Doctor Who #756: Gridlock

"You're taking me to the same planets that you took her?" "What's wrong with that?" "Nothing. Just ever heard the word rebound?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.14 2007.

IN THIS ONE... New New York is just a big traffic jam.

REVIEW: On the surface, this is an episode in which RTD returns to the far far future to spoof some modern day phenomenon. After plastic surgery, news networks, reality TV and stem cell research, we get commuting and traffic jams (but not, surprisingly, road rage... imagine Gridlock written by someone from Los Angeles and you'd get Death Race 2000). But that's a visually appealing  setting, not the theme of the story. Davies also comments on a darker element, drugs, something the Doctor and Martha get angry about and that has apparently killed the Overcity. Again, I don't think this is what the story is really about. No, the episode is actually a rehearsal for what is to come in the season finale. The Face of Boe's prophecy ("You are not alone") relates to that finale, obviously, but it's a lot more than that. Here really begins the Doctor-as-Christ-figure stuff, with hymns underscoring Martha's faith (and doubt!) in him. In that metaphorical space, the Undercity is a never-ending purgatory or Pagan Hell the Doctor releases the souls from. They rise into the light and start singing That Old Rugged Cross. This is not so different from the business with the Archangel Network in Last of the Time Lords, when you think about it.

And then there's Martha herself. This is the first episode where she can really prove her mettle because it's the first where she's separated from the Doctor (by possibly the sweetest kidnapping ever - and yay! Lenora Crichlow from Being Human!). She gets to use her medical skills, her natural empathy, and her inspirational qualities. It's her faith in the Doctor that helps the couple survive, gives them hope, which becomes exactly her mission on an epic scale in the finale. Even her relationship with the Doctor is prefigured here, not as the drippy unrequited crush (though everyone's on orders to cater to it in at least one scene), but as the girl who cuts through the Doctor's crap. My favorite Martha moments all have to do with this, and the first one is at the end of Gridlock, when she grabs a chair, sits down in an alley and waits for him to tell her the truth. We've heard all about the Time War of course, but not from Tennant's Doctor, and if anything, he's sadder than Eccleston's was about it. The descriptions of Gallifrey are beautiful (some come from Susan's back in the early days) and there's a sense that he didn't know what he had until he lost it. He wanted to pretend it never happened, keep Martha in the dark, but she's the person who consistently pushes him off his cloud, grabs him by the collar when he tries to run from his own feelings, and calls him out on his thoughtless words and moves (i.e. not only returning to the places he brought Rose, but even using the same jokes on her).

As to the mechanics and visuals of the plot, Gridlock has a nice energy and visual flair. I get the feeling we don't get all the sight gags, like each car on the motorway is inhabited by some clever reference to an old sitcom or 2000 A.D. strip (I only really get the first one, a take on American Gothic), but each car redress is fun and colorful. Brannigan is a handsome cat, and the idea that his babies are actual kittens (they must become humanoid later) is both proof that humanity will shag its way to the stars (the more conservative in the audience will almost accept the Cassini Sisters' "modern" relationship after that!) and, I wouldn't be surprised, only there to support a "don't have kittens" joke. That shouldn't be read a complaint, it's a fun bit. As is the sequence of the Doctor leaping from car to car, and the nerdgasm some of us undoubtedly had when Macra were found at the bottom of the motorway. They've devolved into fume-sniffing giant crabs over the eons, but hey, we do love our references. And yet, for all the fun and energy, Gridlock comes off as a particularly sad and poignant episode, largely thanks to the music, and of course, the death of a melancholy giant head.

My original review, Life is a Highway, goes into more detail about the various metaphors at play, and reveals the episode's Bad Wolf reference!

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - It's a lot of fun, but it's also surprisingly emotional.


Anonymous said...

One thing in this episode and so many others on the new run: the bad guy isn't some arrogant jerk saying "soon you will submit to my will, moo-hoo-hoo-ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaaa!" but technology that has run disastrously off the rails. I don't see that as social commentary, just a different type of threat that cannot be bargained with or outbluffed. And I say it beats the hell out of the standard issue old-style bad guy.

Even when they tried to pull something similar in the old series, they didn't get it right. The computer in Leela's first episode was less a malfunctioning program than a crazy man. And the robot from Tom Baker's first outing fell in love with Sarah Jane, good God that's painful to even think about.

Randal said...

I remember a great response to people at the time complaining about the de-evolution of the Macra:
What if there were giant pollution eating monsters down below and they WEREN'T the Macra? How would fandom react?

CiB said...


A lot less angrily. What defined the Macra wasn't their food source, but their cunning. They're not really Macra without that.

Besides the setting is large enough for other polution eating monsters. If RTD wanted one that didn't resemble Macra in any meaningful way, he could have made one up quite easily.

LiamKav said...

I dunno. The answer to "how would the fandom have reacted?" is usually "some of them were extremely annoyed and went to the internet to complain", regardless of the rest of the actual question.


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