Series Eleven, Episode Seven
The TARDIS gets a delivery from Kerblam!, a company which sells and delivers products across the galaxy. The package comes with a delivery robot and a cheesy jingle, but there is a message on the back of the packing slip which reads “Help me”.
The TARDIS team make their way to the Kerblam! company. It is on a moon, and in fact takes up the whole surface. The TARDIS team go in the building, and it is full of robots as staff. There are humans there too though, and they meet “Head of People” Judy Maddox (Julie Hesmondhalgh). We find out that Kerblam!’s workforce is “90% automated” (i.e robots) and “10% organic” (i.e human workers). This statistic actually makes it the “biggest human workforce in the galaxy!”.
At some point machines were making up almost all the workforce, until “the People Power Protests”, with the slogan “Real People Need Real Jobs!”. But most of the population are still unemployed, so it’s considered extremely lucky to get a job at all, especially at Kerblam!.
The TARDIS team are given a tour, part of which allows them to pair up with a worker there and work alongside them. The Doctor and Ryan end up in dispatch with Kira Arlo (Claudia Jessie), Yasmin in delivery with Dan Cooper (Lee Mack) and Graham in maintenance with Charlie Duffy (Leo Flanagan).
Working there seems quite bleak. Kira says she’s only received a present once in her whole life (on one birthday, the present being a box of chocolates from Judy), and Dan only sees his six-year-old daughter twice a year. He’s saving up for her education, and the rest of his money goes on his twice a year shuttle trips home.
The warehouse executive Jarva Slade (Callum Dixon) is rude to Kira. Ryan stand up for her, and the Doctor calls Jarva out on his attitude. “Respect goes both ways. [..] The best managers, the really good ones, value their staff”.
Those are just normal day-to-day problems with working at Kerblam!, but there have been more unusual ones recently. There are recurring power drains where all electricity is off for brief moments, and human workers have been going missing. They also aren’t returning home.
Dan gets taken away by one of the robots, and Yasmin finds some of his belongings left behind. She also starts feeling uncomfortable around the robots, and slips through the shelves to get away.
The Doctor decides they should make a complaint to H.R. about the missing people and the “help me” note. H.R. is just Judy and Jarva, who say they’ll “look into it”.
The Doctor is even more convinced something isn’t right. As she says, “I don’t like bullies, I don’t like conspiracies, and I don’t like people in danger. This has a flavour of all three.”
Ryan and Yasmin point out how it’s suspicious that Jarva has a clipboard and a filing cabinent, as everything is automated. They and the Doctor break back into the office and into Jarva’s filing cabinet, and find he has been keeping a tally of all the missing people.
Judy comes in and demands to know what they are up to. But then, they could ask her the same question, which the Doctor more or less does. Judy says she had no knowledge of Jarva’s activities, and all the missing people are still listed as active on the system. Judy says she’s responsible for thousands of people, she can’t keep track of them all, so she relies on the system.
There is a total system blackout, much worse than the usual power drains. Graham and Charlie arrive, and a robot attacks Charlie! It is successfully beaten, but the Doctor decides they need to find “Kerblam! version 1.0”, the original robot which the company started from, which turns out to be a tiny robot named Twirly.
Meanwhile, the robots tell Kira she has been made “Employee of the Day” and is to receive a gift. She is taken to a small room. Judy gets a message saying Kira has gone missing, something which didn’t happen for the other missing people. Ryan, Yasmin and Charlie decide to make their way down to dispatches, where Kira was last seen. The only way to there however is through the dispatch chute, and after being thrust around by the conveyer belts and nearly disintegrated as “organic contamination”, they end up dumped with the rubbish and in the foundation level of the warehouse.
The Doctor plugs Twirly into the system, as he’ll be able to read the base code and tell them what is going on. It turns out that it was the system itself which sent the “help me” message, not a worker.
The Doctor, Graham and Judy run into Jarva, and everyone gets teleported to the foundation level. The Doctor thinks Jarva is responsible for everything that has happened, but in fact he has been trying to figure out what’s been going on himself. That’s why he kept notes on paper, he thought it was to do with the system so he didn’t want to risk using something electronic.
They make the gruesome discovery of a vat of goo. This is all that is left of the missing workers. There’s also an army of delivery robots, each carrying a parcel, and the power drains are the result of the power being taken to be stored for a mass teleport. Each parcel contains a different product… but they all contain bubblewrap.
