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Doctor Who: Kerblam!
(1 episode, s11e07, 2018)

Timestamp 289 Kerblam

Prime shipping is killer!

The TARDIS is flying wildly due to the Doctor’s attempts to evade something pursuing them. She finally recognizes it as a teleport pulse and is excited when the pulse materializes in the console room as a Kerb!am Man, a delivery employee with a package for the Doctor. The box contains a fez and a call for help, and the companions urge the Doctor to investigate.

They materialize at Kerb!am’s headquarters on a moon of Kandoka. Ryan inspires the Doctor to have the team go undercover as new hires at the warehouse. They go through indoctrination and orientation with Judy, the Head of People, and learn that the robots around the facility supervise the ten percent organic workforce. They get scanned and tagged with ankle bracelets so they can be tracked, and then sorted into their respective departments. Ryan and Graham are assigned to packaging while Yaz works fulfillment. The Doctor uses her sonic to swap places with Graham, which moves him to maintenance.

The Doctor and Ryan meet Kira Arlo. Ryan is a natural since he used to do this work back on Earth. The Doctor asks Kira about the environment at Kerb!am, learning that the ten percent organic worker standard is a law to prevent full automation.

Yaz asks similar questions of her teammate Dan, who warns her that the robotic managers can hear everything. Dan is a superstar at work, becoming a literal poster child for the company. His daughter works upstairs but he only sees her twice a year. Their discussion is interrupted by a robotic manager who demands that they increase their efficiency. When Yaz gets a fulfillment request for the Triple Nine sector, Dan swaps places with her.

As periodic power drains plague the facility, the packaging team meets Kira’s boss, Jarva Slade, who is pretty abusive toward his subordinates. When the Doctor asks him if anyone needs help, he becomes unnerved and leaves in a rush. Meanwhile, Dan is ambushed by a robot in the Triple Nine sector. Yaz goes to find him and hears his screams, but she only finds his scanner and the necklace from his daughter. She evades the robots and ducks through a door.

Graham meets his teammate Charlie in maintenance. They are startled by an emergency break period, and the TARDIS team meets up in a nice park area for the period. Charlie meets Kira after she spills her lunch, and the Doctor takes the news of Dan’s disappearance to the head office while Graham makes a map of the facility. Judy and Jarva promise to look into it.

The Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz hide in a nearby alcove to wait until the managers leave the office. The Doctor regales her friends with stories of wasps and Agatha Christie. Meanwhile, Graham and Charlie build a relationship as the former works his way into building a map of the building. Charlie introduces Graham to the museum area where a map is kept. The Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz are shocked by a list of missing employees, but they are surprised by Judy (who is also shocked by the list). Charlie and Graham arrive with the map as the building goes into lockdown. They are all ambushed by a robot which is disabled by the Doctor. A scan of the robot’s memory shows that the overall system is acting up.

The employees on the list are shown as alive in the system, meaning that the system may be compromised. The Doctor finds the original delivery robot code in the museum and uses it to reset the computers. Elsewhere, Kira is abducted by two robots, prompting the team to go after her in the Dispatch areas. To do so, Ryan, Yaz, and Charlie dive into the chutes and ride them down into a vast maze of conveyor belts and sorting machines.

Kira is led to a concrete bunker. Upstairs, Judy, Graham, and the Doctor convince the 1.0 robot to scan the system and look for anomalies. They discover that the Kerb!am system is who summoned the Doctor for help. The rest of the team is summoned to Dispatch where Ryan, Yaz, and Charlie are dodging decontamination protocols. When they teleport downstairs, they are ambushed by Slade with a gun. The Doctor disables him with Venusian aikido before he reveals that he’s investigating the disappearances. They discover the liquified remains of the missing workers near an army of delivery robots, each holding a package.

Kira receives a gift, presumably for her stellar performance, as Ryan, Yaz, and Charlie try to break her out. The box contains only bubble wrap, and she is instantly vaporized when she pops one of the bubbles. Ryan and Yaz note that Charlie knew what was going to happen. Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers that the bubble wrap in every package is a collection of bombs.

The pieces come together when Charlie is revealed as the villain. He wanted to frame the Kerb!am artificial intelligence for the murder of millions of customers so the ten percent rule would be lifted. He’s fighting for organics, but the AI asked for help to stop the plan. The Doctor tries to reason with him, pointing out that the systems aren’t the problem. The people who exploit the systems for personal gain are the problem.

Charlie activates his army and destroys the controller. As Charlie escapes into the robotic ranks, the Doctor uses the 1.0 interface to reroute the delivery addresses, forcing the army to materialize in the hangar and detonate their bombs. The Doctor offers Charlie one last chance to survive, but he refuses and the team teleports back to the lobby.

The workers are given two weeks of paid leave as Judy and Jarva decide to transition Kerb!am to a company led by organic personnel. Yaz asks the Doctor if she can return Dan’s necklace to his daughter, and as the Doctor agrees, Ryan and Graham ponder the bubble wrap that accompanied the fez as the adventure started.

This story deals with the constant modernization of workplaces and retail environments, as well as the backlash that working environments that aren’t focused on the worker may face. It remains relevant in many ways today, both in labor actions like strikes and the popularity of self-checkouts in big box retail stores.

But this story also flips the script midstream by leading us to believe that a worker has asked the Doctor for help before revealing that the Kerb!am system is really the petitioner. Does that mean that the Doctor stood up for the corporation over the people? No, and this is the part that really made me think about this adventure, because helping the system led to systemic change for the organic workers. It’s a really neat twist with someone in power on the inside forcing a positive change from within.

I rather liked the idea of the Kerb!am Man being able to deliver directly to the TARDIS, as we previously saw in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and The Doctor’s Wife. I mean, sure, the ship is virtually indestructible and has shields to prevent intrusion but how often has this show ignored the TARDIS’s physical security for the sake of plot? Quite often, really. It’s science fiction/fantasy, not reality. Roll with it.

Finally, I loved the concept of taking something we all do – popping bubble wrap – and making it questionable or nefarious. It’s a very Doctor Who thing to do.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Witchfinders


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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