'Doctor Who': "Kerblam!" Review
Series 11 offers another 21st-century throwback to the storytelling of the Third Doctor era.
Heading into the back half of Series 11, Doctor Who's new cast and crew seemed to be finding their feet rather nicely. The cast gelling together more with every passing episode, while the writers seemed to be getting more confident in writing for a new, more crowded, Team TARDIS. The seventh episode, Pete McTighe's "Kerblam!" offers up a prime example of the new format, telling a story very much in keeping with the series.
McTighe's script is an interesting one. Following the Doctor receiving a package that includes both a fez and a cry for help, Team TARDIS head for the headquarters of Kerblam. Imagine a sort of intergalactic version of Amazon, and you'll have an idea of what the company is. There are only a handful of human workers, robotic postmen, management at the top, and workers disappearing. Something is rotten at Kerblam, and the Doctor wants to know what.
Watching the episode, it's one that feels prescient. Who, like science fiction in general, has a wonderful ability to hold a funhouse mirror up to the world at large. McTighe's script does so to current consumer culture, notably online retailers like Amazon, and the conversations in the episode about worker treatment feel ever timely with articles discussing that company's treatment of customers. The episode also explores the questions of automation replacing human jobs, and also topical given the way of unrest across much of the Western world at the moment, whether the ends justify the means. Like with "Arachnids In The UK" a few weeks before, Kerblam falls into the kind of throwback to the types of stories that typified the era of the Third Doctor: fun adventure tales, but which make the viewer think about the world around them.
That's the word that springs to mind thinking about this episode: fun. After several heavy lifting episodes, "Kerblam!" feels like it's the series getting to have some fun. Part of that is down to the writing with the script allowing Jodie Whittaker to showcase the fun side of her Doctor alongside more serious moments. Indeed, the main cast members, on the whole, get some moments of humor. Whether it's Bradley Walsh's Graham bored out of his mind listening to robots drone on, or Tosin Cole's Ryan talking about his past job, it's a chance to see these characters do something a little less serious this time. Even Mandip Gill's Yasmin gets a few good moments, such as in her interaction with Lee Mack's Dan as they go about their work. Add on a nice supporting cast including the aforementioned Mack, Julie Hesmondhalgh's manager Judy, and Claudia Jessie as a worker, and there is plenty to enjoy.
The episode also represents another showcase for the newfound production values of the show. Jennifer Perrott once more returns to the director's chair, and with a less traditional script than she had with "The Tsuranga Conundrum" two episodes before, she once again proves her chops. Her work, along with the designs of Arwel Jones and the photography of Simon Chapman, gives the episode's setting a sense of being at once spacious, yet claustrophobic at the same time. The use of CGI in places also goes a long way to help expand what was very likely a few small sets into a massive, Moon-sized warehouse. Indeed, as a long-time viewer, it's tempting to compare this with "Planet of the Ood" broadcast back in 2008, also centered around a giant warehouse, and see how far the series has come in that time. It's something which speaks well to how the show has kept up in recent years.
In a season that's all change, "Kerblam!" represents both change and tradition. Its tale is one that echoes an era of past Who, while also putting a most 21st-century twist on it, a story relevant for our here and now. It's also a showcase for the new cast and production values, once again showing how a show that started more than fifty years ago in a small studio now has the look and feel of a small feature film. Put it another way, it's what Who post-2005 does at its best: honor the past while moving forward.