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Recap / Doctor Who S37E7 "Kerblam!"

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"Space postman. I've seen it all now."

The One With… killer bubble wrap. For real this time. And where the Doctor finally gets that package they ordered.

This episode aired November 18, 2018. Written by Pete McTighe.

The TARDIS, in the Time Vortex, is being chased by something, which the Doctor assumes to be hostile until she realizes it's just a teleport pulse. It's a Kerblam! delivery robot, from the largest retailer in the galaxy, with a delivery for the Doctor, a very overdue one: a fez. And, on the back of the packing slip, a message: "HELP ME". So the Doctor and her friends head off to Kerblam!'s headquarters, the warehouse moon of the planet Kandoka, to investigate. A little help from the psychic paper and sonic screwdriver gets them in as new hires allegedly related to the First Lady, and they're given work assignments and a tour by "head of people" Judy Maddox, which is only slightly marred by a brief power outage. Judy is happy to explain that Kerblam!, with a 10% organic workforce, is a people-powered company and the Doctor is upset to find out that, no, she is not allowed to ride on the conveyor belts.

The Doctor switches work assignments with Graham after discovering that employees in the purple section are the closest to where the packing slips originate from, sending her and Ryan off to pack ordered products in boxes with the friendly Kira, who's relieved to have a job since so many people are unemployed. Yaz heads off to the warehouse to collect ordered goods from the stock boxes with Dan. And Graham is assigned to maintenance (read: janitorial duties), which he's not too thrilled about, working with somewhat socially-awkward Charlie. Talking with Kira, the Doctor and Ryan discover that there have been multiple employee disappearances recently. Yaz, after hearing about Dan's daughter, finds him gone after he insists on switching tablets with her so she doesn't enter a dangerous area of the warehouse, and is forced to flee several out-of-place delivery robots. After swapping stories at break time, and noticing Charlie's crush on Kira, the Doctor tells Graham to find a map of the facility while she, Ryan and Yaz file a complaint. The executives, Judy and Slade, promise to look into the disappearances, but the Doctor is skeptical, and while Graham persuades Charlie to help him get the original company plans from their glass case in the lobby, the Doctor, Ryan and Yaz sneak into Slade's office when he's out.

In a filing cabinet full of paperwork out-of-place in a computer-run factory, the Doctor and her friends discover Slade has been keeping records on the missing employees. Judy walks in on them, having tracked them down by their company-issue ankle bracelets, and is shocked when they show her Slade's records. Just then, there's a system-wide blackout, and Graham and Charlie arrive with the blueprints, having discovered something, only to be followed by the one active robot left. After the robot attacks Charlie when he tries to deactivate it, it seems the system is at fault, and the Doctor and company head off to fetch the original Kerblam! delivery robot, Twirly, from its case. Meanwhile, Kira, at work, is led off by two robots who tell her that, having been appointed "Employee of the Day", she will receive a gift, and is left in a room in the basement. Judy's tablet alerts her to this, which, since none of the other missing employees were marked as such on the device, leads her to suggest the system is sending a message. After charging up Twirly, the Doctor discovers that seems to be the case, as she realizes that the system itself sent her the message for help. Meanwhile, Ryan, Yaz and Charlie have taken to the conveyors to head to the foundation area to find Kira, and are just in time to witness, through a one-way window, her death by exploding bubble wrap, to Charlie's horror.

Slade, having seen the retrieval of Twirly on the security cameras, confronts the Doctor, Graham and Judy in the lobby just as the Doctor uses a robot to teleport everyone down to the foundation area. After being disarmed, he's revealed to be innocent, having kept paper files and not told anyone because he was unsure of who he could trust. They find a vat full of the liquefied remains of the missing staff, and wonder who is responsible. In the Delivery section, full of delivery robots carrying overdue packages and a power source so they can all teleport away instantaneously, everyone comes together and the truth is revealed: Charlie is responsible. Seeing himself as an activist against the hordes of robots stealing jobs from people, he plans to kill thousands of innocent customers with the explosive bubble wrap to destroy their trust in automated workforces. The system killed Kira to try and dissuade him from his plot, but it just drove him over the edge, and he sets the robots to teleport away with their deadly cargo before smashing the remote. Yaz grabs him in a lock as the Doctor works to try and stop the delivery, eventually succeeding in reprogramming the robots, with an assist from Twirly, into delivering the packages to themselves and then popping the deadly bubble wrap. The Doctor offers Charlie, who by this point has broken away and run into the crowd of robots, a chance to escape, but he doesn't listen, and as everyone else is teleported to safety, he dies in the blast.

