Doctor Who (Modern): S11E07 “Kerblam!”

Series 11
Directed by Jennifer Perrott
Written by Pete McTighe

Fresh off one of the strongest episodes of the season as well, it’s up to the show to continue that as it returns to a more traditional sci-fi storyline.  That my two highest grades this season have been given to the two historical episodes which credited writers other than Chris Chibnall (he was credited as a co-writer on “Rosa“) certainly points to some kind of trend, which maybe this episode can help clear up.  “Kerblam!” is instead handled by Pete McTighe, the original head writer for Wentworth

The Doctor receives a delivery box from Kerb!am (the intergalactic Amazon) containing a fez and a message saying, “Help Me”.  It’s a standard Doctor Who plot set up, establishing an easy mystery of who was behind the message.  The fez and The Doctor’s early comments would indicate that even if she didn’t remember ordering the package, it would have been ordered during The Eleventh Doctor’s run (since it follows up on The and consequently could be tied to that era in some way.  Instead, the fez seems to merely be a follow up to the not especially great gag from that era where The Doctor said they could get always get a new one.

The Kerb!am (yes, I’m going to continue to spell it in the obnoxious stylized way their posters do) headquarters is located on Kandoka’s moon and is a sprawling fully automated facility largely operated by robots.  Called “Kerb!am Men”, they look like ’50 delivery men and it’s hard to believe that they are considered as anything but sinister looking right from the start.  10% of the jobs at the company however must be given to humans as the result of labor laws, set in place since half the galaxy is unemployed.  Even then, humans are tagged with group loops (the ankle monitor comparison is not left unsaid) that keep track of productivity and are under constant random monitoring to ensure that they stay working and not socializing.  The prison implications are far from subtle and neither are the modern parallels where workers are constantly made to feel like every bad condition could be worse since they could be one of the countless unemployed out in the world.

The Doctor and the companions bluff their way into jobs and are split up into three groups.  The Doctor and Ryan get sent into packing (after some handy manipulating by The Doctor), Yaz in the warehouse, and Graham in maintenance with each getting a company person to associate with.  It’s as effective as any way to get each companion a distinct role and getting them to investigate separately and parcel out hints.  People have been going missing for months with some being sent home but never making it there while others venturing into parts of the warehouse never to be seen again.  The place has also been suffering from occasional, unexplained power drains.

The episodes hints at a number of culprits, but none of them seem all that convincing.  The two members of upper management (played by veterans of Broadchurch Matthew Gravelle and Julie Hesmondhalgh) the episode perhaps oversells how unguilty they are before it actually clears them, and the aforementioned inherently creepy, not quite human looking robots seem to indicate more than just a simple “AI gone mad” plot which the show tends to avoid.  Especially when it can go with “humans are real monsters” as it reveals that, Charlie, the maintenance man is behind the plot, a man who had avoided my suspicion if only because the episode gave zero hints as to technical skills.  The kind that is required him to single handedly mastermind (and manufacture all the necessary components and do all the other reprogramming) a huge plot where all the Kerb!am Men would deliver packages where the contents would be wrapped in a special bubble wrap that explodes when it pops.

Charlie was hoping to erode people’s trust in automation even at the expense of the innocent recipients with his false flag operation.  Instead he proved that the machine did have a conscience after all as the system was what sent out the message to warn The Doctor and to protect Charlie from killing his crush (which it failed to do).  Despite the proof that the system was the better and more human creation, ultimately, Charlie’s mission did succeed.  Sure, The Doctor may have stopped the suicide bombers from being sent out and trust in them wasn’t completely destroyed, but the company was going to theoretically be turned into a majority people run company and production was shut down for weeks.  Clearly, the message here is that terrorism is an effective way to get your message across.  Don’t forget to tell your kids!

It’s still a very good episode even with that questionable bit tacked on the end.  It’s fun and one of the more effective distributions of the three companions to date.  The show is still struggling to make time enough for them all, but this can serve as a more effective template.  It also mixes in the on the nose satire that this season has been fond of, but between the prison and the “be grateful for what you have and shut up” anti-union parallels, as well as the head of personnel who can’t keep track of all her people since there are so many, the episode does have its fair share of cutting moments.  The thinly disguised brand substitutes still put me a bit off, but it’s at least better than when “Bad Wolf” was implying that the same Reality/Game Shows would still be in existence except EVIL(-er).

Grade: B+

Stray Observations

– I find it fascinating that The Doctor was originally assigned to maintenance which means that the machine put her in the right place right away.  It was The Doctor’s trying to outthink the machine that may have prolonged the mystery
– Ryan actually finds something he is good at, settling into his packing task, having done that very task at his old job
– They actually mention Ryan’s coordination problem, the problem that was used to introduce him and yet had been seemingly forgotten about.  Not that it seems to impact anything, but it’s at least mentioned here.
– Graham’s getting rather good at all this, befriending his coworker and getting him to help obtain some plans.  Out of all of them, he the one who’s settled most comfortably into the companion role.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The TARDIS team are set to return a charm to the daughter of one of the murdered employees to tell him how much he loved her (d’aww) as the camera focuses on some of the possibly explosive bubble wrap sitting off to the side of the TARDIS, just waiting for a later episode to pick up that thread (or not).

Next Up:  We will return for more coverage of the Thirteenth Doctor‘s era with “The Witchfinders” next while Doctor Who Classic will return on 11/26 with “The Seeds of Death” at 10 AM EST.