Previously on Doctor Who, “Demons of the Punjab”
“Don’t like bullies, don’t like conspiracies, don’t like people being in danger, and there’s a flavor of all three here.”
What would life be like without the joys of holiday delivery boxes at your front door? This week’s episode “Kerblam!” brings us a Black Friday-appropriate traditional robot vs. humans tale as the Doctor leaps in joy when a creepy robot delivery module materializes in the TARDIS and presents her with a postage box from Kerblam!, the galactic Amazon.com. She assumes it’s something one of her past selves ordered, plunking a maroon fez on her head (*insert rabid fangirling*), but the packing slip says, “Help Me!” and off they go. Australian director Jennifer Perrott returns after “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” establishing her as the season’s “base under siege” expert, and Melbourne-based Brit Pete McTighe fits right in with this theme as the originating writer of Wentworth, an award-winning female prison drama.
On the Kandokan moon serving as Kerblam!’s warehouse, they go under cover as workers, using the psychic paper to establish themselves as relatives of the First Lady. Although Team TARDIS finds the robots creepy, the Doctor fusses that they’re being “robophobic”—some of her best friends are robots! Another Happy Valley alum Julie Hesmondalgh plays Judy Maddox, the front desk intake and Head of People, who shows them in to be scanned for work placement by fitness and rattles off company buzzwords like “organics” and robot “teammates.” She explains away power outages and ankle monitors, saying they have 10,000 humans, a tall order if they want to find that one person asking for help.
Ryan and the Doctor head to wrapping and labels, giving Ryan another chance to mention his dyspraxia; they join the cheerful and encouraging Kira Arlo (Claudia Jessie), who says she’s only received one present in her whole life and imagines that feeling for every box delivered. Later, though, after her unpleasant manager Jarva Slade (Callum Dixon) insults her, she admits people have been disappearing lately, presumed fired but never turning up back home. Down in scanning and pulling, Yaz meets Dan (comedian Lee Mack), a single estranged father who give his robot coworkers jokey nicknames, which clearly marks him as “doomed.” He warns Yaz that the robots can hear everything. After they’re reprimanded several times for personal talk, she gets an order in a remote area. Concerned she’d get lost and fired on her first day, he takes the assignment and is attacked by an unresponsive deliverybot. Yaz follows him, hears him scream, and escapes capture.
Thanks to the Doctor switching legband coding, Graham gets stuck in “premium maintenance” listening to endless robotsplaining of the safety rules. He meets his supervisor Charlie Duffy (Leo Flanagan, pulling some early Colin “Merlin” Morgan vibes) but more power fluctuations send them all outside, giving Team TARDIS a chance to recon in the simulated outdoors Home Zone. The Doctor asks Graham to look for company plans so they can find Dan and files a complaint with Judy and Slade, who says they’ll look into it. Naturally, she doesn’t trust Slade, so she, Yaz, and Ryan hide until Slade leaves and raid his office for the disappearance tally. Meanwhile Graham leverages Charlie’s crush on Kira to talk him into borrowing the company blueprint from the lobby, leading to a total system shut down and solo robot attack on Charlie, which Judy ends by breaking off the robot’s head.
Meanwhile delivery robots abduct Kira down to the inaccessible foundation level, but thanks to Ryan’s work experience, he knows exactly how to reach her: roll down the chute and into the massive superspeed conveyor warehouse. He, Yaz, and Charlie survive leaping, bleaching, and laser blast organic “decontamination” to find Kira through a two-way mirror, unable to hear their warnings as she opens her “award” package. All that’s in it is bubble wrap.
Through “Twirly” the prototype, the Doctor realizes the System itself is calling for help, but Slade interrupts with a gun. That exact second the Doctor activates one of the robots’ transport circuits, giving her time to paralyze him with Venusian Aikido and demand answers. But he’s not doing it either. They discover a tankful of “liquidized” worker goo and inert army of delivery bots, storing up energy for one big delivery… of what? Every parcel contains something different, but there is one similarity: bubble wrap. Evil bubble wrap?
