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With “Kerblam!,” DOCTOR WHO Is Finally Grooving Into a Complete Package Again

The following recap contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!”

In the early days of any new era of Doctor Who, there comes a time when we start looking for clues as to what the voice or tone will be for the near future of the series. Sometimes, like the case of season five which introduced Matt Smith as the Doctor and Steven Moffat as the showrunner, the show finds its voice very quickly and hits the ground running. In the case of Peter Capaldi’s debut, his first season felt as challenging to the writers as it did to the audience, not truly coming together until Capaldi’s first Christmas special, “Last Christmas.” It seems that a similar struggle has been happening with Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker’s first season, and with “Kerblam!” has hopefully started to resolve itself.

Series 11 has been chock full of very basic plots which have covered the range of Doctor Who story types. This feels like it was intentional: a plan to scale back on the plot in order to let character dynamics come forward. It has resulted in some great character moments, like the conversations between Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole), but has also led to some legitimate frustration, like the titular spider plot in “Arachnids in the UK” feeling completely abandoned at the end in order to make space for the moment when the friends choose to continue to travel with the Doctor. I’m a fan of scenes like that, but not at the expense of the overall story of the episode.

“Kerblam!,” written by longtime Who fan and first-time episode writer Pete McTighe, stokes the optimist in me with hopes that we’re finally seeing a solid glimpse into the near future of the show. Now that the heavy lifting of a new team moving into the space seems mostly out of the way, we get our first true glimpse at what a typical Doctor Who episode feels like under their residency. We’re given many of the ingredients that are classic to the show: a mysterious distress call, a creepy batch of robots, and a heightened futuristic analog to a predominant issue of the modern world. Plus, we get something as fun as an explosive bubble-wrap weapon of mass destruction, and it is shockingly well-earned.

More importantly, we see what happens when the Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz (Mandip Gil) are set loose in that setting to run around. A lot of doubts have been shared about how well a crowded TARDIS can work, but “Kerblam!” really serves up a blueprint for how the concept can be perfectly utilized in future stories. Everyone has something to do.

Yaz heads into the fulfillment stacks and gets introduced to the mysterious deaths happening in this week’s setting, a warehouse for future retail giant Kerblam!, via the death of friendly item-retriever Dan (Lee Mack, who injects an impressive amount of charisma into his short screen time). Graham heads to the custodial staff, which allows him not only to meet the episode’s eventual villain but also get access to the layout of the facility. Meanwhile Ryan, while sticking with the Doctor, is able to talk to guest star Kira (Claudia Jessie) as a sympathetic co-worker, helping us to get details from her that humanize her while the Doctor is able to focus more on digging into the mystery. Likewise, the larger team allows for the show to do things like have Ryan and Yaz dive into action-adventure moments while the Doctor is able to handle the science fiction interrogation stuff. This dynamic was starting to form in “Arachnids” and in “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” but here we have the first episode where it really feels like the starting rotations of a well-oiled machine.

Those development details being largely settled now also allows the Doctor to move back to the forefront. Jodie Whittaker had settled nicely into her role pretty early into the season, but for the most part, she did so somewhat quietly in the background and with little fanfare. “Kerblam!” gives us some of her first legitimate hero moments since “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” She got to fire of a speech about Earth being under her protection in “Demons of the Punjab,” but that moment was undercut by the fact that the aliens she was yelling out ended up being totally benevolent. Here she gets several moments to stand up and bring forth the righteous fury of everyone’s favorite renegade Time Lord, and when she does, it’s to people who deserve it, like the management of the Kerblam! warehouse (Julie Hesmondhalgh and Callum Dixon) and Charlie (Leo Flanagan) the murderous custodian.

Finally, in a season where the most consistently weak element has been the antagonists, “Kerblam!” finally comes through. Some of the best villains in fiction are the ones who have a tiny bit of nobility in their intentions, and we get that in Charlie. He’s not a scruffy, toothpick chomping future racist; he’s not an easily forgettable Pokemon, or a cheating big game hunter with a tooth fetish. His grievances with the status quo in the world he lives in, one with crippling unemployment rates and a lack of concern for human worth, are legitimate. (Although one does have to wonder who is shopping at Kerblam! if 90% of the population is out of work.) 

There is a brief, tense moment where one has to wonder if the show really is siding with the faceless megacorporation over the blue-collar worker just trying to make a difference, but the more nuanced position about the real evils lying in the way people corrupt and abuse systems is very much Doctor Who at its core. Charlie’s methods are evil, and the deaths of Dan and Kira are actually painful, but Kerblam! and their chipper Teammate robots — some of Who’s creepiest ‘monsters’ in years — are also not the good guys here. The fact that it took a genocidal mop-pusher to make the people working for them realize it, well, that is something that matters.

Images: BBC

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