A mysterious message in a package draws the Doctor and her friends to investigate the warehouse moon orbiting Kandoka and the home of the galaxy’s largest retailer, Kerblam.
It still continues to amaze me how some writers can just get Doctor Who. Recently we’ve had fantastic debut episodes from both Jamie Mathieson (Mummy on the Orient Express) and Sarah Dollard (Face the Raven), and Pete McTighe’s first episode for the show feels like a traditional episode of Doctor Who, with a strong mystery at its core and some expert misdirection. It also says something for the production that a digitally created world and a delivery warehouse can look as visually stimulating and engaging as some of the series’ most beautiful location settings, and the director, Jennifer Perrott, deserves a lot of credit for this.
I’ll start this week by talking about the story, as I feel it was particularly good this week. The story succeeds in some great misdirection in the mystery surrounding the Kerblam! warehouse and the message received by the Doctor at the start of the episode. Initially, with the power outages and the sinister-looking robots, it seems as though it is technology being the sinister force behind the disappearances, then the focus switches onto Callum Dixon’s Jarva Slade, who seems like an archetype of an evil boss. When the real bad guy is revealed to be Charlie, a seemingly amiable maintenance man, and the corporate machine is revealed to be benign, the rug pull moment really works. Along with the revelation that the message to the Doctor has come from the operating system, this episode really works well. If I was to draw a parallel between another story from Doctor Who’s past, it would be Planet of the Ood, with the idea of the Union and the treatment of workers, here addressing the almost constant worry about technology advancing to the point of being able to take over human jobs. Kerblam! as a company is a fairly thinly veiled satire of online delivery companies like Amazon, but the virtue signalling that may have annoyed some viewers here is not as blatant as in previous weeks. We also have the most references back to the show’s past, like the fez and the mention of Agatha Christie, but these don’t feel as shoehorned in as they have done in some previous episodes. If I were to find a flaw in the story, I would say that the fates of some of the characters are a bit predictable – as soon as we hear about Dan’s daughter, or that Charlie has feelings for Kira, the audience can tell that at least two out of three of them are doomed. All in all though, this is probably one of the strongest stories we’ve had so far this series.
The supporting cast to the Doctor and her team also deserve credit for making this one of the best episodes so far this series. When I heard that Lee Mack had been cast in this series of Doctor Who, it did make me feel a bit uneasy, but he was one of the highlights of the episode and I wish that we had spent more time with him before his untimely demise. Julie Hesmondhalgh as Judy Maddox, head of people, also gives a great performance and adds real heart to the episode. The performances of Claudia Jessie and Leo Flanagan as Kira Arlo and Charlie Duffy is strong too and it really plays with the audience’s emotions and expectations of this as a story when she is taken away and killed by the evil bubble wrap. I’ll never pop bubble wrap in the same way again. The Kerblam! Robots are extremely creepy, and although they are revealed not to be the ultimate bad guys by the conclusion, their design helps the misdirection at the start of the episode.
As for the Doctor and the TARDIS team, this is the first episode where we really feel like there is a genuine threat to their safety, which benefits the story. We see a bit more of the Doctor’s harder side when she confronts Judy and Slade about the missing people, and I love her enthusiasm (as well as Ryan, Graham and Yas’s confusion) when the Kerblam Man delivers the fez. The little jump for joy she does when she sees him is just perfect. The TARDIS team again get split up, and it’s nice to see Yaz and Ryan working together this week. It seems that the writers have finally decided to remember Ryan’s dyspraxia this week, which has flown under the radar for the last couple of episodes, with his coordination issues actually having the potential to affect how useful he is to the Doctor. Bradley Walsh is fantastic again as Graham, who offers great comedic moments, like his reaction to being told that he is on the maintenance team is great. On the other side of the emotional spectrum, when Yaz talks about how Dan saved her life and asks the Doctor if they can take his necklace back to his daughter is another great moment for her.
Verdict: A strong writing debut for Pete McTighe, Kerblam! is a great story, which feels like a more traditional Doctor Who adventure. The guest cast are great, and I’d love to see Pete McTighe come back next series. 8/10
Cast: Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien), Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Julie Hesmondhalgh (Judy Maddox), Lee Mack (Dan Cooper), Callum Dixon (Jarva Slade), Claudia Jessie (Kira Arlo), Leo Flanagan (Charlie Duffy), Matthew Gravelle (Voice of Kerblam)
Writer: Pete McTighe
Director: Jennifer Perrott
Behind the Scenes
- The Thirteenth Doctor uses Venusian Aikido again, previously seen in The Ghost Monument.
- This is the first episode of Doctor Who to feature an exclamation mark in the title.
- On top of the obvious fez reference, we also get a call back to The Unicorn and the Wasp with the Doctor alluding to having met Agatha Christie.
- The opening scene was previewed on Children in Need on Friday 16th November, with an extended version being uploaded to YouTube later that same day.
The moment that the Doctor and the team realise that Charlie was behind the mystery all along.
How would you like a warning for insubordination?
I’d love one, I could add it to my collection!Jarva Slade and the Thirteenth Doctor