After several episodes tackling heavy themes of race, religion, and the evil that men do, “Kerblam!” takes a sharp detour into delightful frivolity. That’s right, folks: We’ve got ourselves a murder mystery! Involving creepy retro robots! Who work for an interplanetary delivery service that’s basically Amazon in space! Also, there’s killer bubble wrap!!! When the Doctor receives a delivery of a familiar-looking fez (more on that below), Yaz discovers a packing slip reading, “HELP ME.” And so, the Doctor and her crew go undercover as employees at Kerblam, the galaxy’s largest retailer, where they soon realize that something has gone very wrong in the warehouse.
If last week’s “Demons of the Punjab” was a deep family drama, “Kerblam!” is a rollicking adventure with sinister undertones. As explained by helpful “head of people” Judy Maddox (Julie Hesmondhalgh), Kerblam has an almost entirely automated workforce, with only a few thousand human employees. The main warehouse is built on a moon, and the nearby planet has established a 10 percent human quota for all major corporations. There are humans in the packing and janitorial divisions, but most of the basic delivery is handled by unsettling humanoid robots with glowing eyes and permanent grins. Design-wise, they share a lot in common with the Smilers from the 2010 episode “The Beast Below”: They’re made to look human to appear more approachable, but it just makes them creepier.
When employees start going missing, the Doctor believes that Kerblam’s automated system has gone haywire. Add in a few mysterious power shutdowns, some stubborn authority figures, and some shadowy robot encounters, and it’s clear that there’s something menacing at work. It’s unclear exactly how long Yaz, Graham, and Ryan have been traveling with the Doctor, but by now, they’ve got the TARDIS routine down: If there’s a mysterious conspiracy, they’re going to investigate it, and if there’s someone in trouble, they’re going to help. Upon arriving at Kerblam, they’re each split up into different divisions, which gives each companion a chance to do a little investigating and shine on their own.
At first, “Kerblam!” seems like just another case of an evil corporation exploiting its workers, but per usual, things are not as they seem. The system hasn’t gone off the rails; it’s just been corrupted by the radical maintenance man Charlie (Leo Flanagan), who opposes robotization and hopes to indict Kerblam’s robot workforce and encourage more human employees. His plan is to turn all of the ubiquitous bubble wrap that encases each Kerblam delivery into tiny bombs. (Add “bubble wrap” to the list of ordinary things that Doctor Who has made terrifying.) The revelation that Charlie is actually the bad guy continues this season’s tradition of assuming the villain is a robot/alien/demon, when actually, it turns out to be just another human. Call it the Scooby-Doo formula: Sometimes Old Man Jenkins is scarier than the killer robot he pretends to be.
And it’s here that the seemingly fun episode takes a turn for the bleak. Much of the episode is spent running from killer robots or sliding down conveyer belts, but over the course of the hour, “Kerblam!” racks up a real body count. The most devastating twist is when the automated system tries to fight back against Charlie and murders his friend Kira (Claudia Jessie) in an attempt to show him how evil his plan is. And ultimately, Charlie winds up a victim of his own bombs, when the Doctor reroutes the killer delivery back to the warehouse, forced to sacrifice him to save millions. It’s a complicated moral ending that adds an unexpected bit of depth to an otherwise goofy romp.
Odds and ends
- This ep included multiple references to the Doctor’s past incarnations, starting with the delivery of that bright red fez. (Ten bucks says the Eleventh Doctor ordered a replacement after River Song destroyed one of his.) Then, the Doctor makes a passing comment about Agatha Christie and wasps — a reference, of course, to the extraordinarily underrated 2008 episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp.”