13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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Aw, yeah! Kerblam! isn't flawless: in fact it's a flawarama. Nevertheless, this is the Whoiest Who we've seen all season.
The Doctor receives a package from a Kerblam! delivery robot and is practically dancing around the room as she loves the robot so much. Say what? Even a yoghurt could see that it's desperately creepy. Oh well, Time Lords and their inscrutability, right? We guess it's a, like, fish fingers and custard thing. Which brings us to the parcel: she unpacks a fez, and we're thinking they really shouldn't have done that, because it looked a lot better on him than it does on her. Wistful sigh.
Speaking of massively obvious metaphors, thanks to a mysterious message off the TARDIS crew zaps to the giant Kerblam!, um, fulfilment centre? Yes, fulfilment centre seems like the right phrase here.
Because this isn't exactly the subtlest satire in the universe. No prizes for guessing which online giant it's based on, or which present-day anxieties it's plugging into. We'll just mention that Amazon acquired Kiva Systems warehouse automation in 2012, rebranded it as Amazon Robotics, and now has more than 100,000 mobile robots in their fulfilment centres, and tiptoe quietly away.
Something is very wrong at Kerblam!. We know this, because the Doctor says something is very wrong at Kerblam!. This might not be scripted by Chris Chibnall, but it's still unmistakably his brand of whack you over the head obviousness. Nevertheless, they manage to wrongfoot us. After pointing the finger first at the two office people and then at the system itself, surprise! It was adorable, bumbling, lovesick Charlie all along! Got to give them props for fooling us. However, in their zeal to pull off this switcheroo, they manage in the process to throw away one of the spookiest robots we've ever seen. We got the genuine chills when Lee Mack was in the dark corridor with the terrifyingly smily Kerblam! Men, but sadly it was all for nothing, as they turn out to be nice all along. What a tragic waste. It's like sacrificing a unicorn to surprise you with a haddock.
And in order to make the plot work, they've left holes in it you could drive a battle TARDIS through. If the system is able to print a message, why couldn't it print something a bit more helpful, like what exactly is going on? And why didn't it tell the people in the office instead of the Doctor? If the system powers the robots (we know this as they switch off the instant the system goes down), what powers the Kerblam! Men after they're teleported to make their deliveries? If the robots are closely monitoring the workers, why don't they pick up that Yaz has sneaked away? We applaud them killing off a sweet character like Kira, and it's a very nice setup with the gift, but why can't she hear them banging on the glass when they can hear her calling? And the conveyer ride is exhilarating but utterly pointless, given that a nanosecond later the Doctor works out how to get to the same place via teleport.
And the ending is just a mess. Why doesn't the Doctor direct the deliveries to be dumped in space, instead of blowing up the basement and endangering the 100,000 people working above? Why would Kerblam! want to recruit the Doctor after she's blown their dispatch system to smithereens? And after it was an organic who endangered the whole operation (that's Charlie we're talking about, not the Doctor, although we'd understand if you got them the other way round), why would they switch to employing more humans? Surely the most likely outcome would be that they'd go completely automated.
And what, exactly, are they trying to say about the place? Yes, Charlie is happy to off a humungous wodge of people in order to…make things...better for…people (we don't get it either, but work with us here). But the system isn't any better either, is it? It cheerfully distributed Kira over the greater area just to ….teach Charlie…empathy…(no, still not getting it). So all the sunshine and rainbows and the Doctor skipping off at the end, job well done, leaving said system smugly in place, is hardly a happy ending.
So why does the system send the message to the Doctor, exactly? Has her general fame got around, or is it just a random thing? We think its AI needs upgrading, because she's a pretty lousy choice. We've seen Doctors complain before about too much brain input, but this is usually followed by some lightning calculations and a flash of Doctorly brilliance. While we like seeing the Doctor Doing Science, with mysterious bubbling beakers and that, it all seems to be for naught, because she repeatedly fails to figure the thing out. It takes Charlie giving himself away for the truth to come out.
