‘Kerblam!’ – A ‘Doctor Who’ review

A really great episode of Doctor Who that unfortunately doesn’t manage to stick the landing.

Kerblam! is probably the best episode of the series so far. Whilst not trying to be as emotional or as impactful as previous outings this series, this episode, for the most part, nails what it is to be a Doctor Who story.

Probably the best way to describe what Kerblam! is like as an episode, is to cast your minds back to when Russell T. Davies was showrunner. Every series would have the ‘Moffat’ story, basically being the one (or two if it was a two-parter) episode written by Steven Moffat. And while these episodes weren’t always the absolute best of the best, they were always in the upper half of the series in terms of quality. Most importantly, they felt unique and in their own way iconic. They had a style that felt at home with that version of Doctor Who but was still completely out-there. That’s what Pete McTighe’s Kerblam! feels like in the current Chibnall incarnation of the show. Let’s hope he keeps coming back every series!

Kerblam! works on so many levels, a simple premise that evolves into a fully-fledged mystery, that keeps building and building throughout. The Doctor receives a literal cry for help hidden in her parcel from ‘Kerblam!’ (basically space-Amazon), and of course being the Doctor, she resolves to infiltrate the organisation and do her best to help.

The writing throughout the episode is top-notch stuff. Exposition when given is relevant, efficient, and most importantly with character and personality. You don’t get the sense that all the plot-important details and world building are being spoon-fed to you. It’s just a fun adventure and you’re along for the ride.

And visually, this episode is something else. For a series that’s already been on the high-end of the spectrum in terms of looks, Kerblam! takes it to another level. From all the sets that make up the organisation, to the colour-coded hi-vis jackets, to the robots! It has been a while since we got a real creepy robot design in Doctor Who, and these guys are pretty damn creepy.

Additional props go to Jennifer Perrott’s direction, which is confident, smart and very well-done. It all comes together to bring this new world to life. It’s close enough to the real world to seem familiar but is also weird and alien enough to be Doctor Who. Hey, in the opening of the episode her direction actually makes the new TARDIS set look really good. So, I’m impressed.

Everyone’s characterisation is on point as well. Unlike most of the episodes featuring this TARDIS crew you don’t get the sense that any of them get left behind or forgotten. They all have a role to play in this story, and most importantly their personalities come to the forefront. They all avoid being blank slates. This also goes for the side characters in the episode, all identifiable and unique and help to give the episode a charming atmosphere.

One seemingly minor thing I really have to praise the episode for are the jokes. There’s a fair few of them, and most of them land. It is a surprisingly funny episode.

Kerblam! is great… right up until you get to the last act.

Fair to say, spoiler warning for the rest of the review. Seriously, you’ll need to have seen the episode for the rest of this to make sense.

Before we go into the negatives, one little thing that’s great but I also consider a spoiler is the first-generation delivery-bot – I love it. Enough said.

Right, so the big mystery throughout the episode is that ‘Kerblam!’ employees have gone missing and it’s suspected that the system is at fault, but the higher-ups are trying to cover up the disappearances.

Then, surprise! The system was actually being manipulated by the janitor (Charlie) the whole time, to kidnap and kill workers to help power a massive teleport of delivery-bots, whose parcels all have deadly bubble wrap that explodes when popped. His plan being that the many deaths as a result would be enough for the company to stop using robots and hire people…

First things first… what?

Very quickly, deadly bubble wrap? What a silly, cheap, obviously-done-to-save-on-budget idea! It’s perfect! It fits right in with Doctor Who and is quite frankly genius.

Now, for the plot twist. Well, it certainly is a twist, it comes out of nowhere and I can praise it for that. But it does not succeed in being a satisfying revelation. In writing, a plot twist has two roles: to surprise an audience, but to also be the final puzzle piece that clicks into place. This only does one, and rather than help bring the story to a close, it feels like it adds a whole new narrative, in the third act of this story. It’s just unfortunately a bit messy.

Additionally, because of this twist, the morals of this story are all over the place.

So, the reason why Charlie’s plan falls apart is because the system is fighting back. It’s revealed that the system was what sent the Doctor the message in the parcel. Makes sense. One of the ways in which the system fights back is by kidnapping and killing Kira, a fellow worker who Charlie has a crush on. It is when the Doctor and co. fail to save her that Charlie gets revealed as the villain.

Now, this Doctor has been very anti-guns and anti-murder. All Doctors have been, but Whittaker so far, especially so. She even has an anti-gun moment in this episode. So, when the system takes away an innocent life, as some type of twisted sacrificial example to stop the villain’s plan, the Doctor explicitly says that this is proof that the system has a conscious. What?!

In the nicest possible way, that’s messed up.

And with Charlie, the terrorism vs freedom fighter angle is an odd one to go for. Especially for this type of story, and especially given that it’s really not been that long ago since Doctor Who tackled this exact thing in The Zygon Invasion/Inversion with “sit down and talk”.

Furthermore, when the day is saved, and all the robots are blown up (along with Charlie), the lesson learnt by the company is to be less automated and reliant on the system and instead have a 50:50 split between robots and people. Except the system was not the problem? It’s made very obvious that the system worked fine, and in fact fought against the person trying to destroy everything. How is the lesson to bring in more people?!

If the episode really wanted a no-one is right, both sides at fault ending, it shouldn’t keep trying to have an ending where the characters go “so the lesson learnt is…”. If they want it to be morally ambiguous, then be morally ambiguous rather than contradictory.

The epilogue in the TARDIS seems a bit off as well. You have Yasmin wanting to return a necklace to Dan’s daughter (a worker who dies towards the beginning of the story), but it never actually happens. We instead end on a joke about Graham and bubble wrap. I just think it would have been a very effective ending had they shown Yasmin visiting Dan’s family, rather than just saying she’s going to.

Also, on a more personal note, kind of disappointed that Doctor Who didn’t end up taking down space-Amazon, because it is space-Amazon.

Going on from last week’s review, I do wish this Doctor had a bigger impact on the worlds she’s visited. At least she does save the day this time.

Kerblam! has a lot going for it, and for most of the story gets it so right. It’s just a shame it ends the way it does. Flat on its face.

Next week! Bring on The Witchfinders! Alan Cumming as King James I, what more could you look forward to?