doctor who 3.3 gridlock

16 04 2007

Oh come on, back to the same place again? The Doctor and Martha arrive on New New Earth in the year five billion and something, last seen in at the start of season two. The Doctor Who team are certainly getting value out of the props and costumes (judging by the trailer the pig fella from Aliens of London (1.4) may be back next week) which is a laudable use of our license fee, but the amount of repetition is stretching credibility a little.

So Gridlock doesn’t start at all promisingly, with another return to an old setting, a reprise of the stalls-opening-for-business from The Long Game (1.7) (which was a bit silly then too) and a really clunky start to the narrative (the Doctor and Martha stand around until, oh look, Martha’s been kidnapped. What is this, 1972?).

Then we’re introduced to the Motorway, and things really pick up when we encounter the hovercar-driving denizens of this dystopian traffic jam. Ardal O’Hanlon is great value as the charming cat-fella Brannigan, the Cassini sisters are the first actual gay couple in a long line of non-traditional relationships in the show, and a businessman inspired by 2000AD’s pinstripe freak Max Normal surely deserves a name.

The highlight of the episode is a bravura sequence in which the Doctor leaps from hovercar to hovercar, searching for Martha. In each car we glimpse the people of the future, and these brief encounters are the beating heart of the episode, establishing a context and texture to this future world that no amount of exposition from chirpy pharmacists can achieve. The redressing of the single car interior is a triumph of diversity and detail, and also easy on the license fee. Hurray!

Unfortunately, Martha is lumped with Milo and Cheen, who are easy on the eye but really, really dull. They nearly get snapped up by the Macra, a Troughton-era race of villainous crabs.

It’s fun to see the colossal crustaceans rendered in CGI in comparison to the original (fondly shown in Doctor Who Confidential). The use of such an old enemy gives resonance to a peril that is really only incidental to the narrative and its themes, and provides a microcosm of the current show’s strength: Doctor Who was always good, but now it actually looks as good as it was always meant to.

The Doctor encounters the Face of Boe, who despite (or perhaps because of) never actually having done anything has become a fascinating and resonant presence. More repetition, sure, but I’ll let this go because it’s a well-handled end to the character arc of Boe, who imparts his much-vaunted secret, and Hane, who finds redemption for being so bad in season two.

The episode ends with some neat Doctor/Martha stuff. Martha asserts her character after an episode of companion 101 (get kidnapped, sulk about it, get rescued) and the Doctor faces his own failure to open up to his new companion. It’s good to hear the Gallifrey stuff in there too.

The strength of the episode is the details, like Brannigan’s “Friends list” line, rather than the story. The brief flashes of the future motorists lives are just lovely. There’s some great little character touches: the Doctor getting his coat from Janis Joplin, bossy medico Martha upbraiding Cheen for using a mood patch while pregnant, Brannigan’s flirting with the Cassini sisters.

If apathy and mass self-deception in the face of social decay or external threat is one of the major themes of the new series of Doctor Who, this episode finds the positive side of a society in trouble. There is potential for chaos on the Motorway, yet the system works. Despite being boxed in, isolated, the drivers form interactive support networks, even families and friendships. They get by, and most importantly they hope, hope that things will get better. And through that getting by, through that hope, things do.

So what’s the episode about? I would argue that it’s a metaphor for the contemporary culture of unrealistic aspiration. We’re all stuck on a motorway, progressing slowly, and dreaming of life in the Fast Lane, dreaming of houses made of wood. But they’re just dreams in this closed system, and besides, what we aspire to may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

If you make it to the fast lane, you just get crabs.

In fact the true worth of life is in the family and friends around us. It’s not about the distance traveled, it’s about the people you travel with. So forget the Fast Lane and let’s head for the sun together.

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