Monday, 19 November 2018

Kerblam! written by Pete McTighe and directed by Jennifer Perrott

This story in a nutshell: Bang Bang a Bubble Wrap! 

Oh Brilliant: Whittaker has truly arrived by this point and she delivers her most commanding performance to date here, in a situation where she can rail against the injustice of the treatment of the everyman whilst still having an awful lot of fun with the part too. Her delight at receiving a special delivery in the TARDIS is very Matt Smith, which is appropriate given that it is a fez being delivered. How can the Doctor possibly resist a cry for help? The psychic paper is upgrading her and her friends this time, friends of the First Lady. The scene between Charlie and Kira might have been irredeemably twee if it wasn’t for the cut to the Doctor going ‘awww’ which dispels all the syrup. Kudos for giving Whittaker a script where she has to stand up to the corporation and does so by spitting out threats of the kind we really haven’t seen from her before. If you hurt anyone I care about, you’ll pay is her creed. Then it brilliantly subverts her threats by having her say ‘laters’ as a parting riposte. There’s no attempt to turn her into a clone of Capaldi (threatening people was definitely his schtick). This Doctor can be dangerous, but she always has a smile to offer afterwards. She doesn’t like bullies, conspiracies or people being in danger. It sums up the Doctor rather well without having to get into all the hideous hero worship that infected the show in the Tennant/Smith years. I think a lot of people were worried that having a woman as the lead of this show would lead to too many touchy-feely moments. A ridiculous assertion, but then there is some crazy gender stereotyping out there and those people have short memories that all four the previous new series Doctors have had their overly sentimental moments (Father’s Day, New Earth, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, The Husbands of River Song). Kerblam! does see the Doctor trying to get the villain in touch with his feelings at the climax, and just at the point where he is about to commit mass murder it feels entirely appropriate to do so. Using his feelings for Kira to explain how his victims will feel when they lose their loved ones was a brilliant way to try and find a solution to the problem. It’s not her fault he’s a nutjob far too in love with his political ideals. She offers mercy at the climax but some people just cannot be helped. 

Graham: There’s a confidence to the three regulars now that comes with the three of them all having spent half season together having hair raising adventures. It happened with Rose and Martha, they were finding their feet in the first half of their first seasons and really came alive in the latter parts. I love their cheeky banter in trying to infiltrate Kerblam! It feels like they are a dab hand at that sort of thing now. Graham’s face when he realises that he is going to have to play the cleaner is priceless. This whole experience with the Doctor has been a new lease of life for him…but sometimes he has to be the one holding the mop and bucket.

Ryan: Ryan is a little stiff in parts but I think he’s just that sort of humourless lad who takes everything in with solemnity. I know people like that, I’m just not sure I would want to travel all of time and space with them. However, once he faces his fears (the dyspraxia element hasn’t been overplayed, which I am pleased about, but it has been present) and tosses himself down a chute onto a conveyor he’s screaming like a big girl again (see The Ghost Monument) and feels like he is joining the party. Of course, Ryan is the sort of idiot who threw the health and safety book out of the window and tossed himself into chutes in his old jobs. Boys (and I’m saying that as a manager with experience, and an exasperated sigh).

Yaz: I don’t know if Yaz is a particularly deep character, but she’s certainly becoming more fun to be around with every episode and actress Mandip Gill is letting go of that standoffishness that held her back in the first half of the season and just having a blast. The result is a really enjoyable companion who throws herself into trouble and tries to wiggle her way out. I think she has really come along. I think it really helps with each of the companions that they have been grounded by their domestic backgrounds, all that work introducing Yaz’s family has paid off because now we can see precisely the sort of background she has come from and she’s ready to shake that off and head off into the universe. And Gill has the most infectious smile I’ve ever seen. Good on Yaz for giving the last scene a little emotional punch. This series of Doctor Who really doesn’t forget its guest characters. I really like that.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Whilst we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs’ – ouch, what a line.
‘Anyone got a tissue?’ is the perfect line when you realise you’ve just covered your hand in liquidised people.
‘Kerblam!’s trying to kill their own customers? That’s the worst business plan I’ve ever heard!’
‘The systems aren’t the problem! How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem!’ 

