TARDIS File 03-03: Gridlock

TARDIS File 03-03: Gridlock

The Big Idea:  The Doctor returns to New Earth with Martha, but things go wrong as they end up in the traffic jam to end all traffic jams.

What’s So Great…

  • Russell T Davies has hit the ball out of the park with his script for Gridlock. It’s a complex story that explores issues of faith, truth and spiritual/emotional release. Watch the story one way and you have a quirky little narrative full of memorable characters and inventive little set pieces. But underneath are universal themes of loss, denial and salvation.
  • Setting the story on a congested, future motorway. The art design is fantastic and gives the story a really fresh look.
  • David Tennant is fantastic here, mining a variety of emotional pitches, particularly in that final scene where he unloads to Martha. His remembrance of Gallifrey is heartfelt.
  • Using old spirituals like The Old Rugged Cross and Abide in Me works on a number of levels, whether adding poignancy to the story or adding an ironic layer to the predicament of the characters.
  • The hilarious scene of Novice Hame dropping from the ceiling of the motorcar packing some serious heat.

Some Quick Bits of Trivia:  Irish actor Ardal O’Hanlon who plays Brannigan here is better known for his role as Father Dougal McGuire on Father Ted. Lenora Crichlow (Cheen) can be seen as Annie on the BBC supernatural drama Human Nature. Alice and May Cassini represent the first openly gay couple to be seen in televised Doctor Who.

Things to geek out about:

  • Following directly on from the previous story, The Shakespeare Code, the Doctor pulls out an arrow embedded in the TARDIS door.
  • The Macra are back right out of left field. Who would ever have expected the return of these crab-like beasties which first featured in the 1966 Second Doctor story The Macra Terror. Only an uber-fan like Davies would toss them into the mix. And they work perfectly with only a few words of explanation.
  • The Face of Boe makes his final appearance to the Doctor and reveals his long-held secret, that the Doctor is “not alone.” He is ably aided by Novice Hame who appeared in season 2’s New Earth.
  • The Doctor describes Gallifrey in a very similar way to how he did to his granddaughter Susan in the 1964 story The Sensorites: “Oh, it’s ages since we’ve seen our planet. It’s quite like Earth, but at night the sky is a burnt orange; and the leaves on the trees are bright silver.”

Not to complain but:  The whole sequence with the young woman buying the “forget” from the street sellers has an artifice that is quite jarring with the rest of the story. And was it really wise to tell a whole motorway full of drivers who advance maybe a yard a day to fly up into the sky at once? I’m guessing New Earth no longer has comprehensive auto insurance…

All Things Considered: Gridlock is a story that makes you proud to be a Doctor Who fan.  It’s everything that last year’s New Earth wasn’t: rich and textured with a sense of gravitas.  It has a similar brief as The End of the World, offering a turning point in the relationship between the Doctor and his companion with a revelation of truth about the Doctor’s past baggage. And yet it manages to achieve it without feeling repetitive.

Ultimately Gridlock is all about feeling trapped and confined, unable to move forward. The characters are full of hope but they’re also deeply in denial. Davies offers a variety of responses through each of their personas: Brannigan and Valerie are primarily concerned with their family; Milo and Cheen are desperate to escape, resorting to kidnapping Martha; May and Alice Cassini fill their time with the distraction of “car-spotting.”

Thus we have the brilliant parallel structure of the citizens on the motorway stuck going round and round in circles: the Doctor unable to move forward in his relationship with Martha (and in his grieving process), and The Face of Boe / Novice Hame trapped maintaining the structure of the underworld.  Davies and director Richard Clark up the tension through juxtaposing the inertia of the slow lane narrative with the almost frenetic “distraction” of the fast lane and the Macra.  The Doctor has to be removed from the situation to truly understand what’s going on. Brilliant philosophical stuff really. And then only through the combination of the Timelord, Hame and Boe is the lid blown off the impasse (literally).

Gridlock was made for everyone – wide-eyed kids can marvel at it, drunken university students can dissect it into the early hours of the morning.

Line of the week: “You are not alone.”

TARDIS File prepared by Scott Clarke

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