Thursday, 6 February 2014

Road To Nowhere

Doctor Who
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?
Even Martha is irritated by this, once she realises the Doctor is taking her to the same places he took Rose.  (Wait, is that why he's still obsessed with Rose?  To explain the repeats?)  Still, the plot's different this time: far removed from shiny hospitals and apple-grass, the action takes us underground, to a never-ending traffic jam surrounded by petrol fumes.  The drivers remain optimistic, somehow oblivious to the fact that there's nowhere to go, no help coming from above, and something sinister picking them off from below.  Oh, and they've been at this for twenty-four years.

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.
Okay then, swinging back the other way, what about the Doctor and Martha?  Gridlock is ostensibly about how well they know each other, and whether they can progress as friends.  And about time!  Asked about his home planet, the Doctor lies and pretends it's still there.  Why not?  But once they're separated (by carjackers needing a third person), he realises he owes her the truth, and has let his showy-offyness place her in danger.  All of which is satisfying, especially if you're bored of the Doctor mistreating her.  It's great watching David Tennant grapple with consequences, and with the Doctor's past, communicating buckets with a well-timed move of the eyes.  Forget having other characters tell him how mysterious he is: that's how you do it!

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.


  1. Great summary of all the problems with this episode - I really don't have anything to add there. And yet, like you, I have a soft spot for this one... it's funny and infuriating and exciting in all the right places, the acting is superb (I just LOVE Martha's realization that she's putting her faith in someone she doesn't even know), there are genuinely beautiful and moving moments throughout, the diverse occupants of the the various cars are a hoot, Novice Hame and the Face of Boe back (yay!) and the whole thing just LOOKS superb. I kinda love this episode, certainly more than the previous two installments in this sorta-trilogy. And that ending - Martha's standing up for herself - love it. That, and her eventually walking out on him are the two moments that really made me love her, in amidst all the dross of Series 3. And Tennant gets to do some great emoting here too - less mopey sad Doctor puppy eyes, more tearful smiles of recollection. Ugh... it's SO GOOD! Beautiful stuff.

    Keep these reviews going, won't you? They're a great read :D

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoy them. I've no plans to stop, although there may be a few rests and diversions and non-Doctor Who things. I've got about 40 Who reviews left, taking us up to Let's Kill Hitler (where the blog started, oddly) and including the next two Christmas Specials (which I tend to miss because I'm busy at Christmas).

    Gridlock has some brilliant CGI, and the slums (although oddly pointless in the plot overall - what DO those people do all day, and have they noticed the Macra?) look pretty neat. I'm rarely fond of actors crying - I'm more impressed when they just-barely-hold-it-in, something Matt Smith's good at - but I think Tennant gets away with it here. Very moving stuff.