Home Doctor Who REVIEW: Doctor Who: Kerblam!

REVIEW: Doctor Who: Kerblam!

Doctor Who: Kerblam! Art by Anthony Dry with colours by Stuart Crouch (c) Target Books

Kerblam! has some success tweaking the themes and climax of the TV episode, but loses some of the original’s charm along the way

When Kerblam! first aired in 2018, it was a fun ride, full of wit, action and over-the-top guest characters. In the landscape of Chris Chibnall’s reinvention of Doctor Who, Kerblam! had a noticeably old school feel. It’s set in a world of pop art bureaucracy, polite killer robots, and a scope at once global and contained in one building. That’s an environment the Seventh Doctor and Ace would have been comfortable strolling through. The Thirteenth Doctor and her fam fit right in, though. The action sends them undercover to investigate a mysterious call for help smuggled out of Amazon-a-like outer space retailer Kerblam! There they find a world dominated by an all seeing, all knowing AI, an army of robot workers, and a handful of exploited humans. Humans who are disappearing one by one…

An awkward climactic reveal never quite worked, however. Though opinions on how badly it misfired tend to depend on whether it was simply scriptwriter Pete McTighe grasping for the most surprising thing that could happen next, or a deliberate political statement. Now McTighe has returned to adapt Kerblam! for Titan Books, many wondered how much, if at all, he’d taken the opportunity to make changes.

 

Extended flashbacks to the childhoods of several characters makes more explicit which side of the corporate/worker conflict we’re expected to be on

Anyone hoping for a total rewrite of that reveal will be disappointed. The villain remains the same, as does their motivation and somewhat unworkable plan. The Doctor’s speech about the System receives a few tweaks, however. Meanwhile the novel deploys the format’s ability to more smoothly express the passage of months and years to give a clearer vision of how the ‘new’ Kerblam! operates. The result is the Doctor’s comes across as less simplistic and the solutions more wide-ranging and less like a band-aid on systemic injustices.

The plot is expanded with several flashbacks to the childhoods of Kerblam!’s Head of People, Judy, and its resident dogsbody caretaker, Charlie. These clarify some things about what happened to transform Kandoka but create other inconsistencies. They also do little to solve the economic paradox at the heart of Kerblam! If the world is running at close to 90% unemployment and poverty is endemic… who’s buying all Kerblam!’s endless warehouses of tat?

Ultimately, the changes and additions won’t impress those who didn’t like the original television story. But they do enable Pete McTighe to nail his colours firmly to the mast. Even in the five years since broadcast the conversation about AI, particularly in the creative arts, has moved firmly into the mainstream. Perhaps the writer’s views have evolved over that time or were just unclear back then. But the flashbacks reveal his genuine, if rather mannered, rage against the machine.

 

Doctor Who - Series 11 - Episode 7 - Kerblam - Graham (BRADLEY WALSH), Yaz (MANDIP GILL), Ryan (TOSIN COLE), The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER) at Kerblam! Headquarters.
The fam, Graham (BRADLEY WALSH), Yaz (MANDIP GILL), Ryan (TOSIN COLE), and the Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER) investigate in the original episode.

Unlikely to go on many lists of the all time great Target Books, Kerblam! is nevertheless a brisk, easy, read revisiting the Thirteenth Doctor

More surprisingly, a lot of what worked about the television episode doesn’t translate well to the page. Part of what makes McTighe gifted as a screenwriter is his keen visual sense and trust in his actors to deliver. But action sequences like Ryan, Yaz and Charlie’s conveyor belt ride lose all their kinetic energy in prose form. Meanwhile, drained of the endearing charm of Bridgerton’s Claudia Jessie, dispatch worker Kira is left as a very slight presence. She was always a character whose main reason for existing was an appointment with a bubble wrapped fridge to pivot events into the final act. But the novelisation leaves that element sorely exposed.

Target Books and Doctor Who on TV don’t exist in competition with each other. But it’s difficult not to conclude that Kerblam! is a story that works best as a television episode. All the same, even if not the most essential of the novelisations, it provides a few brisk hours of easy reading.

 

Five new Target Books are out now, with beautiful new Anthony Dry covers (c) Target Books

Doctor Who: Kerblam! by Pete McTighe

Ding Dong!

The TARDIS is invaded. A plea for help delivered by robot summons the Doctor and her friends Yaz, Graham and Ryan to Kerblam – the biggest retailer in the galaxy. Posing as new recruits among the thousands of human workers, the TARDIS crew uncover a deadly plot that threatens the life of every person in the warehouse – and beyond.

Who has sent for the Doctor? What is the dark secret at the heart of Kerblam’s operations? And who will escape the merciless Postmen…?

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