THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC
Gridlock

Story No. 191 I'm having kitten, myself
Production Code Series Three Episode Three
Dates April 14 2007

With David Tennant,
Freema Agyeman
Written by Russell T Davies Directed by Richard Clark
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: Everybody goes to the motorway... but nobody returns.


Reviews

A Review by Joe Ford 18/4/07

Just superb. I'm not sure what has given the production team behind Doctor Who a kick up the rear end but they have certainly opened series three with some of the most ambitious and spectacular episodes of the series yet. Gridlock features some imaginative concepts, some decent worldbuilding (in 45 minutes!), great characterisation and a few excellent shocks. As an overall package - script, FX, music, acting and direction - it is easily my favourite of the year so far, although there really hasn't been any losers.

Has something depressing happened to Russell T Davies between series two and three? Smith and Jones and Gridlock both feel much more dark and gritty than his work on previous series and it is totally to the advantage of his latest scripts. Whilst I do enjoy the giddy thrill of stories such as World War Three, it is episodes like Gridlock, that play it straight and go for the chills, that I love the most. I love this vision of the future; as Russell says in the Confidential this week, it is ripped totally out of 2000AD but where is the harm in that when it is pulled off this well? A world of smoke and exhaust fumes, of back alley drug-dealing and gunplay. It is like re-visiting the Eric Saward era but it feels special because we do not inhabit this universe every week.

Add to the worldbuilding some marvellous concepts, which give this episode a unique feel. I love the idea of selling moods, simply because it is pretty damn obvious that if this was the case in our world it catch like the latest mobile phone. It reminds me slightly of Gareth Roberts' programmable emotions from Only Human. Also the thought of the Gridlock, the ultimate in traffic jams where you could going around and around in circles on the motorway is too frightening for words. What I especially liked about these two ideas is that they are not gratuitous; they have a purpose in the story, the entire plot is built around them and both lead to intriguing twists, one horrific and one which turns your entire perception of the episode on its head. It strikes me that Russell T Davies has suddenly figured out how to plot a perfect Doctor Who episode, with no flabby bits and lots of payoff. I cannot imagine us getting another The Long Game this year.

So what of the Doctor and Martha and their burgeoning relationship? Who would have ever thought that switching from one companion to the next would have such emotional mileage? In the past the Doctor has just swapped one companion for another. Even companions such as Jo Grant, who the Doctor clearly has a hard time saying goodbye to; he soon forgets she ever existed when Sarah Jane comes along in the next story. I'm not sure if I buy that his relationship with Rose would mean so much to him that he would be quite so rude as he has been to Martha, but it does keep the dynamics of their relationship interesting. The trouble with the Doctor and Rose last year was that after School Reunion their relationship became a little predictable, they loved each other and that was fine but for week after week there was nothing new to spice things up. It looks as though the production team have decided they don't want things to get too easy for the TARDIS crew this year and I can still forsee some bumpy times ahead.

Martha is such a terrific character, played by such an enthusiastic performer, that it is impossible not to like her. Freema Agyeman has terrific chemistry with David Tennant already and her solo exploits in this episode leave us with no illusion that she can hold her own. What is interesting is how this episode plays with her feelings for the Doctor. Initially everything is the same as last week, she is enraptured in the giddy thrill of flinging open the TARDIS doors and seeing what is outside. But it is not until she is trapped on the motorway with an unseen menace that she realises that she is on her own, on another planet and her only hope of salvation a man that she doesn't even know. It's almost as though the delirium of adventuring clears your mind of such thoughts but the fear of imminent death brings it all home. Her speech about her faith in a man that she barely knows is excellent. Even better is the last scene which highlights an important difference between her and Rose: she stubbornly refuses to enter the TARDIS until the Doctor opens out to her. This is going to be a relationship of equals.

The Doctor's plight in this story allows David Tennant to show off his acting skills even more. The series is taking the Doctor down some interesting psychological paths and watching his attempt to cover up the fact that Gallifrey is dead from novice Martha is both sweet and disturbing. He is a man of secrets but he needs to talk to somebody about them and their final scene together, where the Doctor looks on the verge of tears talking about his home is very touching. There is of course the Face of Boe's almighty secret but you will have to watch the episode to find that out. Needless to say, I think the Doctor has a disquieting time ahead.

Visually, this episode is amazing. Recently, I have been comparing Doctor Who's production values with SF stalwarts such as Battlestar Galactica and Stargate but for sheer imagination it is topping even those. The Gridlock itself is masterfully artful but images such as the city in sunlight and the Doctor jumping between cars are worthy of a feature film. The BBC should be justifiably proud of their FX work these days and the viewers should reap some pleasure too, it is because we have been watching and buying the goods that the BBC have had such faith in the show and pumped so much budget into its blood.

There is one special effect that came as a total surprise. Do you recall when fandom jumped up in joint hurrah when the Cybermen returned in Earthshock? I had chills down my spine when this week's monster was revealed. I couldn't stop going on about it and Simon had to tell me to shut up so he could watch the rest! Needless to say this is an audacious bit of secrecy on the writer's part and a collective punch in the air from fandom as an old (and pretty crappy) monster is brought back with some CGI menace. The hilarious thing is that rubbish monsters can be kept in the dark and provide more of a genuine shock but the popular monsters like the Daleks and Cybermen have to be advertised well in advance to exploit their ratings potential (see next week). Bravo.

