“Kerblam!” turned out to be a much better episode than its trailer (or its exclamation-marked title) led me to think. With its use of social satire, it felt almost like a throwback to the best of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, and I could easily see Christopher Eccleston’s or David Tennant’s Doctor in this same story. A science-fictional examination of an Amazon-like mega retailer with a monopoly on order fulfillment and deliver was well past due. The episode also confronts the issue of automation versus the needs of human workers, that age-old quandary of how to continue to make the money that a capitalist system demands when there are fewer and fewer ways to do so. The episode doesn’t dig into it too deeply, it’s a lightweight exploration of a much weightier issue, but touching on the point gives it an effective edge.
Interestingly, “Kerblam!” turns the usual science fiction trope on its head by making the enormous computer system not the enemy, but rather a force that’s trying unsuccessfully to stop the enemy. How the system knew enough about the Doctor to send her a message asking for help is never explained. (Perhaps it analyzed her order history and determined she was someone who comes to the aid of others? Sorry, that’s the best I’ve got.)
“Kerblam!” also makes good use of the large TARDIS crew by splitting them up and giving everyone something important to do, which I have to say is something that not every episode this season has excelled at. No one felt superfluous. Graham continues to crack me up, especially when he’s given the mop and bucket. Yaz actually gets to make use of her police skills this time around, which I was happy to see, and Ryan finally mentions his dyspraxia again, even if it doesn’t really come into play. It doesn’t seem to stop him from hopping from one conveyor belt to another when the plot needs him to, for example, but at least his condition hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Twirly, the original version of the delivery bots, is hilarious, recommending the Doctor order high blood pressure medication during a particularly tense moment when thousands of bombs are about to explode.
Charlie makes for a somewhat sympathetic villain. His reasoning that Kerblam!’s mandated 10% human workers rule will only be revised down in the future, rather than up, is spot on, although his plan to murder countless Kerblam! customers with exploding bubble wrap is obviously the wrong way to effect change. To be honest, it’s kind of a dumb plan when you think about it. Not everyone pops bubble wrap. Plenty of people can resist the urge, and lots hold onto it for future packaging purposes, which would likely result in the deaths of people weeks or months later who didn’t even order from Kerblam!. As usual, it’s probably best not to think too much about the villain’s plan in a Doctor Who episode. I will point out, however, that Peter McTighe’s otherwise quite good script has a glaring Women in Refrigerators problem, with the computer system deciding to murder Kira, who had nothing to do with Charlie’s plan, to try to stop Charlie by showing him how terrible it is to lose someone you love — which is so demented and cruel I’m surprised the Doctor didn’t immediately shut down the system upon learning this.
One last nitpick: When the crew returns to the TARDIS at the end of the episode, Graham is tempted to pop the bubble wrap that came with the Doctor’s original package at the start of the episode, but they warn him against it, asking him if he really wants to take that risk. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we already see Ryan popping that same bubble wrap back at the beginning, which proves it’s safe and not the bubble wrap Charlie tampered with? It made the bit at the end feel really forced and inauthentic to me.
Still, nitpicks aside, I enjoyed “Kerblam!” a lot. It’s a fun episode with lots of great character bits in it, as well as an element of timely social satire.
And now for some Doctor Who neepery! There’s more to point out in this episode than in any other of the series so far. We get a callback to the Eleventh Doctor’s fondness for fezzes, and a direct mention of the time when the Tenth Doctor met Agatha Christie in the 2008 episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp.” The Doctor tells Graham, Ryan, and Yaz that some of her best friends are robots. This could definitely be a reference to K9, the robotic dog who accompanied the Fourth Doctor for several seasons, and who reappeared with Sarah Jane Smith in the 2006 Tenth Doctor episode “School Reunion.” He could also mean Handles, the repaired and reprogrammed Cyberman head from the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Time of the Doctor,” and even Kamelion, the shape-shifting robot who was a short-lived (in every sense of the word) companion of the Fifth Doctor, appearing in only two serials, 1983’s “The King’s Demons” and 1984’s “Planet of Fire.” Lastly, the Venusian aikido that the Third Doctor used so often makes a return in “Kerblam!” when the Doctor briefly paralyzes Slade with a single finger to the neck.