Afterwards, in the employee break area, Judy and Slade tell the Doctor and her friends that Kerblam! is suspending operations for a month, with all employees given a two-week break. Judy also plans to increase the company's percentage of human employees, since Charlie did have a point there. She offers the Doctor and her friends jobs, but the Doctor declines, explaining they're freelancers. Back on the TARDIS, Yaz asks the Doctor for help delivering Dan's necklace to his daughter, and Ryan persuades Graham to leave the bubble wrap from the Doctor's package alone.


  • Accidental Murder: Charlie never meant to kill his crush with his bubble wrap bombs, but the Kerblam! system gave her one to kill her as a warning to stop him from going through with his plan.
  • Agitated Item Stomping: Charlie destroys the remote he was using to hack the Kerblam! systems this way, but the Doctor is able to stop the delivery anyway.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: It initially appears this way, but it's subverted with the reveal that Charlie has hijacked the Kerblam! system for his own ends and the system is trying to fight back.
  • Almighty Janitor: The Doctor suggests that Graham use his position in maintenance to get anywhere and find things out. On the flip side, Charlie takes advantage of this to carry out his dirty work.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: Charlie's robot 'army' blows up just when they get to the word "Kerblam!"
  • Benevolent Boss: Judy is one of the nicest characters in the episode, and is an important member of Kerblam! as the one looking out for all of its human ("organic") workers.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Kerblam! uses pedometer-like devices to keep track of their employees' movement and productivity, and the TeamMate robots carry out random spot checks on employee conversations.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Charlie is initially presented as an awkward but friendly young man, but it turns out he's the mastermind behind the things going wrong at Kerblam!, and plans to kill thousands of innocent customers to get the company into trouble.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The system killed Kira to either show Charlie the weight of what he's going to do with his bombs or show him how awful it will feel to lose a loved one this way. However, only Charlie is punished for his terrorism while the System is forgiven because it's a robot with no sense of right and wrong.
  • Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Charlie is an anti-corporate activist who is prepared to commit mass murder to make other people see his point of view. The Doctor points out that planning to kill thousands means he's not really an activist.
  • Book Ends: In the first scene, Ryan snags the bubble wrap from the Doctor's delivery gleefully and pops a few bubbles. In the last scene, Graham retrieves the bubble wrap, and Ryan, now wary of it, suggests he not pop it, so Graham puts it back in the box.
  • Boring, but Practical
    • While the Doctor is trying to sonic the robot that attacks Charlie, Judy just twists the robot's head off.
    • After her companions nearly get killed getting down to the basement, the Doctor just uses a delivery bot to teleport down.
  • Brick Joke:
    • In "The Big Bang", Eleven, after surviving flying the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS, decided he could buy a fez after he found himself without the one he'd picked up. Six series later, one finally arrives.
    • In "The Day of the Doctor", Clara comments that someday, the Doctor's just going to walk past a fez after he steals yet another one. He responds that it's never going to happen. True enough, they still love them even two regenerations later.
  • The Butler Did It: Custodial staff having unlimited access and yet going unnoticed is exactly how Charlie was able to enact his plan.
  • Call-Back:
    • The item that the Doctor receives from Kerblam! is a fez, with the implication that Eleven ordered it at least a few centuries ago and it took until now to show up. Well, he did once say he could buy a fez. He also spent 900 years in an unaccessable town called Christmas on an unaccessable planet - no wonder it took so long!
    • Much like in "Planet of the Ood", the Doctor and her companions infiltrate an industrial facility via the psychic paper, only for a female executive to later discover they're not meant to be there. There's also an employee who turns out to be a spy, although unlike Ood Operations, Kerblam! isn't up to anything malevolent, and the infiltrating employee is, in fact, the bad guy.
