2nd Opinion: “Kerblam!”

Connor Johnston & Gustaff Behr give their takes on the seventh episode of Series 11.

Connor’s View – “The Complete Package”

To Preface:

One of the advantages of writing a review with a delayed publication means that unlike those written immediately after broadcast, we have the ability to consider and engage with the reactions of others when writing these pieces. Following the broadcast of “Kerblam!” one of the main points of contention that arose between some fans was where the episode (and in particular its resolution) sat politically, and whether or not the reveal that Charlie was the episode’s antagonist demonised the working class and glorified an ‘evil, capitalist corporation’ – an interpretation clearly at odds with the show’s political identity. This was not the episode that I experienced.

In no way do I intend to devalue or undermine the views of those who prescribed to this reading of the episode – but it is worth prefacing this review by saying that isn’t an interpretation I can share. Despite revisiting the episode and keeping these arguments in mind, it remains for me predominantly about the consequences of a human workforce being gradually replaced by automated workers. More significantly there’s no mention or evidence of Charlie being motivated by any other motive. Informed by the episode’s own dialogue, the context of the Doctor’s line asserting that the system isn’t a problem appears to be in reference to the the Kerblam! software.

Regardless, it is important to note that there’s nothing to say that any one interpretation is more or less valid or correct than another’s. While I may not agree with the arguments some of my peers have raised regarding the episode, the conversations about class and ideology they’ve prompted are incredibly timely and important. It’s for this reason that I implore readers to seek out and contemplate varying interpretations of the episode, because regardless of whether or not it’s one you end up sympathising with, they remain a valid and crucial part of engaging with the source and deserve an equal platform. 

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First time Doctor Who writer Pete McTighe pens an adventure this week that not only hits the mark with an engaging, unpredictable and thoroughly entertaining synopsis, that also acts as one of our most significant continuations of our team’s series long character journeys. Isolating the episode’s dialogue, it is abundantly clear that McTighe is completely in tune to the flare and vivacity behind a memorable and successful Doctor Who script. Not only is the narrative propelled by a looming threat and mystery, but also in refusing to play all its cards at once it makes sure the audience is invested for the entirety of the episode. Of course in keeping with the tonal balance of the series, there are also moments of hilarity and heartbreak that are scattered entertainingly and powerfully throughout the script.

Perhaps the reason this episode feels so tightly constructed is that it does what some episodes this year have attempted to bypass: devoting time and energy into building its world and characters. Like any Who-dun-it episode, its latter half is full of a consecutive list of reveals and developments. However, unlike some of the other mystery based episodes this year such as “The Tsuranga Conundrum” and “Arachnids in the UK” – each one of those developments are set up throughout the course of the episode ensuring that no twist or theory comes across as circumstantial or out of the blue. Whatever your personal reaction to the episodes conclusion, there’s no denying how clever and deliberate each aspect of McTighe’s script is. His guest characters are similarly impressive and help the audience immerse and invest in the story he’s created. Leo Flanagan, Lee Mack, Claudia Jessie and Julie Hesmondhalgh specifically provide memorable performances that are among the best the series has offered all year.

Throughout the series so far, particularly in the first few episodes, we’ve seen varying degrees of success when it comes to achieving a balance of screentime and significance for our 4-strong team. Whether it benefits from its place in the latter half of the series or is something achieved solely by McTighe’s realisation of our characters: “Kerblam!” achieves this equal balance better than any other adventure this year, and escapes appearing superficial by insuring each of them has a crucial role in the episode’s progression. It’s also the most rounded we’ve seen our characters; with reminders to Ryan and Yasmin’s lives before the Doctor channelled both in their dialogue and attitudes throughout the episode.

I’ve said in the past that as the series continues, naturally our sense of familiarity and appreciation of what Jodie brings to her incarnation of the Doctor has strengthened significantly. For me, we’ve now reached the definitive moment where Whittaker’s performance is as established and impressive as each of her predecessors. McTighe’s script allows for a detailed study of Thirteen’s character: showcasing her humour, her passion, her anger, her intelligence and her indomitable presence in the face of danger and foul play.

“Kerblam!” exudes adventure and mystery. Strengthened by an impressive script and memorable performances, it is the realisation of McTighe’s concepts and ideas that drive home its success. Much like a package from Kerb!am, it’s all in the delivery – and this one gets five stars.

Gustaff’s View – “Fixing most of Series 11’s problems in one episode”

“Kerblam!” is easily my favourite episode of Series 11. While it is not a ground-breaking episode, it is the only one thus far that I’ve rewatched. But what makes “Kerblam!” stand out is not the utterly stupid title, but how it manages to fix most of the problems I’ve had with Series 11 in general. So let’s do this review in reverse.

Too Many Companions

Yaz was ignored for the first four episodes of Series 11, Graham and Ryan for the last two. “Kerblam!” on the other hand gives each character a meaningful and plot driven task to complete and the actors are afforded equal screen time and good dialogue playing to each of their strengths. Yes the task is basically the same thing across the board, but everybody gets to find a piece of the puzzle and help put everything together.

Complex Social Commentary

There have been claims of “PC agendas” and “virtue signalling” in Series 11, and I can see why some fans feel this way. The commentary has been as subtle as a nuclear explosion on a weekly basis, with basic to subpar exploration into the matter. Watching “Kerblam!” I found myself on the edge of the anti-capitalism vs human workforce argument. Yes, I want more speedy and accurate service as a customer. No, I do have a job myself and I don’t want machines to steal it. Yes, killing ten thousand people to make your point is wrong. No, it is not okay to murder an innocent girl just to scare someone else off, as the robots did to Kira. Looking at the above, no one in this episode is completely in the right or wrong, despite the Doctor’s actions of siding with the robots that callously killed naïve Kira. If you must make social commentary and “PC agendas” a part of your series, at least make it a complex discussion that forces the audience to question their beliefs.

Underwhelming Doctor

Actually here is where “Kerblam!” turns into every other episode of Series 11. Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor still hasn’t grown on me and her over the top behaviour like pitching the sonic screw driver like a baseball over her head, or reading the results like a pregnancy test every other scene is not winning me over. While her comedic moments – such as her giddiness over her package arriving, or her disappointed look over not being able to ride on the conveyor belt are nice and enjoyable – it sadly doesn’t gel with the rest of her erratic behaviour. The Doctor says her companions shouldn’t be ‘robophobic’, but ends up killing ten thousand by the episode’s climax! She seems more upset over Kira being verbally bullied than physically murdered. Pick a lane people.

Boring Guest Stars

While I had little issue with the guest cast last week, this week I am able to recall everybody’s name. I applaud the episode for its clever use of misdirection, first directing suspicion to Jarva Slade and then the system. And I praise the performance of Claudia Jessie as Kira. I’ll be honest I was really hoping she’d die since her personality is so sugar and sweet it had to be a set-up for her death. I liked Charlie Duffy. I felt like his motivation for what he was doing came across crystal clear and his argument sound at times, even if it wasn’t given much exploration.

In the end “Kerblam!” does what Doctor Who is supposed to do every week: Entertain me. Fans of politics in Doctor Who often say that it’s okay because the show has always included politics. This is true, but not week-to-week and certainly not so heavy-handed. Good storytelling should include a good lesson, but great storytelling knows how to hide it from the audience until after the story has been told.