What else is there to say about Gridlock? The last five minutes are about as uplifting as Doctor Who has been and, rather than feeling twee, the sentiment feels totally justifiable because we have seen the hopes and despair of these people throughout the episode. Brannigan was a great character who I hope we will see some more of in the future. And the Face of Boe's death is genuinely poignant; how on Earth can you care so much about a huge rubber head?

Other points of interest:

Doctor Who goes from strength to strength and Gridlock is another example of why this is the best show on television. Sorry, what was Primeval again?


What I Saw by Kevin Lahey 8/5/07

Imagine a world where drugs are everywhere. Then add a virus spread by a new drug and threatening to wipe out everyone. Picture a few survivors trying to seal up part of the world so that millions could reemerge after the threat passes. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Someone could probably make a great Doctor Who episode out of that description. Unfortunately, no one did. They made this instead. It includes a speech where you find out about the exciting events that happened 23 years earlier, but don't actually witness them.

So what is this about? Not much, as close as I can tell. The episode starts out with people being attacked by monsters on another planet. A promising start. I am so sick of London. For some reason the production team is under the impression that everyone wants to see London over and over again. Seven straight weeks of London stories. I don't remember anyone ever telling me they thought the old show was good, but that they really needed to stop going out and exploring the universe. For some reason RTD thinks this is how we all think.

But thankfully we are away from Earth and... oh wait. We are on New Earth again. Gee, that seems like a bad idea. Last year's season premiere was funny, but had an awful plot. Spraying sick people with intravenous drugs to cure them. It was the kind of thing that fans used to be embarrassed about when non-fans would walk by and see what you were watching.

Well, just cause we are on New Earth doesn't mean they can't make an entertaining episode. I'll be positive about it. After all, we are going to get monsters. True, great monsters are hard to do, but I assume we are returning here because RTD had something really good to show us.

Now the show starts and we have rain and some drug dealers... OK, not exactly taking off, but I'm still positive. Then a kidnapping. Now the episode will get going and... why do they have Tennant threatening, snarling, and yelling? In his first few episodes he did that and the effect wasn't very impressive. The show seemed to recognize that and stopped having him do it. Instead, in Army of Ghosts, he sits calmly and challenges Torchwood woman to pull the lever and destroy herself. Very well done... but not here. Here we have snarling Tennant threatening everyone. Did I mention he doesn't do that very well?

Whatever. Stay positive. Now we get to the expressway and are introduced to a very strange world that feels like it just came out of a Douglas Adams story. Except for two things. One, I am having a hard time figuring out where this traffic jam idea could possibly go. I could swear that you couldn't actually develop it into an entertaining plot. Two, it isn't very funny. It is just one joke: The people have been there a long time. Ha-ha.

The scene where he goes from one truck to the next was good, but hardly great. And then the whole episode goes downhill. The people aren't going to go somewhere to start a new life. They aren't being held against their will. They, apparently, are just too lazy to park their cars and go walk somewhere and save themselves.

Back in the classic series, the plots tended to have giant holes in them. It was common for some fan to point out that: hey, why didn't the Doctor just tell them such and such and the whole story would have ended. And in response I could only say: you're right, but I was having so much fun I didn't notice or care. This episode... they don't start out showing the Doctor trapped. The Doctor doesn't break down a wall or use the TARDIS to get through a solid barrier or something. Instead, they show that people are living in the open air and can (and do) come and go from their cars virtually whenever they want. They, apparently, just don't want to leave their cars! What a horribly constructed story. What a stupid plot!

Oh, but what about the monsters that started the episode? They are nothing. They don't cause the problem, they aren't preventing anyone from leaving. They just sit there and try and crush passing cars. Wow. What creativity. I wish I could come up with ideas this brilliant. I can only imagine what it must have been like when RTD pitched the story:

RTD: I'm putting monsters in the story.
Underling: Really? I see that all they do is sit in a hole and try and crush passing shuttles.
RTD: Your point being?
Underling: Well boss, usually you put a monster in a story to make it better. Otherwise you don't actually need to add the monsters at all.
RTD: I suppose you have a point... I know! I'll give them the same name as an old 60's monster.
Underling: Of course! That way, people will associate your mindless creatures with an intelligent, manipulative monster and save you the trouble of coming up with anything creative. You're a genius, boss.
RTD: Thanks!
Just for the record, I normally like RTD's scripts. I loved season 1 when he wrote the majority of them. But that doesn't change the fact that he just didn't bother with the plot on this one. In fact, in the two scripts he has written in season 3, both ended with the Doctor either plugging or unplugging extension cords. That just isn't worthy of this show.

Also, although some of the shots looked good (the Doctor jumping from car to car and the city at the end come to mind), the monsters looked terrible. Just awful. Looked like someone had cut a cheap cartoon in the middle of a live action feature.