    • When the Doctor, Yaz, and Ryan go to hide while waiting for Slade to leave his office the Doctor begins to relate Yaz's comments about wasps to Agatha Christie.
    • The Doctor's comment that some of her best friends are robots is probably a reference to K9, who was sometimes called "the Doctor's best friend" (being a robot dog).
  • Casting Gag:
    • Julie Hesmondhalgh joins the actors the show shares with Broadchurch. It makes for an especially odd experience here as on that show, Jodie Whittaker was a counselor for Hesmondhalgh after a rape.
    • The voice of Kerblam! was provided by Matthew Gravelle, who was Joe Miller on Broadchurch. Given the relationship between Whittaker and Gravelle's characters, it's probably for the best that he wasn't onscreen in this episode.
  • Clipboard of Authority:
    • The Doctor takes note of Slade's clipboard when she first meets him. It turns out to be a plotpoint—he's not holding it for effect, but because he's keeping information on paper because he doesn't trust the System.
    • Judy Maddox also counts, as she holds her tablet like a clipboard and is one of the people in charge of Kerblam!
  • Clueless Aesop:
    • By the end of the episode, the people in charge at Kerblam! decide to scrap most of the robots and re-introduce a human-majority workforce. The decision to continue menial wage labour in a society that is clearly quite capable of transitioning into a fully-automated, post-scarcity society (think The Culture) isn't condemned, and the assumption that people can't be provided with the necessities for life through a system other than wage labour is not challenged. note 
    • Charlie enacts his murderous plot to ensure the unemployed are given jobs. The plot is foiled, but because of the plot, the Kerblam! managers say they will make a human-majority workforce company policy. The moral of the story is "Terrorism works", kids. note 
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Doctor says that "Some of [her] best friends are robots", referring to the likes of K-9, Kamelion and Handles.
    • While hiding in a paneled alcove with Yaz and Ryan, the Doctor asks if she ever told them about her and Agatha Christie.
    • For the second time this series, the Doctor uses Venusian Aikido to temporarily subdue a man with a gun.
  • Conveyor Belt o' Doom: After riding the conveyor belts into the Foundation level of the Kerblam! warehouse, Ryan, Yaz, and Charlie are subjected to an unpleasant decontamination spray and bursts of disintegrating laser fire as the system attempts to purge itself of organic elements.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: The system is capable of altering order slips Charlie doesn't have access to... why not just print "Charlie has developed explosive bubble wrap is has murdered dozens of people in preparation for a massive terrorist event."?
  • Cranial Processing Unit: The TeamMate robots can be disabled by having their heads removed.
  • Cute Machines: Twirly, the MK 1 delivery bot, is smaller and cuter, not creepy like the later models. Yaz remarks on it.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • The Tracking Device used to record worker position and efficiency is an ankle monitor.
    • The main villain is a highly intelligent Mad Bomber who dispatches his bombs by using the postal services to convince people to agree to their ideas. He creates and uses homemade bombs and has a grudge against the technical revolution. Looks like Charlie's taken lessons from the Unabomber.
  • Dead Star Walking: Comedian Lee Mack plays sympathetic single-father Dan, who bonded very well with Yaz. Of course, he doesn't end the episode alive.
  • Disposable Woman: Kira is killed off later in the episode to show Charlie how his terrorism will affect others but it only makes him double down his plans.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The episode's title refers both to the delivery company and the explosive plot of Charlie.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: The Doctor hits on the idea of infiltrating the factory by posing as new workers when Ryan, who works in a warehouse in Sheffield, says that the warehouse moon of Kandoka reminds him of his job.
  • Everyone Can See It: The Doctor and her companions immediately recognize the mutual crush between Kira and Charlie. So does the system, for that matter, which is why it targets her.
  • Evil Luddite: Charlie is so afraid of the Job-Stealing Robot trope that he's prepared to commit mass murder against Kerblam!'s customers to shake people's faith in automated labour.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Both Charlie and the Kerblam! system were willing to sacrifice innocents to stop the other. Charlie wanted to send out explosives that would shake customer faith in Kerblam!, while the system sacrificed Kira to prove a point to Charlie in an effort to push him away from his goals.
