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Doctor Who: Gridlock (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Gridlock originally aired in 2007.

The sky’s a burnt orange, with the Citadel enclosed in a mighty glass dome, shining under the twin suns. Beyond that, the mountains go on forever. Slopes of deep red grass, capped with snow.

– the Doctor takes us to Gallifrey, for the first time in ages

Gridlock is the final (and best) of Davies’ “New Earth” trilogy, encompassing The End of the World and New Earth. The decision to focus the opening futuristic stories of the first three seasons around the same strand of “future history” is a very clever move, and perhaps an indication of how acutely aware Davies is of the way the modern television differs from television when the classic show aired. In short, it creates a pleasing sense of continuity between episodes that are very disconnected from the show’s main continuity.

This is far from the Powell Estate as you can get, and yet – three years in – it also feels strangely familiar.

The skyline's the limit...

The skyline’s the limit…

Davies did something similar with The Long Game and Bad Wolf. This would happen occasionally in the classic show, although not quite to the same extent. The series obviously had recurring villains and sequel stories – think of Pertwee’s trips to Peladon – but Tom Baker’s first season in the role comes to mind. In that season of linked stories both The Ark in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen unfolded on the same space station.

In the old days, it was fine for the Doctor to swan off across unfamiliar futures from week-to-week, but television has changed. The structure of Doctor Who has changed. At the pace of a standard episode of the classic series, there was a lot more space to develop the alien planet of the week and the people who inhabited it. In ninety-minutes, Robert Holmes could offer the viewer a detailed sketch of an alien culture from top to bottom.

Facing his mortality...

Facing his mortality…

This isn’t just about the runtime, though. After all, a two-part adventure from the modern series can run for almost as long as the standard four-part serial from the classic show. This is about the structure and the pace of television. Modern television doesn’t really have the time to devote to the Doctor digging into a culture as the show carefully and meticulously introduces several characters offering a viewpoint of how this world works. Modern television requires a more energetic pace, a more dynamic approach.

So this creates a problem when the show has to create new worlds. It’s something that Davies himself came up against when he wrote The Long Game. It is part of the reason that The Doctor’s Daughter stands as the weakest episode of an other-wise strong fourth season. Along with the budget, it’s probably one of the reasons why the first few years of the Davies era were reluctant to stray too far from Earth.

A bit of a fix...

A bit of a fix…

And Davies, to his credit, figured out how to make it work. He figured out that while it’s difficult to build an entire world in one forty-five minute episode, he can develop the same world over multiple episodes. As much as The Long Game falters because Davies can’t build anything more nuanced than a broad-strokes crapsack world, Bad Wolf benefits from the fact that it’s set in the wake of a future we’ve already visited. As tough as it was to get involved in Satellite 5, the Game Station is nothing more than a logical step forwards.

So the world of New Earth feels more substantial in Gridlock than the concept could have before. It’s building off the back of The End of the World and New Earth, neither of which were really successful world-building stories in their own right. The End of the World quite cleverly focused on character and plot rather than building some larger society. New Earth suffered from the fact that it presented the entire planet as existing inside a hospital.

Pinsir movements...

Pinsir movements…

Despite the fact that Gridlock features maybe a handful of sets (including one re-dressed car set, a back alley and a dead senate building), the episode feels strangely grounded and anchored in a mythology that has been subtly built and developed over the previous two seasons. It’s quite a clever way of structuring an adventure like this, and Gridlock works a lot better than most of the new series’ “world-building” stories.

It’s a pretty brilliant piece of structuring, and Davies doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for dealing with the problem. Even years later, Moffat was still struggling with that basic problem. The Rings of Akhaten is probably the weakest story of the show’s fiftieth anniversary season, and the problems are the same problems that Davies had with The Long Game and The Doctor’s Daughter.

Cool cats...

Cool cats…

Gridlock is built from the same fabric as The Long Game and New Earth. It’s Davies using an exaggerated and hyper-stylised futuristic setting to take a satirical look at modern living. In The Long Game, Davies playful extrapolated what the modern news media might look like to the nth degree. In New Earth, Davies attacked public and private health care while also throwing in zombies and possession. Because everybody likes zombies and possessions.

Gridlock is, on the surface, about the commute. Commuting to work has always been a part of modern living, staple of industrialisation. Work tended to take place in cities, city living was expensive, so people tended to work outside cities and travel in to work. Throw in inflated property prices, poor public planning and transportation services, and eventually the collapse of the jobs market, and you end up with phrases like “super-commuter”, created to describe the nine percent of the workforce who commute more than ninety minutes each way. Because, of course, once you get there, you have to get home again.