But there is more to this episode. After the silly traffic sequences, we have the Face of Boe. I remember in New Earth when they put in the Face, but didn't actually use it to make the episode interesting, just say he has a mystery and leave it at that. It didn't look like a good idea to me, but I heard some other people say that they thought it was going to lead somewhere good and were looking forward to seeing him again. Well, here he is and they brought him back so he could just sit there and die. Wow. Great idea. Is there no one at the BBC who can kick RTD in the ass and say, "Hey, that's bad. Don't do it."? (ASIDE - As I think about it, I kind of get the feeling that no one had the guts to tell RTD that New Earth was a bad episode. That the plot was awful. That it was only watchable because it had some funny lines. Maybe RTD doesn't know that. Maybe he was thinking he should recreate the great success of that earlier episode even though he couldn't think of anything funny to put in it, but since it was so great it would work out anyway. I hope I'm wrong. - End of ASIDE)

So here we are at week three and could we please have some character development concerning Martha? They are having her say and react to things the same way Rose did when she met the Doctor. She seems like she should be a good companion, but instead we get her wondering if the Doctor "likes" her. Who cares! I want adventure! I honestly couldn't care less if Martha falls for the Doctor or not. And I don't want any more references to Rose. I don't want Martha compared to Rose. I don't want Martha insulted because she isn't Rose. I just want Martha and the Doctor to explore and battle bad guys. Is that really too much to ask?

The season started off OK. Episode 1 was kind of forgettable, but it was entertaining even if it again started in London. Just a light bit of fluff.

Episode 2 was better. Still in London, but Shakespeare was good. It looked great. Contrary to what I wrote above, the scene with them in the same bed was good except for the mean-spirited insult at the end. This episode was even more entertaining than the last one, but it was still flawed. Putting magic in Doctor Who can be fun, but it is lazy script writing and in the long run will ruin the brand. Also, because RTD insists on 45 minute episodes, there was no time to develop the villains. I don't know why he doesn't see it, but there have been virtually no memorable villains in the entire new show and the reason is because of time. Again, I image the story meetings go something like this:

RTD: More single episodes.
Minion: But the fans are starting to complain about the simple plots and forgettable villains. We need someone who can stand up to the Doctor in a battle of wills.
RTD: Well, just add more cackling. Nothing makes fans happier than cackling villains.
Minion: Good idea boss. You're a genius.
RTD: Thanks!
Gridlock didn't even bother to have a villain, unless you count the monsters sitting in their hole. The show needs better plots and villains and that means more two parters.

Anyway, after two entertaining, but flawed episodes, we get this which takes all the weaknesses of the show and combines them together. This was just a filler episode so that the Face of Boe can tell his big secret and RTD threw in some traffic jokes to make up the time. In fact, except for the nice scene of the Doctor describing the sunsets on his home planet the whole episode should be burned. Some episodes of the new show haven't been that great, but I'd happily sit through everyone of them except this one.

Now, before I go, I want to comment on what some other people are saying about this episode. I noticed that quite a few people on various forums are saying things like: "Loved it." "Best episode since the show came back three years ago." "An instant classic."

This is kind of odd, because even if you didn't mind the many flaws I've listed, I'd like to point out that almost nothing happens in this episode. No great puzzle to solve, no great villain to over come, the Doctor and Martha do almost nothing (and don't have much screen time together). I tried to understand some of the things fans of this episode were saying, but they didn't make much sense to me.

Some statements were along the lines of: "Russell T. Davies can take something as mundane and irritating as a traffic jam and expand it into an exploration of how determined people can be to struggle on in the hope of a better life, and how much they are prepared to endure and sacrifice to achieve that for themselves, their loved ones, and their children."

Has the whole world gone nuts? It was an episode about a group of people too stupid to get out of their cars and walk up a flight of stairs!

Others talked about how great it was that it included an old monster. I guess naming things that just sit in a hole after a classic monster was a good idea.

RTD: Told you.
Peon: Great idea, boss. You're a genius.
RTD: Thanks!
And others talked about how great the Face of Boe was and how filled with emotion they were when it told its secret. Since it only had maybe 10 lines in 3 appearances and never exhibited any personality I just shrugged. And the secret was just one piece of information that could have been told at any time. Imagine this happening to you:
Boe: After many years I'm ready to tell you MY secret.
You: Duh, OK.
Boe: Your brother is alive and lives about 4 blocks over on west 53rd street.
You: Really? Why didn't you tell me this before?
Boe: I didn't feel like it.
You: I understand... you're a genius.
Boe: Thanks!
? And of course, how does the Doctor react to "the secret" the Face tells him? Boe, the fountain of wisdom. The great being as old as the universe... The Doctor just says he was mistaken. Pretty much par for the course.


A Review by Daniel Lister 14/6/07

Gridlock has a lot going on in the heart of it, so much that I'm still finding it hard to judge. In one episode we have both a return to the flaws that have plagued the new series of Doctor Who, and a return to some of its early successes. Not to mention a number of things which shouldn't work but do, and vice versa.