  • Excited Episode Title!: Justified, since that's how the store spells its name.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Dan tells Yaz about his daughter and shows her the pendant she made him before he's abducted and killed.
  • Fictional Counterpart: Kerblam! is basically Space Amazon, with the "HELP ME" message ripping straight from the headline.
  • Forced to Watch: The system seals Kira in a room with one-way glass and gives Judy a heads-up to her location, likely anticipating that Charlie would be among those to find her and witness her death.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When the Doctor gets her package at the beginning of the episode, it's implied that she ordered it so long ago that she'd completely forgotten about it (six seasons ago, in real time). When, much later on in the episode, they discover Charlie has been keeping some of the delivery robots at the factory to fit them all with his deadly packages, Judy mentions that they had been getting complaints about delayed deliveries.
    • Ryan removes the bubble wrap from the Doctor's package and pops a couple of bubbles. It turns out the villain intends to use bubble wrap to kill thousands of Kerblam! customers.
    • The Doctor, trying to find out where the message for help came from, sonics her and Graham's ankle bracelets to switch work assignments, sending Graham to maintenance work with the other janitor, Charlie. Since Charlie is the villain and the computer itself sent the message, it's clear the system was trying to direct the Doctor to the bad guy as quickly as possible.
    • Employees are warned never to get onto the conveyors. It's no surprise that's exactly what happens.
    • It's stated that human employees aren't allowed in the lower levels, where products are dispatched from, and have no access to the printing process for the packing slips, hinting that it was, in fact, the computer itself that sent the message for help.
    • Dan's comment that his pendant is made of arcadium and will be around long after he's gone. He's later abducted and killed, and the pendant becomes a Tragic Keepsake.
    • The Doctor tells Graham that, as a janitor, he has access everywhere, and Charlie later mentions that he has all the access codes when he and Graham are taking the historical blueprints. This is exactly how Charlie was able to carry out his plot.
    • When there's a total system blackout while the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Judy are in Slade's office, the one robot left active immediately attacks Charlie when he approaches it. The system was trying to kill him so his plan wouldn't succeed.
  • Flying Postman: In this case a teleporting courier.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Charlie produced the bubble wrap explosives so unsuspecting victims would trigger them. He definitely wishes they weren't so effective when his crush, Kira, is killed by them.
  • Good is Not Nice: Slade initially appears to be a Mean Boss, but he isn't the true villain.
  • Got Me Doing It: Judy keeps calling humans "organics" (the system's term for them) and correcting herself.
  • Handshake Refusal: Graham attempts a handshake on meeting Charlie, but settles for a wave when Charlie tells him he's just finished in the gents.
  • Happy Fun Ball: Charlie disguises his bombs as bubblewrap, knowing it's the one thing no customer will see as dangerous and virtually every customer will pop out of habit.
  • "Help! Help! Trapped in Title Factory!": Yaz discovers "HELP ME" printed on the back of the packing slip in the Doctor's package, setting off the plot.
  • Hoist by Their Own Petard: Charlie is killed by his own bombs despite being given a chance to escape. It's possible he didn't want to save himself.
  • I Want You to Meet an Old Friend of Mine: Jodie Whittaker and Julie Hesmondhalgh were both in Broadchurch, also by Chris Chibnall.
  • The Infiltration: The Doctor, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz infiltrate the Kerblam! warehouse to find the source of the message by posing as new hires, with some help from the psychic paper and the sonic screwdriver.
  • In Love with the Mark: Charlie only worked for Kerblam! to get revenge on the company. He didn't plan on developing a crush on Kira and accidentally causing her death. Once he does, Charlie has a Villainous Breakdown.
  • Irrevocable Order: Charlie triggers the mass bomb delivery and then destroys his remote so it can't be stopped. Lacking enough time to override his commands, the Doctor instead wires Twirly into the system and changes the delivery address to the robots themselves, then has them open and trigger the bombs.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Slade comes across as a Mean Boss during his first scene, rudely chastising Kira to get her to return to work and threatening the Doctor with disciplinary action when she stands up for her coworker. However, he's just as concerned by the employee disappearances as the Doctor is.
