Picture the scene. Jodie Whittaker is standing by a group of uniformed warehouse staff, all of whom are about to succumb to a fatal virus. She is in the process of shouting down an angry executive. Graham is standing six feet away, wrapping a blanket around the delirious, pockmarked supporting character they’ve picked up on their journey through warehouse central. Ryan is fidgeting, and Yaz is doing that thing with her eyes.
But our eyes are on the Doctor. “Look at them!” she’s yelling. “These aren’t machines, they’re people! They can’t function in a state of constant productivity, they need rest! They need interaction! They need time away from the packing spaces! This obsession with productivity has driven them into the ground. That’s why they reached out to me – well, one of ’em did. I knew something was off at Kerblam the moment we arrived – just couldn’t see what it was. So I dug. And now I find you’re turning them into zombies!”
The executive smirks. “One hundred per cent correct, Doctor. And now it’s too late for you to stop me. When the virus enters its final stage they will reach a state of uninterrupted productivity, at the cost of most neural functions. They’ll be able to perform the roles we give them, never stopping, never resting, never tiring. We call it…”
He pauses for emphasis. “Permawork.”
It is a silly thing, written in the shivery, pre-caffeine moments before the dawn on what is shaping up to be a cold and frosty November morning, but I think it’s probably the sort of sequence many of us were expecting in last night’s episode. The news that Doctor Who was off to Amazon had me raising my eyebrows: was this to be another rant at consumer culture, the want-it-now generation, a response to the many rumours about practices and policies behind the closed doors of the retail giant’s gargantuan premises? Certainly you’d be forgiven if you thought it was. The very first thing that happens in this episode – no, belay that, the second, right after the Doctor has fished out a fez from a cardboard box – is the discovery of a printed note, containing the words “Help me”, echoing stories in the broadsheets. But in a way you can’t blame Pete McTighe (this week’s guest writer) for avoiding outright condemnation. BBC Worldwide have to work with Amazon, after all – they stock the Blu-Rays. There are lessons to be learned from Rain Man, which was censored – and sometimes banned outright – on in-flight movie showings after Dustin Hoffman’s character refuses to get on a plane because they’re not flying with Quantas. Guess which airline was happy to screen the movie uncut?
Or perhaps it’s simply that McTighe is a better writer – better at least than Chibnall, who would have gone with the zombies plot, and consequences be damned. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing: if I do I have to reassess the entirety of series 11, and I’m not doing that before coffee. Perhaps if something like this had cropped up in the Moffat era, in which twist-laden stories were the show’s bread and butter, the eye with which we judge would be a little more critical. Nevertheless: as it stood, we got an episode of Doctor Who that surprised me, and in a world where I’m really starting to think I’ve seen everything the show has to offer, that’s TV gold.
At its core, ‘Kerblam!’ is a lighthearted and often humorous take on the daily grind of shift work and the feeling you’re a cog in a machine. It’s something I’m only able to relate to partially – I did my stint in a warehouse over twenty years ago and that was very much on a casual basis – but the jokes about office politics come thick and fast and are largely delivered by white-eyed, passive-aggressive robots who tilt their heads in a manner that ought to make more than a few of us feel uneasy. The outward friendliness that masks what is essentially a master-slave relationship is about as zeitgeisty as it gets, and they remind me of a temporary contract I had with a large insurance company I elect not to name – twenty of us crammed into a small space on the first floor of an anonymous building on the outskirts of a business park – and the woman in charge of our team who came over to me on the final day of the placement when I was chatting to a friend, to politely warn us that we’d been “spotted”. Nearly two decades on I’m still trying to work out exactly what she meant by that – I’d gone to school with this particular supervisor and it was difficult not to feel put out, particularly since the aforementioned friend and I had hit all our targets six weeks running.
The robots in ‘Kerblam!’ do not discriminate, unless there’s a reason. Certainly when they snatch away Kira (Claudia Jessie, recently seen in Vanity Fair) it’s hard not to feel a sense of relief. Kira is one of those irritating types you meet at university, the one who’s had a rubbish childhood and is now graced with flatmates from hell, but who is determined to make the best of her situation by singing badly at open mic evenings. Mercifully Kira does not carry a guitar, but even though she grates you know she’d be perfectly suited to Charlie, the doe-eyed janitor who is the epitome of Hugh Grant-esque social awkwardness whenever he has to be within touching distance. The four travellers watch from the sidelines, and Graham manages to have a brief heart-to-heart with his learning mentor in a darkened store room. “Have you smelt her?” Charlie enquires, eagerly. Walsh doesn’t let the smile slip from his poker face. “Funnily enough,” he replies, “I haven’t.”
That Charlie turns out to be the episode’s villain comes as a shock – as does the death of Kira, disintegrated to atoms when she touches booby-trapped bubble wrap. It’s all part of a series of tests that Charlie’s been running – testing out bombs on unsuspecting workers before enacting his master plan, which is to kill thousands of customers at once in order to destroy the public’s trust in machines. This is the same year that The X-Files did the exact opposite, in a strange, practically wordless episode in which Mulder and Scully are beset by angry drones when Mulder refuses to tip a robotic waiter. It was decently executed, but there was a heavy sense of deja vu that mercifully fails to permeate the confines of this week’s episode – there’s something refreshing about the way McTighe subverts the Angry AI motif, particularly when the unmasked villain turns out to be this story’s Professor Quirrell.
One of the nicest things about ‘Kerblam!’ is the way it manages to find roles for everyone. While Graham is off mopping floors with Charlie, the Doctor and Ryan are busy in the packing room – Ryan’s uncanny dexterity explained away by nods to a previous job, in the episode’s I Have Dyspraxia moment. They also have time to raid an office or two; McTighe sensibly gives us two executive types, one more ostensibly dodgy than the other, but all roads lead to Rome, and both of them turn out to be trustworthy. Meanwhile, Yaz is paired with Lee Mack, who warns her not to touch the antique lamps. Mack plays an older, world-weary version of his Not Going Out persona, and it’s a shame that more isn’t done with him – his early death, too, comes as something of a surprise, although it’s hard not to burst into giggles when Yaz is seen walking down the empty aisles of the warehouse yelling “Dan! Dan! Dan!” like Alan Partridge. But if this is the first week that Team TARDIS feels like a name that actually fits, it’s the guest stars that shine – particularly Julie Hesmondhalgh, brilliantly warm as an out-of-her-depth head of HR who nonetheless feels, at times, like she could secretly be a criminal mastermind, blustering and heartfelt and acting just about everybody else off the screen.
There’s nothing particularly world changing about this week. It starts with unexplained mysteries, ends with a bomb in a hangar, and mines enough reserves from the sinister robots cliché to last us until 2020. But there are plenty of things we could say about the people I spoke to last night who said that, for the first time this year, they were watching something that “felt like proper Doctor Who“. I’m not really sure where you go from that – whether that’s an unfair assessment, or an indication of a general drop in quality, this episode a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory, rather like Sick Boy’s assessment of The Name Of The Rose. If you’re a regular here you know my feelings on this year and we won’t have that conversation again, at least not for another week or so.
Still, none of that matters for the moment. ‘Kerblam!’ is ridiculous fun in the best sense of the word. Like many stories in the canon it is strongest when it is being deliberately silly – whether it’s the Doctor trying to talk a drone out of an existential crisis, or Ryan, Yaz and Charlie’s video game inspired descent through dispatch, easily the biggest laugh Doctor Who has given us in a long time. It is punchy, aesthetically pleasing television, delivered with the same panache, efficiency and attention to detail as a parcel from Kerblam itself. Just don’t touch the bubble wrap.