Kerblam! – Doctor Who Review

About two thirds of the way through this episode I realised I had been grinning for the majority of it. It was a great piece of comfort viewing, old school style Doctor Who, Kerblam has a lot of things I worried were lacking this series.

It’s certainly the most quintessentially Doctor Who episode Chibnall has overseen so far and that serves to highlight how much of a break from tradition so much of this year has been. The approach of most episodes has been from new angles, a little experimental, a little different. This episode, by contrast, was just a damn good Doctor Who story, and not trying to be anything else.

Investigations

The driving force of this story was the investigation. Each major plot beat brought us closer to the solution and the Doctor was forced to ask difficult questions, as well as doing some good old fashioned breaking and entering.

This has been an element largely in the background of this series. In previous reviews, I’ve talked about the Doctor’s tenancy this year to simply look things up on ‘Space Google’. This can be seen as an interesting take on the modern viewer – that we are a generation of Googlers, more inclined to search for answers and information. While this can speed up a story, it does also take away a key part of classic Doctor Who.

Kerblam’s plot revolves around piecing together a mystery. Who is in trouble, what kind of trouble, what is causing the power outages, and how can they stop it? This felt like one of the most well polished scripts of the series. Benefitting perhaps from being fairly straightforward, and very much wheelhouse Doctor Who. I expect this will become one of the episodes future viewers will be introduced to as an introduction to the 13th Doctor.

The System is Down

Where this episode cause me some level of pause was in the final conflict. It was a decidedly different kind of message than the show has traditionally advocated. For much of its history, Doctor Who has championed people who fight ‘the system’. Indeed, this whole series has had a focus on people who have been left behind or objectified, or oppressed by various systems.

In my Rosa review, I argued that the show was really starting to address systematic oppression in a very visceral way. A lot of comparisons have been made between Kerblam and The Sun Makers – a fourth Doctor serial from 1977. In that story, a corrupt system has enslaved its workers and the Doctor comes along to help a rebellion break free.

Here things are different. Most of the people we see are living in this system and accept it as ‘the way things are’. There’s little or no motivation to rise up and make a resistance movement. The only person who does so, does it alone. By use of exploding Bubble Wrap, Charlie seeks to punish the system for creating mass unemployment through automation.

As the Doctor has a history of leading or helping rebellions against awful systems, it was unsettling to see the Doctor defending it.

The Doctor: “The systems aren’t the problem. How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.”

This feels like a distinctly un-Doctor-y thing to say. While this series has focussed on people as the real threats rather than necessarily an alien menace, it didn’t feel right here. While the Doctor was certainly right to try and talk Charlie down from his horrible plan, this wasn’t what I would expect.

Something more along the lines of ‘the system needs to change, but there are better ways that don’t involve mass murder!’ Or even ‘The system is only doing what people told it to do, it’s a machine, that’s what it does’.

Automation is a very real problem, one that has been around since (and even before) the Industrial Revolution. There’s a very good video by CGPGrey on the topic that I highly recommend.

Like much of this series, there is the subversion of expectations. We are presented with characters like Jarva Slade who seems like your typical Doctor Who corporate villain. He’d have fit in quite well in The Sun Makers. Then you have Charlie, your typical Doctor Who proletariat hero figure.

When the story flips expectations; Slade is trying to do good and Charlie is actually trying to do evil, it’s narratively sound, but leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

While I enjoyed the episode for its pacing, action, characters and visuals, the message seemed off brand. It could be argued that the Doctor’s friendships with various robots and AIs puts her in a position where she will defend one.

The fault being with the people who use the system to their benefit is fine, but it was not made clear who these people are.

Next week, it’s a trip up to ol’ Lancashire!