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Funny, one this. On the one hand, it's a solid, highly enjoyable episode with a style and premise that would have slotted in quite happily at any point in the series in the last few years—in fact, as a few have pointed out, it's possible to imagine it as a Seventh Doctor story with minimal tweaking. On the other, it's as brazenly political as the year has been so far, but with a muddled message that eventually comes down on very much the wrong side of the debate.
What's good? Well, eerily cheerful robots creeping about policing workers is about perfect for an episode of Doctor Who, and the revelation of explosive bubble wrap as the weapon of choice is basically perfect. If anything, showing it earlier would have made even more of the concept, but it still works as a sudden shock reveal. Some strong direction from Jennifer Perrott helps us overlook the fact that this isn't the most visually scintillating episode. We spend an awful lot of screentime amongst warehouse shelving and the climax is filmed in a car park from the looks of it, but some clever direction makes it look effective. Pete McTighe's debut script is snappy and witty, moving at a pace that's been lacking in some of the recent episodes.
This is the first episode where the regular cast hasn't felt too big. Maybe Graham gets a little less to do than usual, but since he's dominated much of the previous stories, that's not such a problem. Yaz shines when she gets to investigate on her own, bonding with Dan, a fun turn from Lee Mack, and quite right that the bloke with the stupid sense of humour shares my name, and she finally gets to use some of her police skills both in investigation and holding a suspect. Ryan, too, fits nicely in this episode, and it's good to see the writers haven't completely forgotten about his dyspraxia.
While there are any number of corporations that could be viable targets for this episode, "Kerblam!" is so transparently a parody of Amazon it's surprising they didn't just call it Shamazon or something. Amazon's record for workers' rights is appalling; they're well known as one of the worst employers in the top rungs of companies, actively blocking workers from joining unions and by all accounts putting profit and efficiency above fair treatment. On the other hand, they're not exactly known for rampant automation, a much more general concern that has existed for decades.
And let's look at the actual story. McTighe tells a tight story but the allegory lacks a focus. At first, it looks like he's taking a pop at the profits-over-people corporate mindset, but in the end, the episode comes out firmly on the side of Amazon and its ilk. Don't get me wrong, as much as Amazon pisses me off with its policies and its tax dodging, I still buy half my stuff through them. Capitalism exploits a market, and there's a market for speed and convenience. They might not quite be at the stage of teleporting drones to other planets, but give them time. (Although the Doctor must have ordered that fez before getting stuck on Trenzalore, so it's taken Kerblam! a good two thousand years to deliver it. Not exactly Amazon Prime.)
It's not as though young terrorist Charlie (Leo Flanagan) is a good guy, by any means. It's entirely right that the Doctor lays into him for being prepared to murder innocents to further his political aims. But it's not as if his politics are in themselves wrong. As someone living in a society with rampant unemployment, being told to be grateful that there's a company committed to 10% human hiring, it's entirely right that he pits himself against the System. It's his methods that are wrong, not his ideology. Yet the Doctor leaps to the defence of the System - and there's some semantic difficulty here, since that refers to both the AI that runs Kerblam! and the politico-economic system that supports it. The Doctor makes the point that it's not the system that's at fault, but the people that exploit it, and she's not wrong, but isn't that splitting hairs? And when it comes to the System AI, let's not forget that it murdered Kira - played with maximum adorableness by Claudia Jessie to really hit home - just to spite Charlie and hopefully make him change his ways by breaking his heart. (Which doesn't even work.) How is that any different to Charlie's own murders to further his principles?
Indeed, it's bizarre seeing the Doctor squeeing over the "Kerblam!" man even before she came out firmly on the side of the company. Yes, she's on great form during the investigation, climbing the walls like a bored child and taking down the workplace bully a peg or two, but otherwise she's seriously against character. Let's imagine for a moment that this was a Seventh Doctor story. Yes, he'd have strung up Charlie by his own petard, but no doubt have organised a workers' revolution before he left, probably blowing up the warehouse as well. The episode starts as a critique of Amazon, before ending up in support of it. It's an episode with a decent story but an incoherent message.