Cut to Kira, trying to make the best of her disappointing prize by popping her bubble wrap and exploding in haze of green to Charlie’s horror, but not surprise, because, he monologues to the Doctor, he’s behind it all, using his cover in maintenance to hijack the delivery system in protest of humanity’s lack of purpose in the automated workforce. To his estimation, the System has no conscience, and yet, it clearly does, having enlisted the Doctor for help. She tries to talk him out of activism through murder, saying the system isn’t the problem but the way it’s being used. Determined to go through with his act of terrorism, Charlie sets the deliverybots to carry out their transport and escapes into their midst, but the Doctor then uses Twirly to command them to open their own boxes and pop the bubbles, destroying both the creator and the corrupted creation. Another savage end for two lovers, although one half deserved it this time. How much do you think prices will go up to cover a hundred thousand robots?
What an episode to kick off the holiday season! Although the story and setting was again fairly simple like its partner “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” writer Pete McTighe kept suspicion a moving target, from Judy to the robots to Slade to the System. Not once did I suspect the ever present modern threat, the disaffected, young, lonely white male, which is no doubt the point. I admire McTighe’s solid scifi concept of how future parcel delivery might work and how it could be used for terror in much the same way it is today. For the Star Trek generation, transporters and replicators seem at home in the future, but “Kerblam!” calls into question the manual working class’s feelings about such creations, which are not so different than the current arguments over online shopping outlets’ increasing automation, including the cashier-less Amazon Go stores. These concepts work quite well with the fun quips, zipping conveyor belt effects, and clown-like creepiness of the Kerblam! robots and I’m a bit surprised this episode wasn’t used as the rumored-discontinued Christmas Special given its theme. On a deeper level, it also perhaps questions the popular dismissive attitude that if only young terrorist incels had active female attention, they’d be rendered harmless; lack of love is not Charlie’s problem, but rather his willingness to kill thousands to make a point.
I am, however, left with a few questions about the dead workers. If Charlie was the one killing workers via deliverybot, why were they all from different departments? Did he really think people leaning on the conveyor belt would end up downstairs and discover his master plan? If he didn’t want anyone to know, why didn’t he destroy the Group Loop devices? If it was the System killing workers to get management’s attention, why didn’t it just keep them downstairs? Did the System kill Kira in front of Charlie on purpose? Then why didn’t it just kill him? If it was that intelligent, couldn’t it have told management straight out? While nagging, these quibbles don’t ruin my enjoyment of the episode, particularly thanks to another excellent small cast and the Doctor’s adorable wooing of Twirly who bears a passing resemblance to Handles. Of note, it’s the only Season 11 episode thus far to end with a decided conclusion and without even a hint of reference to the Stenza threat, but it does keep with the themes of increasing automation and quiet desperation of regular folk trying to feed their families in a galactically-minded future.
Quotes, Questions, and Trivia
- Mr. Slade: “How’d you like a warning for insubordination?”
The Doctor: “I’d love one. I could add it to my collection.”
- Graham: “That briefing almost lasted half my life and I’m 310!”
- The Doctor: “Laters! Ugh, don’t like it. Sticking with ‘bye’.”
Surely the Doc isn’t making a Laters Baby 50 Shades reference… Right?!
- “Speaking of wasps…” See “The Unicorn and the Wasp” for the 10th Doctor’s Agatha Christie adventure.
- Did the Eleventh Doctor order that fez or did the System know of him from that era and send her the fez to get her attention? Reference.
- The Doctor’s robot best friends include Nardole, Handles, Kamelion, and of course K9. There were four K9s who left with former companions Leela, Romana II, and Sarah-Jane Smith. If you include other media, the Doctor also traveled with robots Kroton, Badger, Kevin, Splinx, and Catherine Broome.
- Deep cut: According to the Eleventh Doctor in the comic The Broken Man, the word “robot” is a Czech word meaning “forced labor.” The Second Doctor also mentioned something similar in the short story Fallen Angel.
- Broadchurch alum in this episode: Jodie Whittaker, Julie Hesmondhalgh (Judy), and Matthew Gravelle (voice of Kerblam)
Doctor Who S11E7 Review Score
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Callum Dixon, Leo Flanagan, Matthew Gravelle, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Claudia Jessie, Lee Mack | Director: Jennifer Perrott | Writer: Pete McTighe