Gridlock has severe plotting problems. I sometimes wonder whether that'll become my reviewing catchphrase, due to the number of times I say it with so little variation, but oddly enough, it doesn't rankle as much this time as it might. For all that I might despise the fact that, for an episode touted to be so different from New Earth, it suffers under the same flaws of plot devices that don't make sense, untied loose ends, simple continuity holes. (See the "rain" in the undercity? Wonder how it got there when we're told it's completely closed off? So do I. One for the Imaginative Theorists, I think.) There's a magic resolution that doesn't really make the simplest amount of sense; it struggles and eventually succeeds in rising above these plot flaws, to the extent of which I am embarrassed. Part of the reason for this is the return to the early strengths I mentioned above, only better executed and more natural.

The same applies for the other ingredients. Gridlock starts out crazily, to say the least, with a return of the Russell T Davies satire-gone-mad mentality, which is a shame, of course. In a way it feels like The Long Game revisited, at first, with the weird acid-trip slum shops selling "anger", "hate", and "forget" and a traffic jam which lasts 12 years. None of this is subtle, not to mention credible, but despite this a certain barminess - or zaniness - that is right at home in Doctor Who every now and again, creeps in. Part of it is perhaps the great realisation of the traffic jam, filled with barmy characters of whom Brannigan (Ardal O'hanon) is by no means the least, and also the sheer visual force from the mill.

Despite this, Tennant's scenes in the slums fare less well. Tennant's performance is more varied here; he annoyingly returns to over-emoting too much on occasion, but alternating to previously imagined heights. All in all, I'm inclined to forgive any flaws in Tennant's performance here purely due to his overall standard, which just seems to get better. I hope, however, that Davies is done with the "Doctor as ultimate moral authority" stance as he is with the year 5 billion.

Martha doesn't have much to do here, but when given the material, rises to the challenge. She's probably less important than she has been in the previous two episodes, which doesn't help, but in her scenes with Tennant in the end she is marvellous. If anything, she's merely settled down now the writing team have proved what they can do with her.

And the stakes are upped, however, when the Doctor gets to the upper levels. Despite the grating plot reasons for the tragedy, it manages to be genuinely touching to see Boe's dedication, as it is his eventual sacrifice.

All of this of course leads to the eventual last message which, to quote Someone Else, has to be one of the worst kept secrets in Doctor Who's history, which includes the "revelation" at the end of Army of Ghosts... But the scene is still brilliant, with the performances and characterisation easily rising above any remaining plot cliches and propelling the episode to an altogether high level, something which the poetic ending only builds on. I have to admit a certain sadness to see the Face breathe his last, he's become one of the good icons of the new series.

All of this is reinforced by some very nice poetic touches. The sounding of the hymn "The Old Rugged Cross" during the eternal traffic jam is rather odd, but works in a very bizarre way, showing both the strength, humanity and also weakness of the motorists at the same time (which, by the way, actually makes more sense than some think; the indication is that most of the motorists were from the upper levels before they were closed off, thus being stranded and having to live in the hope of an eventual destination) and the epilogue of Abide With Me is perfectly placed, being perhaps one of Who's greatest codas. I also find it ironically amusing that Davies, having been criticised for using some frankly horrible Pop soundtracks in The End of the World, turns to hymn tunes instead, which shows that he can use both sides of the spectrum. I suppose - at least hope - that they would have better chance of surviving than Britney "tuneless" Spears. I also find his source amusing considering his atheistic standing.

In essence, Gridlock is made by its emotional and character strengths, which are admittedly not flawless themselves. But, at the end of the day, some of its parts are so compelling and moving that they lift the episode above the mediocrity into which it could have sunk. Gridlock may epitomise the series' - and head writer's - flaws, but it also rises above them.

7/10


Disturbing the Universe by Mike Morris 29/7/07

Oh. Oh my. Well.

It seems wrong to describe it as a masterpiece, but that's what Gridlock is, really. It's a writer working in perfect synch with what he feels the show should be; a perfect assembly of story elements, that at the same time is like nothing you've ever seen; and, above all, a lovely forty-five minutes of television that has a lot to say on a few topics. And yet "masterpiece" doesn't fit, somehow. The word implies weight, bigness; but Gridlock is light and waltzing, a gorgeously easy story to digest and enjoy. It's also very funny.

It's often tagged as one of those love-it-or-hate stories, which is often a completely inappropriate tag and is probably as inadvisable here; I'm sure lots of people view Gridlock with relative indifference. For all that, it is one that seems to stir people to proclaim it as a work of genius or to decry it as an abomination. I find this... understandable.

Things That Are True About Gridlock, Number 1: The world isn't believable.

No, it isn't, and anyone claiming the contrary is simply being misguided. And yet this doesn't matter, it really doesn't. The world isn't believable, but it is consistent; it operates on its own terms, and it doesn't waver from those terms. Since it returned, and indeed for much of its run, Doctor Who operated on artificiality. It set up worlds of cardboard and treated them seriously, removing it from naturalistic terms. The best example is Genesis of the Daleks, which - as has been noted on numerous occasions - falls apart under any sort of scrutiny, relying as it does on a thousand year war of attrition between two cities within walking distance of each other. The story doesn't ask us to examine this, however; rather, it asks us to ignore the flaws in the set-up and follow the drama that takes place within that framework. And it works because, within the basic set-up, the rules are followed. This is a convention that comes more from stageplay than film, an artificial shrinking of a universe into a bite-size chunk which you can easily address in a ninety-minute (or forty-five minute) storyline.

