Doctor Who, “Kerblam!”

It is fashionable in 2018 among people who enjoy complaining about corporations to pick Amazon as their primary target. My personal opinion is that, while no corporation is beyond reproach, there are so many other more alarming targets to choose in the arenas of labor conditions, effect on local economies, and indeed the fate of the world in general (particularly regarding climate). Indeed, to choose as nemesis the same company regularly singled out for similar attention by a certain tin-pot dictator, often criticized in the newspaper that Amazon’s founder happens to own, seems awkward to say the least. For these and other reasons, I’m disinclined to strike this particular voguish pose and have trouble taking seriously those who do.

So I was prepared to find “Kerblam!”, such a transparent Amazon parody that I need hardly say so, practically unwatchable. To my relief, it’s a delight on every level and one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes in years.

It would be shorter to list what doesn’t work, but I’ll try it the positive way anyway. The inciting incident, an unexpected delivery straight into the TARDIS, recalls (yes, “The Doctor’s Wife,” but also) “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” and though the satire here is less broad, the spirit of the story is pure Cartmel-era (with perhaps one exception, but we’ll come to that). You can track this particular tone back through stories like “Paradise Towers,” “Vengeance on Varos,” “The Sunmakers,” “Carnival of Monsters,” and “The Macra Terror,” and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until now. It hasn’t been entirely absent from the new series — think “Gridlock” in particular — but its echoes in stories like “New Earth,” “The Beast Below,” and “The Long Game” have been weaker. Not all of these types of stories are highly regarded as classics, but they all mix a lightness of touch and a heightened satirical tone with some of the deepest and perhaps most perennial themes the show has to offer. Here the shifts between humor and pathos, between comedy and tragedy, are as deft as they’ve ever been, and you need both to make an ideal Doctor Who story.

The plot feels familiar — a somewhat oppressive system conceals an even more sinister secret, the former given hope once the latter is exposed — but writer Pete McTighe keeps us guessing about the details the whole way through. The resolution, which to the trendy Amazon-bashers and perhaps even to Cartmel might have seemed a letdown, to me was satisfyingly unexpected and unexpectedly satisfying. People hoping for a simple “evil corporation” story still had plenty of subtext to chew on; many details along the way (the leg shackles, the robot scolds, the verbally abusive boss, etc.) paint Kerblam! as only a slight improvement over not working at all. So many details of the world of Kerblam!, which somehow feels denser and more fully imagined than any of the less fabricated worlds we’ve seen this season, seem suspiciously well-informed. As soon as I saw the lobby exhibits containing original Kerblam! technology I was convinced someone who has worked for Amazon helped conceive if not design this production.

But perhaps the best thing this story has going for it, and something no other story this season has fully been able to pull off, is that it gives every character a chance to shine. The guest characters are uniformly excellent, and it’s really painful when a couple of them die. But the real surprise here is that our TARDIS team reaches its potential for the first time; everyone has something to do, everyone has moments of charm and (more importantly) agency, everyone seems to have a reason to be there. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Yaz to put some of her police training to work, but even without it she’s as well-served by the script as everyone else. Contrast what she does here with her role in last week’s episode, where after instigating the story she basically had nothing to do but watch it unfold. It’s taken as gospel in Doctor Who fan circles that a crowded TARDIS is a writer’s nightmare, but McTighe makes it look so easy. Credit presumably also goes to director Jennifer Perrott, who pulls excellent performances out of everyone, even the robots.

It’s likely that future Doctor Who episode guides will recall this episode as “never letting us look at bubble wrap the same way again.” But there’s a chance — just a chance, but a good one — that I’ll recall it as “my favorite story of the Whittaker era.”

Speaking of the Whittaker era: special mention, as always, to Jodie. She continues to so thoroughly make this role her own while preserving the essence of its continuity. In sharp contrast to the initial concept of the Capaldi Doctor, this one is keenly aware of the nuances of human(oid) interaction and has a functioning sense of compassion and doing right by people. Her look when talking to poor Kira in the packing department is as perfect as it gets. Matt Smith is second only to Tom Baker in the favorite Doctor ranking I still keep in my head if not on this site, but I’m a little shocked to admit Whittaker already has a credible shot at unseating him.