As Jodie Whittaker settles quite nicely into the role of The Doctor, the series itself seems to be taking an alternating pattern of light and heavy; going from serious, deeply topical material one week to lighter, frothier adventures the next. After last week’s powerful and original “Demons of the Punjab,” I was prepared for this week’s entry, “Kerblam!” to be one of the lighter episodes, and it was indeed. Despite its lighter tone, “Kerblam!” had some interesting social commentary on the current retail landscape, even if the surprise ending was morally ambiguous to say the least (more on that later…).
The Doctor receives a package aboard the Tardis via a robotic courier from mega-delivery retailer “Kerblam!” (Amazon.com by any other name) aboard the TARDIS. The package contains a fez she’d ordered back when she was Doctor 11 (Matt Smith). Smuggled inside the box is a packing slip with ‘HELP’ written on it. Being the Doctor, she takes Team TARDIS to the source; a giant, planet-based ‘fulfillment center’ for the Kerblam! corporation.
They infiltrate the company as newly arrived workers (via psychic paper credentials and sonic screwdriver), with the Doctor easily impressing the head of human (or rather biological) resources, Judy Maddox (likably played by Julie Hesmondhalgh). Once inside, they decide to take a look.
Each of Team TARDIS infiltrates a different section of the center; with Graham (Bradley Walsh) getting stuck in maintenance (thanks to an unlucky ankle monitor switch with the Doctor), where he is mentored by a young coworker named Charlie (Leo Flanagan).
Yaz is assigned to the warehouse, where she befriends a working father named Dan Cooper (Lee Mack), who has ‘death’ written all over when we first meet him, right down to a lucky medallion made for him by his daughter (you just know Dan’s a goner). Finally, the Doctor and Ryan (Tocin Cole) are assigned to work in packing, where they meet a chipper but friendless young woman named Kira (Claudia Jessie); who later meets a cruel and grisly fate via exploding bubble wrap, courtesy of her would-be boyfriend Charlie, who is actually a blue collar terrorist secretly fighting the increasing automation of the fulfillment center (which ‘boasts’ of its mere 10 percent biological workforce).
After the two horrific deaths, Team TARDIS realizes that the murderous worker robots (shades of the classic series’ “Robots of Death”) are actually reacting in self-defense of the system itself, which is what sent the ‘help’ note to the Doctor. The Doctor and team manage to stop Charlie’s plan to send thousands of Kerblam! delivery robots into the galaxy with packages wrapped in exploding bubble wrap (because no one can resist popping bubble wrap, right?) in the hopes that sabotage will force the company to cut down on its reliance on automata to hire more ‘biological’ workers. Charlie is killed in the collective exploding bubble wrap, suffering the same fate he accidentally delivered to Kira.
Curious thing is the ending, where we have the Doctor and Team TARDIS actually siding with the system. Granted, this is an admittedly unexpected twist, but upon further reflection, it doesn’t really feel consistent with what the Doctor has done in the past. The Doctor is usually the one who upsets the apple cart, not fixes its wheels to send it on its merry way. In this case, the Doctor does get Judy to agree to hire more living workers in the plant, but with the automated system of Kerblam! left in charge. Yes, it’s a twist and a genuine surprise, but…it really doesn’t feel like a true Doctor Who ending.
Ready to ship out.
There are visual/verbal references throughout “Kerblam!” to several classic Doctor Who episodes (“The Sun Makers” “Robots of Death” “Greatest Show in the Galaxy”) as well as the Doctor’s more recent history (“The Unicorn and the Wasp,” Doctor 11’s fez) and that certainly adds to its classic series feel. I also appreciated how the episode takes aim at soulless ‘job makers’ such as Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com (all big-ticket retailers are evil, by the way…sad but true fact). As a former shipping and receiving manager of a now defunct retailer, I could relate; in fact, this episode even gave me some soul-crushing, dead-end deja vu.
“Kerblam!” also feels more like an episode of classic Doctor Who than any other entry of the 11th season to date (which can be a good or bad thing depending on one’s appreciation for the classic series; as a fan, it worked for me). The regular cast is well-utilized, and there is an attempt at social commentary/relevance, even if the actual resolution falls short of the usual rewriting of the status quo that I’m used to from the Doctor. “Kerblam!” is an entertaining episode, offering lots of nice twists…but leaving behind a somewhat muddled message by the time it clocks out.