Doctor Who: Kerblam! (S11E07) Review

*SPOILERS*

Shirt Watch: Blue

I’ve never been a fan of the chaotically turbulent TARDIS travel that’s become a hallmark of the revived Doctor Who. It makes sense when the Doctor is trying to get the TARDIS to do something extreme, such as hopping dimensions or crossing its own time tracks or if the ship is under attack/ outside influence but as a standard method of travel, it just doesn’t make sense. That a race as stuffy as the Time Lords would countenance such an uncivilised mode of transportation is unlikely, plus there are the thousands of years of smooth TARDIS travel the series has shown us. I’m also not a huge fan of how often this current series has undermined the Doctor herself, like some kind of weirdly retrograde ‘woman drivers’ joke – we’re 70% of the way through the season with 7 televised (and apparently many more unseen) adventures under our belt and still the Doctor ‘can’t seem to get the hang of these controls’? Hmm.

Anyway, this time the time vortex tumbling is caused by the Doctor (unsuccessfully) trying to avoid a pursuing energy pulse which turns out to be a teleport pulse: a delivery from Kerblam! Inside the package is a Fez (a nice callback to the 11th Doctor) and a packing slip with two words written on the back: ‘Help Me’. Never one to ignore a cry for help, the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan head straight for the warehouse moon orbiting to Kandoka, the home of Kerblam!, the galaxy’s largest retailer.

The episode nicely highlights just how small-Earther the Doctor’s current crew still are. Despite being told the entire moon is one warehouse, Graham steps out of the TARDIS and looks at a single building, exclaiming ‘look at the size of it!’ For those of you wondering if Brian’s dyspraxia is still a thing as it’s been so conspicuous by its absence it had started to feel tokenistic, it at least gets a mention or two here. Also getting a mention is the fact the Doctor has two hearts. I think my own Who-heart grew one size bigger just hearing that again.

I’ve actually been on a real-life Amazon.com warehouse tour and it was pretty much the same as the first five minutes of this episode, save the heavy-handed, archly Chekhovian warnings about the conveyor belts, but once the set-up’s out of the way and the episode proper begins, it starts to feel authentically “Doctor Who” for possibly the first time this series. There are still moments here and there of obvious and clunky writing – the Doctor’s impromptu lecture on management techniques – but this is the first episode where the series feels comfortable in itself and with its legacy. As well as the ‘fez rings a bell’ moment, there’s a nod to the 10th Doctor too, a reference to “The Unicorn And The Wasp”, an encouraging sign the series is finally growing in genuine self-belief rather than virtue-Chibnalling.

Writer Peter McTighe delivers the most conventionally nu-Who episode of the series to date, keeping the formula just fresh enough that the episode has some surprises. In fact, if it weren’t for Chibnall’s dogmatic need to avoid using any classic monsters, this would have made an absolutely cracking Cyberman story.

The guest cast is good value, although obviously, Lee Mack’s value was a little too high for a full episode so it’s not surprising to see him be the first of several mysterious disappearances. “Coronation Street” alum Julie Hesmondhalgh is fun as Judy Maddox, ‘Head of People’ but it’s Kira Arlo (Claudia Jessie) who makes the biggest impression, a character who absolutely has that classic ‘could’ve-been companion’ feel. The episode clips along nicely, offering and dismissing red herrings until the real villain is revealed. Surprisingly, it’s not some evil corporate executives or the faceless monolithic control system. Less surprisingly, it’s a disgruntled white male terrorist with a thwarted attraction to a coworker looking to lash out and kill thousands of innocent people with his fiendishly convoluted killer bubble wrap scheme.

Disregarded by all as a mere cleaner, Charlie (Leo Flanagan) has corrupted the Kerblam! systems to create an army of bomb delivery drones, ready to destroy unwary consumers in a scenario the distance selling regulations failed to account for. Ryan very nearly saves the day, albeit accidentally, when his dyspraxia has a plot-influencing effect as he delivers television’s clumsiest celebratory high-five and pushes Charlie off the conveyor-belt during the episode’s homage to “Toy Story 2”.

In the end, though, it’s the Doctor who finally, incontrovertibly punishes the bad guy. Sure, she offers him the chance to get to safety before she detonates his killer packages but she doesn’t hesitate to make the hard choice and blow the bombs – and the bad guy – to kingdom come. Less overtly message-driven than its predecessors and with the Doctor finally taking charge of a situation, it’s kind of neat that it’s in this story of exploding bubble-wrap that the new season has finally started to ‘pop’.

8/10 

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