doctor who kerblam! review

Doctor Who may very well travel in time and space, what with the shocking timeliness of its latest episode, “Kerblam!” The seventh episode of season 11 delivers a sharp critique of Amazon while tossing in several fun nods to David Tennant and Matt Smith’s eras, in a story that itself plays like a spirited throwback to Doctor Who of yesteryear.

An Amazon Coincidence

Season 11 has been experiencing some growing pains, through no fault of Jodie Whittaker, who remains an effervescent constant through the first half of this season. I’ve probably harped on Chris Chibnall too much for being too determined to forge a new path for Doctor Who while leaving the past behind — one of the singular features of a show that has lasted so long and played so last and loose with continuity. But I wanted something, you know? And I finally got it with “Kerblam!” which looks and feels like a Russell T. Davies-era episode, the showrunner during Tennant and Christopher Eccleston’s runs. It’s clear that first-time Doctor Who writer Pete McTighe has a deep, abiding love for the series, shaping the episode not only in the vein of its other socially conscious sci-fi parables (“The Beast Below,” “New Earth,” “Gridlock”) but tossing in several delightful nods to the past few seasons.

The episode kicks off with a Smith callback, with the arrival of his famous fez (side note: I made an embarrassing yelp when the Doctor says she “must have ordered it a long time ago“) via robot delivery service named Kerblam! Along with the fez comes a cryptic S.O.S. which immediately piques the Doctor’s interest, and the team heads to a Kerblam! headquarters whose warehouse takes up an entire moon. There they learn that Kerblam! is the galaxy’s largest retailer, hammering the Amazon parallels in even more. But something sinister may be taking place at the shiny, 90% automated company, as Team TARDIS soon discovers that scores of Kerblam’s human workers have gone missing.

Doctor Who episode critiquing an all-powerful corporation that may or may not mistreat its human workers is not unusual, but it is astonishing how this episode arrives on the heels of Amazon’s controversial announcement to house its new headquarters in New York City and Northern Virginia. The conglomerate may not be pleased with the thinly-veiled fascist imagery employed by this episode, but Doctor Who is not exactly known for its subtle social commentary.

Cover-Ups and Conspiracies

A good Doctor Who episode is not without its charming guest stars, and “Kerblam!” delivers, introducing us to the sweetly guileless Kira (Claudia Jessie), the permanently-vexed Kerblam manager Judy (Julie Hesmondhalgh), and the awkward janitor Charlie (Leo Flanagan). Comedian Lee Mack also makes a too-brief appearance, demonstrating McTighe’s deft handling of character, successfully making us invested in the disappearance of Mack’s endearing star employee. It’s a skill that he extends to the rest of the characters, who manage to stand out in an episode that barely stops to catch a breath as the Doctor and co. rush to uncover the conspiracy at the center of Kerblam! We even get a tiny glimpse at a budding romance between Kira and Charlie, in a few cute, essential scenes that build up to the eventual twist.

But unlike previous episodes where the crowded dynamic seemed unbalanced between Team TARDIS and the guest stars of the week, everyone gets something to do. The Doctor, Yaz, and Ryan pair off to investigate the management office, while Graham gets stuck with Charlie the on-edge janitor. The Doctor, Yaz and Ryan trio is quickly becoming one of my favorite team-ups, with the three of them bouncing off each other and demonstrating a fun youthful energy. Whittaker immediately becomes positively impish in their presence (her exchange of “Too bombastic? …Alright, laters!” is a delight) while Ryan and Yaz get to prove that they’re there for more than exposition. Left on his own to navigate the Kerblam! warehouse with Charlie, Graham shines as well, with his trademark snark coming to the forefront. These dynamics are strong enough that when the team adds on the cantankerous Mr. Slade (Callum Dixon), Judy, and an adorable outdated delivery bot named Twirly, the screen doesn’t feel too packed.

“Kerblam!” doesn’t do anything new; most of its structure is pulled straight from other socially conscious Doctor Who episodes like The Beast Below and most of its characters are archetypes. It’s most entertaining sequences are a pastiche of something else — the wild ride down the chutes is a goofy Goonies-recalling scene while the complex system of conveyer belts they’re unloaded into feels eerily reminiscent of Monsters Inc. But McTighe and director Jennifer Perrott are having so much fun at the helm that you can’t help but be swept up in the ride.

Taking Things to the Extreme

This leads us to our big reveal, which I’ll admit is a twist that I didn’t see coming. The suspenseful build-up to the climax is terrific, with Kira’s tragic death forcing Charlie to step up to reveal that he was the mastermind of the rogue Kerblam! bots. While the final reveal is rather ridiculous (killer bubble wrap!) the implications of Charlie’s motivations may be darker than Doctor Who intended. A disgruntled, psychotic white guy who takes out his frustrations with the system on thousands of innocent people? How could that possibly be relevant to today?

While “Kerblam!” does let the all-consuming corporation off the hook a little with this twist, Charlie as the analogue for extremism is a sharp piece of commentary that I’m not even sure this episode understands the importance of. Though it’s contained in a rollicking sci-fi romp, the episode manages to ground itself by speaking to a greater danger posed not by robots, but by humans themselves. I can’t totally compare “Kerblam!” to the poignant episode on Partition from last week, but McTighe and Perrott somehow managed to produce an episode that felt just as pertinent to today’s issues. The dangers of extremism are emerging as a common theme this season, and “Kerblam!” nails that issue with bombast.

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • Please have the fez make regular appearances from now on, Doctor Who.
  • Did anyone notices how the Kerblam Man tone sound sounds like the Jurassic Park theme?
  • “The Unicorn and the Wasp” callback! “Talking about wasps, did I ever tell you about me and Agatha Christie?”
  • The Doctor’s quip about “Khan and Sinclair the greatest detectives in the galaxy” reminds me too of Sparrow and Nightingale from “Blink.”
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