Things are looking down...

Things are looking down…

Gridlock takes this idea to its logical extreme. Brannigan and his wife have been traveling for over a decade to get out to somewhere where there might be jobs for them. Ultimately, it turns out that everybody is just driving around in circles, creating a toxic atmosphere that threatens to suffocate anybody who dares to go outside for more than a few seconds at a time. Cars are lucky to move inches in a day, and there are reports of “multiple stackpiles” as pile-ups move into the third dimension.

However, Gridlock is a lot more profound than that. It’s a story about people, and about how people tend to claim whatever small part of the world that they can. The Doctor travels through a variety of cars, discovering that each has been carefully and meticulously decorated to reflect the owner. Even in what turns out to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are still holding on to their identity and originality in whatever way they can.

Hard-wired...

Hard-wired…

This makes Gridlock something of a more optimistic companion piece to Davies’ other futuristic third season script, Utopia. Utopia was also a story about a small cluster of survivors waiting out the end of the world. Much like the drivers in Gridlock, those humans are surviving on the fantasy of something great waiting beyond. The drivers here believe that the world is still turning as they commute; the survivors of Utopia dream of a surviving paradise.

Both turn out to be lies. In Utopia, the last survivors of humanity are driven mad by the nihilistic realisation that there is nothing left – that Utopia itself is an illusion and a dream. As re-written by revelations in The Last of the Time Lords, Utopia serves as one of the bleakest scripts written by Davies. Humanity rages against the dying of the light by regressing into child-like sociopaths.

He's having kittens...

He’s having kittens…

In contrast, then, Gridlock is positively optimistic about humanity’s ability to withstand the worst. The Doctor is shocked and appalled by what is going on here, and about how people seem to be trying to get on with their lives. Brannigan rejects that assertion. “You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.” While Davies makes the case that nobody seems to be trying to resolve the situation, it’s made clear that humanity has not given into its worst fears and anxieties.

(Of course, Gridlock is somewhat ambiguous on this point, leaving it up to the viewer to judge the drivers. Is merely surviving and claiming what little they can from the world a triumphant endorsement of mankind’s resilience? Or is their unquestioning acceptance of the status quo a less-than-endearing character trait? As a writer, Davies tends to vacillate between those two extremes, depending on how cynical he feels on a given day.)

All fur one?

All fur one?

Gridlock continues quite a few of the social justice themes that run through Davies’ work on Doctor Who. There’s very pointedly a rigid class structure in place here. Even Brannigan identifies it as such. When the Doctor manages to track down the car carrying Martha, the two remains divided by motorway etiquette. “Call them on this thing,” he insists. “We’ve got their number.” Brannigan replies, “But not if they’re designated fast lane. It’s a different class.”

Tennant’s Doctor might be a reversion to form after Eccleston’s decidedly working class Doctor. While Eccleston wore a casual jumper and a leather jacket, Tennant wears a suit. While Eccleston was quite proud that his character spoke with a distinctly Manchurian accent, Tennant masked his own Scottish accent with the traditional Received Pronunciation accent. However, Davies makes it quite clear that the Doctor retains a fondness for live among the lower class.

Self-policing...

Self-policing…

When Martha is unimpressed with her trip to New New York, the Doctor manages to pull up a view of it from a nearby monitor. “Oh, that’s more like it,” he remarks. “That’s the view we had last time. This must be the lower levels, down in the base of the tower. Some sort of under-city.” Martha seems a little distressed. “You’ve brought me to the slums?” she asks. “Much more interesting,” the Doctor insists. “It’s all cocktails and glitter up there. This is the real city.”

Indeed, it’s telling that one of the few areas where Martha gets a defining personal attribute beyond simply “not!Rose is in her class. A medical student rather than a shop girl, Martha is defined as more educated and refined than her predecessor. “She looks rich,” one of the hostage-takers comments. “She must have got lost.” Witnessing the realities of life in the slums, Martha is quick to rush to value judgments. “So that’s the human race five billion years in the future? Off their heads on chemicals?”

Rain of terror...

Rain of terror…

What’s interesting about Gridlock is that Davies seems to be making a conscious effort to tone down some of the righteous anger that powered other class-based stories like The Long Game and New Earth and even Midnight. Gridlock lacks that sort of anger, perhaps because it’s more focused on the people living in the class system rather than those actively enforcing it. Most notably, Gridlock remains remarkably sympathetic towards Brannigan despite the character’s clear conservatism.