  • Job-Stealing Robot: Even with a 10% Organic Employment policy being enforced on Kerblam! (and, presumably, all similar corporations), robotic workers causing mass unemployment is a major problem throughout the galaxy. Dan remarks that half the galaxy is unemployed. During his Motive Rant, Charlie states that trying to change this fact is what drove him to do what he did.
  • Karma Houdini: The Kerblam! system is never punished for causing Kira's death. The Doctor brushes off these deaths and the Kerblam! system is explained as the machine trying to stop Charlie from committing terrorism. If anything, both the Kerblam! system and Charlie are as bad as each other because they are both willing to sacrifice innocents to stop the other. The closest punishment comes from the company deciding to remove the robot workforce to provide jobs to humans.
  • Karmic Death: An insane, murderous terrorist tries to kill thousands of innocent people (after offing several of his own co-workers) to try to prove some kind of point to himself, not caring about the massive loss of life as collateral damage. The Doctor screws up his plan, and in the end, the only one who gets blown up by Charlie's little stunt is Charlie himself — incinerated by thousands of his own bombs. Textbook karma.
  • Killed Offscreen: Dan is abducted by the robots, and all that remains of him when he's rediscovered is a vat of liquefied human remains.
  • Love Redeems: Averted; Charlie did develop genuine feelings for Kira while working at Kerblam!, but the system killed her as a warning to him. This caused Charlie to become heartbroken and more determined to carry out his plan.
  • Mega-Corp: Kerblam!, which seems to be your standard Amazon-style mail-order shopping service on a galactic scale, with the episode set on their moon-sized shipping warehouse. The entire complex is considered its own jurisdiction as far as law enforcement goes.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: The Kerblam! system's reason for killing Kira is a personal demonstration for Charlie by the System. As the Doctor explains, the grief and anguish he feels is what he is about to inflict on millions of people. It arguably backfires by hardening Charlie's resolve.
  • Motive Rant: Charlie has one after being exposed as the villain, complaining that the 10% organic staff policy doesn't go far enough and he wants to discredit Kerblam!'s Job-Stealing Robots for the good of all the unemployed people in the galaxy.
  • Mythology Gag:
    • One of the most notorious pieces of Special Effect Failure of the classic series was the monster from "The Ark in Space" simply being a guy covered in bubble wrap. Here, it's literally bubble wrap that's killing people.
    • The Doctor tells off his companions for being robophobic. There actually is a condition called robophobia as shown in "The Robots of Death" which has a plot that's the opposite of this one (humans are living indolent lives because robots are doing all the work, so a disgruntled human decides to liberate them).
  • Noodle Incident: Ryan initially dismisses the "HELP ME" message as a prank, mentioning of his warehouse job, "you should have seen what we used to hide inside the trainers."
  • No-Paper Future: Yaz and Ryan wonder why, in a corporation where everything is stored electronically, Slade needs a clipboard and a filing cabinet. He later justifies it by saying he thought the system was responsible for all the employee disappearances and was keeping a log of them somewhere no-one else could access.
  • Older Hero vs. Younger Villain: Granted, the Doctor is older than most people living anywhere, but Charlie isn't even an adult yet.
  • One-Word Title: "Kerblam!"
  • Poor Communication Kills: A lot of trouble would have been averted if the System could have explained everything on the note it sent the Doctor or through one of the TeamMates (such as the one that attacked Charlie).
  • Posthumous Villain Victory: Although Charlie is killed before he can enact mass-murder, Judy and Slade decide the Villain Has a Point with regard to Job Stealing Robots and solving mass-unemployment, and decide to enact a policy of hiring more human workers.
  • Red Herring:
    • Slade is a jerkass, and the discovery of records of the missing workers in his office seems to paint him as the villain. When he confronts the Doctor, her friends, and Judy, it turns out he's innocent and thought they were responsible for the disappearances. The reason he kept a paper trail of all the employee deaths was to make sure no one else could access it, including Judy, whom he didn't trust.