The Good: The TARDIS travelling through the vortex, the Doctor and her companions wrestling with the console, a special delivery by robot and a mystery to solve on an alien world in the future. It just screams Doctor Who from the off and in a season of somewhat unconventional episodes it is quite refreshing to have something this conventional. In the purest of terms you could happily sneak the opening of this story into any period of the show’s history. Ryan immediately grabs the bubble wrap from the package and starts popping it. I thought at the beginning that that was a nice touch because it is exactly what I do…but I didn’t realise just how much of a nice touch it was given that it foreshadows a massive twist later in the story. Given that this story is pay lip service to the first two season of Sylvester McCoy (there’s an angry criticism against plastic commercialism in there all wrapped up in a quirky, colourful setting), it feels appropriate that the few exterior shots we get of the Kerblam! factory feature (like Greatest Show) a huge alien planet in the sky. ‘Is it me or are they pretty creepy?’ says Ryan of the Kerblam! man. He is not wrong, they are precisely the sort of Doctor Who ‘monster’ that crawls under my skin because it is a grotesque parody of a human being. The fixed smile and glowing eyes are supposed to suggest amiability but in a period where jobs are hard to come by for people (with the enforced 10% of people labour) it just feels like a finger in the face at all those people out of work. Plus, there is something extremely sinister about how they are always lurking in the background with that polite voice, reminding the human workers to keep going, to pick up their pace and increase productivity. The people are just happy to have jobs, and the suggestion of slavery that lingers is quite unnerving. Because it’s slavery that people have happily agreed to. I worked in the offices of a factory where over the five years they were there they replaced over half of their labour force with a fully functioning robot picking device. I know work for a company that relied heavily on self service checkouts to increase productivity. The evolution of business to rely more on machines than people is something that has happened slowly and insidiously. Perhaps this isn’t such an unrealistic picture of the future after all. Lee Mack’s character remind me of the many foreigners (I questioned writing that word because I didn’t want the description to have a negative connotation – when did that start happening? – I’ll use it because it is appropriate and in no way a derogatory, and when did somebody like me feel the need to explain that I am not a racist for using a simple descriptive word…a sign of the times) I have worked with in my time, hard working people who devote themselves to their job to earn money and send home to their families, barely getting to see them once or twice a year. It stuck me as a nice bit of subtle commentary, in a season that has waved red flags. Charlie is instantly likable, thanks to the how the episode sketches him as the lowliest worker in a factory full of drones and how it includes the awkward romance between him and Kira. Since Kerblam! was setting him up as the hidden villain, I was completely hoodwinked. It really helps that Leo Flanagan gives a wonderfully cocksure performance, and then convinces utterly as the psychotic worker gone rogue. Who hasn’t been stuck in a mundane job and thought about bringing it down to make a point about the system? Oh, just me then. Judy Maddox decapitates a robot with her bare hands! That made me laugh out loud. Ryan, Yaz and Charlie lost on the conveyor system, screaming their heads off and holding on for their lives is one of the most energetic and visually impressive moments this season. It’s just really cool and every now and again the show needs to deliver a dose of that. Yaz was right, Twirly is very cute. The Doctor should have taken him along with her. It could have been like the Talkie Toaster of this show, always trying to sell them things wherever they go. ‘You’re back in history? Then what you need is a Stetson!’ In an episode that is full of reversals, I really enjoyed the reveal of who sent the distress signal to the Doctor. Every parcel a death trap, containing bubble wrap that will explode when you pop it. It’s absurd, but it’s a really fun idea. And I hate to say it but the thought that a company like Amazon could systematically wipe out a portion of the population by adding something deadly to their packages (a toxin perhaps) is not out of the realms of possibility. Mass consumerism being the result of population control, something like that. The image of all the Kerblam! men poised and ready to delivery packages of death is wonderful, a worthy climax to the episode. And how the Doctor solves the problem is inspired and makes perfect sense of what came before.

