After receiving a package from the Kerblam Man that contains a message for help, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions arrive on a warehouse moon orbiting Kandoka. Whilst everything seems to be normal, something is lurking at the heart of Kerblam that is not only disturbing but a threat to the human employees of the company and to all the company’s customers.
Political messages have certainly been present in Doctor Who since its beginning, but it has been particularly noticeable in this series. With episodes about the civil rights movement and the partition of India alongside more subtle messages littered throughout each episode and a caricature of Donald Trump, it isn’t shocking that Kerblam! has drawn parallels to way many tech companies. Amazon is the clearest inspiration for the space superstore that is heavily automated and treats its staff unfairly – though presumably, the American megastore does not have an army of robot employees that are partly responsible for killing off human staff. Or, at least not yet.
What is interesting about the episode is that the social commentary and modern world allusions are generally secondary to the main plot – with the exceptions of Charlie’s (Leo Flanagan) motivation. Whilst some may wish that the critique of modern-day companies was much more obvious it does make the script feel tighter and allows the episode more room to breath and grow.
Without it, the story might feel more stayed and less engaging. The tension that builds throughout the episode, from when The Doctor and her gang arrive on Kandoka to Dan’s (Lee Mack) murder at the hands of the Kerblam Men to the kidnapping of Kera is excellently done and never lets up. Whilst previous episodes may have felt more introspective, Kerblam! is certainly an all-action thriller that delivers on the promises of an exciting and engaging adventure.
Yet the episode also manages to balance the more obvious thriller moments with more chilling, hide behind the sofa scenes. The most atmospheric is when Dan is killed by the Kerblam Man – the visuals, music and eerie horror of the Kerblam Man’s jaundice like grin. The visuals of this scene and the overall tone of the episode has much in common with the classic story The Robots of Death and the shot of the Kerblam Men’s army owes its visual style to The Doctor’s discovery of the Dalek army in Planet of the Daleks.
The episode is perhaps one of Jodie Whittaker’s finest as The Doctor. The script gives her a great deal of room for growth of her character – she is able to play both the comedic and serious parts of the episode extremely well and draws out the most emotional response to whichever scene she finds herself in. The final standoff between her and Charlie as he is about to detonate the microbombs is excellently acted by Whittaker.
She brings her full emotional range to this scene and demonstrates why she was the perfect choice for the role of iconic time traveller; her passion for human life and finding another way that doesn’t end in bloodshed a tour de force and a perfect example of how an actor should bring the most out of a scene. She truly embodies the humour, heart and spirit of The Doctor as all the actors have played the part previously have done in their own special way. Let’s hope that she continues to be The Doctor for a long time to come.
The design for the Kerblam robots is excellent and is truly creative design. Reminiscent of the toy soldiers from The Mind Robber, they have an eerie aura of distorted fun which makes them more terrifying than if they had been simply “scary robots.” By playing on the fear of automation and how a robot work force could be abused by humans, the story raises interesting questions – but ones which you can think about later when you see the Kerblam robots menacing you in a dark, abandoned warehouse. This series has perhaps suffered from a deficit of truly scary monster and the Kerblam robots certainly make up for that.
Kerblam! is an exciting and innovative story that combines real-world commentary with a sense of science fiction fun. It is a story that both plays on our internal fears about consumerism whilst allowing us to be lost in an alien world that has creatures from our darkest nightmares. With tight writing, excellent acting, impressive direction and another phenomenal score from Segun Akinola, Kerblam! is a Doctor Who story that you’ll be unlikely to forget in a hurry.
Doctor Who continues every Sunday on BBC One.