Doctor Who may spend a fair amount of time in outer space or on alien worlds, but it’s still capable of reflecting our own, everyday society, even in the most imaginative of environments. Case in point – Kerblam!, the debut script from Pete McTighe, which is surprisingly contemporary, despite being set in the future on an alien moon. Following the Doctor and her friends as they go undercover at a shady outer space delivery company, the story offers interesting themes reflecting modern day innovation and automation.
First and foremost though, Kerblam! is a solid story. McTighe‘s tightly plotted script follows all the prerequisite beats that a good Doctor Who episode needs, cranking up the suspense and intrigue nicely, whilst throwing in some subtle clues and a few red herrings to add flavour to the mystery, before going for a final, gut-wrenching twist that is the right kind of surprising. The alien delivery warehouse may seem a bit drab and unexciting at first mention, but both McTighe and director Jennifer Perrott utilise the setting to creepy effect, whilst the robot Teammates are the kind of creepy, uncanny-valley robots Who does extremely well at dreaming up.
In and amongst all this lies some interesting, occasionally biting contemporary commentary. With both automation in the workplace and the unethical treatment of workers in retail/warehouse environments a common discussion in the news cycle, Kerblam! goes some way in exploring this issue through the veil of science fiction.
Here, we see the workers are underpaid, overworked and dropped in favour of automated drones if productivity slips even slightly. They’re literally tagged like house arrest criminals and their every movement is monitored by an all-seeing computer system. The most nightmarish thing about all these ideas is that they each have a basis in real-life. The episode doesn’t quite explore the issue much further then simply depicting and commenting on the issue, but it does provide an interesting motivation for the villain of the piece.
It’s here though that the episode does somewhat muddle it’s politics – when nice guy Charlie (played by the excellent Leo Flanagan) is revealed as a terrorist plotting to use exploding bubble wrap in delivery boxes as a way to discredit the automated companies and win jobs back for the people, it does result in the episode performing a surprising U-turn. Most of the episode has spent time demonising automated workforces, and suddenly we find it’s the computer system that is the victim, and not the enemy. It’s not a bad turn. In fact, it’s an interesting twist. But it still seems muddled. It isn’t made any better by having Charlie’s murderous actions result in the higher-ups actually giving in to his conditions (albeit posthumously), which sort of legitimises the villain AND depicts attempted terrorism achieving a win. It’s murky territory, to say the least.
That said, the episode does deliver on other fronts extremely well – the guest performances are all fab (particularly Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lee Mack and Claudia Jessie), whilst the direction, design elements and visual effects make a somewhat dull setting visually arresting and weirdly creepy. Pete McTighe‘s story may feel pulled in two-seperate directions when it comes to the social commentary, but in terms of good storytelling and characterisation, it’s darn entertaining. And once again, the smaller character moments feel organic and natural, not tacked-on (also, whilst we’re on the subject, was Graham contemplating suicide in that final TARDIS scene?! Or was it just a throwaway gag?!! WE NEED TO KNOW!!).
As deliveries go, Kerblam! is definitely one worth signing for. Another excellent episode, that, whilst not perfect, certainly shows an upward trend in terms of quality this season. You could even say it…delivers…
Doctor Who is back on BBC One next Sunday. Be sure to check out our Series Blog and join us for our verdict of Episode 8.