❉ The ghost of Doctor Who’s premier world builder Robert Holmes was in the room again, and Bradley Walsh continues to steal every scene he’s in.
“No more shopping online for Doctor Who and friends.” – BBC1 announcer
I had a discussion online this week with someone who felt very strongly that Doctor Who was a “children’s series” and “entertainment” and shouldn’t reference politics or contemporary culture. We used to live in a world where, although fans might have revelled in the series’ satirical tendencies, the wider viewing public most probably didn’t notice or, if they did, didn’t care. Now it’s a problem for some people – if only a vocal minority.
Strange days we’re living in, indeed.
I wonder, then, what my online correspondent would think of Kerblam!, which begins as an obvious comment on online shopping – specifically Amazon – but developed into something a lot cleverer that kept you thinking after the credits rolled.
The story is set up to look like a robot revolution – there’s even a reference to “robophobia” from The Robots of Death (1977), the definitive revolt-by-a-robot-workforce Doctor Who story – but here the automation is trying to help by holding back the teleportation of mechanical men delivering parcels containing lethal, explosive bubble wrap. Yes, you read that correctly. That concept will either have had people howling with derision, or approving of the kind of bizarre death you’d find in the surreal spy fi series The Avengers if it was still on.
The ghost of Doctor Who’s premier world builder Robert Holmes was again in the writers’ room. You completely believed in the civilization that built the Kerblam! warehouse: references to a popular movement insisting that humans be given 10% of jobs eradicated by advancing technology, even if they were “relentlessly repetitive”, together with the view that “work gives us purpose”, hit the satirical mark more than predictable digs at “strict guidelines” on time keeping and “constant random monitoring.” Judy Maddox (dependable Julie Hesmondhalgh) did some info dumping at the beginning, but that fitted because, as “Head of People”, she was showing the Doctor and chums around the place where they were going to work.
The “real people need real jobs” theme tied up very convincingly with the motivation of lovable cleaner Charlie (Leo Flanagan), a seemingly innocuous character revealed as the bad guy (a very Emma Peel-era Avengers trope.) Possibly suffering from robophobia, you could sympathise with his misguided desperation at sabotaging Kerblam!, with the intention that the controlling computer System got the blame for multiple deaths and humans took back 100% of employment, rather than 10.
Maturely, the morality wasn’t clear cut: Charlie had been abducting human workers to test his incendiary bubble wrap on, while the System deliberately killed Kira (Claudia Jesse), the object of Charlie’s affections, showing the kind of automated ruthlessness Charlie was terrified of. Interestingly, he’s been the only villain to have been killed so far this season and, seriously deluded though he may have been, he was nowhere near as mean or selfish as Robertson in Arachnids in the UK.
Jodie Whittaker is now comfortably assured as the Doctor, has dropped the earlier hyperactivity and is believably steely when necessary. Bradley Walsh continues to quietly steal every scene he’s in, while Mandip Gill and Tozin Cole enjoyed rewarding slices of the narrative; if the writer puts the effort in, having a four-strong main cast can clearly work. The casting of Lee Mack as cheery drone Dan Cooper was nicely judged to wrong-foot the audience, as such a high profile guest star was killed off early.
The décor looked a bit impoverished and dated in places, but I guess that was all part of the idea that Kerblam! was a cheapskate operation, as could be seen by the deliberately crude promotional posters. On the other scenic hand, the Teamster logo was a smartly memorable piece of graphic design and children will have loved the toy-like Teamster robots, together with the endearingly eager to please Twirly.
Since The Tsuranga Conundrum we’ve been on an upward curve of quality and the stories are, incrementally, getting better and better. Kerblam! crammed what felt like a feature film’s worth of story into fifty minutes, steadily built towards a genuinely dramatic crisis and left you pondering a timely moral: technology’s not a problem in itself, it’s the people who use it.
A closing thought: it’s a fairly good bet that Kerblam! has been the only drama on British television where the head of human resources was one of the good guys.
How’s that for satire?
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.