    • The audience is then made to think that Kerblam!'s automated system is responsible for the disappearances and projecting itself through the robots, a fairly typical sci-fi plot. However, the system is actually fighting back against the true saboteur, Charlie, who has been hacking its systems and draining its electricity. It itself sent the Doctor the "HELP ME" message.
  • Saved by the Platform Below: Ryan tries to high-give Charlie only to accidentally knock him off the conveyor. Fortunately he ends up on another conveyor beneath them, which Ryan and Yaz have to jump onto to follow him.
  • Save the Villain: Charlie flees into the warehouse of delivery robots before the Doctor orders them to blow themselves up. They try to talk Charlie into coming back, but he won't do it even when it becomes apparent what she's done.
  • Schmuck Bait: Charlie's plan hinges on the almost inevitable occurrence of people innocently popping the bubblewrap that their deliveries come wrapped in. At the end of the episode, Graham is shown fingering the bubblewrap apparently wanting to pop one despite knowing that detonates the bombs. Ryan calls him away... and then everyone stares at the bubblewrap apparently fighting the same urge.
  • Seen It All: After the delivery robot leaves, Graham quips, "Space postman. I've seen it all now."
  • Self-Parody: The menace is literally killer bubblewrap.
  • Shoot the Dog: Kira is killed by the Kerblam! system as a warning to Charlie, who had a crush on her, to stop him from sending deliveries that would kill their recipients. Charlie is heartbroken, but he doesn't back down.
  • Shout-Out: The Doctor mentions to Ryan that she's met a "bloke" named Roger Wilco.
  • Some of My Best Friends Are X: The Doctor literally says "Some of my best friends are robots" while telling off her companions for being "robophobic".
  • Targeted to Hurt the Hero: The system kills Kira deliberately to cause Charlie pain. The Doctor says it was attempting a lesson in empathy.
  • Teleportation: The Kerblam! delivery robots beam away to their destination. The first one seen is able to teleport into the TARDIS, although only after the Doctor slows down when she realizes it's not hostile.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Kira loved her job and was motivated by the joy of others. Sadly, this motivation is what killed her, as she was given a gift wrapped in explosive bubblewrap.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Dan has a pendant inscribed with the word "Dad", given as a gift from his daughter. Yaz asks the Doctor to help her deliver it to the daughter after Dan's death.
  • Trial Run Crime: Turns out the disappeared workers were test subjects that Charlie was abducting and murdering to perfect the ability of the bubblewrap bombs to kill in such small concentrations.
  • Uncanny Valley: Noted In-Universe. Kerblam robots are human-like with glowing eyes, rigid and perma-grinning mouths, and hands with too few fingers, making them look like creepy ventriloquist dummies. In contrast, Twirly is a cute and toyetic little squid-robot who spouts sales offers.
  • Unnecessarily Creepy Robot: Graham, Ryan, and Yaz find the Kerblam! robots, which look a bit like ventriloquism dummies, unsettling. The Doctor tells them off for being robophobic.
  • Villain Has a Point: Charlie wasn't wrong in his anger with Kerblam!; the robots outpaced humanity and cheated thousands, if not millions, of desperate humans out of a job, and a 10% minimum human employee policy is a pathetic minimum. Judy and Slade even agree with him in the end and make a policy to hire more humans and stop using the robots as the primary workforce.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Judy appears to be fighting the urge to throw up after the Doctor discovers the vat containing the liquid human remains of the disappeared employees, but never does so on-screen.
  • We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: Kerblam! is required by law to maintain a minimum 10% organic staff policy, but mass unemployment caused by Job-Stealing Robots is still a major issue. Judy mentions wanting to review company policy to allow for more human workers at the end of the episode.
  • Wham Line:
    • When the Kerblam! system, speaking through Twirly, starts chanting "Help me. Help me." alerting the Doctor to the fact that rather than being responsible for all of the murders, it's a victim of the chaos and was the one who sent the Doctor the message asking for help.
    • Charlie yells to Kira not to pop the bubble wrap, with Ryan quickly picking up that this means he knew it would kill her.
  • You Got Murder: Charlie plans to kill Kerblam!'s customers by putting explosives in their delivery boxes.