Brannigan is presented a character worried about upsetting the apple-cart, and very stuck in his ways. He’s actively religious, proudly participating in the hymn. (Then again, so is every other driver we see.) More pointedly, Brannigan refuses to acknowledge the marriage between Alice and May, referring to them instead as “the Cassini Sisters.” When they correct him, he doesn’t apologise. He just uses his conservatism as an excuse. “Oh, stop that modern talk! I’m an old-fashioned cat.” Given that this is the first gay marriage portrayed in Doctor Who, even his light-hearted refusal to acknowledge is striking.

Face to face...

Face to face…

In any other story, Brannigan would be a clear obstacle to the Doctor. He might be presented as honest and well-meaning, but he’d also be presented as stubborn and unreasonable. At best, he’d be unconsciously enforcing the status quo; at worst, he’d be actively blocking the Doctor. Curiously, Gridlock remains completely sympathetic to the character through-out the run time.

When he refuses to help Martha, it’s not because he’s blindly loyal to the system; quite the contrary. He is smart enough not to dismiss the stories of monsters on the motorway. He just doesn’t want to put the lives of his family at risk, which is the most sympathetic way possible of having him not actively help the Doctor. Similarly, he’s overjoyed when the Doctor manages to free the drivers, proudly championing the Doctor’s work. “Did I tell you, Doctor? You’re not bad, sir. You’re not bad at all!”

The senate is deadlocked...

The senate is deadlocked…

Gridlock feels a bit more balanced and tempered than Davies’ other futuristic scripts, probably helped by the focus on individuals. Indeed, in The Writer’s Tale, Davies himself has reflected on how so much of the script took on a life of its own, including his use of religious subtext as a conscious effort to avoid letting his own views bleed too heavily into the show:

If you’re touching on big issues, you’ve got to keep turning these things, examining them, looking at the opposite of what you think.  For example, as an atheist, I set out to include the ‘Old Rugged Cross’ sequence in Gridlock to show how good faith can be, regardless of the existence of God – how it can unite and form a community, and essentially offer hope.  That was my intention, or my starting point, and yet the real me came bleeding through, because it transpires that hope stifles the travellers.  It stops them acting.  By uniting, they are passive.  The Doctor is the unbeliever.  The direct consequence of the travellers in the traffic jam singing that hymn is that the Doctor realizes that no one is going to help them.  There is no higher authority. That’s when he starts to break the rules of that world by jumping from car to car. You could argue, therefore, that the travellers’ faith was misguided.

It’s great discussing this with David Tennant, actually. We fell into devil’s advocate: he argued for the car-drivers being wrong and passive, and I argued for their goodness. But I think he’s right. He got what the script is saying. But I didn’t write Gridlock thinking, this is my take on religion. My foremost thought, and my principle job, was to write an entertaining drama about cats and humans stuck on a motorway. Everything else just bleeds through.

However, it’s to the credit of Gridlock that the issue isn’t as one-sided as Davies makes it seem – Utopia is a much stronger condemnation of how faith can poison people in the long run. In Gridlock, faith keeps people alive and optimistic and hopeful in the most dire of circumstances. That same faith ultimately pays off when a strange visitor from the sky arrives to solve all of their problems.

"This is the Doctor speaking..."

“This is the Doctor speaking…”

Indeed, Martha explicitly compares her faith in the Doctor to the drivers’ religious faith. “But that means that the only hope right now is a complete stranger,” Cheen protests. “Well, that’s no use.” Martha is practically evangelical. “It is, though, because you haven’t seen the things he can do. Honestly, just trust me, both of you. You’ve got your faith, you’ve got your songs and your hymns, and I’ve got the Doctor.”

In a way, that’s a big difference between Davies’ portrayal of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. In episodes like The Long Game or Father’s Day or even The Doctor Dances, the story was all about the Ninth Doctor inspiring individuals to be the best that they could be – and to make the tough decisions on their own. Cathica needs to question authority; Pete Tyler and Rose Tyler need to accept how the universe works; Nancy needs to accept her son.

Old eyes...

Old eyes…

In contrast, the Tenth Doctor is a bit more dynamic. He’s more of an out-and-out hero than a character who inspires others to save themselves. Even here, the Doctor doesn’t inspire the citizens of New New York to claim the skyways for themselves. He instead just arrives and fixes their broken world. There’s a way to read Gridlock in the spirit that Davies himself originally intended, even if its nuanced and open to interpretation – as he concedes.

