TV: Doctor Who: Series 11, Episodes 7 and 8: Kerblam! and The Witchfinders - Reviewed

A friend and fellow Whovian of mine recently shared her thoughts with me about Doctor Who, texting me that she’s been both loving this season and simultaneously dissapointed by it at the same time. That might be the best way to describe this new iteration of the show, as I’ve loved Jodie Whittaker in the role but have been frustrated by the overall storytelling, primarily at the hands of new showrunner Chris Chibnall. 

Far be it for me to want a season or multi-season-long arc, as I have unapologetically been a die hard fan of the standalone episodes of The X-Files over the mythology ones, however, Doctor Who is continuing proof that what may work for one show doesn’t necessarily hold true for another. In this case, the lack of a season-long storyline has made the stakes this season feel incredibly low. Sure, it’s fun to see where the Doctor (Whittaker) and her companions -- Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) -- will end up week to week, but it’s strained my interest a bit, as well as my investment in all the characters.

Peter Capaldi remains my favorite incarnation of the Doctor, and while his tenure lasted three seasons just like many of his predecessors, what at first felt like standalone stories proved to have season-long ramifications. Season Eight focused on Capaldi’s Doctor evaluating and “testing” whether or not he was a good man, which culminated in the return of The Master, now female, who called herself Missy (a beyond brilliant Michelle Gomez). Season Nine focused on almost entirely two-part episodes, with an important character, Ashildr (Maisie Williams), being introduced early on whose very existence impacted the Doctor in small and very devastating ways. Capaldi’s final run as the Doctor in Season 10 was, arguably, the least interesting, at least until the end, because of the very fact that it felt more standalone than Seasons 8 and 9. However, Season 10 was at its best when it dabbled in multiple episode storylines, particularly when it came time for Capaldi to end his run.

What I’m getting at is the idea that only standalone episodes with no through line, specific to Doctor Who, have proven to be unsuccessful. To be fair to the show, that does not mean there is not room for fun within the episodes. It just makes for less interesting storytelling overall. 

Kerblam! is an example of “fun,” whereas The Witchfinders feels strained and beside the point. The former focuses on an Amazon-like company, Kerblam!, that is mostly operated by robots. The episode leads us to believe that technology will always have problems without the human element before revealing its trick, which is that humans and our faulty wiring (pun intended) might always be the problem and that automation could, in fact, be good. 

It’s a fun story with some creepy elements to it. The reveal of who is exactly responsible for what is a bit of a let down, but the episode still is a highlight among this season’s standalone stories. The Witchfinders, however is just… not good. 

I will say the one thing the episode has going for it is Alan Cumming as King James I, but the witchcraft story becomes yet another cautionary tale that manages to have no cultural relevance, despite its efforts to do so. Again, I get what the writers were going for; they just do not pull it off.  It’s sad and frustrating because Whittaker and her Doctor deserve better storytelling than what is being given. 

With only two more episodes left this season, I doubt a major throughline will reveal itself, but I’m trying to hold out hope. Season 11 is well cast and at times shows the possibility of good writing, but it’s clear, at least for now, that Steven Moffat (Doctor Who’s previous showrunner) might be the only creative mind who gets the show. If only Chibnall and co. would prove me wrong. 

--Matt Giles