It starts with a fez. When an unexpected package arrives via Kerblam man—the universe’s largest e-commerce site—the Doctor is well pleased to get a new hat. But with the surprise comes a cry for help printed on the packing slip, so the team sets out to the moon of Kandoka, where the main facility is located.
Using Ryan’s background as a factory worker as a cover, the Doctor and her companions are split up, covertly working and trying to figure out who is in trouble at Kerblam. While the majority of staff are the robotic Kerblam men, who deliver packages, the company uses 10% of a human workforce to fulfill and pack the orders. The Doctor and Ryan work alongside the positive but nervous Kira in package, while Yaz learns about fulfillment from good-hearted Dan. Graham gets stuck mopping floors in the maintenance department with head janitor Charlie. All of the human workforce that Team TARDIS encounters keeps repeating how lucky they are to have jobs, but something is lurking under the surface.
As the day winds on, it’s revealed that the human works long hours and are kept on a strict schedule via their robotic counterparts. Dan reveals he only gets home twice a year to see his daughter, while Kira talks about how she herself had never gotten a gift until a few days ago—and she clings to that happy feeling while she packs her orders.
It also turns out management is sparse at Kerblam as well, with Judy Maddox being Head of People and seemingly cold Jarva Slade as Warehouse Executive. While Judy is focused on her job ensuring humans are represented in the workforce, Jarva comes across as a bad boss, verbally abusing co-workers, an action the Doctor calls out.
“Respect goes both ways. Good managers, the really good ones, value their staff, and know instinctively if someone is in trouble…or is asking for help. Now, how good of a manager are you?”
Slade swans off and Kira warns the Doctor and Ryan that coworkers have been disappearing for speaking out against Slade.
Meanwhile, Yaz gets an assignment to grab a package from one of the dark corners of the facility. Dan demands they switch, saying it’s not right for Yaz to have such a complicated assignment on her first day. Dan infers that others have been sacked. Worried about Dan, Yaz follows along at a distance. When he screams, Yaz arrives to find two smiling but menacing Kerblam men and no Dan.
The system continues to go on and offline, causing issues for the workers. After a break, the Doctor decides to take her concerns straight to management. While Judy and Jarva both say they don’t know anything about what’s going on, Jarva’s files suggest otherwise, with a list of all the humans that have gone missing over the past four months. Graham uses his smarts to get Charlie to get him a map of the facility. Judy catches the team going through the files and Graham and Charlie reveal they have a map of the original Kerblam factory. When the system goes completely offline, one of the Kerblam men is still working and tries to attack Charlie. Judy disables the teammate and the Doctor surmises the system transferred all its energy into that particular bot. All the people on the missing list still show as being alive and working.
The Doctor needs more data, so she commander’s Twirly, the first incarnation of Kerblam’s delivery bot, looking a bit similar to Amazon’s current drones.
The Kerblam teammates nab Kira, saying she’s been chosen as employee of the day. Judy receives a notification that she’s been taken and all agree the system is deliberately trying to send a message to them. She’s taken to the dispatch area and Ryan, Yaz, and Charlie head down via chute and conveyor belt. In the meantime, the Doctor figures out she can high jack the teleport capabilities of the Kerblam teammates to get down there right as Jarva points a gun at them. Once they arrive at their destination, the Doctor throws Jarva’s gun away and makes him confess. It turns out he hasn’t been hurting people, but keeping a list to also try and figure out what’s wrong with the system.
And then the answer becomes blindingly clear – the workers have been liquidized and a whole army of Kerblam men are standing by, with packages in hand.
Ryan, Yaz, and Charlie find Kira in a room, but she can’t see or hear anything. She slowly opens a package left by the Kerblam men. The box contains only bubble wrap. When she pops it, she explodes and evaporates.
The Doctor figures out that the bubble wrap is the weapon, full of tiny little bombs and that it isn’t the workforce that is at risk, it’s Kerblam’s customer base. Yaz, Ryan and Charlie rejoin the Doctor and that’s when the truth is outed. It was Charlie who was behind it this whole time. Upset over the fact that humans make up so little of the workforce, he planned this in protest but needed test subjects first. The system was trying to protect its human counterparts.
Charlie reveals he works in cybernetics and that this is his way of standing up, but the Doctor points out the cost. He says machines malfunction, but Graham points out that ironically that’s what he’s doing by trying to hurt others. The Doctor surmises that the teammate was coming for Charlie earlier and they took Kira to make a point and try to get him to stop. The Doctor begs him to stop, pointing out that what he’s doing is cold-blooded murder, not activism. Charlie sets off the delivery cycle and breaks the controller.
With moments to spare, the Doctor is able to reroute all the Kerblam men’s delivery to the very spot they’re already standing in so the blast will be contained at the factory via Twirly. The Doctor makes sure the Kerblam men pop the bubble wrap and the Doctor teleports everyone away except for Charlie, who decides he’d rather die for his cause.
Management shuts the factory down and moves back to a people-lead workforce. As the Doctor and her crew fly off, Yaz mentions she wants to visit Dan’s daughter and they all look nervously at the Kerblam box still on board, full of (non-explosive) bubble wrap.
The episode takes a hard look at how popular companies like Amazon put the customer first and the worker second and how that ironically impacts the workers’ lives in negative ways. While Dan and Kira take it in stride in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their loved ones, it destroys Charlie and he’s eaten up with hatred for what the company stands for.
But writer Pete McTighe also turns the technology-is-bad trope on its head, too. Much like last week’s episode, it’s not Kerblam’s technological system that’s hurting people, it’s what is crying out for help and trying to keep its co-workers and customers safe. The episode also touches on how extremism must give way to thoughtful conversation for things to really change. While Kerblam ended up making changes to their workforce, it came with a heavy price of human lives and destroyed technology. Once again, it exemplifies that people must come together and “sit down and talk” as the 12th Doctor pointed out in “The Zygon Inversion.”
This episode also felt like a bit like a light-hearted take on “Black Mirror” (if there could ever be such a thing) with the Kerblam men becoming an iconic baddie (but really goodie) like the Autons and the Smilers from “The Beast Below.” It feels like the series is finally hitting its stride but it’s no coincidence that it’s because Chris Chibnall’s name isn’t on the episode title card. And with the holidays right around the corner, bubble wrap becomes the latest everyday item that’s now nerve wracking thanks to Doctor Who (although classic fans would argue we’ve seen this already in the Fourth Doctor adventure “The Ark in Space.”) Happy holiday shopping!
Rachel Stewart has written fandom commentary for sites such as FangirlConfessions.com, Nerdy Minds Magazine, and ESO Network, among others. She has published work in the anthology “Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who.”