A delivery from an intergalactic mail order service which contains a cry for help leads the Doctor and Team TARDIS deep into the heart of the titular Kerblam! in what has proved to be an archetypal Doctor Who episode in both style and substance – a funny, scary and thrilling romp, which comes as a much-needed rebalancing after last week’s heavy and intense historical tale.
One of the things that Doctor Who has always done with aplomb is reflecting the current times, and taking inspiration from issues and events in order to either present satires or allegories of things such as the miners’ strike, pollution, high rise living, entry to the EEC, and taxation, or using them as the framework on which to drape a story. ‘Kerblam!’ could easily have been a straight dig at Amazon, by showing a largely automated delivery service and driving home a message about the timely topic of workers’ rights, and would have probably worked very well.
However, writer Pete McTighe chooses not to demonise the system itself, showing instead how people can sometimes be part of the problem, and the story feels all the stronger for it by not going down the obvious route of knocking the easy target of Capitalism. McTighe appears to have nicely assimilated all the tropes of Doctor Who, and presented us with one of the most familiar-feeling stories of the 2018 series, from lots of running up and down corridors (or, in this case, warehouse aisles), to glowing-eyes killer robots, yet it somehow still does not feel derivative or unoriginal, and instead feels vibrant and refreshing.
One of the hardest things about doing a futuristic or space-based story is all the world building that is typically required in order to establish the setting and locale in which we find ourselves, but McTighe manages to shortcut all of this by using the touchpoint of Amazon to sell the idea in just a few lines of explanation. Space warehouse? Fine, we’re onboard. It lets him get to the main thrust of the story without a lot of tedious narrative being required, and is a smart move on his part.
It was a rather nice move to tie in Ryan’s established background as a warehouse packing worker, as he comes to the fore by being able to use his skills to blend in at Kerblam! as the Doctor and pals all go undercover. However, the constant reminders of his Dyspraxia on more than one occasion felt a little heavy-handed, and indicated poor script editing (by allowing such needless repetition), or direct intervention by showrunner Chris Chibnall. Either way, it seemed to err too much on the side of overkill, rather than ‘less is more’, and effectively reduced Ryan to being seen as just a condition or disability, rather than as a fully-fledged character for the whole of the story.
Sometimes, it has been a double-edged sword for the show to have celebrity or big name casting, as it can tend to take you out of the story, particularly if the star in question is known for being a certain ‘type’. Lee Mack is always invariably Lee Mack in whatever he does, as seen in Not Going Out; however, as Kerblam! worker Dan Cooper, this actually works to the story’s advantage, as Mack’s natural and easy charm means Dan comes across as a very likeable and believable character, particularly when he talks about how everything he does is driven by his love of his daughter. It therefore hits hard when he gets killed off, and surprisingly early in the episode as well for a ‘name’.
Similarly, Julie Hesmondhalgh – known for her role as Hayley in Coronation Street – manages to convincingly present the very human face of Kerblam!, as Judy Maddox, the company’s Head of People, representing the 10% of ‘organics’ (or humans, in layman’s terms) making up the overall workforce. However, one of the strongest performances comes from Claudia Jessie as Kira Arlo, who manages to fall into perhaps the most frustrating category of all in Doctor Who – a pleasant and engaging character who is clearly destined to befall a cruel, untimely fate, and therefore makes it even more gut wrenching when it eventually happens, tantalisingly close to the very end of the episode, when it appears that she might actually be spared and given a reprieve. Dramatically, the audience is given what it needs, rather than what it wants, with Kira’s death.
The cause of her demise is another one of Doctor Who‘s specialities, in taking the innocuous, everyday objects and items which we see around us, and making them into something lethal – in this case, bubble wrap. It brought a wry smile to the face as it – no doubt unintentionally – reminded this viewer (and likely more than a few others) of the Tension Sheet from back in the early days of Red Dwarf (which, for the uninitiated, was a piece of bubble wrap painted red and had the words ‘tension sheet’ painted on it, as a stress-relieving tool), and is more than apt in this case, as it provides more than its fair share of tension as the story builds to its climax.
A major frustration of this series so far had been either the lack of clear villains in each episode, or – when we do have a black-hatted bad guy – the absence of any consequence, as they’ve been able to just swan off without any justice being served, which has seemed rather odd. As such, this is where the story falls down a little, as there fails to be a real ‘boo, hiss’ baddie that it so desperately needs – instead, it ends up villifying a character who has inveigled his way into Kerblam! in order to carry out an act of mass murder in the name of activism, and whose motivation seems rather rushed out at the end, as well as underdeveloped. It need to have more seeding earlier in the episode, in order to avoid a big ‘huh?’ moment when we get the big reveal of who is actually behind the plot, and why.
Another point of potential weakness for ‘Kerblam!’ comes in the sequence where Ryan, Yaz and the yet-to-be-revealed villain of the piece Charlie Duffy (Leo Flanagan) end up in the dispatch section of the company, as it leads to something of an unfavourable comparison with similar scenes of madcap mechanised conveyors in films such as Monsters, Inc. (with the doorway chase) and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (in the robot factory). It felt like a bit of filler, which although clearly intended to add a layer of jeopardy, could have been dispensed with quite easily, and the overall story been no weaker for its loss. It also ended up being one of the few occasions this series where the cracks were showing a bit in the visuals, as the CGI was strangely not as up to muster as usual.
Overall, the episode managed to deliver (which is appropriate, given the subject matter) in all the important respects, and feels as though Pete McTighe could do a commendable job with any future stories he may write; it certainly appears that he could turn his hand to the show’s flexible format with ease, perhaps moreso than some of the other writers this year, who – although penning outstanding standalone pieces – feel as though they may have shot their bolt, and might not be able to catch that lightning in a bottle on another pass. McTighe is one to watch, and it is hoped that he returns again for 2019. A very fun, easy watch, as well as being pleasingly old-school Who in many ways. Bravo.