Good news, Doctor Who fans! Every episode of this season has been better than the last, and “Kerblam!” is the best yet.
Fun fact: I can’t wear Air Pods. Know why? Have you seen the episode of Doctor Who where the wireless earbuds turn everyone into Cybermen? It ruined that particular style of wearable technology for me. Maybe “Kerblam!” will leave a similarly lasting impression on viewers who shop Amazon…
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yas (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) are in transit in the TARDIS when a Kerblam! man teleports in to deliver a package. Kerblam! is the biggest retailer in the galaxy, and its packages are delivered by teleporting deliverybots. Inside her package, The Doctor is delighted to find a fez she must have ordered when she was Matt Smith. After the robot deliveryman departs, The Doctor discovers that the back of the packing slip says “Help Me,” and the team votes unanimously that they go to Kerblam!’s headquarters to investigate.
They fake their way in with the help of some psychic paper and The Doctor’s sonic, and each gets assigned to different departments in the warehouse and distribution center literally the size of a moon. The Head of People, Judy Maddox (Julie Hesmondhalgh), tells her new hires about how proud she is of having helped make sure that 10% of the company’s workforce is “organic,” providing jobs to people where automation could easily have been used instead.
The Doctor swaps assignments with Graham so she can go with Ryan to the packing department and see how the packing slips are handled. Graham winds up in maintenance, and Yas is sent to the warehouse floor for retrieving items to be shipped.
Separated, each part of Team TARDIS meets a new friend. Ryan and The Doctor find themselves working along side a sweet, clumsy girl named Kira Arlo (Claudia Jessie). Yas is partnered with another retriever named Dan Cooper (Lee Mack), and Graham has a fellow custodian to chat with called Charlie Duffy (Leo Flanagan). We quickly learn that Kira is an orphan who has only ever received one gift in her life (chocolates from Judy), Dan works at Kerblam! to pay for his beloved daughter’s education as penance for having been a bad husband to her mother and Charlie and Kira have secret crushes on each other.
As soon as they’re settled in their undercover assignments, the team start sniffing around to figure out who would have had access to the packing slip and who might need help. At every turn, though, it appears that humans never have access to packing slips and that the company’s culture is pretty happy and harmonious. The only indicators of something being amiss are sporadic power drainages that halt all systems momentarily… and that several employees have gone missing over the last few months, which is rather a big thing.
Yas and Dan are chatting away as they work their way through item retrievals in the warehouse when she’s given an assignment Dan believes will lead to her termination. He already likes her enough that he doesn’t want to see her fail on her first day, so he swaps barcode scanners with her and goes off in search of the item himself. When he gets to the remote section supposedly harboring an antique lamp, he is detained by a rogue deliverybot.
Yas is immediately suspicious when Dan departs, and she follows him. As she winds her way through the massive maze of shelves and packages, she hears a scream and takes off running. She finds Dan’s cart, crushed scanner and the necklace his daughter had given him, which he’d shown Yas with pride. There’s no sign of Dan anywhere, though. She pockets his necklace, and stands up to find herself surrounded by deliverybots. She makes a break for it and goes in search of The Doctor.
Meanwhile, The Doctor and Ryan have met the manager of the warehouse, Jarva Slade (Callum Dixon). He isn’t very friendly to Kira, which puts him on their list of suspects. When they learn from Kira of several employees who have disappeared, they confront Slade and Judy in Slade’s office, and The Doctor reveals the truth of their presence at Kerblam! Both Slade and Judy promise they’ll investigate the apparent disappearances and the distress message, but Team TARDIS isn’t sure they can be trusted.
The Doctor asks Graham to find out everything he can about the facility’s layout and the company’s history. She explains that as a maintenance man, he can move through any part of the building without arousing suspicion, and he accepts the challenge.
Graham turns to Charlie for help, explaining that he needs a better understanding of the layout of the place if he’s to be efficient about responding to custodial needs. Charlie shows him where a number of useful company artifacts are housed in display cases in the lobby, including a diagram of the facility. Because these cases need to be cleaned, Charlie has access to them and is able to get the map for Graham.
While the two men are getting the map, The Doctor, Yas and Ryan sneak back into Slade’s office to see what he’s hiding. In a completely automated facility, why should a manager need the clipboard he carries or the filing cabinet he keeps locked near his desk? The Doctor opens the filing cabinet with her sonic, and inside they find paperwork on each of the missing employees.
