One of my readers e-mailed me, reminding me to be more aware of spoiler protocol. Last season, I waited months until the CBC showed the latest Doctor Who episodes before I reviewed them, but now I’ve decided I’m too impatient to wait. And a few people who like to read my reviews but don’t want to spoil the surprises of each episode, have kindly told me that they’ll come back to my reviews later.
Fair enough. When the third season appears on the CBC, I’ll do my part as a fan of the series to promote each episode as they debut. After each episode, I’ll post a link to the reviews here, so that people can read them over and offer their own comments. And I’ll try to do a little better in selecting photographs which don’t give everything away.
I’ll also try to do more preambles like this, to take up more space between the top of the browser page and the meat of the review. It’s only fair. And thanks to those who have written to me and said kind things about my reviews.
Now, on to Gridlock.
Image courtesy the BBC.
In Smith and Jones, the Doctor promised Martha just a quick trip on the TARDIS, a promise fulfilled by the visit to the Globe Theatre in 1599. But the Doctor and Martha are finding it a little hard to let go, and so the Doctor resolves to squeeze in another trip on board the TARDIS.
His choice is a little suspect. One trip in the past, and one in the future seems a fair balance, but out of the blue he picks New New York in the year 5,000,000,043 AD. As he later admits, he’s taking Martha to the same places he took his “previous girlfriend”. Rose is haunting this relationship worse than a bad smell, and it doesn’t bode well for the Doctor’s ability to cope without her.
But the promised glories of New New York disappoint when the TARDIS lands in a decrepit and apparently deserted alleyway. Martha is unimpressed, even when the alleyway proves not to be as deserted as they thought when sales booths open up and shopkeepers desperately hock their mood altering… er… moods. Drugs by any other name. The Doctor’s disgust grows when a customer comes along. She’s lost her parents to “the Motorway” and wants to forget. Sure, say the salespeople; here’s a patch. And before the Doctor can say, “no, don’t—”, the patch goes on the neck and the customer is all “what parents?”
Although the Doctor promises to come back and clean up the neighbourhood of these mood patches, the patches take a bit of a back seat when two assailants arrive, apologize profusely, and haul Martha off to their waiting car. The Doctor races after them and comes to The Motorway — a gigantic multi-level freeway of flying cars that has been jammed solid for years (hundreds of children are growing up in the very anti-gravity cars they were born in). The reason Martha has been abducted? You need three people to make use of the mythical “fast lane”.
And, of course, it gets worse. Something is dwelling at the bottom of the motorway, feeding off the exhaust fumes, and the New New York Police department are putting all calls on permanent hold. People have been going in circles for almost two decades, and nobody from the city above seems to care. Or, more disturbingly, is it the case that there is nobody in the city above to care?
Gridlock is held together by the acting and the directing, as well as some nice rapid-fire dialogue. This is important, because if you spend more than half a second considering the plot, Gridlock crashes, if you pardon the pun. In order to explain away how people could survive a decades-long traffic jam, writer Russell T. Davies throws in some terms which seem designed to make physicists weep. Self-replicating fuel? Food recycled from waste? And the cars still produce exhaust? To say that the science of Gridlock is loopy is to assume that this episode is even grounded in science. To say that people could experience a decades long traffic jam without a complete social breakdown is… well, let’s just say that my suspension of disbelief died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Actually, I have fewer complaints about the sociology of the story than the science. People may ask why, in two decades, not one individual thought for a moment about driving up, or doing something big to attract the upperworld’s attention. Russell tries to fix that with a hymn. Possibly anchoring the sanity of the commuters is a holographic traffic reporter who offers the only sign that there is somebody up there aware of the problem — and each day she leads the drivers and the passengers in a hymn (after, tellingly, apologizing profusely). It’s a haunting scene in many ways, not least because it suggests to me that, at the back of their minds, the drivers and the passengers know that there is no help coming, and no way out.
But the hardest time I had with this episode comes in the scenes between the Doctor and the Face of Boe. Here, I think, Russell T. Davies oversells the story, taking it into the realm of melodrama. The music and the dialogue for the Face of Boe and his acolyte is way too portentous with talk about sacrifice and redemption — all because of a bloody traffic jam. Mind you, twenty years up top with only themselves for company probably means that the acolyte is far more insane than the drivers down below, who at least have the company of themselves via their CBs.
The change in tone itself is probably responsible for bringing Gridlock’s flaws to light. Russell can get away with a lot of things, so long as he’s funny, and there is plenty about the motorway scenes that is funny and fun. When the Doctor is zapped to the overworld and sees what has happened to the New New York senate, the fun ends, the story tries to tell itself seriously, and what’s left is a lot of ponderous and overblown dialogue and a script whose flaws simply cannot be overcome.
Fortunately, David Tennant is there to hold it together. The other actors do a great job, and Russell does a good job populating the motorway with interesting characters, but Tennant soars. His deep and personal anger over Martha’s kidnapping puts to rest some of the objections I had over The Idiot’s Lantern (dozens of people get their face sucked off, but when it happens to Rose, it gets personal? Well, it’s not just Rose who makes it personal), but what really rescues this episode is his initial reticence in talking about his destroyed homeworld, and his final opening up on the subject. Tennant displays an intensely deep grief that the Doctor barely has control over, and quite clearly the continued survival of the Daleks after Doomsday is going to tick him off big time.
The final moments of Gridlock are pitch perfect, with Martha grabbing a seat and not moving until the Doctor tells her everything, which he does. It is a significant breakthrough for his character, and one which keeps this season going at an even keel. The Doctor’s character was substantially enhanced here, and he is developing towards a crisis point, I think. The ending of Gridlock is surprisingly subdued; after seeing the highs and the lows of New New York, the most powerful moment comes from a conversation told on two conveniently overturned folding chairs.
Overall Gridlock is an enjoyable bit of fluff, if you can overlook the crazy science and the overblown melodrama. Probably destined to be the worst episode of this season, it still ranks slightly higher than the worst episodes of the previous two seasons. And those weren’t bad at all.
Doctor Who Notes
- I will give Russell T. Davies immense credit for his use of continuity in this story. The Doctor identifies the Macra (a monster dating back to the Patrick Troughton episode The Macra Terror) in the same manner and in the same tone of voice as he identifies the Judoon (a monster dating back to basically never). So the viewers who have never seen The Macra Terror (probably the overwhelming majority) are still along for the ride, while the continuity geeks have been tossed a good slab of red meat. And, as Cameron notes, it is a nice reminder that the show has a history behind it.