Series Three, Episode Three
Ah, Gridlock. I've got a soft spot for this one, but I'm not sure why. So much of it seems like the kind of stuff I hate.
It's set on New Earth, a planet so dazzlingly imaginative it has "Earth" in its name. We've been here before, in an episode set boringly right after another one, and with some of the same characters. Isn't the universe bigger than this? Why, when you can go literally anywhere, are we getting repeats?
|Because New Earth is where the cat-people live,|
and cat-people look awesome?
How to tell your plot's really stupid: the characters need to be really stupid for it to work. And regrettably, the people of Gridlock are award-winning, 24-carat stupid. These people couldn't find Wally in an otherwise empty room. In all this time, no one has noticed the police don't exist (despite never answering one call, ever), no one has ever heard back from the people in the "fast lane", and no one seems to be getting anywhere at all. In all that time didn't one person think, "Time to strap on a gas mask, get outside and look"?
Some of this is intentional. With people believing in fairytales and ignoring horrible realities, it can only be satire, something Russell T Davies traditionally does with as much subtlety as painting the word "SATIRE" on a frying pan and hitting you with it. "Everyone goes to the Motorway in the end" sounds a lot like "Once you go to Floor 500, you never come back", just as "They say the air smells like apple-grass!" sounds like "They say the walls are made of gold!" But where The Long Game satirised journalism and TV, Gridlock satirises belief in general. Depending on your point of view, it's actually quite startling for a piece of family entertainment.
With Martha kidnapped, the Doctor desperately needs to get into the fast lane below. When a friendly driver won't take him – because asking or telling people to do things doesn't seem to work, big surprise – he lets rip. "What if there's no one out there? What if the traffic jam never stops? What if there's no help coming, not ever? What if there's nothing?" Blimey, is it cold in here? Sidestepping the massive Statement Of The Obvious, and the way everyone acts like this is news, this might be one of the most bare-facedly atheist moments in Doctor Who.
Well, isn't it? These people are trapped by the locked doors overhead, but also by their own belief. Singing to each other keeps them placid, but all it really achieves is staving off the suspicions most of them already have. They'll just keep driving, live out their lives, and die. It's still massively stupid, because I don't think any amount of wishful thinking and Old Rugged Cross can make people this complacent for twenty-four years, and it falls apart the moment you think about it. (The traffic is moving, so where do the cars at the front go? If you need three people to get in the fast lane, why doesn't everybody carpool? If you definitely need three, how do those two people manage it in the teaser? And if there's something horrible underneath, why hasn't the entire bottom row of traffic noticed?) But it's one of the jobs of a writer to ask questions, and I admire the ones (intentionally) raised here.
|"They say some cars just vanish, never to be seen again!"|
Er, surely all of them vanish?
So how is that a rumour, and not a fact?
And there are more. These people might be doomed to drive in circles, but all those rumours about fresh air and apple-grass are, surprisingly, true. There is a better world up there – albeit one that's been de-populated – they just can't get through. That's where the Doctor must step in, along with the Face of Boe, a mythical figure even he doesn't understand, who cares for them out of sheer altruism, and ultimately frees them. Sound familiar? On New Earth, there might be a God after all. Plus, when Martha's carjackers lose faith, becoming convinced just as the Doctor was that no one's going to help, what's left is Martha's faith in the Doctor. All of a sudden, the apparent atheist becomes something to believe in. There's very thin ice between this, and equating the Doctor with a God – which he certainly ain't. But I like the idea that faith comes in different forms.
This theological back-and-forth no doubt contributes to my liking Gridlock. Of course, there has to be a reason for all those doors being closed, and for the endless traffic jam. And that's where we swing from "Why I like Gridlock" back to "Why do I like Gridlock?"
Mood drugs are an issue on New Earth, and one of them (called Bliss) mutated into a virus, killing the world. Those above ground did what they could, sealing the masses underground for their own protection. And things have stayed that way ever since, with almost nobody above and the masses below keepin' on truckin'. (No one ever asks questions like "Why are the doors closed?" or "When are they going to open the doors?", even though they were open well within living memory, but as we've established, they are morons, because plot.) The danger has passed but the doors remain closed, because there's not enough power. And as a lack of electricity doesn't make for a very good antagonist – and seriously, is that it?! – there are randomly giant crabs under the traffic jam, snapping at cars to their hearts' content.
The mood drugs are an iffy idea to begin with. (Since when are Forget, Sleep and Honesty moods, and why would someone wear an Honesty patch?) They, and the tragic reveal about Bliss, all feel tacked on, not to mention wincefully blunt. And then there's the crabs. It should be a thrilling fanboy moment seeing the Macra on our screens after 40 years, and it sort of is, but they're inconsistent with their own past (having mysteriously "devolved") and they don't add anything of value. We've no idea how they got there, and when the doors open to let the New Earthlings out, no one says anything about getting rid of them. (Not even the people living in slums, who buy and sell mood drugs and have no other impact in the story.) Are you keeping score? That's a stupid plot, populated with stupid characters, facing stupid opposition that they've hardly noticed.
|Finally, 30-or-so years after The Macra Terror went missing,|
Doctor Who fans have crabs again.
What follows is creative and fun (if a bit lacking in incident). Martha is stuck with two (admittedly irritating) carjackers, and fails (hilariously) to be okay with that. "I'm pregnant. I only found out last week!" "Right. What am I supposed to do, congratulate my kidnappers?" The Doctor meets a married couple, one of whom is a cat-person, Thomas Kincaid Brannigan. It's a role tailor-made for Ardal O'Hanlon, who lights up every minute he's on screen. Then the Doctor travels between cars, which is an obvious (but brilliant) exercise in set re-dressing.
We find the crabs – which look great, if nothing else – and then Novice Hame whisks him up to the Face of Boe. I'm glad Anna Hope is in it again; she was one of the things I really liked about New Earth, and she still brings an understated touch to the role. The Face of Boe is, well, a big old face, but the Doctor's reaction to his dying words – in particular, not wanting to hear them – is more brilliance for David Tennant. When we come to the final scene, with Martha refusing to budge until the Doctor stops brushing her off, it's difficult not to be moved. Despite the presence of Abide With Me, which is about as subtle as Russell's frying pan, it's a genuinely powerful moment for both of them, as characters and actors. I rather love it.
Ye Gods, what a mixture. On the one hand, Gridlock features one of Russell T Davies's worst plots. Just, yikes. On the other hand, there's (possibly) some religion-quashing, followed by (arguably) a whiff of there-might-be-something-in-it, or (maybe) none of the above. There's definitely some brilliant Doctor/companion bonding, even if they both spend most of the episode not doing much, and there's a lot of lovely incidental detail along the way, including a whopping big hint for the finale. ("You Are Not Alone." Shame he's not talking about Martha.) Add it all up, and I've still got a soft spot for Gridlock. But also, a headache.