Contains spoilers for the episode
What’s the betting that someone in the Doctor Who production office has just had a particularly aggravating experience getting an order from Amazon? Because the first part of this week’s episode is exactly the sort of light hearted revenge fantasy that you’d expect to come from the pen of an aggrieved creative media industry professional in frustrated response to such a real-life run-in.
In summary, “Kerblam!” is the largest online retailer in the Doctor’s universe. When she receives an unexpected package (a fez, just one of several light touches of fan-pleasing continuity on display this week) that also contains a cry for help from someone within the company’s fulfilment centre (comprised of an entire moon of the planet Kandoka), naturally the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Ryan, Yas and Graham (Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh) can’t resist investigating. They soon uncover a number of unexplained disappearances among the company’s skeleton staff of human workers and set out to find who is responsible – and who raised the alarm.
To call “Kerblam!” a satire of Amazon and other similar Internet-age companies would be to overstate the case – it’s far too thin and transparent to be anything more than a light cover version of the original. As Ryan remarks in the episode, the management processes and technology used by “Kerblam!” are indistinguishable from much those already in use at many of today’s cutting edge companies seeking to make humans fit inside the machine as just another cog in the machine. It requires very little in the way of science fiction extrapolation, and you could have almost set this back home in 2018 Sheffield if not for the inclusion of teleportation and the use of android overseers. The latter resemble the Smilers and Winders of “The Beast Below” but behave rather closer to the unnerving art deco simulacra of “The Robots of Death” with their unfailingly polite tones provided by Broadchurch and Keeping Faith star Matthew Gravelle.
If this was all that the episode had to offer then you would have 15 minutes of fun but lightweight diversion, after which it would get stale and dull pretty quickly. Fortunately new-to-Who writer Pete McTighe is only just getting started, and it’s when he takes apart all the elements he’s introduced and methodically turns each of them on their head that things start to get genuinely interesting. The nice, kind characters (which include comedian Lee Mack playing a role indistinguishable from the comedian Lee Mack) are revealed to be either bad guys or simply canon fodder who are quickly dispatched (geddit?). Meanwhile the middle managers (including the ever-wonderful Julie Hesmondhalgh from Coronation Street) who are so clearly caricatures of everyone’s worst workplace jobsworths turn out to be genuinely good people working diligently on behalf of their employees. Who knew? Even “Kerblam!”‘s automated dispatch system has developed a conscience and has been trying to do the right thing behind the scenes.
But don’t get too comfortable, because McTighe doesn’t hold back from making things a little murkier still as the story progresses. The bad guy’s motivations, for example, will actually be pretty close to the viewers’ own hearts as he rails against machines displacing humans and leaving their ‘masters’ with no function in life; it’s just that he goes rather too far in pressing his complaint. Meanwhile the company’s AI might have it’s ‘heart’ in the right place but its casual killing of a complete innocent as a logical counterargument prevents things being too clean. So who is really the bad guy and which is the good here? At one point the Doctor herself unwittingly saves the bad guy’s life, but at the end she leaves him to die in an unusually cold-blooded finish echoing the uncompromising fate of Solomon in the Chris Chibnall-scripted “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. While it’s fair to say that the Doctor gives the bad guy the requisite last chance to repent, it’s also true that by this point he is so bewildered that he doesn’t really know what is going on anymore, and that to leave him to his admittedly deserved fate was uncharacteristically cruel on the Doctor’s part.
All of which saves this story from having any nice clear-cut edges. It’s not often that you get this sort of mixed message in modern drama – it’s taken as being somehow ‘sloppy writing’ if characters don’t present a simple, consistent, one-note face – but McTighe’s approach to it all is intelligent and grown-up and makes for much better, believable and realistically flawed characters.
It helps that this story rediscovers one of the seemingly lost arts of Classic Who: how to split up the Doctor and her companion(s) and assign each of them a guest star to work alongside and interact with them. Done right – as it is here – and the character development will thrive on both sides of the aisle. As a result, “Kerblam!” not only finds a way to give all four regulars some quality time in the spotlight – including a mention of Ryan’s dyspraxia that didn’t feel like the writer being told to work off a series bible checklist – but also creates proper personalities for those around them.
It’s the way the series used to work but which NuWho has been oddly reluctant to reprise, preferring instead to have the regular cast huddled together and having insular conversations that exclude the guest stars, all too often leaving them as purely plot devices to feed in essential bits of dialogue when required. The regulars also benefit from the cross-interaction: Ryan’s insider knowledge of warehouse work is valuable asset while Yas’ police training helps with the investigation, while the Doctor herself unwittingly fingers the bad guy while trying to persuade a complaining Graham that his assignment as a janitor makes him the best-placed person on the whole team to get things done. She’s so right!
Together with some stylish design and lighting, and top-notch direction from Jennifer Perrott which even manages to make an underground car park look like a thing of beauty, the end result is a terrifically fun and entertaining episode of Doctor Who. Despite some sharp edges and dark touches, there’s something of a pleasingly cartoon feel in parts especially during the sequence when the Doctor and her friends travel the conveyors of the dispatch system which is straight out of Monsters, Inc.. For some reason it made me think of the Russell T Davies story “Gridlock”, while fans of Steven Moffat aren’t forgotten either in the way that the climax takes a familiar everyday object and turns it into a thing of trepidation, in much the way that “Blink” made a generation of school kids look forever askance at funeral statuary.
With the Doctor feeling more like the Doctor than ever before this season thanks to having a meaty mystery to get her teeth into and a principle to take a stand on, “Kerblam!” works on all levels as both exciting family viewing and as something with a bit of a social message. In the process it avoids the disparate parts feeling forced or treading on one another’s toes and makes for the most flat-out accessible and enjoyable episode of the show in a long time – not just in this run. It’s the sort of episode that you’d show to non-fans to persuade them than they’d like Doctor Who if only they gave the latest series a fair crack.
Is it the best episode of series 11 so far? It seems meaningless and slightly facile to compare such relative frivolity to deeper episodes such as “Rosa” or “Demons of the Punjab”. There is so little in common between those shows and the likes of “Kerblam!” and “Arachnids in the UK” that there are simply no shared grounds on which to make a sensible evaluation. But what they are in overall summary is an early vindication of showrunner Chibnall’s agenda of mixing things up and showing all the different types of story that the show is capable of doing, without getting trapped into a narrow groove as has too often happened in past eras of the show.
Now all the team has to do it keep it going at this level of quality. No challenge there, then, obviously.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 6.30pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.