Director: Jennifer Perrott
Screenplay: Pete McTighe
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lee Mack, Callum Dixon, Claudia Jessie
Runtime: 50 Minutes
Series 11 - Episode 7
Chibnall’s run at Doctor Who has so far garnered some of the heaviest density episodes in quite some time, racking up at least two episodes that have revelled in the acclaim of critics and audiences for the representations of certain groups and races through historical contexts. But sometimes, it really is nice to see the show back in a place in which it feels whole familiar, with big broad science-fiction settings and storylines paying host to contemporary concerns through a slightly less conspicuous avenue of exhibition.
Kerblam! tends to this need rather well, with the team summoned to a galactic delivery company the investigate a cry for help sent from a received package – and it’s the new series’ most emphatically enjoyable episode so far in terms of escapism and content handling, a contained episode that feels like it could have been written for Tennant and had the same effect.
The allegory it’s working with is about as plain and well-implemented as one would expect given the set-up, using the delivery company Kerblam as an intentional stand-in for an intergalactic version of Amazon. With that comes the added commentary on the position of the 10% human workforce in a heavily automated environment, the abuse and demoralisation of said workforce, the impersonality of a system designed for mechanical efficiency and want over need, and the sacrifices that people will make when compromising values and ethics for simpler living and working standards in the face of conglomerate business practices.
There’s a lot to chew on, but as with the best episodes of Tennant’s tenure it dispenses with the commentary through characterisation and frenetic back and forth dialogues courtesy of Pete McTighe’s brilliantly concise script. Which keeps the energy and pace high enough to maintain the focus on the plot movement but never losing track of the character positions.
The new characters don’t so much come across through shorthand as they do come fully packaged and then unpacked for all the most interesting parts. We get more of a sense of the inner life of the employees such as Claudia Jessie’s goodhearted worker Kira Arlo, Leo Flanagan’s janitor Charlie Duffy, and Lee Mack as working-class joe Dan Cooper who is just looking to provide for his daughter back home.
But it’s human resource manager Judy Maddox, played by fellow Broadchurch actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, who quickly captures the most attention. Initially a corporate face who prides herself on the “handpicked by humans” mantra of the company and her position as a facilitator for the human face of the operation, she shows true colours as a humanist as the mystery of missing workers in the complex deepens to something that she takes more than her fair share of responsibility for.
Doctor Who is a show that loves people, even at their worst, it’s as fascinated by the intelligence, optimism and capability of human beings as collective forces and individuals and those who represent the best of what we can achieve. So, it’s great seeing an episode that once again shares the Doctor’s perspective of her favourite species in the universe even in the face of a narrative intended to play up to our worst tendencies. Especially by the end where the full plan is revealed to be the work of a single disenchanted individual who has spent way too long stewing in their own hate to see the light, and the Doctor’s first response is to talk to rather than belittle them.
There isn’t even a great deal more to say about the episode and its storyline beyond a few twists dark since it’s so streamlined and focused on the details of its new setting and plot. Each team member fills out a role in their plan to infiltrate on different levels, with Graham’s workman geniality displayed as he takes up janitorial duties and Ryan building on his experience working short term as a picker packer that didn’t last. It’s always great seeing Jodie’s face light up with joy such as when she first receives her package and we get a nice nod back to a former incarnation.
The set design is massive at points, but director Jennifer Perrott’s control over the lighting and framing of scenes makes even the patchier looking greenscreen work defensible. The look of Kerblam echoes Wall.E in its strange depiction of automated consumerist systems, complete with a creepy robotic workforce called the “TeamMates” with an eternal smile and glowing white eyes who feel like menaces even before the violence with them begins.
Kerblam! is a romping little blast from the past that feels needed in a series that has otherwise been taking itself more seriously when it comes to its storylines. It’s a great looking episode that throws us back to the heyday of the best era of the show while maintaining the new status quo and identity that’s made it so distinctive so far.