Gridlock has a similar artificiality in its construction, but the scale of the idea is what really wins us over. We're talking about millions of people living in a traffic jam, for heaven's sake. A lot of comments have been made along the lines of "well, why would anyone join the traffic jam if it takes six years to travel ten miles, that's just stupid." It misses the point: essentially, the set-up is axiomatic to the world, and questioning it is as pointless as asking "Why the hell don't the Kaleds storm the Thal cabinet room through that big bloody passage that leads right to the cabinet door?" The construction can be further explained, if necessary; for example, one might assume the city areas are "segmented" and the motorway is literally the only way from one place to another. The operative question isn't whether the stories basis is sound, but whether it remains consistent to that basis. Which, in this case, it does. Beautifully.

Things That Are True About Gridlock, Number 2: Nothing Really Happens.

No, it doesn't. And for someone who bangs on about narrative all the time, it might seem odd for me to be defending Gridlock - a story which is resolved, essentially, by the Doc pulling a few levers. But.

As I said in my... ummm... review-cum-evisceration of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, narrative doesn't have to be plot based. This story is very much about concepts rather than plot mechanics. The progression isn't in the story as such; rather, it's the ongoing exploration of what sustains the world in such (im)perfect equilibrium. It works because, just when you think you know what the story's going to do, it changes emphasis and does something else. It's about drugs! No, actually it's about a traffic jam... which is because -

Dammit, spoilers prevent me going much further. Suffice it to say that the reason that millions of people are stuck in a traffic jam, and what's actually down there with them, goes through a fair few revisions. Gridlock is many things, but it isn't predictable. Half an hour in I still had no idea what sort of story I was supposed to be watching, and the simple conclusion was oddly satisfying: it portrayed an idea of a fragile equilibrium being tipped by the arrival of one rogue element.

Okay, so enough with the defensive points.

There's something invigorating about watching a story that goes to extreme concepts and sits with them. Here, we've got a corker; a world that's almost entirely realised on computer, with the action taking place in identical pods of humanity that are dressed different ways. There's room for someone to analyse the way that the decor of the cars reflecting the occupants is analogous to the interior of the human soul, or something; I won't bother, but it's nice to know there's something there.

Rather, the concept deserves a paragraph or two. "What if no one's coming, not ever?" There are times when Doctor Who is really, properly frightening and that's one of them. There's been far too much lazy reading of this as some sort of sideswipe at traffic congestion... please. Try harder.

I remember a few years ago, before I was the fat affluent git I have become, I spent a couple of months working as a van delivery boy. One of the places I had to go through, mercifully infrequently, was Skelmersdale; a new town about halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, about which Wikipedia notes without irony that it's "renowned for having a very large roundabout". Skelmersdale was essentially a housing estate in the middle of nowhere, somewhere that felt horrendously, endlessly abandoned. This was one of the brighter ideas of the modern era; take a bunch of poor people living in slums and stick them in remote places where they can be unemployed. It was a shocking mistake, a warped child of Corbusian idealism, and it failed horribly. So the visualisation of a world where poor people are desperately stuck in the middle of nowhere, where the only option is to jump on a motorway and hope for something, anything, better. It struck a chord.

This isn't to say that Gridlock is an indictment of New Towns, that's just one way of seeing it. Rather, it's about hope betrayed, about abandonment and dehumanisation. People in this world are simply going round and round, doing the same old thing, with no chance of ever going anywhere. So they find solace in the details: falling in love, looking for something better, and a sense of community. The hymn-singing moment just about gets away with the cheese factor, although maybe I just go soppy-eyed at anything which shows people just giving a shit about other people. Again, we're back to the concept of an unholy equilibrium: nothing happens in the story because it's about a world that's, literally, got stuck.

Never forget that Rusty's a showman, though. The monsters on the fast lane are a lovely bit of fanwank, which have been taken way too seriously by some commentators; you don't actually have to know about their past at all for it to work. And we get the Face of Boe and Novice Haim thrown in for good measure, but unlike the story's predecessor this is well-woven into the narrative. In fact, talking about the parodies of the story is doing it a disservice, because the world it describes is so immersing.

Which seems like an odd thing to say, given that I've already admitted it's not believable, but within the framework of the story it's wonderful. This is an expression of a wonderfully alien architecture of a world (that's architecture in the broader sense of 'how it's put together', rather than 'what the buildings look like'); it's really beautifully designed, and the traffic jam is a a wonderful visual concept that's established with a terrific lack of effort. As television moves further from stageplay and closer to television, we tend to neglect how well Doctor Who can use its visuals as a medium of storytelling rather than pretty backdrops (and this, essentially, is the main thing that separates cinema from stageplay, the use of space and composition to convey a story). The impressive thing about this is how well, visually, the story conveys a world that's got stuck. It's not just the cars; it's the early scenes in the street, the creaking opening of the drug-selling vans, the spiralling badge of the unanswering police force.

