Doctor Who Series 11, Episode 7
Posted by Kim
It feels fitting that an episode like “Kerblam!” airs right as we head into the holiday shopping season, where all the major conglomerates will be fighting for our money with promises of exclusives and discounts and next day shipping. It’s fitting that it aired right when Amazon announced its latest expansion, both setting up its new headquarters in my chosen home of Long Island City and promising a minimum of 5,000 jobs in my childhood home of Nashville. (My parents: THINK HOW MUCH MONEY WE’RE GOING TO GET FOR SELLING OUR HOUSE NOW.) It’s all very very timely, and I imagine Chibbers and crew are sitting in their corner office at BBC patting themselves on the backs for how very clever (and lucky) they are.
Except I’m not quite sure that “Kerblam!” accomplishes all the things they wanted to. While it’s a great concept (I DO love me an evil corporation), I feel like the episode stumbled towards the end, which tainted what had been a perfectly enjoyable episode. And personally, for me, after being fed the glorious steak that was “Demons of the Punjab” the previous week, “Kerblam!” left me a little wanting, a little like “heeeeeeey where’d my steak go?”
Sorry, y’all. I really like steak.
What I did love about the episode is that writer Pete McTighe (who, um, can get it) is an obvious life long fan of Doctor Who and makes it clear from the very first moment when a Kerblam Man (“You’re just making noises now!”) delivers the Doctor a fez which she clearly ordered ages ago and it JUST NOW reached her. In the excitement of getting her package, the ever observant Yaz sees a message on the packing slip that simply says “HELP ME” and that’s how our heroes get sent on their mission to the Kerblam! warehouse.
It’s funny, when I look at this episode as a whole, it reminds me the most of something like “Time Heist,” a totally fun caper which didn’t evoke much EMOTION in me. Using her psychic paper (I LOVE), the Doctor and Team TARDIS infiltrates the Kerblam! warehouse, saying they are new workers for the plant. This initially sets off some alarm bells for Judy, who’s in charge of the “organics” aka the required 10% of human workers in the warehouse (this galaxy’s form of affirmative action?), but a quick little blast from the sonic screwdriver, gets them in. The four of them are quickly scanned for health and aptitude and then given ankle bands (Graham: “Are we under house arrest?” PROTECT HIM.) that assign them to different sectors of the warehouse. Ever the breezy investigator, the Doctor casually asks who’s in charge of the packing slips, and when she finds out she needs to have a purple ankle band/vest, she quickly switches with Graham, who ends up getting her maintenance assignment. Can we take a quick moment to appreciate that the system assigned the 2000 year old Time Lady to the maintenance team?
What this series HAS done so well is populate every episode with well rounded characters, characters that are very easy to attach to, and characters that connect well with whatever combination of Team TARDIS the writer decides to play with. We get some quality Ryan/Doctor time, which it feels like we haven’t gotten in a while, as they are sent to the packing room where they meet the sweet and innocent Kira, an orphan who finds joy in her tedious, repetitive job by imagining the joy people feel when they open their packages. Graham meets Charlie in the maintenance department, a seemingly hapless young man who pines after Kira and can never quite manage to make his move. And finally, Yaz is dispersed to the main warehouse where her task is to fetch the stock for orders; she meets Dan there, a father who is separated from his young daughter and saves all of his measly salary up for her education.
It’s clear from the very beginning that things are not all that great for the
organics humans at Kerblam (and really the galaxy in general). There are more humans than there are jobs available, which promotes the mindset that people should be fucking grateful for their jobs, no matter how miserable the conditions are. Kerblam Robots hover around the humans, seemingly innocuous until Dan says they are ALWAYS listening. (Big Brother is real.) The robots pipe up telling Yaz and Dan to stop their conversations because they halt productivity; their blank electronic eyes are incredibly unnerving. The human warehouse manager is verbally abusive to Kira, who’s doing her damn best, but she just can’t keep up with the speed of a fucking robot.
But perhaps most disturbingly, an alarming number of humans are gradually disappearing from the warehouse, never to be seen again. When Yaz gets a call on her scanner thingy telling her to go to a remote part of the warehouse, Dan switches assignments with her, telling her about the disappearing people and that she shouldn’t have to go down there on her first day. It’s basically the horror movie version of “I’ll be right” back, and sure enough, Dan is quickly dispersed, and it looks like the Kerblam Robots are to blame.
I think what my favorite thing about this episode is how genuinely pissed off the Doctor gets when she realizes what’s going on. This has been a kinder, gentler Doctor thus far, which I appreciate, but GOD do I love when the Doctor goes all Oncoming Storm 100% Rebel Time Lord on people’s asses. It’s clear that it’s a part of her nature the Doctor is still a little uncertain about, given that she asks Yaz and Ryan if her big speech in Slade’s office was too much. That whole bit is interesting to me on many levels. On the surface, it’s just the Doctor being quippy afterwards, putting her friends at ease, and I’m pretty certain that’s all Pete McTighe intended. In a grander context, when I look at that moment as a woman, I go to a place of how exciting and terrifying it can be to mouth off to someone in a position of authority like that. That rush of adrenaline, that “Oh SHIT did I just say that? I did and WOW that felt good” kind of moment, where you immediately question if you went too far afterwards before immediately deciding you don’t give a shit. To me, THIS is why it’s so important to see a woman in this role, because while it would have been very satisfying to see David Tennant or Peter Capaldi deliver that smackdown, seeing Jodie Whittaker do it just added that extra bit of YES to it for me.