The Bad: I’m not sure I would have used a park for the recreational area on Kerblam! It spoils the claustrophobic feel of the episode that is deliciously maintained elsewhere. It’s a bit like when Paradise Towers heads up to the pool, or Greatest Show leaves the circus in the last episode. Visually interesting, yes, but dispelling the suffocating nature of the setting as a result. The music was a massive step down from last week, mostly fun but undercutting the tension at times. It’s like wallpaper, always present but rarely making an impact. Except the reveal of the army of Kerblam! men and then the music really comes alive. I’ve never noticed those crystals pulsing up and down in the TARDIS before. Whilst they give the console room a homely glow, it does rather resemble a bunch of penises that are starting to become erect. 

Result: I’m digging that season 24 vibe. This feels precisely like those early McCoy’s with its whacky setting, social commentary, wit and colour but this time there is a hefty budget to back up the more outrageous concepts. The result a very smart, confident episode that paints an intriguing vision of the future, rocks up with some terrific set pieces, includes some lovely guest characters and even (and this is a rarity for Nu Who) has a very satisfying climax. The twist that the people we think are the villains are the good guys and vice versa is such an old trick but it is pulled with remarkable effectiveness here. With its big fun name like Kerblam! this is just a step away from Amazon and I really love how the episode pokes fun at how they have their fingers in every pie (it might have rebranded but it’s pretty much a universal delivery shopping service now) and could be responsible for the most appalling acts of terror. Countering that is the fact that the suits who represent the company are actually honourable and good hearted and what they best for their human workers. It’s quite a balanced examination. I also liked the whole humans being replaced by machines angle which, for once this season, didn’t feel like a lecture but there to provide some local colour and to give the human characters an extra layer of sympathy. There’s a fair amount of talk along the way but the dialogue is punchy and fun and performances from Julie Hesmondhaigh and delivery memorable performances. I feel like the guest actors are being given a much better crack at the whip in this era, and more opportunities to show what they are capable of. Essentially though this is all a massive bundle of fun, the Doctor and company infiltrating a universal delivery warehouse to uncover something sinister going on. It’s Doctor Who at it’s most idiosyncratic, whilst still feeling very much like the Doctor Who of old. I enjoyed it very much and have reached a point where I can confidently say I am getting a great deal of enjoyment from the season as a whole. A few more challenging SF tales and I will be extremely happy: 8/10


Will Rigby said...

I really enjoyed this episode.

It also did a great job balancing the Doctor and all the companions.

Matthew Hollingshead said...

This was the best of both worlds (Classic & Nu) for me. I've been waiting for a episode like this for countless seasons. Doctor Who is
most definitely alive, well & delivering on all fronts (Pun's ironic timing absolutely unapologectic 🙂)

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying this season and it stands for me as a more human and mature one comparing with some recent years. One aspect which seemingly irritates a lot of viewers or YouTube boys is a lack of a proper mega villain. But for me it is more plus than minus, because instead of over hyped, pathos filled and unrealistic Marvel kind of bad guys we mostly have a bunch of ordinary humans, some of them like Manish or Charlie are actually thinking that they are doing world a favor. And that's a fascinating perspective: leave (for some time) daleks, cybermen or weeping angels out, it is people like us in certain circumstances who terrify the most.

The Writer said...

Loved this episode so much. Finally one to unite the divided fandom.

By the way, just to ask, will you ever watch/review Class?

Urlance Woolsbane said...

I seem to recall Joe reviewing the first few episodes of Class, and generally liking them.

Joe Ford said...

It’s not high on my list of priorities, simply because I didn’t even finish the first series. I found it a tricky series to enjoy.

Daniel Kukwa said...

I'm primarily with you on this season (though I enjoyed The Ghost Monument more than you did).

Mind you, going back and forth between your reviews and Liz Sandifer's makes for some political/ideological whiplash. ;)

The Writer said...

Shame. What about the UNIT New Series audoo dramas? I heard they're stellar

C S said...

Solidly hated this one. When the enemy of Doctor Who is a labour rights activist then the show has lost its soul and touch. I'm going to go listen to Davros and cry.

Anonymous said...

Yes, because Doctor Who has never featured a villain doing something bad for what is ostensibly the right reasons before.

Guy Grist said...

This episode really turned me around on this series which I had been finding a bit of
a chore for the first half but this really fun and I completely agree about the similarity to the early McCoy era which I love so that helped. Those robots are incredibly creepy.