I remain unconvinced by Martha. This isn't the fault of Freema Agyeman, whose performance is generally solid, but the scripting. Martha really isn't anyone much; the straightforward unrequited-love-story isn't particularly interesting, and Martha herself doesn't have any particular character traits (best shown by the Doctor's comment in Smith and Jones, when she recognises that the windows aren't airtight, as "brilliant" - astute, perhaps, but brilliant seems to be taking things a bit far). She's kidnapped here and, all too quickly, starts to lapse into speeches about how the Doctor's amazing that don't quite ring true. In fact, Martha's at her best when the series isn't about her relationship with the Doctor, and that remains true here. Must try harder.

As for Tennant, the scripting of his Doctor has settled down as writers come to recognise his strengths. The goofiness of his first year is gone, and he really is wonderful here. With the revelation of the Face of Boe's final message and the Doctor's obvious affection for him, Tennant manages to convey a genuine empathy with humanity that makes him really rather wonderful. It's also nice to see the Doctor talk about Gallifrey as a place rather than a collection of old blokes, and his description is beautifully delivered. When you factor in Abide With Me in the background and the beautiful final shot, the scene is one of the best of the season.

Ultimately, Gridlock is about hope being something that saves and yet condemns people. It's a nice, easily-digestible bit of storytelling that's about the revelation of ideas rather than plot mechanics, and therefore is something of a strange beast. Dammit, though, I loved it to bits. It's nice to see the series stretching itself and doing something deliberately odd, and better still to see it well achieved.

Oh, and Father Dougal as a giant cat is worth anyone's time, surely?


He's back again by John Nor 19/8/07

Doctor Who has a famously uniquely flexible format: stories can be set anytime, anywhere. This strength is also a weakness, as without recurring settings the show could feel incoherent. Russell T guards against that by having us visit certain times and places again and again. The 50 million and first Century (the year c. 5,000,000,000) is one such time - and New Earth is one such place.

All three of these stories (The End of the World, New Earth and this episode) that are set around time are more whimsical in nature than the other future-set stories of Nu-Who. The social satire is brought to the fore, recalling the light-hearted Seasons 16 and 17 and Season 24 too. The influence of Douglas Adams and the comic 2000AD (itself a strong influence on the Cartmel years) can be felt on Gridlock. The plot is more concerned with being a commentary on our 21st Century society than a hard-science sociological depiction of a future society - an approach that seems lost on some fans.

One of the apparent subtexts of this social satire, at least at the beginning, was that here was a literal underclass who were kept in the dark by other levels of society. My initial reading of the use of the religious hymn broadcast was that the famously sceptical-of-religion Russell T Davies was implying that this was "the opium of the masses". However, expectations were subverted as the story progressed. Respect was shown for these people united by their hymn ("The Old Rugged Cross") - although maybe the sense of community was being praised rather than the religion itself.

Murray Gold has his critics, but I must say I like the brilliant theme that scored the BBCi "When two worlds collide" trailer so effectively. This theme was also used here to build upon the emotion of the escape from the Macra. (Yes, the Macra. This was another subversion of expectations and a nice nod to the fans.)

As for the ongoing elements from previous stories, the third and final meeting with The Face of Boe was an interesting scene - although any mystery of what those four words would be was diluted by their existence in the Doctor Who Annual 2006 (!). The gradual acceptance of Martha continues here in some well played scenes.

This was another excellent episode after the triumph of the the opening two episodes.

Going back to the subtexts of the story and their multiple readings, one possible reading stood out for me. A community of people, communicating with messages of hope (in a manner like the internet) waiting in the dark for so many years, until the moment arrives and - joy - the Doctor is back.

That is a very good description of the years 1989 to 2005!


A traffic offence by Steve Cassidy 20/1/08

I keep getting told repeatedly at what a masterpiece Gridlock is, but I can't see it.

To be frank, it's hard for me to get enthusiastic about Gridlock. It's a good solid piece but does tend to stray into RTD 'no internal logic' territory. Give 'em enough good visuals and hope they won't notice the gaping plot holes. But there is lots to commend Gridlock. For a start it's chock-full of metaphors which I always enjoy spotting. The most obvious one is the religious imagery (of which there is a lot) but the people in their cars are metaphors of us all tapping away on our computers (complete with friends list). Enclosed in our little worlds, going around in a self delusional circle.

I assumed the people in Gridlock were in massive denial. I mean if you're alive and well are you going to face the fact that civilisation has ended and that there is no future for your children? "Hope equals self delusion" seems to be the theme of Gridlock, until the Doctor gives them real hope, that is. Not just any hope but hope backed by a full Welsh male choir. But at least there is imagination on display here and RTD takes us to another planet. The other planet is the tedious New Earth but that is beside the point

But the negatives... the concept isn't followed through on. The central premise, which could have been so interesting, isn't explored past the point where you get a few gorgeous visual moments. There's some cursory explanation of what happened to this society and how it got to this point, but it comes across more as an info dump to get to the climax rather than something that makes intrinsic sense within the world RTD has created. And there are some good ideas here: the mood pills, the jumping down from one carriage to another (which is very action-adventure) and the monsters. Oh, yes the monsters. Who they are is all over the internet so I'm not sure if naming them is a spoiler. All I know is that they kept it such a secret that I mouthed their name on their reveal along with the Doctor. And there is some fantastic SFX where their gigantic claws are trying to catch Martha's car and snapping at its wake. There's a very impressive visual where the car is caught between their epic pinchers and eventually breaks free. The SFX are the saving grace of Gridlock.

