Doctor Who, “Kerblam!”
Series 11, Episode 7
Written by Pete McTighe
Directed by Jennifer Perrott
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh
Guest Starring Julie Hesmondhalgh, Leo Flanagan, Claudia Jessie, and Lee Mack
Original Broadcast 18 November 2018 (50 minutes)
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the ongoing controversies about the economic, political, and social machinations of mammoth online platforms like Facebook and Amazon, that Doctor Who would at some point offer commentary. And what commentary it makes in Series 11’s seventh episode, “Kerblam!”
That exclamation point tells us nearly everything we need know about this Pete McTighe-scripted entry. Cheeky tone? Check. Brash attack on the multinational (and multi-galactic) corporations that rule our lives? Check. Sympathy for the workers who find their labor crassly exploited? Check.
Empathy for the corporations, too? Check.
Wait, what? Didn’t expect that last one, did you?
Yes, friends, “Kerblam!” hopes to—and very nearly does—have it all ways, which is a considerable victory for an episode that, during its first thirty minutes, plays out mostly as expected. This judgment shouldn’t suggest that “Kerblam!” is a boring, unentertaining, or strictly by-the-numbers affair even if, more than any other outing this season, it follows—or seems to follow—a tried-and-true Doctor Who template. The Doctor, while investigating a strange venue that exaggerates some aspect of our actual world, discovers dangers afoot before struggling to liberate people hopelessly caught in the maw of forces too powerful to surmount alone, but that the Doctor’s determination overcomes, winning the day by inspiring guest characters to take control of their lives, or at least as much control as possible given the overwhelming odds they face.
“Kerblam!” sees the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), while flying the TARDIS and chatting with companions Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), receive a special delivery from one of the Kerb!am Corporation’s robot couriers (with the exclamation point replacing the letter “l” in the company’s logo). This “delivery bot,” as the Doctor calls it, teleports aboard the TARDIS with a shiny gift box. Kerb!am is “the biggest retailer in this galaxy,” the Doctor says, conveniently forgetting to name said galaxy while struggling to recall what she ordered. She is, however, happy to find a red fez inside and, after placing it atop her head, asks, to the delight of longtime viewers, “What do you think? Still me?” I jumped out of my armchair, yelping in happiness at this callback to Matt Smith’s fez-loving Eleventh Doctor. McTighe and showrunner Chris Chibnall, of course, wished to provoke precisely this reaction to what is only the first of several references to Doctor Who’s past in “Kerblam!”
This episode posits the problems that might result if (or, perhaps, bowing to the inevitable, when) Jeff Bezos’s Amazon.com becomes a galaxy-straddling service that overlooks the dignity, rights, and lives of its workers. When the Doctor discovers that her gift receipt includes the word “Help!” printed on its reverse side, Team TARDIS travels to the planet Kandoka’s only moon, whose entire surface has been converted to Kerb!am’s warehouse-and-shipping operation. They discover that only ten percent of the workers are “organic”—meaning human beings who help sort, sift, and pack the gift boxes that Kerb!am sends hither and yon—while the rest are disturbingly chipper bots that keep their human colleagues on task by discouraging any attempts at socializing.
These guest characters—Kira Arlo (Claudia Jessie), Charlie Duffy (Leo Flanagan), and Dan Cooper (Lee Mack)—are nicely realized due as much to their performers’ good work as to McTighe’s script, which comes close to sketching them as salt-of-the-earth, working-class archetypes rather than flesh-and-blood people. Even so, it’s refreshing to see Doctor Who continue its sympathy with the everyday, blue-collar workers who have typified the franchise, especially since Russell T. Davies revived Doctor Who in 2005. Davies made it a point to include regular folk in his version of Who, not as caricatures or as bland heroic types, but as real, breathing people whose foibles, enthusiasms, and daily lives are as significant, as precious, and as fascinating as that of a time-traveling Gallifreyan Time Lord with two hearts, telepathic ability, and the capacity to regenerate his (or her!) body when death is near. That Chibnall and McTighe tackle the difficulties besetting working-class characters is perhaps “Kerb!am’s” best feature, but also leads this story into shaky political territory.
Despite the anti-PC crowd’s shrill protestations, Doctor Who has never feared or eschewed political stories, as anyone who—like myself—has watched (or re-watched) the franchise’s very first serial, 1963’s “An Unearthly Child,” knows. Thanks to the online streaming service BritBox, nearly all of Classic Who is now available for us to see, and what a rich bounty the old show provides. “An Unearthly Child’s” second (of four) half-hour episodes (ominously titled “The Cave of Skulls”) sees the First Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), and companions Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) travel into Earth’s distant past, namely the Paleolithic Era, where they encounter a power struggle, namely Za’s (Derek Newark’s) and Kal’s (Jeremy Young’s) fight to lead a tribe of cave dwellers by learning how to create fire—and, therefore, the means to sustain life—for his followers. When Hur (Alethea Charlton), a young cavewoman, tells Za—the son of the tribe’s previous leader—that losing his position as head tribesman will also lose her hand in marriage because Hur’s father intends to pair her with the new chieftain, the Doctor and his companions find themselves enmeshed in a leadership battle that threatens to end in bloodshed.
