[This review contains some minor SPOILERS!]
Those who complain about Series 11 of Doctor Who tackling modern-day politics or social issues will likely have a conniption fit regarding “Kerblam!” The episode hardly hides its sources, with the titular company clearly being based on Amazon.com and the problems posed by automation and companies that put efficiency over humanity firmly explored.
Indeed, for the first half of “Kerblam!” it is somewhat hard to see the episode as being a science-fiction story, given its warehouse setting. There’s also the fact that things like ankle-monitors, continual threats of termination and constant surveillance of the employees are based on actual Amazon warehouse practices.
Okay, the warehouse is on the moon of a distant planet in the future, but the world of this episode is still less drastically different that what we’re used to seeing in Doctor Who. Switch the Amazon delivery drones of 2018 for smiling robot mailmen who are capable of teleporting anywhere in the galaxy and there’s seemingly little difference between fantasy and reality in this case.
The plot is born of the old joke about a fortune cookie with the message “Help! I am being held against my will in a fortune cookie bakery”, with The Doctor getting a package from Kerblam! along with a shipping invoice that has two words – HELP ME – printed on the back. This leads to our heroes trying to infiltrate the chief warehouse of Kerblam!, as we learn that Kerblam! is the largest employer of organic workers in the galaxy – 10,000 workers – and is proud to follow the local laws requiring at least 10% of the workforce of any business be living, breathing people rather than robots.
Thankfully, all this exposition and social commentary doesn’t get in the way of the big mystery – who is calling for help and why? Pete McTighe’s script manages this balancing act along with two other minor miracles. First, the supporting characters for this episode are all fully realized people and the audience will quickly fall in love with Dan, Kira and Charlie as they are introduced to The Doctor and company. (Full marks to all the actors involved for that, as well.) Next, McTighe’s script throws several twists into the mix, playing off of the cliches of Doctor Who and the audience’s expectations as to who is responsible for a rash of unexplained employee disappearances.
Corrupt executives? A single bureaucrat? Rogue robots? A power-mad AI? All these possibilities are presented and even The Doctor is guilty of jumping to an obvious but wrong conclusion in the midst of all this. Indeed, the episode only falters once the villain and the victim are revealed and the audience realizes that there were much more efficient ways of the person who sent the message dealing with the crisis than trying to reach The Doctor. In fact, the actions of all the potential villains designed to make them look guilty are quickly glossed over in the wake of the what the real villain has done.
Still, up until the end, “Kerblam!” manages to surprise viewers and touch the heart. Had it managed a stronger message at the end and explained a little more, it might have earned a perfect grade. As it is, this is a novel episode with noble intentions, but some glaringly obvious flaws.