Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 7 – Kerblam!

“Delivery fulfilled. And remember, if you want it, Kerblam it!”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

So the Robots of Death work for Amazon now? Kerblam! (I think it’s meant to have an exclamation mark) was a bit of a confusing one. On one level, it was a light, silly sci fi romp about a futuristic corporation, with sinister grinning robots, breakneck conveyor belts and a dangerous conspiracy. On those largely undemanding terms, it succeeded.

But on another level, it obviously aspired to some sort of social satire regarding unfeeling mega corporations in general and Amazon in particular. On that level, it didn’t work very well at all, because it didn’t seem all that sure what it was trying to say.

I’m a bit biased here myself of course, because I come in with a pre-formed very negative view of Amazon and how it treats its employees. But the feeling I got was that author Pete McTighe has a similar view, but was trying (unnecessarily) to be even handed. And it came off as lacking conviction as a result.

To be sure, we got the sense that Kerblam as an organisation wasn’t the most compassionate, with its worker monitoring loops, and insistence that “unnecessary conversation can reduce efficiency”, but it all felt a little half-hearted, especially in comparison to last season’s angry anti-capitalist polemic from Jamie Mathieson, Oxygen.

It didn’t help that actually the Kerblam management turned out (unlike, say, Mike Ashley from Sports Direct) to be nice, considerate people. In this, I think the legend that is Julie Hesmondhalgh was done something of a disservice. She’s a great actor, but she always gets cast as nice, sympathetic people. How wrongfooted would we have been if she’d turned out to be the villain?

Even Callum Dixon as the stereotypically oily manager Slade actually turned out to be a good guy. That was a bit of a surprise, having portrayed him as basically every shifty, suited middle manager from Carter Burke to Dick Jones, but in all honesty it would have been too predictable if he had been the baddie.

No, the fact that said role was filled by, in essence, an anti-capitalist protestor was a sign of the mixed messages the ep was giving out. Be even-handed, sure; but it’s hard to condemn both sides of the argument without disappointing everyone. It’s the kind of balance you get on BBC debates between climate change scientists and one lone nutter who thinks the Earth is flat.

OK. Political rant aside, this was, like The Tsuranga Conundrum, a well-paced, mostly enjoyable bit of sci fi fluff. It had some good ingredients – the perma-grinning ‘team mates’ were nicely sinister, while proto-delivery droid Twirly delivered on the cutesy, R2-D2 factor (if you like that sort of thing). The sequence of Ryan, Yaz and Charlie on the rushing conveyors towards the dispatch department was frenetically realised with a dizzying sense of vertigo by director Jennifer Perrott.

There were also some knowing nods to the show’s past. The most obvious, of course, was that fez delivery, which has presumably been delayed for two regenerations now; Kerblam’s delivery times mustn’t be all that great. But more subtle was the idea that the killer weapon was the bubble wrap packaging inside the parcels. As a show that has, in the past, made actual monsters out of bubble wrap (think The Ark in Space), that was amusing.

And it was nice that, having only really been used in conjunction with Graham before, Ryan got things to do on his own for once. After all, we know he works in a warehouse; as with Donna Noble before him, it was good to see that his everyday skills were as useful and important as anyone else’s, even in such a futuristic and alien setting. Tosin Cole managed to nicely pull off being both funny and heroic, while essentially leading a team of his own. I think it’s the most he’s had to do onscreen since the first episode.

Which isn’t to say either of the other companions were totally backgrounded. Yaz had some nice moments, but fair’s fair, last week was all about her. Bradley Walsh’s Graham, however, continues to be the star player, managing to make gold out of even the tiniest of scenes. His “subtle intuition” about Charlie’s crush on Kira was laugh out loud funny even while still being sensitive.

The Doctor, though, I wondered about. No fault of Jodie Whittaker, who continues to be great; again it might be my own, pre-formed anti-corporate bias. But while she was very Doctor-ish throughout, even trying to save the misguided Charlie at the end, it felt wrong that she should have directed the wide-eyed admiration that’s fast becoming her trademark at a rapacious corporation which treats its small proportion of human employees so badly. It felt like more mixed messages, particularly after her later (well-written) rant at Slade about how good managers care for their staff.

Not to mention the ultimate revelation that sweet, pretty young Charlie had been the baddie all along, and had conned the charitable ‘People Manager’ Judy into hiring him based on a sob story. That sort of undermined both sides – the anti-capitalist protestor was an exploitative, lying would-be murderer, while the caring side of corporatism was shown to be naive and over trusting. Still, I can’t deny I enjoyed looking at Leo Flanagan though – hopefully he’ll get more work in the future.

As Lee Mack undoubtedly will. A lot of people I know groaned at the thought of Mack being a guest star, but I was never overly worried about him; especially after I saw how good Bradley Walsh is. No, Mack was perfectly good as devoted dad Dan, but it wasn’t much of a part. The only real surprise was in casting someone so well-known then offing him barely halfway through.

Don’t get me wrong, as an undemanding 50 minutes of television, Kerblam! was perfectly enjoyable; well-paced, with some good character moments, nice effects, and some genuine humour amid the tension. It only fell flat for me because it felt like it was trying to be something more, but its social commentary was too half-hearted and unfocused to really work. Had it just been a fluffy romp, fine, but trying and failing to be profound soured it rather for me. Still, it was miles better than Kill the Moon in that regard.

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