So What Happened?…
After The Doctor receives a new fez from a galaxy-wide delivery company, together with a delivery note asking for help, she and her companions set about finding the source of the plea at Kerblam! headquarters by posing as workers at the warehouse. Whilst Thirteen and Ryan are sent to work in the packing area with new colleague, Kira, and Graham ends up in maintenance with the young man who has a crush on her, Charlie; Yaz is tasked with helping Dan Cooper , the face of the human employees, who only make up 10% of the overburdened workforce alongside their robotic colleagues known as TeamMates. It soon becomes clear that ‘organic’ workers have been going missing in recent months, something which Yaz sees for herself when Dan goes AWOL while searching for an order, and she is nearly attacked by the robots when she goes looking for him.
Suspecting that there’s an issue with the company’s artificial intelligence and its robotic workers, Thirteen confronts managers, Judy Maddox and Jarva Slade, but they deny any knowledge of what’s going on. Kira is then lured away by robotic colleagues with the promise of a present to a concealed room on a lower floor, and after The Doctor manages to locate her, Yaz, Ryan and Charlie using the delivery chutes and conveyor belts to get to her, only to helplessly look on as Kira plays with the bubble wrap inside a company box, unwittingly killing herself when she pops one of the bubbles which then explodes. In the meantime, Thirteen has used an older model of one of the TeamMates to speak directly to Kerblam’s artificial intelligence, and ultimately discovered that it was the source of the cry for help, fearing that its robots were malfunctioning.
After Yaz, Ryan and Charlie return to relay that they witnessed Kira die, it soon becomes clear that the bubble wrap has been weaponized, and was intended to be sent to numerous customers in the packages they ordered, leading to their deaths and the consequential blowback on the company. Distraught that the woman he loved got caught up in his plans, Charlie admits that he masterminded the attempt to combat the growing automation of the workforce that’s leaving vast swathes of the human population unemployed. The employees that went missing were merely test subjects for his plans to deplete consumer satisfaction with the growing numbers of robotic workers, and The Doctor realises that the company’s AI tried to make him realise the consequences of his actions by involving and killing Kira. With droves of delivery TeamMates known as The Postmen about to deploy with their weaponized parcels, she re-programmes them to deliver to themselves, quickly evacuating the floor with everyone apart from Charlie, who decides to stay and meet his demise. In the aftermath, Maddox and Slade announce their plans to make Kerblam! a mostly human workforce, and set an example to other companies.
Monster of the Week
Marieke: Those Postmen give off that puppet-coming-to-life vibe pestering pop culture ever since Chuckie. The headlight eyes of showing they’re on and ready to roll are also creepy, but I’m glad they’re not red. And then there’s the whole idea of AI out of control and taking over.
Yet, again, it’s a human doing the truly bad deeds. Yes AI killed Kira, but it was as a reply to defiant and angry janitor, Charlie, who went for genocide by poisoned bubble wrap. I’m starting to feel this series of Doctor Who is hitting us over the head with the idea that humans are the most dangerous species, more than The Walking Dead emphasising that zombies are a lesser evil than man. It would have been a great message had we not already seen it this series.
Danielle: As Marieke pointed out, once again we had a non-human threat masking the real human one, i.e. The Postmen obscuring the actual danger, which came in the form the love-struck, seemingly harmless, Charlie, who was abducting colleagues to test out his explosive bubble wrap. It is becoming a teeny, tiny bit tedious.
Marieke: Well, The Postmen were certainly able to dig up some childhood traumas? Maybe now when there is bubble wrap in your parcel you might think twice before popping it… I love it when Doctor Who makes mundane stuff scary.