Seeing this early episode as a metaphor for British fears about losing prominence and dominance in 1963’s rapidly decolonizing, postwar world is neither difficult nor controversial, as more than one contemporary reviewer pointed out after “The Cave of Skulls” premiered on 30 November 1963. So the fact that Pete McTighe tackles the heartlessness of mega-corporations in “Kerblam!” should neither surprise nor rankle faithful Whovians. McTighe, however, upends the working-class hatreds of corporate overreach that dot our daily headlines when, in a bid to subvert Who’s narrative conventions, the Doctor discovers that Kerb!am—the Kandokan moon’s sole employer—is not the villain, but rather the victim, of sabotage. Ryan and Yaz help the Doctor deduce that Charlie Duffy is, in fact, a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a genius who infiltrates Kerb!am in a plot to discredit the corporation’s centralized artificial intelligence, which claims to rule benevolently both its workforce and Kandoka’s lunar populace.
This AI’s efficiency ensures that only ten percent of Kandoka’s human population qualifies for jobs, which are closely policed by Kerb!am’s cheerful-yet-spooky bots, who—as Ryan, Yaz, and Graham quickly discover—interrupt all attempts by the company’s human workers to bond with one another. Duffy alters the chemical composition of Kerb!am’s bubble-wrap so that it will explode when popped, thereby killing several customers and forcing the corporation to shut down once the ensuing scandal becomes public knowledge. This hair-brained scheme nearly works, but thanks to the Doctor’s persistence, as well as the assistance of her companions and Judy Maddox (Julie Hesmondhalgh)—Kerb!am’s cheekily titled Head of People (literalizing, in this episode’s best joke, the concept of human resources)—disaster is once again averted.
This daft storyline permits Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall to plumb the depths of the populist fears about globalization (and about technological automation replacing the livelihood of millions of workers) that have provoked such personal anguish, economic instability, and political fury in our own world (with Brexit, the Trump regime’s corrosive corruption, and France’s gilets jaunes protests being three obvious examples). While I admire McTighe’s ambition here, his narrative reach exceeds his dramatic grasp insofar as transforming Kerb!am into the target of a firebrand’s unhinged plans for destruction brings this outing’s satire nearly to edge of dreck. Charlie Duffy, by episode’s end, is little more than the caricature of political radicalism that became so familiar to American and British audiences of the 1970s and 1980s. These viewers—having endured the political, social, and fiscal violence unleashed by the Vietnam War, by widespread deindustrialization, by wage stagnation, and by the Reagan and Thatcher administrations’ ceaseless attacks on trade unions—were also forced to suffer, on the big and small screen, storyline after storyline, in genre after genre, about misguided leftists (almost always leftists, many of whom misquoted Marx and Engels to drive home their socioeconomic naïveté) whose hearts might have been in the right place, but whose methods were mad, murderous, and indefensible.
Duffy fits this stereotype so well that his claims about not caring how many innocent people his plan sacrifices so long as these deaths guarantee better lives for everyone else are paranoid neoliberal fever dreams, as if Nigel Farage, Pat Buchanan, and the spirit of the late William F. Buckley invaded Who’s writer’s room. Had “Kerb!am” cast Boris Johnson as a clownish version of himself screaming “Quick, dear viewer, hide! The evils of socialism draw nigh!,” this episode’s manifest confusions about corporate malfeasance couldn’t be more muddled than they already are. Even worse, Duffy falls in love with Kira Arlo, which isn’t difficult to believe given McTighe’s good dialogue for this character and Claudia Jessie’s lovely performance in the role, but presenting a man so distressed by economic inequality that he is willing to commit murder, then allowing love’s softhearted pangs to undo him at the last moment, is too rich even for a program that features a dual-hearted extraterrestrial time traveler as its protagonist.
These misgivings do not reflect poorly upon either the cast’s or the production team’s expertise. Jodie Whittaker continues her winning streak of excellent performances as the Thirteenth Doctor, Mandip Gill remains as good here as she was in last week’s brilliant “Demons of the Punjab,” and Julie Hesmondhalgh—so spectacular as Trish Winterman in the third (and final) series of Chibnall’s crime drama Broadchurch—projects such warmth as Judy Maddox that viewers will weep at how poorly their actual HR departments rate by comparison. Jennifer Perrott directs “Kerblam!” with the same assurance she did “The Tsuranga Conundrum”; cinematographer Simon Chapman shoots the proceedings with nice attention to color, contrast, and shadow; and composer Segun Akinola delivers another fine musical score.
No, these people do their usual stellar work, but McTighe’s teleplay lets them and the audience down. That is disappointing, to be sure, but not so dissatisfying that you should skip “Kerblam!” This episode, as spectacle, is a top-drawer production containing many pleasures. Its willingness to confront thorny sociopolitical issues, no matter how tangled, is another benefit, which means that enjoying “Kerblam!” is easy as long as you don’t expect to it probe as deeply as Series 11’s best work or as smartly as it should. “Kerblam!” is no triumph, but also no tragedy, so spending an hour with it does no harm. That is not, to be sure, a hearty endorsement, but Whittaker’s, Gill’s, and Hesmondhalgh’s charming performances make “Kerblam!” a watchable—if hardly distinguished—entry in Doctor Who’s ongoing adventures.