Multiple spoilers and plot points lie ahead. If you’ve not yet seen Kerblam!, be sure to catch up with the episode before proceeding!
The Age Of Steel
Some of Doctor Who‘s strongest stories are those that reach its audience on multiple levels, and Kerblam! achieves this with aplomb. As well as a tightly-plotted, enjoyable romp of a mystery, the episode also packs in some witty satire on the timely concerns of the excesses of capitalism, consumerism, and the increasing inevitability of tech unemployment – the theory that in the future most if not all of our jobs will be taken over by technology.
McTighe’s script deftly handles all these aspects well, not letting either the adventure or the social commentary dominate. His tightly-plotted script – laced with the most humour we’ve had in an episode this series to date – wastes hardly a word, with both plot and character development neatly feeding into and from each other.
Kerblam! also injects a much-needed shot of adrenaline into what has been thus far a slow-paced and contemplative series, coupling the faster pace with several twists and turns so that we as viewers find ourselves wrongfooted just as often as the characters. This pace is bolstered by Jennifer Perrott‘s smooth and dynamic direction, whilst Segun Akinola‘s driving score continues to go from strength to strength – a particular highlight being the moment the jaunty Kerblam! jingle dovetails with the dramatic reveal of the robotic army.
And at the risk of appearing robophobic, I’m going to go on record and describe the robots of Kerblam! as genuinely creepy. With echos of the Conductor from The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and the Smilers from The Beast Below, the rictus-grinned nature of the TeamMates and Delivery Bots is consistently unnerving, an effect only heightened by Matthew Gravelle‘s deliberately too upbeat voicing of them.
A comedic counterpoint to the Kerblam bots, meanwhile, comes in the form of Twirly. The delivery bot v1.0 not only plays an important role in saving the day, but has some of the best lines of the episode, including the frankly relatable ‘the future is too confusing for my protocols’ and a hilarious but easily-missed observation on the Doctor’s blood pressure levels.
Whilst the plot is skilfully constructed right up to and including Kerblam‘s glorious final twist – weaponised bubblewrap, the latest in Doctor Who‘s increasing list of innocuous items made sinister – it becomes just a tad less cohesive in the episode’s final moments. Specifically, Kerblam’s management resolving to take on more human workers not only gives in to someone who’s made those demands by highly unethical means, but is also at odds with what seems to be the overarching message of Kerblam! – that it’s not always the systems that are the problem, but the way people exploit them.
Kerblam! follows the trend the past few episodes have set of featuring a sizeable guest cast, but balances them all so well that no one feels either too prominent or is made redundant. The biggest draws are the two names teased at the beginning of the series, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Lee Mack.
Both parts were written by McTighe with the actors in mind, and it shows. Hesmondhalgh – who we know has incredible range from her roles on Broadchurch and Coronation Street – imbues the well-meaning Head of People Judy Maddox with a delightful nervous energy, whilst on the right occasions letting the character’s inner steeliness peek through.
Long-time Doctor Who fan Mack, meanwhile, is endearing as warehouse worker Dan Cooper. Whilst McTighe accurately captures Mack’s comic voice, Dan also evokes sympathy with his desire to do right by his daughter, and strikes up a highly watchable rapport with Yaz – all making the comedian’s time on screen much too brief.
Although they may not be as well-known, the performances of the other guest stars in Kerblam! are no less impressive. Claudia Jessie in particular shines as the sweet but ill-fated Kira, whose story about only receiving one present in her life gently tugs at the heartstrings on first telling, but yanks them with full force once the true nature of her twisted ‘Employee of the Day’ gift is revealed.
Callum Dixon and Leo Flanagan, meanwhile, both excel at subverting expectations. As bad-tempered boss Jarva Slade, Dixon marks himself out as the episode’s villain early on, at least up until the revelation that he’s just a boss with particularly poor interpersonal skills.
As the true antagonist of the piece, Flanagan’s Charlie is awkwardly charming up until he gives himself away as the mastermind behind the events of Kerblam!. He is constructed well enough, however, that his motives remain understandable, even as his actions are unacceptable. It also makes a nice change this series to see a villain a) actually be a villain and b) receive their comeuppance.
Partners In Crime
It’s been a crowded TARDIS at times this series, with one or more of the Doctor’s friends often sidelined to give focus to others, resulting in somewhat patchy development for all three. Kerblam!, on the other hand, succeeds in utilising the trio efficiently, and in a way that’s true to what we know of their characters so far.
Ryan competently draws on his background in warehouse work in the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, and we revisit his dyspraxia to hear how affected him back then, and see how it still affects him now. Yaz’s police training also gets a run out as she restrains Charlie during the episode’s climax, contrasting nicely with her later emotional acknowledgement of Dan’s sacrifice for her. As always, there are funny and heartwarming moments in equal measure for Graham too; his strong people skills come into great play when gathering information, and his mentor-like relationship with Charlie is sweet to watch.
Kerblam! also serves Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor well for the most part, although at times it could push even harder. From her excitement at ‘the Kerblam! man’ delivery to her childlike disappointment at not being allowed on the conveyor, Thirteen displays all the joy-filled wonder we’ve come to expect from her this series. She is also still capable of exuding authority and a sense of command when the situation demands – even if she does somewhat wreck her moment in Slade’s office slightly by seeking validation from Yaz and Ryan straight after.
However, the Doctor applies her moral code surprisingly inconsistently. She calls out Charlie for manipulating Kerblam’s system, for all the murders he’s committed in the name of testing his bubblewrap, and for all the ones he’s about to commit with his army of bots. But, apart from pleading with Charlie to learn from Kira’s death – something he stubbornly refuses to do – she skims over it, leveraging no consequences against the system for its actions. She doesn’t even get angry; indeed, she states the system ‘has a conscience’, which doesn’t quite tally with its brutal murder of a harmless young girl.
All of this leads to an potentially intriguing moment of moral ambiguity for her at the episode’s denouement, when she leaves Charlie to die. By changing the bots’ teleport destination, the Doctor’s already saved the intended targets. It’s therefore unclear why she orders them to detonate immediately, giving her no time to save Charlie. It wouldn’t be the first time the Doctor’s been morally shady, but unlike other instances in the episode that firmly show us she is the same Doctor she always has been – the fan-pleasing callbacks to her past incarnations’ love of fezzes and an adventure with Agatha Christie – her method of resolving the situation is somewhat confusing, and therefore it’s hard to determine whether it’s in keeping with the Doctor’s character.
Overall, Kerblam! may not be one of Doctor Who‘s most groundbreaking stories, but it is a hugely serviceable slice of solid and enjoyable sci-fi. Fingers crossed McTighe soon makes a welcome return to Doctor Who; he evidently understands what makes the show tick. His stellar debut script is complemented by strong performances and proficient work behind-the-scenes to create what is almost the perfect package, and ensures customer satisfaction for another week.
The Doctor Who adventure continues…
Doctor Who continues this Sunday at 6.30pm GMT on BBC One and at 8pm EST on BBC America with The Witchfinders by Joy Wilkinson. For further broadcast times in your region, check local listings. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien) and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).
The Witchfinders guest stars Alan Cumming (King James I) and Siobhan Finneran (Becka Savage) and is directed by Sallie Aprahamian.
The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz arrive in 17th-century Lancashire and become embroiled in a witch trial run by the local landowner. As fear stalks the land, the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But is there something even more dangerous at work? Can the Doctor and friends keep the people of Bilehurst Cragg safe from all the forces that are massing in the land?