I’m finally reviewing this episode, very late. I know my lack of Doctor Who posts lately following an article on the show’s recent drop in quality would seem to indicate that I’m losing interest in the program. Which…isn’t an entirely inaccurate synopsis. I haven't seen the finale yet (no spoilers, please, though I doubt anything of great significance happened). Series 12 has been delayed until 2020, and while I'd usually consider such news to be a big disappointment, I've been let down so frequently by the quality of Series 11 that I don't particularly care about the wait.
As such, when a really excellent episode comes along out of the blue, it’s a nice surprise. On the other hand, it’s not necessarily a good sign. I’ll be unpacking what I mean by that in a full-series review after I post these late reviews one by one over the next several days, so stay tuned.
For now, let’s talk about “Kerblam!” (The exclamation point is part of the title; I’m not really that excited, even though this episode was a lot of fun.)
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
Kerblam! is an “old-school” Doctor Who episode…a phrase which galls me to say, since as of last year, I would have considered it a “standard” Doctor Who episode. It’s smart, funny, surprising, and thrilling. This is what you want from Doctor Who, and it’s proof that the show can still be great…when a guest writer takes over. Ouch.
Content and Themes
The only political issue addressed this week was the subject of technology competing with humans for jobs…which is a topic that transcends liberal/conservative lines, and as such makes for an engaging, non-partisan story. This is how sci-fi is supposed to handle social themes: address them in a way that allows everybody to relate and get on board in some way, even if viewers are not all in agreement with each other. Yes, the Amazon analogue of the Kerblam! company was rather on-the-nose, but I think we can all agree that Amazon is evil and out to control the world and that everyone who makes money off them is a supervillain in disguise (*cough cough*), so it’s hardly a controversial subject.
What I Didn’t Like
I didn’t like the fact that the show can’t be this good when its showrunner or its more identity-politics-minded guest contributors are at the helm. That’s about it. The episode itself was stellar, with no significant weaknesses.
Except for one small thing…and be forewarned, I’m about to get highly cynical, nitpicky, and pessimistic. The fez scene did nothing to overcome my skepticism going into the episode, and actually put me off a little, because its intent was so obvious. It was a “failsafe” incorporated to lure back long-time fans who might be losing interest halfway through the season, and it was released on YouTube as a sneak peek beforehand because the higher-ups at the BBC are getting worried about the show’s performance. Chris “EVERYTHING IS A SPOILER” Chibnall would never have allowed people to see it before the episode aired otherwise. Because yes, despite strident articles and blog posts to the contrary, the ratings for Series 11 did drop to a worrying level after the premiere, and mark my words, there will be major shake-ups in the show by the time Series 12 finally rolls around. Expect an early departure for either Chibnall or Jodie Whittaker, or both.
On that cheery note, let’s talk about…
What I Liked
Previous episodes of Series 11 have struggled to establish any clear menace, something that actually makes the viewer worried about genuine repercussions. Kerblam! finally offers up something to make the audience genuinely nervous, though the threat quickly shifts from the creepy looking (and brilliantly-designed) robots to the mysterious force behind all the mishaps at Kerblam. Even better, both the nature and the identity of this threat are actually surprising. There’s really no need for me to go into spoilers, so I won’t, since this is an episode with secrets that are actually worth keeping.
The supporting characters of Series 11, in my opinion, have been well-realized for the most part even in the more lackluster episodes. The guest cast of “Kerblam!” is particularly good. Again, I’ll avoid spoilers, but I loved how up until the very end of the story, it wasn’t clear who was trustworthy and who wasn’t. There were no cardboard villains or heroes without any grey areas…even the Doctor, who’s forced to make an ethically murky choice in the episode’s climax on par with similar decisions made by her past incarnations.
This time around, the bloated cast of companions was handled surprisingly well. It helps that each one gets their own subplot in this story, threads which are woven together nicely in the conclusion. The individual personalities of Ryan, Yaz, and Graham also seemed to stand out more in Kerblam! than in some prior installments. Better writing makes a big difference for these characters. It’s a shame the actors aren’t graced with better scripts more often.
As I said before, I’m keeping this review shorter and more vague because I don’t want to spoil it for you. If you want to have a good time watching new Doctor Who in 2018, then this is the episode for you. In fact, I’d encourage you to watch it and voice your support for it. Maybe we’ll get more stories like it in future.
In Other News
Join me tomorrow for my review of the next episode, “The Witchfinders.” Spoiler warning: It’s actually pretty good, but it still has some issues.
Also, after I'm done reviewing Series 11, I’m probably going to keep on making Doctor Who posts a regular feature on this site by reviewing the Big Finish audio dramas. I believe more people should be listening to these, especially in an era when the TV show is not living up to its usual standards, so I’d like to introduce fellow Whovians to some good jumping-on points for this portion of the canon. Especially since 2019, while a lean year for the TV show, will feature a ton of amazing new audio releases.