Doctor Who – Season 11 Episode 7
Doctor Who takes Team TARDIS to a planet sized warehouse to investigate a dangerous conspiracy within a giant retailer.
I’ll get the comparison to delivery giant Amazon out of the way right away. This episode is clearly using that company as the inspiration for Kerblam which makes sense given the ubiquity of that company which makes it easy for the audience to draw a comparison that means less time to spend on needless exposition setting up the concept.
The episode begins when the Doctor takes delivery of a Fez along with a delivery slip asking for help so she reroutes the TARDIS to the origin of that parcel to investigate. A sonic screwdriver and psychic paper double header is enough to get them employed and the investigation begins by dividing the characters into various jobs within the warehouse.
Once again it’s a Doctor Who episode that takes the form of a mystery to be solved. One of the strengths of this season has been splitting up the ensemble cast in order to cover as much ground as possible and build the world the episode is set in. A warehouse full of employees is an ideal setup that justifies separating the characters as there are various occupations within the warehouse that the characters can be deployed to. The Doctor and Ryan handle packing, Yaz looks into fulfilment and Graham poses as a cleaner. These all offer unique perspectives on the organisation and give the audience a flavour of how the place works from the point of view of those who work there.
Naturally there needs to be characters who understand how things work and can act as the sounding board for questions. Yaz talks to Dan (Lee Mack); a worker motivated to make money to support his daughter and right some wrongs in his past in how he dealt with his family. Dan largely exists to be the victim that clues everyone in on there being a hidden danger. His disappearance alters the general approach way from suspicion into confirmation that there is something not right. Unfortunately Yaz becomes largely redundant after this point which marks yet another example of the writers apparently having no idea what to do with her. Her role after that point largely becomes conversation filler with no real tangible input into the narrative.
The Doctor and Ryan talk to Kira (Claudia Jessie); a timid young woman who works really hard to be optimistic about her current situation. She’s endearing enough and answers all of the necessary questions to help move the plot forward. Her death is a bizarre moment that feels somewhat out of place and an artificial tactic to heighten the tension at the point it was already where it needed to be. There isn’t really enough time to make her death in any way meaningful as the focus very quickly shifts elsewhere.
Graham talks to Charlie (Leo Flanagan); a fellow cleaner who has what appears to be casual anti-technology opinions early on. His reveal as the villain of the piece is an effective twist as the characterisation coupled with Leo Flanagan’s performance does a really good job establishing him as someone kind and gentle. This serves as an effective distraction from the opinions he holds that make him capable of engineering the plot at hand. The clues are there from early on as well such as when the Doctor tells Graham that he has the perfect cover as nobody ever notices a cleaner so Charlie has the most opportunity to circumvent the system and put his plan into motion as the A.I. doesn’t appear to be paying much attention to him. It’s a plot convenient oversight but in context it makes a lot of sense. Ultimately this is another episode where Humans are the problem; this is consistent with the rest of the season and in this case it’s a lot more complex as the problem extends to those who programmed the software in the first place as well as those who let the reliance on automation happen.
Charlie represents a position many people in employment will agree with to some degree at this moment in time. Technology is improving massively over very short periods of time so the need for people to do certain jobs is diminishing. Most people who have a job will have come across their employer downsizing the workforce because technology has made it possible to do so. Arguably it’s a bad thing for people but the world is progressing along those lines meaning that lots of people will have an inherent and justifiable mistrust of the implementation of technology. Kerblam is that idea taken to its logical extreme. It’s a fully automated business that sets itself a personal target of being 10% reliant on traditional labour. In order to facilitate this those employed are expected to deliver a certain standard of productivity and only interact socially during designated break periods. Basically they’re dehumanised in order to justify having a Human workforce which somewhat feels like it defeats the purpose though I get the impression it is believed to be the only compromise. This feels disturbingly real as it’s common knowledge that many jobs come with this level of depersonalisation.
Charlie is somewhat sympathetic for this reason though the steps he takes in order to get his point across are unacceptable. Creating a situation where thousands of people will be killed in order to encourage a lack of trust in automation is a horrifying prospect even if it’s understandable that people feel threatened by what others consider progress. The script capably makes him come across as more misguided than evil and clearly crazed by an obsession that has warped his mind. His death is appropriately tragic while being somewhat poetic as this isn’t a world that Charlie could feasibly exist in so his death might be the only way he could ever achieve peace.
His feelings for Kira add much more depth than he would have otherwise enjoyed. The fact that the artificial intelligence running Kerblam recognises him as a threat and looks to exploit its knowledge of him by killing the only person it knows he cares about is very much a confirmation of Charlie’s fears though there’s no malice behind it as the system is merely doing what it’s programmed to do. Even though Kira’s death doesn’t entirely work because it comes at a busy point of the episode it’s a very good way to confirm that there is a complexity to the underlying situation that deserves to be addressed. It also shows the only major flaw in Charlie’s plan as he didn’t expect to develop feelings for anyone else in the organisation which ends up serving as his downfall. The Doctor points out that her death and the grief Charlie experiences afterwards is exactly what he will be causing for thousands of people and families who take delivery of the lethal packages. It isn’t enough to change his mind but it’s clear he feels the weight of that. As a side note, weaponising bubble wrap is a stroke of genius.
Jodie Whittaker nails her performance at the point of Charlie’s death in a scene that could be her most “Doctor” moment so far. She comes up with a clever solution, offers Charlie the chance to escape and then gets everyone she can save to safety. The regret on her face the instant before she teleports everyone else away is brilliantly portrayed and the overall deflated mood in the moments following their escape is both subtle and effective.
Before getting to the end point the episode plays around with the various elements really well. The robots are appropriately creepy in an ambiguous sort of way as it’s never apparent whether they will end up being a danger to the group or if they are simply ensuring that the warehouse runs smoothly. Other side characters largely exist to be red herrings which works well enough. In particular Julie Hesmondhalgh’s Judy Maddox makes for an engaging presence who can match wits with the Doctor at the right point. Early on it looks as if she might be behind the dangers through either design or her own ignorance but she is proven to be as concerned about those who work there as she claims. The measures she puts in place at the end of the episode confirms that fact. Jarva (Callum Dixon) is another well used villain red herring though doesn’t work quite as well.
The overall design aesthetic of the episode is less interesting than other episodes this season though the setting does look like a functional warehouse environment with little flourishes that suggest plenty of thought has gone into how the operation works. Much of this ends up paying off to be useable once the plot needs the characters to poke around beneath the surface.
A strong episode that has a very relatable message to modern audiences while making great use of the characters and setting. The idea of automation stealing jobs from able bodied workers is nothing new but it does feel disturbingly relevant in a modern context given how many people have become unemployed because of improvements in technology. This allows Charlie to be a sympathetic villain because how he feels is completely understandable and the episode does a great job distracting the audience from him being the main villain while establishing how crazed he becomes. Jodie Whittaker has a great “Doctor moment” at the point of his death that makes for her strongest one yet.
The setting isn’t as visually interesting as previous episodes but it does feel functional and is used well when the characters start poking beneath the surface. Splitting the characters into different job roles to interact with characters who can answer their questions is a good use of the cast and develops the world around them organically. There are some missteps along the way such as once again pushing Yaz into the background and letting Kira die at a point where her death loses a lot of its meaning.
- splitting the characters into various job roles to build the world around them
- a surprising villain
- the overall problem being really complex and relatable to modern audiences
- Jodie Whittaker’s best “Doctor moment” yet
- a well designed and functional world
- weaponised bubble wrap
- pushing Yaz into the background once again
- Kira’s death feeling unnecessary
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