'Kerblam!' nails the one-day delivery with scares and guffaws aplenty.
Well, it took seven episodes, but in ‘Kerblam!’ we finally got a Doctor Who episode in 2018 that actually felt like Doctor Who. ‘Kerblam!’ wasn’t perfect (I mean, for a start it could have been titled a loooooot better), with the same lecture-y, laboured allegory that has been an undercurrent of the entire season so far, but with some eerie new villains in the Kerblam Men and some strong performances all round, it was definitely my favourite episode so far.
The setup is intriguing, if a bit generic. ‘Team TARDIS’ receives a mysterious package – containing a fan-pleasing throwback – with a receipt issuing a cry for help. The paper trail leads them to the headquarters of Amaz- uh, I mean Kerblam!, a futuristic parcel company staffed by some seriously-creepy robot mailmen. As they investigate – hilariously, going undercover as blue collar workers – it becomes clear that a sinister conspiracy is afoot. Guest performances this week were pretty solid, with the standouts being Julie Hesmondhalgh’s quirky PR manager Judy and Claudia Jessie as excitable packer Kira Arlo. Lee Mack also makes a brief appearance as a father forced to work away from his family, but his character is far too underdeveloped to give his sudden dispatching any real emotional punch. Meanwhile Leo Flanagan plays socially-awkward janitor like a budding serial killer (“She smells perfect”), which even in spite of the hour’s plot twist, I don’t think they were exactly going for. Sufficient praise has already gone out to Bradley Walsh this year, and he continues to shine, but I want to give particular credit to Tosin Cole this week for some pretty hilarious improvisation.
The script was far from perfect, but for once the characters seemed to converse like human beings (No “Shoot it like a normal person would” this week, Chibnall.) What’s more, there was a tangible sense of threat that has been sorely lacking from the rest of the series, with gruesome deaths and properly sinister moments interspersed throughout. A couple of neat throwbacks made the whole thing ease along a little more comfortably, even as the Beeb continued their weekly assault on capitalism, which focused this week on the exploitation of labour workers within large organizations. What didn’t work so well was the rushed ending, which tried to hash in some clumsy social commentary on the modern trend towards replacing human workers with machine counterparts. Moreover, why was Thirteen so willing to let a room full of innocent robots blow themselves up, after she had already said earlier in the episode that “some of my best friends are robots”? An extra five minutes of running time could have made all the difference here, but its a small complaint. The music this week was fairly flat, unfortunately, but ‘Kerblam’ was well-realised as a location, with plenty of corridors for legging it down and some excellent use of shelving units for cinematic shots.
Overall, ‘Kerblam!’ was a solid episode, combining old-school creepy robot chills with an intriguing mystery. Hopefully writer Pete McTighe will return in the future to write for the series – if for no other reason than to end the Chibnall-ocracy that this season has turned into.
Doctor Who airs on BBC One on Sundays. Watch the trailer for next week’s episode, ‘The Witchfinders’, here.