WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD…
Reviewed by Paul Mount
UK broadcast: 6.30pm – Sunday 18th November
Written by Pete McTighe
Directed by Jennifer Perrott
Guest starring Julie Hesmondhalgh and Lee Mack
A mysterious message arrives in a package addressed to the Doctor, leading her, Graham, Yaz and Ryan to investigate the warehouse moon orbiting Kandoka, and the home of the galaxy’s largest retailer: Kerblam!
Back in 1975, in the serial The Ark in Space, the newly-regenerated fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) came face-to-face with the mutated victim of an alien incursion into a human enclave aboard a space station thousands of years in the future. The intricacies of the plot need not concern us here. This poor unfortunate’s hideous transformation was brought to the screen by the simple expediency of encasing the actor’s arm in bubble-wrap (at the time a new innovation in the exciting world of packaging), sellotaping it into place and then spraying it green. Over four decades on and bubble-wrap itself becomes the engine of destruction in an episode which cheerfully brings to mind any number of stories both from the imperial phase of Doctor Who’s 21st century reinvention – and also a few rattlers from its less than salubrious dying days back in the 1980s.
Oh, and we finally get a couple of knowing winks to the series’ more recent past, reconnecting the show to a history it seems to have been wilfully washing its hands of for most of this series.
Long-time fan Peter McTighe’s first Doctor Who script does what it can to lift the series from the worthy-but-dull torpor of virtually every episode of this new season since Chris Chibnall’s likeable opener The Women Who Fell To Earth. The Doctor receives a delivery from automated shopping service Kerblam! – it’s a fez (“What do you think? Still me?”) – and on the back of the delivery note are the words ‘Help me’ in large, worrying letters.
Never one to ignore a distress call/plot device, the Doctor rushes off to the moon of the planet Kandoka which has been turned into a huge warehouse for the galaxy-spanning Kerblam! delivery facility.
The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham split up – the script at least tries to justify the inclusion of three ‘companions’ by finally giving them something to do which actually advances the plot – and discover from their new acquaintances amongst the workforce that staff have recently been vanishing without trace and that Kerblam! itself operates a punishing, exhausting culture of extreme and relentless productivity.
Meanwhile, the sinister glowing-eyed robotic ‘TeamMates’, the bulk of Kerblam!’s workforce, patrol the warehouse aisles and corridors and when poster boy Dan Cooper (Lee Mack) disappears, the Doctor suspects that there’s a problem with both the company’s AI system and its automated workforce.
Kerblam! is a welcome return to Doctor Who’s core values after a handful of episodes which felt more like lectures than adventures. One of the great strengths of the series, often highlighted by those defending the show from accusations that it’s just “silly kid’s sci-fi” from non-fans, is that its format (or lack thereof) allows it to tell any type of story in any style and that there’s really nowhere the show can’t go and that, within reason, nothing’s off-limits. Showrunner Chris Chibnall, repositioning the show and directing it squarely at an audience who have long since lost interest in it or have never watched it at all, has moved it away from big, brash, high concept/high stakes stuff and crafted a smaller, more intimate series which uses its narrative engine to focus on contemporary or historical social and political issues.
This is all well and good and highly commendable (to a point) and Chibnall has clearly taken his lead from the earliest days of the original series, but this approach has robbed the show of its teeth (perhaps Tim Shaw in the first episode was a subtle indication of what was to come), its sense of adventure and, more crucially, its dynamism and invention.
Kerblam! does at least give the show a shot of energy and intrigue, presenting the Doctor and her team with a mystery to solve and a wrong to put right. There’s a pace and urgency here which has been missing from the series (although there’s a bit too much exposition dialogue in the first twenty minutes or so, which does unbalance the episode slightly), along with some genuine visual spectacle and a couple of action set pieces which quicken the pulse and remind us of the David Tennant era, when the show was firing on all cylinders, telling thrilling stories which had heart, soul and a proper sense of adventure. Ryan, Yaz and maintenance worker Charlie’s exploits in the dispatch tubes and conveyors, strafed by security lasers and running for their lives, brings back the scope and scale of episodes like Gridlock and Planet of the Ood and offer a merciful respite from the standing-about-talking tone of too much of this eleventh season.
But this is Chris Chibnall’s vision of Doctor Who so hopes that we might find a huge alien blob or something squiddy lurking in the bowels of Kerblam! were almost always going to be cruelly dashed; we’re not really hugely surprised when we discover that mainenance worker turned terrorist Charlie (Leo Flanagan) is responsible for the disappearances and is weaponising bubble-wrap so he can make a point about Kerblam!’s working practices. The company’s AI, troubled by his activities, sent the distress message which brought the Doctor to the scene. In an impressive and satisfying finale, a sea of TeamMates are instructed by the Doctor to deliver their packages to themselves and then do what “everybody does with bubblewrap”.
Before leaving the Kerblam! complex, the Doctor is assured by its HR managers Judy Maddox (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and Jarva Slade (Callum Dixon) that Charlie’s sacrifice hasn’t been in vain and that the company will change its working practices and reduce its reliance on an automated workforce. Thus Doctor Who has taken a gentle dig at the likes of Amazon and its notoriously-rigorous employment conditions and suggested that there must always be a place in the workplace for the hand of humanity and that automation is no substitute for real people doing a proper job of work an earning a decent living for themselves and their families.
Kerblam! is a slick and well-realised tale, brought to the screen with style by director Jennifer Perrott (who couldn’t quite salvage the earlier Tsuranga Conundrum) who keeps things moving and exploits beautifully-designed sets which bring a genuine sense of scale to the story, from the warehouse’s bright reception area, the stuffy, claustrophobic, soulless aisles and the gloomy cavernous chambers of the dispatch area. This episode actually looks big which, coupled with a story peppered with some genuine peril and tension, brings the episode closer to its fan audience’s expectations whilst providing a timely, no-nonsense adventure for newbies who have bought into the more character-based dynamic of this latest series.
Jodie Whittaker, even more unavoidably resembling Tennant here in a story which could have been airlifted out of one of his own seasons, is on surer ground with a script free from the stiffness of Chibnall’s own work and whilst there’s still no doubt that the TARDIS is overmanned with three ‘friends’, at least Yaz, Ryan and Graham have something to do and aren’t side-lined because there’s nothing they can realistically offer to move the story along.
Pleasingly, the episode also has time to create three supporting characters with more than just the usual broad brush-strokes; Lee Mack’s Dan and Claudia Jessie’s Kira are instantly likeable and relatable, McTighe bringing them alive in ways that Russell T Davies himself would surely approve of and even bad boy Charlie (Leo Flanagan) elicits some sympathy from the audience for the desperation of his plight even if we can’t agree with his ’end justifies the means’ motives.
A bold, confident old school bit of Who, then, which rewards repeat viewing and even if we’re still waiting for some good, old-fashioned Doctor Who evil monsters then Kerblam! at least offers some much-needed thrills and spills and delivers a long overdue shot of adrenaline into a bloodless, anodyne series which has been in danger of flatlining. More like this, please.
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