Doctor Who: Series 11 – Episode 7
Written by: Pete McTighe
Directed by: Jennifer Perrott
Synopsis: 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.
Doctor Who doesn’t venture into parody or satire too often in its stories, but this episode is a clear statement on Amazon and some of the accusations of staff mistreatment that have come out in the media recently. The huge mail order company continues to dominate the headlines, becoming an ubiquitous conglomerate that handles all aspect of our shopping lives, pushing brick and mortar businesses to close. It isn’t the greatest leap in logic to imagine them one day setting up shop on the moon and teleporting items onto our doorsteps – I bet Jeff Bezos was furiously writing down ideas while watching the episode. While “Kerblam!” doesn’t really deal with the injustices and demands put upon the staff in those factories, it instead focuses on the idea of automation and reducing human workforces to rely on cheaper, robot-led initiatives instead – again, this is an issue commonly dealt with in science-fiction – the idea that we will eventually outsource all of our tasks to machinery, making ourselves redundant in the food chain.
With the terrific design of the Kerblam Postmen, this episode really comes to life and feels reminiscent of past series. In fact, you could easily have slipped Tennant, Smith or Capaldi in the main role and it wouldn’t have been out of place in any of those Doctor’s eras. The robots themselves looked visually similar to the Smilers from the Eleventh Doctor’s second episode, “The Beast Below”. There was definitely a greater focus on plot over characters, a noticeable change in perspective considering the tone of previous episodes in Series Eleven, and while writer Pete McTighe did put in some minor character development for the supporting cast, it felt secondary to the twisty-turny conspiracy at the heart of the Kerblam factory. The fact that McTighe also referenced past Doctors, such as the Eleventh Doctor’s fez, and the Tenth Doctor’s adventure with Agatha Christie (“The Unicorn and the Wasp”), also evoked a sense of continuity with previous Doctors that has been somewhat lacking in this series so far.
Filled with plenty of misdirection, the plot of “Kerblam!” was surprisingly mysterious as the TARDIS team attempted to discover who had contacted them asking for help. This made the adventure less straight-forward and led to a nice shock reveal at the end when the exposition came. I was shouting out accusations throughout the episode as to what was actually happening and all of my ideas were completely false – who else thought that the system was converting the human staff into robots? No?…Just me, then! McTighe led the viewers on a merry dance with his misleading moments, although I think that the sequence with Dan (Lee Mack) was a bit too confusing, as it didn’t seem to tally up with the final reveal. It could have done with a flashback to explain exactly what happened to Dan, as McTighe’s attempts to mislead us were a bit too successful there.
With more attention given to scene-setting, the mystery of the plot and the hectic conclusion, it is no surprise that this episode had the least amount of character development seen so far. However, I did like the fact that our TARDIS team we’re split up into different jobs which allowed each of them to impact upon the plot in different ways. There was a nice moment of gravitas at the end where Yaz wanted to pay respects to a fallen comrade, which demonstrates how the Doctor’s companions have a greater human connection than her – she’d have just moved on, whereas Yaz wanted to put an ending to that particular chapter. I must admit, the episode was surprisingly dark in places, with two deaths that I didn’t see coming or expected to be reversed. But those who’ve complained that the villains of Series Eleven have all escaped justice will be happy at the conclusion of this episode, which offered a fairly final stamp on the story.
I really enjoyed the supporting cast in this episode, especially Lee Mack, who was very down to earth and likeable in his role of Dan. Okay, he was pretty much acting like he does on his own TV show, Not Going Out, but he was fairly amiable and it was sad to see him become a casualty of events. This series has done a great job at making the “canon fodder” deaths feel devastating, fleshing out the supporting characters and making them actually matter. The same goes for Claudia Jessie’s Kira Arvo who managed to make an impact in a short space of time, and created one of the most heartbreaking moments in the episode, especially when you consider her speech about receiving gifts. Ouch! I also enjoyed Julia Hesmondhaigh and Callum Dixon as the senior staff-members at Kerblam, playing their roles perfectly to arouse suspicion over their actions and motivations. While the episode felt familiar, it certainly didn’t stick to the typical format in terms of who the villain of the piece really was. It was very interesting that the Doctor referenced Agatha Christie, as this really felt like a murder mystery at times.
Explosive by name and explosive by nature, “Kerblam!” was a very interesting episode – at times it felt formulaic, yet it also had the capacity to surprise. While I’ve enjoyed the different tone and cinematic approach to the series in the preceding episodes, I would argue that “Kerblam!” definitely feels the most like a classic Doctor Who episode with its format, cinematography and tone. I think there is room enough for both story types, and while I’ve really enjoyed the educational elements and introduction of social issues seen in episodes like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, it was fun to see a more action-led narrative that wasn’t bogged down in human drama. I also appreciated the effort to create iconic and recognisable “monsters” in the Kerblam robot workers – something which again feels quintessentially Doctor Who in design. While it wasn’t as emotionally powerful as this series’ historical episodes, it was a solid bit of science-fiction that kept its viewers on the edge of their seats. If we can maintain this balance of action, drama and education, then I’m sure Series Eleven will be one of the strongest collection of episodes we’ve ever seen.
Score – ★★★★
Next Episode – “The Witchfinders”
In 17th-century Lancashire, the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham become embroiled in a witch trial and the arrival of King James I.