This week’s Doctor Who is the first written by Pete McTighe, and he doesn’t seem to have much to say. There are some fun jabs at Amazon, but with flat characters, boring motivations and an ultimately muddled metaphor, you’re largely only here for the main cast.
We start with a fun callback. It’s undeniably cute to see 13 in a fez, and such an offhand remark that she ordered it a while back is hilarious in context – she hasn’t been 11 for about a thousand years at this point, and it’s also funny that she’s trying to escape the delivery man before realising what it is. The design of the Kerblam men themselves is great, leaning into classic uncanny valley tropes both visually and aurally.
There’s a couple of fun guest performances here, but they’re working against some of the most wooden and stunted dialogue of the season. Lee Mack is fun as Dan, a hard-working father trying to provide for his daughter back home, and Claudia Jessie turns the flatly written Kira into an enjoyable enough presence, but there’s only so much they can do. When Dan produces a necklace with ‘Dad’ carved into it and Kira talks almost exclusively in exposition, it’s hard to look past the obvious audience baiting. Kira’s boss is – inexplicably – rude to her, basically just so the Doctor and Ryan can have a standoff with him.
And this tension between the human characters is one of the biggest issues. Callum Dixon turns in a decent performance as ‘meaninglessly mean manager’ and Julie Hesmondhalgh is fine as Judy, but both feel like characters written for a less complicated show. There’s nothing new or challenging here, and their motivations within the plot are weak at best.
One of McTighe’s main targets in his episode is automation. It’s no question that jobs are already and will continue to be lost to automation this century, and there are some interesting ideas here – the notion of a 10% human workforce quota, and hints that each worker is incredibly poor and struggling. But how is that true? Who’s ordering enough produce for Kerblam to operate a literal moon-sized distribution centre? And anyone with a passing knowledge of automation is aware, at least in theory, of the coping mechanisms to come with it. There will certainly be a difficult transitory period – we’re already going through the beginning of it – but this supposes that the planet of Kandoka is developed enough for interstellar travel, but not for notions of universal basic income, or how to transition into a post-scarcity economy?
Perhaps these ideas are too lofty for Doctor Who, but they certainly didn’t use to be. To unironically have a character remark that ‘the machines took our jobs while we were looking at our phones’ is laughable, and smacks of a writer with little understanding of what’s actually happening – or indeed, where they’re going. I understand it’s a metaphor and/or parody, but it doesn’t hold up. And the final insult is that everything that goes wrong this week – the distress of Kerblam’s AI, the meaningless deaths, everything – is the fault of a human employee.
And yet, Judy ends the episode by telling the Doctor she’ll be pushing for Kerblam to become a human-driven company going forwards. I’d wager Kerblam will end up firing her and the antagonist’s fear – that human quotas will continue to go down – will only be accelerated. But at least we get to see a cute robot named Twirly! And it was good of Ryan to remember that he’s supposed to have dyspraxia this week.
We’re still waiting for a truly great sci-fi episode this season, and “Kerblam!” most definitely isn’t it. It’s at best visually interesting, and at worst poorly written pseudo-intellectualism with very little to say. Here’s hoping next week is stronger.