'Kerblam!' recap: Witty 'Doctor Who' satire delivers laughter and thrills

Paul Kirkley
Contributor
Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: Kerblam! (BBC)

The seventh episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘Kerblam!’:

What’s it about? After receiving an unexpected delivery – and an SOS – the Doctor and co go undercover in the galaxy’s biggest retail warehouse…

Verdict: Doctor Who hasn’t gone down the road of full-on satire – with a neon-lit capital S – that often over the years, but one story which stands out is 1977’s ‘The Sun Makers’, a waspish send-up of the Inland Revenue prompted by a hefty tax bill that had recently landed on writer Robert Holmes’ doormat.

‘Kerblam!’, it might be argued, is a ‘Sun Makers’ for the 21st century – an age when private corporations wield considerably more power than governments, to the extent of managing to avoid that tax bill ever landing on the doormat in the first place. And it’s not just a satire of corporate culture, but of one very specific corporation – the one, ironically, that is most likely to be delivering your Series 11 Blu-ray come January.

In that sense, this could scarcely have been less subtle if they’d called the titular company Yangtze or Mississippi, with writer Pete McTighe, making his Who debut, taking pot shots at everything from delivery drones to strictly controlled staff “leisure breaks”. At Kerblam!, the 10% of the workforce who aren’t robots are literally manacled with a “group loop” that allows management to track their productivity, while being bombarded day and night with an incessant corporate propaganda messages.

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Judy Maddox in Doctor Who: Kerblam! (BBC)

As a target for a spot of sci-fi lampoonery, this feels more sharply focused than last year’s ‘Oxygen’, an otherwise excellent story that somewhat overreached itself by attempting to take down the entirety of late Western capitalism. Plus, McTighe’s script is so fast and funny – a Doctor Who romp in the very best sense – that it never feels too much like a lecture.

The suggestion of robots going rogue and turning on their human “masters” recalls another 1977 Doctor Who classic, ‘The Robots of Death’. And, like those metal men (as Leela called them) with their polite, quizzical voices and beautiful art-deco design, the smiling assassins of Kerblam! are all the creepier for dispensing death with shining eyes and an unnerving fixed grin.

Guest star Julie Hesmondhalgh is great value as mildly frazzled HR boss Judy Maddox who, with her funny specs and space clipboard, looked certain to be revealed as the villain of the piece, like Keeley Hawes’ Ms Delphox in 2014’s ‘Time Heist’, or Sarah Lancashire’s Ms Foster in 2008’s ‘Partners in Crime’. But no, it turns out she’s just a good woman trying to help people make the best of a bad situation.

Lee Mack as Dan Cooper in Doctor Who: Kerblam! (BBC)

Lee Mack and Claudia Jessie also make an immediate impact as wisecracking everyman Dan and sweet, optimistic Kira, helped by some lovely, economical character sketching from McTighe. As a result, we feel their loss keenly. (It doesn’t help that I’d already heavily emotionally invested in the Kira-Charlie love story, only for McTighe to do that to us. Has the man got a heart of stone?)

‘Kerblam!’, then, may not have the weighty prestige of a ‘Rosa’ or ‘Demons of the Punjab’. In fact at times it’s almost deliberately silly (a Doctor Who story where the threat is literally bubblewrap? How meta). But it would be damning it with faint praise to call it a filler episode (it looks like it’s had a fair bit of money spent on it, for one thing).

Folding contemporary fears about job insecurity and the rapid, dehumanising pace of change into a kinetic action-adventure that boasts plenty of jokes, some decent scares, exciting set pieces (the conveyor belt journey is a fun sequence which kids will love) and memorable robots, it’s a confident debut from McTighe that – oh go on then – really delivers.

Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh in Doctor Who: Kerblam! (BBC)

Doctor’s notes: She’s surprisingly excited about receiving mail. She’s not against automated systems – just the way people exploit them. She still thinks fezzes are cool.

Fellow travellers: Ryan used to work at Sports Direct, where he once slid down a dispatch chute. It didn’t end well. Yaz is missing her family a bit. Graham just gets more and more adorable.

Isn’t that…? Julie Hesmondhalgh (Judy Maddox) spent 16 years in Hayley Cropper’s iconic red anorak on Coronation Street, and more recently starred alongside Jodie Whittaker in the third series of Broadchurch. One of Britain’s best-loved comedians, Lee Mack’s (Dan Cooper) TV hits include the sitcom Not Going Out and panel show Would I Lie to You? Claudia Jessie (Kira Arlo) is one of TV’s most in-demand actresses: recent roles include police sneak Jodie Taylor in Line of Duty series 4 and Amelia Sedley in ITV’s Vanity Fair.

Location, location, location: Kerblam!, a giant warehouse facility covering an entire moon of the planet Kandoka.

Scary monsters: Delivery / supervisor bots – creepy, grinning automated Kerblam! workers.

Quote unquote: “I bet you were the sort of kid who loved poking wasps’ nests, just to see what happened.” Yaz knows the Doctor too well.

“Do as you’re told and try not to bump into the robots.” Valuable workplace training from Dan.

“Laters. Not doing that again. Sticking with bye.” Wise choice, Doctor.

“My name is not Les, but I acknowledge your amusing co-worker banter.” Robot colleagues can be a tough crowd.

Best bit: For sheer, exhilarating, Sunday night spectacle, let’s go with Ryan, Yaz and Charlie whizzing down the chute and riding the criss-crossing maze of conveyor belts. Sure, it’s hardly original – think Woody and Jessie on the airport baggage system in Toy Story 2, Mike and Sully riding the doors in Monsters Inc or, if you must, the “comedy” sequence of C-3PO in the factory on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones – but it’s a great example of Doctor Who in family action blockbuster mode.

Worst bit: The discovery of the liquidised workers. What ought to have been a grim moment of horror and tragedy was rather breezily waved away.

Scariest bit: The rogue delivery bot – its eyes glowing in the darkness – attacking Dan, then rounding on Yaz.

Funniest bit: Loads of good zingers this week. I particularly liked: “Ever hidden in a panelled alcove? You haven’t lived.”

Jodie Whittaker (and fez) in Doctor Who: Kerblam! (BBC)

Back in time: The Fez is back! “What do you think, still me?” asks the Doctor of her predecessor-but-one’s favourite headwear. Our fashion desk says yes.

The “space postman” arriving in the TARDIS recalls a similar appearance by a junkmail robot in Sylvester McCoy adventure ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’. The delivery bots also bear a strong resemblance to that story’s robotic bus conductor.

The Doctor mentions the time she helped Agatha Christie with a pest problem (as shown in 2008’s ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’).

Did Graham in a cardigan make anyone else think of the Doctor’s very first TV companion, Ian Chesterton?

Next time – ‘The Witchfinders’: The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz arrive in 17th century Lancashire and become embroiled in a witch trial, run by the local landowner. As fear stalks the land, the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But is there something even more dangerous at work? Can the Doctor and friends keep the people of Bilehurst Cragg safe from all the forces that are massing in the land?

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