The story is reasonably strong. Tennant can't do anger - ie the "Cash up! Close up! Pack your bags!" to the mood stallholders at the beginning - but when he quietens it down such as the explanation to Martha at he is very Doctorish and effective. Freema Agyeman is in her third adventure and is one of the highlights. In fact, she saves the scenes where she is kidnapped by the wettest kidnappers in the universe. They were such saps I wanted to reach inside the TV and throttle them. I fully sympathised with Martha when they go on about their forthcoming baby; "What do I do? Congratulate my kidnappers?" she says sarcastically (Freema has a good line in humour). And talking of babies what about Brannigan/Ardal O'Hanlon (once again playing Ardal O'Hanlon) and spouse referring to the nearby kittens as their children? Lord Tom Baker! Give me strength...

There is satire here, and it is better satire than Bad Wolf. The cult of the car is crippling life in the 21st century. Cities, in fact whole counties, are becoming nothing more than parking lots. The real problem though is that the numbers are just too excessive to be plausible. A bit like setting it in the year five billion, the "six miles in ten years" idea just gets a reaction of "sorry, not buying that". People have been on the motorway for up to a quarter of a century, never questioning it, not suffering cabin fever, being healthy looking and seemingly well adjusted... the whole thing rings hollow.

And if you are looking for your fix of weekly RTDisms - he doesn't disappoint. They include pop-culture references (this coat was given to me by Janis Joplin), clumsily inserted gay segments (two lezzas who reminded me of Hinge and Bracket), a magic-switch-throwing ending, gratuitous bodily function humour (the biscuit?) and the weepy blub-blub scene (this time accompanied by a full Welsh choir).

Gridlock feels like a forty-five minute wait for the next episode. I wonder if I should be kind and mark it average, since it isn't far off and there weren't any moments that seriously made me cringe (apart from Murray Gold's score for the mood sellers). However, the thought of rewatching fills me with nothing but pre-emptive boredom: dull and overlong (alarming in the new format), this episode is like sitting in a traffic jam.


A Review by Graham Pilato 19/4/08

This is the one where people with a mind for figurative things, a taste for powerful imagery and a lust for engaging futuristic visions of humanity might well find greatness. And that's me, at least.

And Mike Morris. See his review for the best analysis and summary I've seen of this story yet. Here's a quote, even: "Ultimately, Gridlock is about hope being something that saves and yet condemns people." Oooh, that's good. But I feel I need to add some more, perhaps simply out of devotion.

An anecdote to assist in understanding: My roommate Mark and I saw this in the rush to watch the first half of the third season all in one go, right when the full season DVDs came out. This was the one that rocked. This was the one that we pointed to later, over late night hot chocolate and schnapps, was this one. This was "the one with the life as a traffic jam metaphor". That some reviewers online seem to think it was just about setting up the end of the season trilogy, that it was "filler", is beyond me - unless they're people that haven't got the three things I just mentioned above. Mark and I were talking about the 30-year traffic jam for days. And it was clear that this was where all that was goofy about this show was acceptable. The madness of this impossible show has always been worth it when it moves me.

Give me a good vision of an interesting future, realistic or not - particularly not, actually, as realism always gets dull, eventually - and I'm definitely interested. Every time. This was one of those stories where, rare as it is, I'm with the gushing producers on the commentary track. Everything about this episode is effective to me as part of the creation of an intriguing world. The little moments of lacking clarity or reason, which are quite common in an RTD script, are, as is also quite common in an RTD script, wild flights of fancy well worth the effort for the suspension of disbelief.

In fact, the ideas in this story are so wild, so characteristically Davies', that I might have been able to recognize this as his work blindfolded. It's in the presence of really wild ideas that I tend to be the most ready to accept some of the wildest sentiments as well. That hope is a threat here, tied in to flawed religion and lost causes, and a boon at once, allowing the faithful drivers to survive... in pairs, like Noah's Ark. It's a thrilling series of epiphanies to be had as an audience member. That people just want to see long-term plot relevancies here means they just aren't seeing the trees for the forest.

Like Love and Monsters, this is a story that no one gets if they treat it like a run-of-the-mill fear factory of classic Who standard monsters and villains. That was a masterpiece on the outside of the main run of the series, looking in, and boggling so many unsuspecting viewers. The threat here is a dystopian world where all is never what it seems. Except that it does resemble the familiar world. Scary monsters and super freaks live herein. But the serious value of this adventure is the new place it creates for the viewers' minds to inhabit. And even as this is the third time we've been to the 5-billion-years-ahead period, this is the first time that life in that period has appeared to be difficult, even grim. Hmm, escapist TV, do I want to escape there this time? No. It's about feeling the truth of the wasted hopes I've known. And the press of life, all life, keeping us going.

