Series eleven of Doctor Who continues the trend of being substantially better when Chris Chibnall’s not getting a writing credit. Kerblam! is not a true classic, but it is an awful lot of fun, by turns funny and frightening, with a great spooky robot design and an actual mystery to solve. Ultimately, what holds the episode back from true greatness is an excess ambition without direction; it has pretensions at social commentary, but lacks a coherent political stance, making it all feel a bit confused and flimsy. Which is a shame, because apart from that, this really is a fun little show.
Kerblam! starts out on good note right away: a scene in the TARDIS that isn’t shot for maximum claustrophobia, in which a delivery robot teleports in with a package the Doctor ordered a long time ago. Just from the size and shape, and the gleeful look on the Doctor’s face, an experienced viewer can guess at the package’s contents before it’s even opened: a red fez, a callback to the eleventh Doctor’s love for the felt headdress. “Is it still me?” she asks her companions, and it’s all very delightful.
However, the fez also comes with a mystery: on the back of the packing slip, someone has printed the words ‘help me’. And so the Doctor and her companions head for the Kerblam! company’s moon-sized distribution center and go undercover in various jobs, trying to figure out who exactly is crying out for help.
Kerblam! (the company, not the episode) is clearly a parodic take on Amazon, both as a retailer and as an employer. The robotic TeamMates make up 90% of the work force, despite the HR director’s insistence that Kerblam! is a ‘people-led company’, and the remaining human workers are subject to constant monitoring and management by automated systems. In one scene, Yasmin and her coworker Dan are having a normal conversation while moving through the warehouse, and the TeamMates keep popping up to give them genial, overly friendly reprimands for socializing on the clock. The tone of the message may be cheerful, but there’s no disguising the underlying threat. It’s hard not to be put in mind of the horror stories that have come out of Amazon warehouses in recent years.
Meanwhile, something more sinister is afoot. The TeamMates are usually friendly, if unnerving looking and pushy, but sometimes they are overtly hostile. Employees are disappearing from the warehouse floor, apparently abducted by TeamMates, and until the very end it’s not clear at all who or what is responsible.
There’s never a dull moment in Kerblam!. Even some of the overtly goofy bits, like when Ryan, Yasmin, and janitor Charlie go on a wild ride across the distribution center’s automated conveyor belts, manage to be charming instead of irritating. Moreover, there’s an actual mystery to be solved…and I am strongly of the opinion that a mystery story is the ideal structure for a Doctor Who episode. Sometimes the question is what the monster of the week is up to (such as in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), and sometimes the question is what the Doctor is going to do to solve it (as in Day of the Moon), and sometimes the episode deploys a bit of both (as in Mummy of the Orient Express). But the best episodes revolve around a mystery, and obey most of the same rules that govern the best mystery stories in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and the like – in spirit if not in specifics. And while this particular mystery’s conclusion is not entirely satisfying, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, structurally. In a series that has been uncommonly devoid of mystery, Kerblam! like a lovely blast from the past.
Credit must go, too, to the visual design team for this episode. The TeamMates are brilliant; just unnerving enough to make satisfying threats, while also being overtly friendly enough that they make sense. They’re a great sendup of corporate design. Overtly saccharine, but with an air of menace lurking just below the surface.
And what’s more, this episode just looks good! So much so that I’m going to forgo my usual ‘the ugly’ section at the end of the review. For the first time since its unveiling in The Ghost Monument, we get a scene set in the new TARDIS interior where the camera isn’t jammed right up the cast’s noses, and it’s free of the numerous directorial SNAFUS that have typified this series of Doctor Who. It’s just good looking!
While most of the episode is thoroughly enjoyable, it stumbles right before the finish line. The episode desperately wants to comment on current events, with Kerblam! standing in for Amazon and other massive retail companies, but its critique of Amazon is unfocused in a way that hurts the episode’s climax. Despite initial appearances, the Kerblam! management structure is entirely blameless in the disappearance of its employees and in the sinister machinations going on in its facilities. The automated systems, as well, are innocent. The true culprit is Charlie the janitor, who is revealed as an anti-Kerblam! radical who infiltrated the company to use its systems to set off a massive terrorist attack, destroying the company’s reputation. This would be a bit distasteful on its own, as it suggests that Amazon, a famously cutthroat corporate actor, is unfairly maligned by its critics, and the real problem is leftist organizing against Amazon’s influence. But the real problem is that rather than railing against out of control consumerism, or unrestrained capitalist power, or its surveillance and control over its workers, or any of a number of other major issues that could stand as a real critique of Amazon, even as it comes from the mouth of a misguided terrorist, instead Charlie is angry that…Kerblam! uses a lot of automated labour. This is a bit limp, yes? To be sure, automation of work is likely to be a substantial challenge in the near future, and may require a substantial rearrangement of the economy to deal with its consequences. But that is an abstract future concern, while Amazon’s surveillance of its employees and union-busting is happening right now. “They use automation” is only a cutting critique of Amazon’s practices if you are truly fixated on the worker as a virtuous figure for its own sake.
Ultimately, although Kerblam! wears the clothes of a social critique, but its critique is too vague and unfocused for it to function as one. It has too little to say and too much space to say it in. It’s a testament to the episode’s other strengths that this only tarnishes the episode slightly, instead of sinking it altogether.