With a name like Kerblam!, I expected the seventh episode of the new series of Doctor Who to be very different. Considering the childish implications of the word, I was expecting a more lighthearted romp in a Amazon-esque company in space. Instead, what we got was quite different really. Enjoyable but definitely a little different.
Kerblam! begins with Team Tardis getting a package, courtesy of a time-travelling robot, containing a Fez and a distress letter from Kerblam!, a galactic delivery service from the planet Kandoka. Heading to the planet’s moon/warehouse, the Doctor and Team Tardis go undercover to investigate a series of disappearances as strange power surges strike and the robotic helpers watch with a haunting wide grin.
To start with the positive, Kerblam! feels very different to a lot of this series thus far. Whilst most of Chibnall’s episodes have been focused around character drama and interaction first and foremost, Kerblam! brings the sci-fi elements of Doctor Who gloriously back into the central focus. Though, sadly, the final threat is still a twist and far too close to previous episode’s themes of humanity being the main villain, Kerblam! is the first episode in a long time which has a really solid visual theme for the monsters. Despite the Pting being the most adorable thing in Doctor Who thus far, it’s the villainous robotic postmen of Kerblam! which really cement in the mind as a great addition to Doctor Who’s extended pantheon of monsters.
In addition, the episode as a whole just revels in how Doctor Who, especially older series, feel and coats itself in all the old pastiches that have sadly been strangers to a lot of this season: fluctuating power systems, nefarious robots, fun but quirky dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, Kerblam! is one of the few episodes this season that got me excited to explore a new space. It felt like a true adventure on an alien world which, sadly, even our previous adventure on an alien world with The Ghost Monument, failed to really sell me on. Kerblam!, on the other hand, felt like a new story despite all the old trimmings and gave a great collection of moments and an excellent plot that was really well placed. The acting in the episode is a highlight as well. All members of the cast do well but top marks go to Lee Mack who is, as always, a godsend and instantly likeable in his role as order picker Dan Cooper, whilst Julie Hesmondhalgh brings forth a performance worthy of her veteran years of acting skill as Judy Maddox.
I even enjoyed the overwhelming corniness of the episode: The Doctor standing up to injustice in the form of Callum Dixon’s overwhelming boss character, Jarva Slade, the monster related encounter between Lee and the robots in section triple nine, and the stereotypical and awkward love story between Claudia Jesse’s Kira Arlo and Leo Flannigan’s Charlie Duffy. Even Doctor Who’s lacklustre special effects were charming in their own way. The whole episode just came together as, forgive the pun, one great package of everything I’ve been missing in the past few episodes of Who. It was a delightful return to the past.
Of course, the episode wasn’t perfect. First things’s first: this episode focuses a lot about politics and is tackling a clear stand in for Amazon, so if you’re not a fan of political statements in your Doctor Who…first off, why are you even here? And secondly, this episode might not be for you. Personally, I found the episode to at least focus more on the conspiracy and adventure side of the story more than its political backdrop, with small exceptions relating to the employee’s and manager’s approaches to their jobs and the final message we’re given from the Doctor: the systems aren’t the problem, it’s how people use and exploit it that is. However, for me, this final lesson was part of the episode’s biggest flaw.
The ultimate message of Kerblam! is mixed.
On the one hand, it’s encouraging people to work and saying that companies should be led by people rather than faceless systems, but also comments on the danger of the people abusing the power of the system in general. It’s a mixed bag and tries to be balanced, but in the end, neither side is particularly compelling as an argument. Plus, as an aspiring ‘artist’, I guess that’s the term, I take issue with the message that ‘jobs give people purpose’ rather than people defining their own reasons for existence. Overall, there’s no harm done there though.
Despite a stellar first and second act, the ending of the episode starts to crumble with the revelation that kind maintenance man Charlie is actually an evil activist who took control of the robots and is planning to kill people with bubble-wrap, as a statement to the world that technology can’t be trusted. Whilst it’s nice to have an actual villain this episode and Kerblam! tries to ask some interesting questions, it ultimately buckles under the weight of its own ambition: strained by a quick resolution to Charlie’s plan and the main villain of the whole episode being…bubble-wrap. Yeah, that does tend to really kill the tension, despite how hilarious the imag.e is.
Also, no-one seems to be mention that Kerblam!’s system killed an employee and yet the Doctor called it ‘moral’. Plus, the Doctor kills Charlie with the exploding bubble-wrap. That’s kinda suddenly dark but never dwelt upon (damn it, I want my angry Jodie scene!). For that matter, the bubble wrap explodes the lower hanger, yet when Kira used it, she got disintegrated instead. Oh, and Charlie technically wins because Kerblam! reforms as a more person-based company, which means that more people get to be basically enslaved to Kerblam! with the little collar things on their feet, so I guess the crazy terrorist man had a point? There’s so many of these little factors that ruin the end of a perfectly good episode.
That’s my main frustration with Kerblam!, a cluttered ending. It’s less a dark ‘tough to swallow’ conclusion, like Demons of the Punjab‘s bitter end was, and more just hard to digest because of how unfocused it is. However, the ride to that ending is a really fun time and for people who have been getting bored of this season’s more grounded and drama related plot-lines, Kerblam! is just the episode you need to see that somewhere within Chibnall’s design, the elements of Doctor Who still live.
Still, witches next week. Anyone else excited? I am, considering the historical episodes have been knocking it out of the park thus far.