Doctor Who: Revisiting KERBLAM! - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting KERBLAM!

Tony clicks ‘Buy Now.’

The Robots of Death is a classic Doctor Who story where almost everything seemed to go right. Its depiction of a society so advanced by robotic assistance as to be almost entirely indolent, steeped in reliance on their electronic underlings and ripe for a shake-up was believable and rendered in lush scenery and gorgeous, if slightly bonkers costume and exotic make-up. The design elements, the script, the robot look and sound, the logic of the baddie-reveal, it’s all more or less perfectly crafted to make you want to stick it in your player and re-watch the gubbins out of it, even decades later.

There have subsequently been a few attempts to re-bottle the lightning of The Robots of Death, and for the most part, they’ve been well-meant but poorly judged affairs. Witness Voyage of the Damned, with its Heavenly Host practically screeeeeaming to go rogue and kill everyone right from their first scene – nice idea, unnecessary in a TV outer space disaster movie, and not really working because they looked disapproving from the beginning, as though they just wanted an excuse to slaughter you.

Kerblam! is probably the closest Doctor Who has ever got to re-capturing the magic that The Robots of Death brought to the screen.

That’s a big statement, but there’s enough in the episode that treads familiar lines to let the comparison stand. A large physical environment, a robotic workforce with relatively few human beings, introduction to a handful of those humans, and an ongoing quest to find out whether each of them is an innocent or a mastermind with a deadly plan. What’s more, in the Kerblam! Men and the robo-workers, the production team has come perhaps closest to the upbeat, service-culture-heavy look and sound of the original Robots of Death. There’s something so determinedly cheery and friendly about the Kerblam! Men and the robo-workers that their very upbeat nature is enough to send a shiver down your spine, while they wait a good long while before actually trying to kill anyone.

There’s some fun banter at the start too – and frankly, Jodie Whittaker wears a fez better than any other Doctor in history. The process of explaining every last little detail about the Kerblam! warehouse operation gets tedious in a hurry though, writer Peter Tighe clearly having absorbed the Series 11 tone memo that things should never be knowingly underexplained. And the characterisation of the people we meet is somewhat button-pushing. Claudia Jessie’s Kira Arlo is the ‘Lynda-with-a-Y’ of this story, so achingly sweet and orphaned and optimistic she absolutely has to die to inject some impact into the story, and even Lee Mack’s Dan Cooper is almost punchably likeable, so clearly, when he gives a warning to Yaz and then heads off into the warehouse stacks in her place, he’s never going to be seen alive again.

Perhaps the oddest – and most reality-reflective – change from Robots of Death to Kerblam! is that in the older story, robots were very much subservient to their humans. In Kerblam!, reflecting the rigid, soul-sucking policies of (ahem) certain online retailers’ back-end operations, the robo-workers are the voices of the system and its diktats about unproductive conversations, workplace productivity and the like. They’re walking time and motion studies, with that irritatingly perky tone of corporate wellness in their robo-voices even as they reprimand you or threaten your livelihood. Or even, the idea floats itself in your brain, as they threaten your life.

The system, though – or at least, so we’re told – is ‘not the problem’ at Kerblam! The system, showing a kind of sentience, is actually the one that calls the Doctor in to investigate (‘You might also like: to help me before people die in their thousands’), and in fact it only kills people in order to provoke an empathic response in the hidden genius among the workforce, who’s working toward an act of corporate terrorism to bring about the kind of ‘Buy Now’ version of Robophobia among Kerblam! fans and collapse the company’s credibility in the market.

Here’s perhaps the thing. Charlie, the hidden mastermind, actually works as a modern Taren Capel – he’s so obviously underwhelming as a human being, he slides through most of the episode being ‘the dopey janitor with the crush on Kira,’ meaning that if the reveal of him as the corporate terrorist had been better handled, taking more breath, it would have been a pleasing revelation, and we the audience would have gone ‘Ohhh, it was him all along.’ We don’t get a chance to do that though, because the clock is ticking from the moment Ryan realises Charlie’s behind the way Kira dies to the moment when he goes bang, so it’s all delivered in a kind of suicide-jacket rant that makes the change in him difficult to process. It’s also problematic that he’s not actually wrong in his beliefs, only in the lengths to which he’s prepared to go to make them heard, so while of course we don’t want Kerblam! customers to die, (not least because they’re most of us), it feels like the Doctor should actually be on his side, ethically, while still stopping him in his tracks. You can argue that the changes Judy will be fighting to implement at the end of the episode is evidence of the Doctor doing precisely that if you like, but it feels rather a tenuous victory.

While we’re at it, again, there’s very little for the Doctor to actually do to defeat the villain in this story – a bit of sonic twiddling, a reprogrammed drone and a couple of spoken commands is essentially the scope of it, and Kira, the unbearably sweet avatar of optimistic innocence who thought her complain-and-you’ll-be-replaced contract was an opportunity to make people happy, is destroyed without much of a by-your-leave, seemingly to push an emotional beat in the plot.

Killer bubble-wrap, by the way? Yep, that works – or rather, it could work, in the show that gave us killer daffodils, killer armchairs, killer sweets, killer rock and roll, killer wi-fi, and that has before now blown up Cybermen with love.

Did it work? Not really, no. It worked as a kind of camp, let’s-see-how-far-we-can-push-it, self-referential weapon of mass destruction, but did it make us scared of bubble wrap? Probably not – its one on-screen use to kill Kira was well-directed and shocking, but it needed more time to establish itself as a deadly threat in an episode which spent the majority of its run-time effectively making us scared of robots again.

Essentially, Kerblam! did quite a lot right – the atmosphere was mostly believable, its attention to warehouse-work detail and oppressive schedules made it relatable, and it delivered an effective lesson on the dichotomy of easy-click online retail websites: the ease and convenience of Thing-Having they provide makes people happy, while the companies themselves pay only minimal lip service to the notion of their workers’ quality of life, so you know every time you use them you’re enabling the misery of others. We’re left, after Kerblam! with a kind of soupy uncertainty over the rights and wrongs of the existence of such planet-changing organisations, rather than, as perhaps we’re used to in the wake of the Capaldi Doctor, with a strong position on who’s right, who’s wrong and who’s a bunch of pudding-brains.

Coupled with all that though was button-pushing characterisation, too much faffing and infodumping early on, too little time between the villain-reveal and the villain-death for us to take in or care about the reasons for his actions, leading to an unbalanced eventual impact, and characters, particularly Kira, sacrificed with a relish somewhere between carelessness and callousness. It’ll bear re-watching in years to come, because of all the things it does right, but as with many episodes in Series 11, there’ll always be that nagging sense that one more script edit could have made the whole experience ultimately much more satisfying.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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