Danielle: Tapping into Freudian theories about the ‘Uncanny’, along with a wealth of visual references to other robots/dolls in film and televison, with their ventriloquist dummy-esque features, The Postmen were pretty damn creepy. Imagine one of them knocking on your door with a parcel! *shudders*
Danielle: The initial mystery was, of course, who sent the call for help to The Doctor. Once it became clear that it was the company’s own artificial intelligence, much more subtle questions began to arise about who the real bad guy actually was. Charlie? The company AI? Extreme Capitalism? Answers on a postcard…
Marieke: The whole episode was set up to solve the mystery about who contacted the Doctor to ask for help. The biggest mystery maybe was how so few people had jobs and still so many of them kept ordering and ordering…
There were a plethora of familiar faces (and voices) this week! Comedian and actor, Lee Mack, most famous for his stints on panel shows such as Would I lie to You? made a notable appearance as Dan, a father trying to do his best in this intense capitalist society. Coronation Street and Broadchurch alumni, Julie Hesmondhalgh, also took on the role of harried, but jovial human resource manager, Judy, whilst fellow ‘Broadchurcher’, Matthew Gravelle, was the voice of Kerblam!.
Scene of the Week
Danielle: Naturally, I’m a huge fan of the scene at the start of the episode where Thirteen was asking if the fez still suited her. *Nods* Yes, it absolutely does. Seriously though, that little nod back to Eleven was really cute, as was the reaction of her team who didn’t seem to have a clue about what was going on. I also found the scene where they figured out how to stop the robot from strangling Charlie absolutely hilarious. Where else, aside from Doctor Who, are you going to see Hayley from Corrie twist the head off an automated bot?
Marieke: I actually liked Yaz talking to Dan Cooper. Lee Mack was great for the short part, and Dan definitely deserved a better ending to his life. Knowing more about one worker added needed human depth to the story, otherwise they would have felt like henchmen in Bond movies: replaceable and perhaps even more mechanical than the machines. It was a nice touch that Yaz wanted to visit Dan’s daughter to let her know how much she loved him.
Marieke: KERBLAM! What a great episode! The team finally works perfectly together, even when apart. They all had their role to get this episode to its conclusion. It was the janitor, with the bubble wrap, in the Amazon-like environment. Although I do wonder who orders all the packages when job opportunities are scarce for people (small plot hole?). The message that technology can be used for bad or good depending on who uses it is a good one. I’m wondering if Judy Maddox’s solution of hiring more people in the end is the key, but it’s nice to see we’re not going to be entirely redundant someday. If only to prevent a death like Kira’s, who was collateral damage in an ongoing war. Still shocking though.
The Doctor found her way, especially by using that adorable first ever delivery bot. The nod to Star Wars with the conveyor belts scene was a nice sci-fi moment. Mostly, this episode just got the balance right. The team, the Doctor doctoring herself, the co-stars and the scenery blended together into a fantastic mix. I’m glad to see this series can do more than just historical episodes. In the meantime, I’m glad that the last thing I ordered was just a book and no bubble wrap was present.
Danielle: If you’ll excuse the pun, there’s a lot to unpack with ‘Kerblam!’, mostly in relation to the politics at the heart of it. Therein lies both its weakness and its strength. Are we really meant to applaud an apparently triumphant ending where management announce their intentions to reinstate a mostly human workforce, when there’s little to no evidence that they’ll treat them any better than they already do? Judy Maddox might have come across more sympathetically than Jarva Slade, but neither of them were particularly pro-active when their ‘organic’ workers started going missing. I also find it oddly disturbing how the AI’s retributive actions against Charlie were glossed over too. I know time is often at a premium in Who episodes, but I don’t think of enough of it was given over to at least proposing that Kerblam, in the non-organic sense, was the real bad guy here.
Regardless of the episode’s missed opportunities, you know you’re onto a winner when you find yourself wondering about the wider world outside of the glimpse you’ve been given. Coupled with pitch perfect guest performances, and the sense that Team Tardis have more than comfortably settled into their respective roles, and it becomes clear that this was a strong, if not perfect, outing for the show.
Our Fezzy Score:
So what did you think of ‘Kerblam!’? Let us know in the comments…