The episode deals with the issue of faith in a surprisingly nuanced and considerate way for an adventure series about human cats and giant talking heads. It’s thoughtful and astute, and gives the audience something to chew over. Compare this to the heavy-handed depiction of faith as something idiotic and moronic in The Doctor’s Daughter, where the only use of faith is to disguise and distort scientific reality and to justify hatred.

New New York, New New York, it's a hell of a town...

New New York, New New York, it’s a hell of a town…

Gridlock still suffers a bit from the problems associated with Martha during the third season. The Doctor’s treatment of Martha feels almost psychologically abusive, repeatedly drawing attention to the fact that she’s only on board at his sufferance. “Just one trip,” the Doctor reminds her. “That’s what I said. One trip in the TARDIS, and then home. Although I suppose we could stretch the definition. Take one trip into past, one trip into future.”

It’s clear that he likes the company, but his refusal to admit any of this to Martha makes the relationship seem decidedly unhealthy, something that casts a shadow over the season. Adventuring through time and space is supposed to be a wondrous experience, at least in theory. Sure, the Doctor and companions stumble across their fair share of horrors on the way, with Gridlock serving as a convenient example, but the central dynamic is the core thread that runs through each individual Davies season. Ninth Doctor and Rose; Tenth Doctor and Rose; Tenth Doctor and Martha; Tenth Doctor and Donna.

Hover car surfing...

Hover car surfing…

The strength of the dynamic contributes quite a lot to the strength of the season. The first season is quite uneven and inconsistent, watching the show figure out how to make Doctor Who, but the relationship between Ecclestone’s battle-scarred Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper’s shopgirl Rose helps anchor it. The fourth season is a lot more confident, but even that run is elevated by the fact that David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor found his perfect match in Catherine Tate’s Donna.

The reality is that Doctor Who had to deal with the departure of Rose. She was a character who had been around longer than either the Ninth or Tenth Doctors when the she departed at the end of the second season. The realities of modern television mean she can’t just leave without her absence being remarked upon or informing some of the episodes that follow. At the same time, there’s something deeply unsettling about the way that one of the two leads on the show seems to exist primarily in relation to a character whose last appearance aired almost a year ago.

Cats with guns...

Cats with guns…

Of course, like the Doctor’s arrogant frolicking with Rose during the second season, it’s clear that Davies wants the audience to see it that way. It’s worth noting that Davies’ scripts typically tend to mitigate – or at least tackle – the problematic aspects of the relationship between the Doctor and Martha better than those scripts from other writers. Here, Martha explicitly calls the Doctor out on his fixation on Rose. Even then, though, the whole thing feels more passive-aggressive than constructive.

“You’re taking me to the same planets that you took her?” Martha demands. “What’s wrong with that?” the Doctor retorts. “Nothing,” Martha eventually concedes, as if she’s been bullied into submission. She mutters to herself, “Just ever heard the word rebound?” At this point, it seems that the TARDIS is not a happy place, but in a rather toxic and sly sort of way. While handled much better, it can’t help but evoke the somewhat warped relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri.

Talk about taking the slow road...

Talk about taking the slower path…

Things get a little better towards the end of the episode, when Martha stands up for herself. As the Doctor tries to rush her into the TARDIS, the Doctor demands, “All right, are you staying?” Martha responds, “Till you talk to me properly, yes.” And it seems to work. It seems to get the Doctor to open up to her rather candidly about his past and his damage and what happened.

The problem is that none of this sticks. Immediately following the next story, Martha has to give the Doctor another little speech about how he needs to treat her with a bit more respect. And later on in the season, the Doctor manages to get Martha stranded in time with him twice, relying on her quite heavily in Human Nature, Family of Blood, Blink and The Last of the Time Lords, without any real acknowledgement of the unreasonable amount of suffering she goes through as a result of his own actions.

A person-jacking...

A person-jacking…

(To whit: he could have hidden from the Family of Blood anywhere where Martha wasn’t forced to seek cover black maid in a racist culture; he probably could have contributed to keeping the pair of them afloat when they got stranded in the past; he could have listened to Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion, he could have been paying attention to what was going on in contemporary Britain during the third season and he could have let Jack kill the Master when he had the opportunity in The Sound of Drums.)

So Gridlock feels like it really should be the point at which the Doctor starts seeing Martha as her own person in the same way that he saw Rose or Donna as people. It makes sense. Three episodes is a nice length for a “rebound” plot, particularly when a show only does fourteen a year. Gridlock should be a nice place to wrap a bow around that, and the episode teases the possibility.