Ryan, Yasmin and Charlie find Kira. The room has a giant window, but Kira can’t see or hear out of it. There is a Kerblam! parcel on the table. She opens it, but all that’s in there is bubblewrap. She pops it, and she is liquidated! This is what happened to Dan and all the other missing people.
The Doctor states that the plan is for customers to do what a lot of people tend to do with bubblewrap – pop it – and they will be killed. Graham quips “Kerblam! is trying to kill their own customers? That is the worst business plan I’ve ever heard!”
The two groups are reunited, and it’s revealed that it isn’t Kerblam! behind all this. It’s Charlie! He lied on his application to get a job in maintenance. He knows a lot about technology, and he wanted to get a cleaning job as that would simultaneously allow him not to be noticed while giving him some access to the whole warehouse.
His plan was to mass murder customers so that people would begin to fear and mistrust Kerblam!, and by extension automation. He saw it as a protest against humans losing jobs to machines. He began to murder the workers there as “test subjects” to make sure the bubblewrap would work, but he never intended Kira to die, as he had a crush on her. Kira’s death was due to the system fighting against him.
Charlie is determined to carry out the attack. But the Doctor gets Twirly and sends him into the system so he can change the address of the mass teleport to where they already are, and also program the robots to open the parcels and pop the bubblewrap. The robots all blow up, Charlie is killed in the explosion, and the others all teleport to safety.
Later, Judy and Jarva say they have learnt from this whole thing, and after repairs they intend to make Kerblam! a “people led organisation” with a majority human workforce in future.
This episode was very satirical. Often sci-fi exaggerates modern conditions to suggest how far it might go. In this case it is the “rise of the machines”, how increasingly jobs that once were given to people are disappearing because of the advancement of technology, and what effect that may have on society. In this episode it causes mass unemployment and human beings get treated as lower value than a machine.
There is also satire of awful corporate jargon and how bad that might get, such as the way humans are referred to as “organics”.
The robots are a little creepy, probably more so with the fact stock “friendly banter” has been programmed into them, and that they monitor everything and want to limit conversation between people.
This episode had a lot of similarities to Red Dwarf. As a sci-fi comedy, it often dealt had themes like this episode. The one it’s most similar to is ‘M-Corp’, where a corporation literally bought out Earth, took over every aspect of people’s lives and even began debiting life from people if they had overspent their credits!
The episode ‘Give & Take’ included Snacky the snack dispensing robot having to step up and save the day, a little like Twirly being given a lot of responsibility here when he was a very basic delivery/product search droid. There’s even a Red Dwarf storyline involving bubblewrap! In ‘Timeslides’, the bubblewrap has been painted red and is marketed as a “Tension Sheet”, an idea which makes its creator “disgustingly rich and famous”.
The Doctor Who episode ‘Kerblam!’ was most like was ‘Oxygen’ from series 10. That also included people being thought of as having no value to a corporation, and even using similar jargon, with humans beings referred to as “organic compounds”.
There was a bit of a retro-futuristic look to the Kerblam! company. They have more advanced technology than we have, but the postman uniforms of the robots and the almost Nineteen Eighty-Four style posters the company uses hark back to an earlier time.
Of the guest cast, I thought Julie Hesmondhalgh and Lee Mack were particularly good, they gave their characters a lot of personality.
What gets delivered to the TARDIS is a fez, which the Doctor says she must have ordered “a while back”, possibly when she was Matt Smith’s incarnation of the Doctor, as he liked to wear a fez.
I liked the chart seen briefly in the background showing how the product Twirly slowly “evolved” into the humanoid looking robots, which looked like it was based on an Evolution of Man diagram.
I have a problem with the Doctor concluding that “the system has a conscience” based on the fact it… decided to murder Kira. It apparently did that to try to prove a point to Charlie… which didn’t land anyway! If the goal was to upset him, then yeah, that happened, but if the goal was to stop him, then if anything it seemed to make him more determined. And why should Kira have to pay with her life for something which Charlie was doing and which she had no knowledge of? The system killed an innocent person to prove a point that… it’s wrong to kill innocent people to prove a point. I’m not sure that counts as “having a conscience”.
That aside though, ‘Kerblam!’ was a strong episode. It had a lot of humour, was compelling to watch, and, if you excuse the pun, delivered most of its messages well.