Wednesday 21 November 2018

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 11x07 - Kerblam!

All in all it's been a pretty solid series of Doctor Who thus far, but you'd have to blind not to notice that things have been a little different this time around. There's been aliens, there's been space and there's been time travel, but there's been a much lesser focus on memorable monsters and enemies that helped make Doctor Who what it is today. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but with the likes of the Daleks and Cybermen retired for the time being it is a bit odd to see the 13th Doctor without some intergalactic threat to quash. However things look like they might be a little more familiar with Kerblam! – the seventh episode in the series written by Pete McTighe and directed by Jennifer Perrott.

Mid-flight the Doctor receives a package from Kerblam!, the biggest online shopping retailer in the galaxy. But also in the box is something far more suspect – a plea for help from an unknown person. Arriving at the company's warehouse, the group decide to go undercover – each taking different jobs as they try to determine what exactly is going wrong at Kerblam!.

As it turns out, employees are mysteriously going missing and the Doctor suspects that the company's predominantly automated workforce might have something to do with it. But if that's the case, just what is the system planning? And if not, who is really behind the disappearances?

As if it wasn't immediately clear from the eerie blue-eyed robot staring back at the end of the "next episode" preview last week, Kerblam! already sets itself apart from the rest of this series by giving us our first memorable (and cynical as it is, marketable) "monster" – the Kerblam! "TeamMates". While the robots themselves might have an air of "generic modern Doctor Who robot" about them (my mind was immediately cast back to the Smilers from 2005's The Beast Below), there's no denying that the sight of them is immediately comforting – the kind of one-time Doctor Who creatures fans have come to love over the years. However the robots themselves are only part of the picture here, as Doctor Who takes to its soap box once more to deal with a bigger threat – capitalism! Kerblam! is an obvious swipe at certain big name corporations and their treatment of their employees, and though certainly a relevant topic to tackle for an episode it's also one that could have easily ended up a bit too self-righteous. However in his debut episode for Doctor Who Pete McTighe delivers a reasonably balanced debate on the subject – looking at it from both sides of the coin and not immediately going down the obvious route everyone expected from it.

Kerblam! is a story that sees the TARDIS team go off to separate roles, with the Doctor and Ryan going off together whilst Yaz and Graham face it alone as they meet up with some of the additional cast members. It doesn't really feel like we've seen just the Doctor and Ryan together without the others until now and while they don't really have much in the way of meaningful interaction, seeing the pair together is a nice change of pace and there's a nice little bit of insight into Ryan's past when they're packing boxes together. Meanwhile Yaz goes down to shelving to get the mystery element rolling, and Graham provides a few laughs in the janitorial role while also setting up other bits of the story. Of course they all meet up again soon enough, and then separate into different parties yet again. That's another of the joys of having a larger main cast – the ability for them to pair off in different ways and see how they all interact together and in smaller groups.

On top of all that Kerblam! featured a fairly sizeable guest cast, which were all subject to varying degrees of screen time but all contributed to the story in a relevant and meaningful way. Lee Mack's Dan was particularly notable in this respect, as despite barely being in the episode at all he was developed well and provided a good chunk of the episode's commentary on corporations' treatment of their workforce. Kira also worked well in the same way, whilst Charlie proved himself to be a much more layered character than his introduction would have you perceive. On the other side of the coin there's JudyMaddox and Jarva Slade representing the corporate side of the food chain, which the story is careful to balance in that while they may be "bosses" in the cynical sense they're also both human too and aren't the immediate problem. It's handling of these characters is very reminiscent of Russell T Davies' time on the series, where side characters could be established and remembered with a few short lines rather than meandering side plots that don't contribute to the overall story.

The episode's most interesting turn comes at the very end though, when the story forgoes a predictable and clich̩ attack on workforce automation for a much more interesting and personal twist. The result is still fairly preachy in the way Doctor Who often can be, but watching the Doctor carefully walk the line between being sympathetic of workers losing their jobs to machines and acknowledging how the system itself isn't necessarily wrong was an interesting stance to take. As was how the plot to take down Kerblam! revealed itself, as it was not only followed that wonderful Who trend of making something harmless seem scary and was also drowning in hypocrisy on the perpetrator's side Рmaking what would otherwise be a reasonable argument lost in murderous intent. That said while the Doctor didn't leave the villain to their demise per se, her intent to try and save them did seem somewhat blas̩ compared to other glimpses we've had into this incarnation's character so far. Compare her efforts here to her confrontation with Tzim-Sha in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, who she did not only spare (despite his murders being far more cold-blooded) but then scolded Karl (the person he was trying to kill) for pushing him off of a crane. It's not that the Doctor's handling of the situation was necessarily wrong here, it just felt inconsistent. Kerblam! is another episode where the ending felt alarmingly abrupt, with the post-climax loose ends being tied up swiftly before ending on a somewhat strange note. It's beginning to feel like a pattern with this series' episodes, which is strange as you'd think the longer running time would allow the endings to flow a little more naturally.

Finally it wouldn't be right to talk about Kerblam! without mentioning some of the references the episode made, which were both of the direct variety and simply call-backs or parallels to other pieces of Who history. The Kerblam! postman appearing in the TARDIS immediately paralleled the 1988 Seventh Doctor story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, where the Doctor and Ace received a Psychic Circus flyer from a robot in a similar fashion. The package then of course contained a fez, popularised by the Eleventh Doctor (as well as the abundance of marketing around Smith's tenure) in almost memetic fashion. The episode then made indirect references to the many robot friends the Doctor has made over the years, as well as a more direct anecdote regarding the 2008 episode The Unicorn and the Wasp. Other than a few things here and there series 11 has generally tried to keep things in the moment since it’s a new beginning of sorts, so it's nice to see moments like these beginning to creep in more. They aren't continuity heavy so don't ruin the episode for newcomers, but simply add that little bit extra to more established viewers.

Though it may fall just short of perfection, Kerblam! is the most Doctor Who-feeling episode this series has had yet and that's exactly what it needed. Combining the bite of late stage McCoy with the modern cynicism of the RTD era, McTighe crafted a wonderfully relevant story that's quintessentially Doctor Who in all the right places yet doesn't necessarily go the way you might expect. After a mere two episodes there's been a notable rise in quality now that we're out of Chibnall's stretch of episodes, and hopefully this standard will continue as the TARDIS team head back to the 17th century Britain in The Witchfinders.

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