‘The systems aren’t the problem. How people use and exploit the system: that’s the problem.’ It’s a simple lesson, that it’s the people who run companies like – well, take your pick, but Amazon would appear to be the obvious analogy in Pete McTighe’s corporate satire – who shoulder the responsibility for their employment and human rights records, but it’s one that needs reinforcing from time to time, as we gaze upon these edifice-like businesses and sometimes forget that it’s not the companies who are running themselves.
It’s kind of a shame we had to pay a visit to the planet Kandoka, or rather its industrialised moon, for the refresher. Because while Kerblam! was as on the nose and as straightforward as all the other Series Eleven episodes so far – the only confusion it might possibly have engendered was during the ‘I’m the good guy!’ ‘No I’m the good guy!’ sequence, which surely took its inspiration from Spartacus – there was plenty of potential in its commentary for something just a little deeper, a little more ambiguous. The final twist revealing the culprit of the enterprise – as satisfying as it was to finally take a lurch into the unexpected this year – did rather leave capitalist exploitation somewhat off the hook. Although we can maybe take some comfort in the implication, given that this particular business really was running itself, that maybe Kerblam is a not-for-profit organisation. Perhaps this is how industrial socialism might look, should we ever achieve it – and possibly there’s an underlying message here that we don’t need the Sugars and the Trumps of this world greasing their palms on the oiled wheels of industry in order for that industry to function; Kandoka would seem to suggest that automated commercialism can run for the benefit of the people it’s supposed to serve, just as well as it currently does for those that take advantage of it. But that’s a bit of a stretch – and one that’s rather undermined by the episode’s conclusion. For Message Television that’s as blatant as this that was a bit of a fudge at the end there.
In terms of its Doctor Who-ness, Kerblam! was about as old school (post-2005 old school, that is) as Series Eleven has managed to get, and it was a more comfortable fit than we might have expected. But for the balance being weighted more heavily towards the Something To Say than the entertaining manner in which it was being said, this could have been Planet of the Ood; instead, and in the absence of a giant brain in a tub and Tim McInnerny’s extraordinary transformation, this was a closer cousin to Steven Moffat’s The Beast Below, even down to the truth being ultimately found at the end of a perilous journey to the basement. And while we were never going to get anything approaching Donna’s impassioned revelations about the nature of the business being conducted, we did get the double whammy of the villain being twice hoist by his own petard; the first time when the system takes his rather sweet potential girlfriend Kira – and it was oddly gratifying to see her offed with a relative minimum of fuss, even if that and the rather superficial nature of their burgeoning relationship in the narrative, made the Doctor’s citing of her feel equally perfunctory – and the second in what might have been an homage to Planet of the Daleks by way of I, Robot.
Still, the use of bubble wrap didn’t feel quite so much like it was making up for The Ark in Space as it might have.
Much like the ostensibly rather similar The Sun Makers, this was meat-and-potatoes mid-series Doctor Who given a little bit of extra accessibility by the casting of the redoubtable Julie Hesmondhalgh and the surprisingly effective Lee Mack, who downplayed his comedy persona in the service of giving us a sense of the story’s stakes, and was thus the cause for the episode’s one Big Emotional Moment, more than ably performed by Mandip Gill, who in the last two episodes has come much more into the centre of things. Not that either of her co-friends gave up any of the limelight to let her in; Bradley Walsh continues to be the series’ big revelation and Tosin Cole was especially good too, particularly during the return – or the return to the foreground – of his dyspraxia. Although as has been noted almost everywhere, Yaz’ police background does seem to have been almost forgotten and this ought to have bene the perfect place to redress that.
The big improvement this week was in the Doctor, though; after a handful of episodes in which she’s been either at the mercy of the plot or too keen to over-examine it, Kerblam! seemed to strike a nice balance between the know-it-all and the cosmic investigator, and if it’s still hard to tell quite where Jodie Whittaker’s pitching her characterisation, in this episode at least it was harder to tell that it was hard to tell. Or to put it more plainly: here she felt like a defined Doctor coasting rather than one who maybe knew what she wanted to achieve but wasn’t quite sure how that fitted in with everything else. Although there’s still a lot of Tennant by way of Davison going on in there.
It’s odd that such a modest episode as this felt so much more natural than its counterparts, even if the music and photography are still keeping the series from unleashing its inner romp. There were shades of Keff McCulloch in the score, which attempted a lightness on its feet that the McCoy-era orchestral stabs and percussive stylings didn’t help, but the conveyor belt sequence, while impressively ambitious – and thank heavens for some honest to goodness action at last, much as it might have resembled something the Tenth Doctor would have got involved in – was probably the instalment’s weakest moment, the budget plainly not being big enough to quite do it justice.
That’s where we are with Series Eleven, though; there’s a new ‘normality’ at play, one that’s playing well enough with your casual audiences to offset the furrowed brows within certain quarters of fandom, and while there have been references back aplenty, Kerblam! is at the dead centre of the Venn diagram between The Way Things Were and The Way They Are Now. Another production regime might have made something more light-hearted and overtly entertaining than this, but for this production regime, this is probably as light-hearted and entertaining as it gets.
DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11, EPISODE 7: KERBLAM! / WRITER: PETE McTIGHE / DIRECTOR: JENNIFER PERROTT / STARRING: JODIE WHITTAKER, BRADLEY WALSH, TOSIN COLE, MANDIP GILL, JULIE HESMONDHALGH, LEE MACK, CALLUM DIXON, CLAUDIA JESSIE, LEO FLANAGAN / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED NOVEMBER 18TH)