Things take a turn for the worse when the Kerblam men summon Kira to a basement conference room, that kind where there’s a two way mirror and no way to get in from the outside world. She’s lured there by the robots telling her they have a present for her (A PRESENT! They know her weakness!!) in appreciation for being such a good employee. She opens the box and finds a single sheet of bubble wrap. And this is what’s GENIUS about the episode, because what’s every human being’s natural instinct when presented with a sheet of bubble wrap? You gotta pop it. Honestly, I wonder if Steven Moffat is sitting in his posh mansion somewhere in Scotland, drinking a scotch, and saying “Weaponized bubble wrap? GOD DAMMIT WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?”
Ryan, Yaz, and Charlie watch in horror as Kira pulls the sheet of bubble wrap out of the box, and Charlie gives himself away as he haplessly shouts for her not to do it. But Kira does. She pops the bubble wrap and is immediately vaporized and GOD what is it with this series and killing off all the compelling supporting characters???
This is where the episode goes a bit off the rails for me. It’s revealed that it’s not the Kerblam bots killing off the random warehouse workers, it’s been Charlie the whole time, experimenting with his deadly bubble wrap to see if it could work as WELL as him hacking into the robots and changing their coding so they will obey HIM and not their hive mind. It’s revealed that Charlie has gathered an army of the robots, all of them armed with individual packages filled with the deadly bubblewrap, all of them ready to disperse their packages to the population, all of them delivering deadly weapons that will wipe innocent people out when they innocently decide to pop the bubble wrap. While horrible, it’s something I can absolutely buy, because we see shit like this every day when we turn on the news. Charlie’s whole plan was an act of terror, designed to make humans distrust the corporation and the automation of it, a plan that he thought would make humans want to take back the power and no longer settle for their 10%. Who cares if a whole bunch of innocent people have to die to do that? It’s all for the greater good right?
I was STILL fully with the episode at that point. I was there with it until the Doctor said that the system developed a conscience, that the system was the one asking for help because it was the one being threatened and it was trying to save all those innocent people. NOPE, says I. It’s the word CONSCIENCE that is really just niggling in my brain, cause I am like couldn’t you have picked another word? Conscience, like Jiminy Cricket, implies to me a deeply seeded sense of morality, of knowing what is right and what is wrong. I heartily disagree that is what was going on here when the AI decided to fight back against Charlie’s terrorist plan. The system wasn’t trying to protect all the innocent customers, it was trying to protect ITSELF. That’s a big fucking difference. The system murdered Kira in cold blood to try and prove a point. That’s not a conscience, it’s a blatant move of aggression in a big old game of chicken, because Charlie DOESN’T EVEN BLINK in the end. He decides that his plan is still worth it in the end, if humans decide to fight back against the system. It’s all very muddled and very messy and VERY much like real life, because no one wins here. Absolutely no one.
You can TELL the Doctor feels gross about the whole thing too. Killing people goes against everything in her nature, but when Charlie is unmoved by her passionate (if a bit misguided) speech, she knows what she has to do. With the help of the very first Kerblam Robot Twirly (the cutest Doctor Who robot this side of Handles), she reprograms all the robots to deliver the packages to themselves, and for them to open them, and pop the bubblewrap. When it becomes clear that Charlie isn’t going to change his mind, she savagely teleports everyone else out of there and lets him be blown up.
This time nobody wins.
I was having a long conversation about this episode with two of my girls last night, and my friend Rachel said something that I didn’t even consider when I watched the episode initially. This ending where Kerblam is like well we’re giving everyone two weeks off while we reconfigure and try to make things “better,” like how they should have been before, but wouldn’t be this way had they not almost been obliterated? That’s exactly how it would and does go in real life. You can’t tell me that Amazon wasn’t aware of the shitty conditions many of their workers were enduring. It’s only when they were exposed to the general public that Amazon pledged to make things better. So what looks like a wishy-washy stance on the politics of captialism is ACTUALLY a very profound one. Yes, the corporation was a victim of an act of terror. Yes, they were shitty to begin with. Yes, it looks like they are gonna come away unscathed. It feels gross watching it on TV, but think about it. Does knowing how many of the warehouse members of Amazon are treated and poorly paid stop you from ordering that random thing you need RIGHT NOW?
I didn’t think so.
- WHO ELSE SCREAMED?
- I was really digging Graham’s grandpa cardigan in this episode.
- SHE’S SUCH A CHILD
- How much fun WAS the eventual ride through the conveyors though? I am such a sucker for that kind of shit.
- As several of my friends pointed out, it was SUPER interesting that everyone on Kerblam! was white, down to all of the robots. It really sticks out like a sore thumb in a season that has prided itself on diversity, and I do have to wonder if it was a deliberate choice.
- Shout-out to Judy, who, as Rachel wisely pointed out, was just trying to do her job. The sucky thing about being an HR rep is that while you are supposed to think that HR is on your side, ultimately HR is there to protect the COMPANY not you, no matter how much the reps may like you. Judy was a perfect representation of that.
- I LOVE THIS.
- Protect Yasmin Kahn, whose heart is too big for her tiny body. Mandip Gill ALWAYS delivers in these little moments and she’s doing such STELLAR work on a character who is very deliberate in her words.
What are your thoughts on “Kerblam!”? Let us know in the comments.