Doctor Who XXXVII/11.7: Kerblam!

Another late post, and my uppermost observations about Kerblam! concern how the debate has been formed. There is a broad age division, with most of the younger commentators thinking this episode betrayed Doctor Who‘s radical history, and older people appreciating that the old story was avoided, where the Doctor helps the oppressed achieve a revolution, but doesn’t stick around to effect the major socio-political transformation needed to cement the revolution’s gains. Instead we were treated to a clever story about small victories, where the Doctor and friends introduce trust into a situation where human beings maintain suspicion of one another, and the robots act as automated guarantors and protectors of as well as spokesbots for both system and System. 

I’d mentioned absence of ‘drive’ before, but hadn’t explored what I might mean. I’m thinking in terms of force and energy in performance and in writing, present in different ways in the works of both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, and not present under Chris Chibnall. Instead, there is a changed quality, a stillness, reflected in Segun Akinola’s open, often melancholy music cues, in sharp contrast to the emotion-forcing chords of Murray Gold. We might argue that the decisions that the Doctor and friends make in this series of Doctor Who are much closer to those the viewers make in their lives, based on incomplete information, ingrained prejudice and the limitations effected by inexperience and urgency. 

So there are two robot revolts, in effect; one entirely dictated by Charlie to those parts of the System which he has enslaved, and the other by the System itself, loyal to its original programming. The Doctor helps the desperate artificial intelligence in fulfilling its purpose and prevents its abuse to effect mass murder by someone who seems to have run rather more trial liquidations than necessary. There is no need for any system to be a problem; and while the social order on Kandoka is clearly problematic (and unreal in its extremities – does Kerblam! ship beyond Kandoka, and are other societies more prosperous than Kandoka seems to be?) the System at Kerblam! is as much a prisoner as anyone. Julie Hesmondhalgh’s Judy Maddox and Callum Dixon’s Jarva Slade are helped to liberation by a small increment, but confronting head office directly is beyond the Doctor’s reach, and the situation doesn’t offer her any leverage.

Rewatching, the performances in Kerblam! all catch the attention. Claudia Jesse’s Kira has something of the sweet and cheery-but-doomed Dickensian orphan about her; Julie Hesmondhalgh’s Judy is the enforcer who can’t hide her obvious abstract view of the world within her corporate shell; Lee Mack’s Dan suggests that it’s not a good idea to be a prominent audience-friendly character in a script directed by Jennifer Perrott, as you will get killed; while Leo Flanagan’s Charlie reminds us that murderers are people with all their warmth and quirks and sympathetic confusions (I think he deliberately offered himself to be ‘caught’ by the TeamMate when it came after him in the office, suggesting that the people in the room with him did not seem expendable, and/or that he was seeking martyrdom), and not obviously monsters. The regulars work together better, perhaps, than at any time since Rosa or indeed ever, perhaps because they were active participants here as much as they were witnesses to events. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is becoming more forceful while retaining and refining her childlike enthusiasms and disappointment – see how crestfallen she is when told that human beings aren’t allowed to climb on the conveyors – and Mandip Gill throws herself into a Yaz who asks more police officer questions than before and acts as a motivator for other characters, particularly Ryan. Tosin Cole, Gill and Flanagan give a tour de force of CGI environment acting in the conveyorbelt scene too. 

This was then one of the most consistently enjoyable episodes of the series so far. Pete McTighe’s affection for Doctor Who shone through, the Doctor’s patronage of Kerblam! being in the tradition of obsession with aspects of consumer culture shown by other twenty-first century Doctors, with some of the wittiest dialogue heard so far in this deliberately prosaic series. I enjoyed seeing that the Doctor continues to practice Venusian Aikido after its appearance in The Ghost Monument, though will not be happy until Jodie Whittaker throws two heavies over her shoulders with a cry of ‘Hai!’

Next episode – in a couple of days’ time – I’ll be at Doctor Who Reviews by The Doctor Who News Page once more, with a historian’s view (not my period!) of The Witchfinders.

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One comment

  1. The debate has made me think a bit of The Dominators, another story that a particular subset of fandom decries as a “betrayal” of the show’s values, but which doesn’t seem particularly out of line to me (although Kerblam! is a lot more fun). The other thing it reminds me of is George Orwell’s argument (in the essay Charles Dickens) that anti-establishment opinion can be divided into ‘moralist’ and ‘revolutionary’ viewpoints. Moralists (like Dickens) argue that there’s no point reforming institutions while human nature is so bad, whereas revolutionaries (like Marx) argue that there’s no point reforming human nature while politicall institutions are so bad. Kerblam! arguably made the ‘mistake’ (if you want to call it that) of presenting a moralist response to an audience that wanted a revolutionary one.

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