Judy interrupts their sleuthing. She’s found out they’re imposters, and she suspects them of corporate espionage. The Doctor explains that she was being truthful about what brought them there and questions Judy about her knowledge of the disappearances and Slade’s files on the missing people. Judy claims to be completely in the dark about all of it.
Graham and Charlie join them in Slade’s office to share the map, and a deliverybot is just behind them. It attacks Charlie when he tries to manually disable it, and Judy saves him by ripping off its head.
While they’re in Slade’s office, the entire facility powers down completely. When it comes back online, The Doctor gets the idea that if she can access version 1.0 of the system, she’ll be able to identify any updates to the code that would account for the attacks on people. Luckily, there’s an early model deliverybot in one of the lobby display cases, and Graham and Charlie can help her get it.
Everyone goes together to the lobby, and while they’re there Judy gets an alert that Kira’s tracker has gone abruptly offline. The last place she was tracked was Dispatch, which is a department no people can get to. Ryan grabs Yas and Charlie to go after her, using his knowledge of warehouse workings from his last job as his guide for how to work around the lack of access to Dispatch. He leads the other two to the chute packages are thrown down, and all three jump in for the slide of their lives.
The Doctor and Graham go back to maintenance to charge up the deliverybot and sync it with the current system. When it comes online, The Doctor explains that she needs it to retrieve information and then deliver it to her, a perfect job for it. As soon as she plugs it into the system, sparks literally fly. She disconnects it and asks what happened, and it starts calling out for help. TWIST: The system is the one who asked her to come!!
As soon as The Doctor realizes that the system needs help and sent the message on the packing slip, Graham realizes that Ryan, Yas and Charlie have all gone right to where the danger is.
Yas, Ryan and Charlie find Kira in a small room with a one-way mirror in it. She was escorted there by two deliverybots who said she was “employee of the day” and that they had a gift for her. He would-be rescuers can see her through a window, but she can’t see or hear them. They helplessly witness her joy when a package drops into the room, and they recognize that whatever is inside must be bad. Kira opens it, ignorant of their pleas for her to stop, and all she finds inside is bubble wrap.
At just this moment, The Doctor, Judy and Graham are confronted by a gun-wielding Slade. He draws his weapon on them as The Doctor hijacks a deliverybot’s teleportation circuit to get her group to Dispatch. The four of them blink out of the lobby and into the basement, and The Doctor easily disarms Slade. It turns out he isn’t behind the disappearances– he thought Judy might be, or that these newcomers had something to do with it.
As soon as they realize they’re all on the same side, they begin investigating. First they find a basin full of what they’re certain is the liquefied remains of the missing employees. Then they find an army of deliverybots that haven’t left the facility with their packages. The Doctor waves her sonic in their midst and discovers that the energy drains the facility has been experiencing are related to a massive buildup for teleportation. It’s clear that this army of deliverybots is being prepared to leave the facility en masse.
The Doctor suspects they’ve been weaponized, and she rips open one of their packages. Inside is just a toy. Slade assures her that each bot will be holding something different, and this appears to be true. What all the packages have in common, though, is bubble wrap.
Just then, Kira pulls the bubble wrap from the box she’s received and pops one of the bubbles. Ryan, Yas and a devastated Charlie watch her vaporize in a green explosion.
Charlie leads Yas and Ryan to where The Doctor and her team are making their discovery, and he immediately reveals himself to be the bad guy! Charlie is a violent activist who wants people to make up more than 10% of the workforce. He has a plan to create distrust in Kerblam!’s technology by sending the exploding packages out and killing masses of customers. The Doctor tries to reason with him, but Charlie believes that all of the people he has killed and plans to kill, even Kira, are worth the end he hopes to achieve.
He initiates the package deliveries and crushes his controller for the deliverybots, escaping into their ranks while The Doctor desperately tries to take control with her sonic. She succeeds in getting the version 1.0 deliverybot to reroute all of the deliveries to where the bots are already standing and instructs the bots to open their packages and pop bubbles on the wrap.
Charlie refuses to save himself, and he is vaporized as the others teleport out of the basement ahead of the explosion.
Afterwards, Judy and Slade tell The Doctor and her companions that they’ll be shutting down for repairs for a month, that their workers will all get two weeks of paid leave and that they’ll be advocating for a majority organic workforce going forward.
Back on the TARDIS, Yas asks if they can make a stop to visit Dan’s daughter and tell her how much he loved her. The Doctor says yes, and away they go.
I’m so relieved by this episode! It knocked down all of the key things it set up, AND it made reference to Ryan’s equilibrium disorder more than once in ways that made sense. On our next episode of AnyWho, I’ll have way more praise than griping to offer!
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