After a few weeks of doubt, I have began to associate incoming episodes of Doctor Who with a sense of unease. I desperately wanted the show to retain the adventurous, fun shenanigans that had dominated the Doctors of yesteryear after the last few installments have left me feeling worried about the health of a show I hold very dear. However, this week’s instalment ‘Kerblam’, written by longtime fan Pete McTighe, proved that the new team can work just as well as any other era when given a strong enough script.
Immediately we’re reminded of a show in stronger health, as The Doctor and her TARDIS team receive a delivery from ‘Kerblam!’ – a delivery service not unlike the likes of FedEx or Amazon. Inside the delivery is a fez, an object destined to be synonymous with Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor and one that immediately catches her attention as inside the package is a call for help from Kerblam!’s headquarters. It’s worthy to note too that the company’s delivery robots or ‘TeamMates’ are the stuff of sci-fi dystopian nightmares 101. They have a permanent wide smile, glowing blue eyes to be see in dark spaces and carry themselves about silently when need be, like a combination of the Smilers from ‘The Beast Below’ and the Cybermen – generic in idea, but well utilised within the episode itself. Immediately the plot begins as the team then go undercover as employees for Kerblam! whilst trying to find out who sent the message.
The show hasn’t felt this well-paced all year. Immediately the feel of the episode is familiar to those well-versed in nu-who, the team meet with human resources manager Judy Maddox (Julie Hesmondhalgh) who proudly spouts Kerblam!’s 10% human workforce as per the recent law changes (the first of the episode’s well-placed allegories) and split up between the company’s different sectors: Ryan and The Doctor head to the dispatch team, Yaz to the catalogue team and Graham sent down to maintenance. It seems in the hands of any other writer that this segregation would limit the characters time on screen, yet McTighe disproves that theory whilst also managing to usher in enough interaction to even make the guest stars stick out too. Julie Hesmondhalgh (Broadchurch) shines as the friendly and optimistic Judy, whilst comedian Lee Mack delights in his brief role as Dan, a catalogue worker and poster boy for the company who works alongside Yaz and dissuades her from taking a job down in the basement area of the building to keep her safe. The two’s interaction is deftly handled and under the watchful eye of the TeamMates at all times. It’s a shame Dan’s time is so brief; he helps the world of Kerblam! feel realistic and have some real depth, making his demise all the more impactful due to the well-built interaction with Mandip Gill’s Yaz (finally, someone knows how to use Yaz!).
In the dispatch offices Ryan (Tosin Cole) is in his element, as his dyspraxia makes it difficult for him to learn new physical jobs yet his background in packing and shipping for retail companies offers no challenges for him. One of the few improvements the last few weeks have shown is in Ryan’s character: for example in ‘Arachnids in the UK’ where he entertains himself through the use of shadow puppets in the backgrounds of shots, these small moments are amounting to quite a lot of characterisation and Ryan is quickly developing a childish and fun sense of humour which Cole plays to wonderfully. Pete McTighe even knows how to write Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor! Finally! For weeks now she’s been nothing more than a rambling of techno-babble and optimism, yet here her words are more deliberate giving them so much more weight. Towards the end of the episode too she expresses the first signs of anger we’ve seen all year, and if Whittaker can embrace The Doctor from this episode throughout the rest of her run then I see no reason why I would worry about the character anymore.
Arguably the character we get the least amount of time with is Bradley Walsh’s Graham down as a janitor but at this point he’s already the most concrete out of the whole team so more often than not his moments are just used to usher in new elements of the plot relatively seamlessly. Fellow young janitor Charlie (Leo Flanagan) is soon shown to have an affection for dispatch worker Kira (Claudia Jessie), one which is put under strain as we learn that more and more workers are not only going missing, but being liquified. It would be unfair to expect McTighe to land a perfect run on his (hopefully) first episode, but the character of company CEO Jarva Slade (Callum Dixon) is a generic bad guy boss in a suit. He walks around and grimaces whilst being the target for The Doctor’s lessons in how to treat people, and it’s the only real character stumble in an episode that otherwise is filled to the brim with relationships and interactions that really hit their mark.
Of course from the get go we’re expecting the TeamMates to turn deadly, and when they do director Jennifer Perrott doesn’t waste what she’s given. Dan is the first to meet his demise, and does so in a sequence that makes full use of their glowing eyes and silent demeanor. It’s also refreshing to find that later in a sequence where a TeamMate attacks young Charlie, whilst The Doctor is busy fumbling around with her sonic screwdriver, Judy instead takes the immediate approach and rips off the robot’s head – probably the best thing to do in the situation. Speaking of the sonic, does anyone else find it weird how Whittaker’s Doctor always repeats the same lavish arm movements when drawing out the tool? Since it was pointed out to me weeks ago I’ve yet been able to find a moment where she doesn’t theatrically announce its use.
Anyway, what follows is a web of HR conspiracies and well-worn but welcome Doctor Who tropes that pass the time nicely, culminating in a sequence that comments on the brash nature of generation Z and the potentially harmful actions of those with ideas planted in some form of greater good. Whilst it may seem preachy on paper, the context in which it’s given makes complete sense for Charlie’s character, who’s been using the bubble wrap (yes, the bubble wrap) inside the packages to liquify those who pop it. It turns out the distress call was from the company’s AI machine itself, aware of Charlie’s plan to terminate their innocent customers at the cost of increasing the human workload by blaming the murders of the machine-lead manufacturing. Kerblam!’s AI is even able to get in a couple of neat little quirks when conversing with The Doctor during the episode’s second act. But with the AI and the TeamMates both making full use of their practical effects, a sequence involving the team travelling down a dispatch conveyer belt (much like the airport sequence in Toy Story 2) paled in comparison, with some dodgy background CGI and stiff direction to hide the limitations involved. I’d have much preferred a smaller-scaled set piece with better presentation if I’m honest.
With that in mind however the episode’s climax is well handled, although Charlie’s demise seems a little rushed (surely he’s know he was going to be liquified?). As Kerblam! shuts down for the following month and Judy vows to increase the human jobload, the TARDIS team head off and Yaz insists on telling Dan’s daughter about how much he loved her. It’s here where the episode properly comes into its own; as with everything else this week had done right I think it’s identifying Yaz as a source of compassion that properly shows how in-tune McTighe is with Doctor Who. Next week we’re sent back to the Salem witch trials with Alan Cumming channelling his best James I, fingers crossed we can keep the quality up!