She doesn't look any better with the posing about and threatening of the office people, either. It's not the first time we've seen that this season, and let's face it, do that enough times without backing it up and you start to look a little bit silly. And while we're on the subject of silliness, her repetitive flourishing of the sonic isn't making her look any too bright either. It's become almost like a reflex, rather than a considered action: the dumbness of this is underlined when she uselessly waves the sonic at the attacking robot before Head of People Judy cuts to the chase and yanks its head off. We really don't like this. Give us our smart Doctor back, please. Now.
What's more, the Doctor's choice to have the packages blow up in situ, thereby killing Charlie, shows her in a very dodgy light indeed. Sure, we know he's just tried to smoke a bunch of people, but the Doctor's always been the one to endlessly extend another chance to a villain. A quick warning that if he doesn't get a wiggle on they're going to be taking him out of there in a bucket just doesn't cut it.
What about the other characters? Graham, needless to say, shines, especially in his scenes with Charlie. Yaz is again pushed to the edge by a surfeit of companions, although we do like that she uses a police hold. it's about time they reminded us about her police training, because you'd never guess otherwise. Ryan is again the dyspraxia poster boy in this, but this time they do it really, really badly. It's annoying enough that his disability comes and goes to suit the plots, but when he says he doesn't know if he can slide down the chute, Yaz's riposte of "Course you can!" is really egregious. A disability cannot be magicked away by willpower and/or trying a bit harder. Why feature a disability at all if you're just going to spout ableist nonsense about it?
As for the guest roles, there's some really great stuff going on here. Julie Hesmondhalgh is a standout as the executive who actually cares about the people working for her (very probably the only one in modern Who), and Claudia Jessie also manages to create a real person out of what could be a mawkish backstory about being a poor little orphan. Lee Mack, in the Bradley Walsh vein, is convincingly warm and human, and also manages not to drown us in syrup in the speech about his darling daughter, although when he got that heart out his fate could hardly have been more obvious. Callum Dixon makes the best of a thankless part in which he has to look like an Evil Capitalist and an ordinary decent guy at different times and make both believable. And Leo Flanagan is brilliantly convincing as the socially awkward engineer/terrorist Charlie.
Clearly, we've got a few complaints about this episode. So why, despite all of that, did we actually like lots of it? Mostly, it's, like we said, because it just feels really Whoey, and in this season that's something to celebrate. It's not that it all has to be like it's been in the past: God knows we've said often enough that the joy of Doctor Who is that it's such an elastic format that wildly different stories can and should be included in it. But too many of the episodes this season have featured a plot with the SFy stuff awkwardly tacked on. Satire or not, Kerblam! has genuine science fiction stamped right through it. And throw them away though they might, in the Kerblam! Men they've created a robotastic addition to the Whoniverse. All in all, flawed though it is, we like it.
IN THE LOOP
Why does the Dr switch her group loop code with Graham's? Why doesn't she just change her own?
It's Obvious Doctor Who Season, so Ryan carefully explains several times that he used to work in a place very like this one, they make a giant fuss about workers not being allowed on the conveyor, and the ending is spelled out in case there's a smidgen of doubt left as to what's been happening. But did we also have to have the ladleful of mush at the end? Some random telling a six year old her father loved her is hardly going to comfort her, is it?
I POKED ONE, IT WAS DEAD
We wouldn't be good Kiwis if we hadn't been humming Flight Of The Conchords' "The Humans Are Dead" all the way through this. In fact, we were convinced there was going to be toxic gas in the bubble wrap rather than an explosion, thanks to the Conchords' immortal lines "We used poisonous gases/And we poisoned their asses".
TOIL AND TROUBLE
We're confused by the ending. Is it meant to be bubble wrap don't touch that ha ha ha, or bubble wrap ooh chilling? Or what? And why do both Ryan and the Doctor give Graham two separate warnings one right after the other? Then it just…stops. Weird.