Woe is Boe...

Woe is Boe…

Unfortunately, it winds up feeling just a bit shallow in the context of the rest of the season. After this conversation, Martha is definitely a part of the TARDIS crew. The trip to classic New York in Daleks in Manhattan should all but passively confirm this. Instead, we’re right back to square one by The Lazarus Experiment. It feels like the Doctor and Martha keep having variations on this sort of arc throughout the season, constantly being reset back so the Doctor can continue to treat her as a hanger-on.

Gridlock is slightly more successful in its approach to continuity. Davies’ resurrection of Doctor Who was quite careful in the way that it built up the show’s grand mythology. One of the (admittedly many) problems with The TV Movie was the way that it assumed that anybody watching the show would care about Sylvester McCoy. Given how few people watched the show during the McCoy era, that was quite a miscalculation. Instead, the film was a convoluted mess designed to appeal to hardcore fans without seeming to understand the basic casual appeal of the show.

This isn't even peak traffic...

This isn’t even peak traffic…

Davies’ revival was a lot shrewder. It accepted that a lot of people watching would be only casually familiar with Doctor Who. So it borrowed quite heavily from the original show, without relying on audience familiarity. In particular, Davies seemed to recognise that iconography was more important than continuity. Rose doesn’t feature Paul McGann; instead, it features killer dummies walking the street.

So Davies took the time to reintroduce old concepts, rather than treating them as something that belonged inherently in the show. He reinvented the Daleks and the Cybermen, two of the most iconic villains from the show. In the third season, he pulls his most ambitious trick to date – reworking the Master in a way that makes him actually work as a character rather than simply a convenient pantomime opponent.

A purr-fect travelling companion...

A purr-fect travelling companion…

And Davies does this rather brilliantly. While it’s easy to focus on the in-jokes and the “arc words”, the structuring of the Master’s return is quite elegant. The third season seems to be building to the point where “Derek Jacobi goes crazy after opening a fob watch” feels like a satisfying dramatic pay-off. So Davies has spent two years avoiding mentioning the name Gallifrey, so that when the Doctor mentions it here, it has a great deal of weight.

Gallifrey isn’t used for its continuity value. It wasn’t a mystery, and the reluctance to use the name wasn’t to create any doubt among fans that Davies might really shake things up by revealing the Doctor suddenly comes from the planet Kronos. (Or, you know, Qo’nos.) The point of holding the name back is so the audience knows that it’s a pretty big deal for the Doctor to even say it. It serves as a character beat rather than a piece of continuity. Which is where Davies’ approach to Doctor Who is strongest.

They haven't a prayer...

They haven’t a prayer…

Similarly, the Master’s return depends on the use of a chameleon arch to hide among humanity. So Davies needs to introduce the concept of the chameleon arch. He doesn’t do this by making off-hand reference or by shoe-horning it into an early episode or even by inserting the name into a few of the season’s early entries. He has Paul Cornell adapt his book Human Nature for the show. It goes on to be one of the best-loved episodes of the season. The chameleon arch is introduced in service of character drama, rather than continuity.

And yet there’s no real way to deny Davies’ affection for the show’s past. He included “kronk” burgers in The Long Game. Here, he includes a shout-out to a bunch of aliens from a long-lost black-and-white Patrick Troughton adventure. That’s the kind of little bit of continuity that only gets included out of love. The fact that the Macra fit so smoothly into the background of Gridlock is a nice touch.

Cool cats...

Cool cats…

There’s a sense that Davies wrote the story and his inner fanboy realised that there were a bunch of aliens who do live on noxious gases in the Doctor Who universe, and so fit them in. It’s use of continuity in a way that acknowledges the past without fetishising it. It’s a delicate balance, and something that Davies always did well during his time writing for the show.

Still, Gridlock is a tremendous piece of television and a fabulous piece of Doctor Who. It’s a smart and clever script, one well-handled and beautifully put together. It’s a testament to how well Davies and his team have come to understand the art of making Doctor Who over the previous few years.

2 Responses

  1. I tend to lean more towards the futuristic stories set in alien worlds than those set in the present or the past, but I can see where you’re coming from re: the pitfalls of world building. These episodes often leave me wanting more as we get only a cursory glance of the world in question, so I appreciated revisiting New Earth here. I wouldn’t mind going back again at some point!

    By the way, while I appreciate your analysis of the new Who episodes, I’m gonna have to skip the classic reviews for now, since I haven’t seen many of them and I’d like to avoid any potential spoilers.

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