★★★★ Did anyone else’s heart sink at the sight of that title with its cartoonish screamer? I had an inkling, though, that Kerblam! might confound expectation. Mercifully, it does. Welcome to the warehouse of fun, Pete McTighe, a writer new to Doctor Who – at least in terms of on-screen credits. A Brit based in Melbourne and former head writer on the Oz prison drama Wentworth, he’s fan of the Time Lord and has been building to this moment for a long time.
Top marks for developing a nifty bit of branding. Actually, typographically, it’s Kerb!am. I kept thinking of Lord Sugar’s hapless “candidates” in The Apprentice, who would be very lucky to come up with a brand name, logo and ethos as catchy as this.
In the great Doctor Who tradition, the story takes something commonplace and turns it into a threat. Kerb!am, “the biggest retailer in the galaxy”, is a transparent satire on Amazon and our craving for online shopping, while relatively innocuous bubble wrap (I can’t tell you how much I’ve got through in house moves this year) may also be an environmental menace in the real world but here is seen to be explosively lethal.
But none of this is po-faced. McTighe has fun with his satire. I’m amused by the corporate jargon, the systems breakdowns, and am hooting when Ryan, Yaz and Charlie tumble down the dispatch shoot and onto conveyor belts, being rejected as unwanted organic contaminants.
Kerblam! has a fast-moving plot, fine characterisation, something to occupy every member of Team Tardis, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor gets to goof about and be taken seriously, and there’s a reasonably sinister new robot, the Delivery Bots, reminiscent of the Dums, Vocs and Super Vocs of The Robots of Death.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is a sunny presence as Judy Maddox, Kerb!am’s empathetic Head of People. A middle-management bod in sharp suit and specs, she’s a world away from Corrie’s frumpy transsexual Hayley and Trish, the woman who was raped in the final run of Broadchurch. And isn’t it good to see her with a decent hairdo for once? And fun seeing Julie/Judy proving her mettle when she rips the head off a Bot to stop it throttling Charlie.
McTighe wrote the part with Hesmondhalgh in mind, and created warehouse worker Dan Cooper for Lee Mack, who has long wanted to be in the programme. Mack plays Dan with barely a whisker of distinction from Lee in Not Going Out, his BBC1 sitcom. All the shifty mannerisms are in place, and if you like Lee Mack, as I do, this is a positive. It’s surprising, then, when Dan lands in danger and expires in the first third of the action.
McTighe shows Russell T Davies’s knack of making you care about a short-lived character and doesn’t flinch from letting them die. We might hope there’ll be a reprieve for Dan or the sweet-natured packer Kira (Claudia Jessie, most recently in Line of Duty and Vanity Fair) but no. He’s been “liquidated” into the viscous goo that Graham discovers in the basement and Kira is vaporised by bubble wrap. In the denouement, the deluded maintenance man Charlie (Leo Flanagan), who cooked up the whole crisis, is blown up with his deadly Delivery Bots. At last a wrongdoer in series 11 who gets their comeuppance.
As this series rolls on, I’ve warmed to the sloshing title sequence and new/retro version of the theme music, whereas the other constant, the Tardis control room, is looking less impressive with each appearance. It’s not a patch on the previous vault-like set by Michael Pickwoad. Those prominent crystalline pillars evidently restrict the angles and vantage points for a director, especially with four travellers to position. As a whole, though, this episode is slickly directed by newcomer Jennifer Perrott.
Nods to the past include a reference to David Tennant’s Agatha Christie episode in 2008 and Matt Smith’s fez (a very late delivery from Kerb!am). In my mind this moon world orbiting Kandoka with its enclosed society and pink skies could have come straight out of 1980s Who under producer John Nathan-Turner.
But Kerblam! mostly feels like very progressive Doctor Who, a highly polished production with honed storytelling, all wrapped up in a neat package and delivered first class to your living room.
This article was originally published on 18 November 2018