Of course, this isn't the first time that Who has gone to the point of wacky unbelievability to get some big ideas across, but it is the first time that New Who has begun to feel like the kind of show that challenged audiences in 1987, as it was fading fast from popular reception. The world has gone wrong and the monsters are only an incidental element. Yes, this is the Paradise Towers of this new series, minus a reincarnated mad villain. This is the kind of show that I actually was convinced we'd never get again from Doctor Who when I heard the new series was coming. The great imagination on display in the new series has thus far relied so much more on building up the standard "scared kids and charmed adults" line, lovely as it is when it works, but it has seemed to be leaving behind the howling wilderness of untried real inspiration on many occasions. There are new stories to tell, still, here. And real inspiration is always about running off to where the risks are big, and the real and figurative roads, both, are mostly untraveled.

When the singing on the motorway starts here, I can't help but think now of the Kangs and their rituals. The mood seals are also a simple, wild idea reminiscent of the mad Cartmelian days. The Doctor promising to take down a drug-selling business on a little street, while referring to the whole world's problems here sounds exactly like the opening of The Happiness Patrol when he plans to take down that particular evil empire in one night. And when the Tenth Doctor brought down a prime minister with six words on a whim after she blew away a just-recently-menacing alien spacecraft, it seemed a bit like this, but it was also just painfully whim-like and vindictive at the time. But that was The Christmas Invasion, while this Gridlock is no "special", no extraordinary "event" episode, but quite simply the case for the resurrection of the expectation that Doctor Who on TV can really blow my mind and just make me reel in awe again. Reel it in and eat it.

The very private bliss of knowing, of being one of the world's 1 or 2 million or so, tops, that knows Doctor Who's great achievements in the late 80s and in the "dark era" of the 90s and early 00s, has ended with this very publicly shared new series in some ways, as some new fans have come to the old series and begun to grasp the wonders. But it's still a very nonpublic realization, as I suspect it will always be, that there was artistic and dramatic greatness such as this to be found in the waning days of the old series. Ah, well.

And Time Lords are back in the game, now, here... sort of. So what if this means we ended up with a massive disappointment in the last two episodes of the season? At this point, the anticipation was wonderful. And the power of the imagery in this story still fires up my imagination.

This one narrowly edges out Love and Monsters, now, as my favorite new-series story. I suspect it will take a lot longer to get there in fandom. But those cars all rising up into the light is reminiscent of the god-like whales of the "Pines of Rome" sequence in Fantasia 2000. I can't get the beauty out of my mind. And then the Doctor confesses to the lost beauty of his own world while a city sings.

10/10


A Review by Finn Clark 27/3/09

Gridlock. Ooooooooh, Gridlock. Probably the most controversial episode of RTD's Who, since at least we all know where we stand with something like Boom Town, Love & Monsters or Fanwank Team-Up vs. Daleks. However, with Gridlock, it's a labour of Hercules even to get the lovers and the haters to understand the opposing viewpoint.

Me, I love the episode. I don't even understand criticisms like, "How did the Macra get there?" Well, there were a mummy and a daddy Macra who loved each other very much... Why does that matter? Why is it a plot hole? Is it a plot hole that An Unearthly Child doesn't have a sex scene demonstrating Susan's conception? (Shut up, Marc Platt.) However, returning to Gridlock, this does indeed seem that this is a problem for a lot of people, along with the million and one other unanswered questions about how this world works. You see, what's happening on New New York doesn't make sense. There's not the slightest iota of a rational basis for anyone's actions. Their entire society has collectively lost it... and personally I'm fine with that.

No, on second thoughts I'm not just "fine". I adore it. It's part of what makes the story so special for me. Many viewers can't get over the credibility gap, but I can imagine it happening and find it exciting to find it in a Doctor Who story. Look at how people behave in real life. Road rage. Traffic jams. Scary deep emotional attachments to their vehicles. Given the existence of space-age vans that you can comfortably live in for years, I can easily see an entire generation of drivers simply never getting out again. In fact, had the situation continued for another few decades, it could have been interesting and scary to see how the next generation turned out, born and bred in those tin boxes. Note that Milo and Cheen are expecting while Brannigan and Valerie have kittens, so people are still thinking of the future in their own damaged way. They have hopes and dreams. They sing hymns. It's just that they live in a society that's gone mad.

Who's to say that that's unrealistic? Societies have gone mad before. Germany in the 1930s. House prices today! Had Gridlock's cars been immobile and everyone been paying a mortgage on them, no one would have had a problem. No, all it takes is enough fear and people will make themselves believe anything. What's more, the story provides plenty of reasons why the truckers keep on truckin'. Their cars are nice. They're taking drugs. They have a sense of community. They have hope. Most importantly though is the fact that the truth is unthinkable for them, a possibility so frightening that just bringing it up can make them angry.

That's one side of the coin. The other is to argue that it's all allegorical, which is an equally valid reading. As a society, we're obsessed with cars. Let's tell a story about that. I certainly can't pretend that Russell T. Davies has ever been interested in worldbuilding, whether we're talking about the present or the future. International politics, anyone? As for his SF, the only thing that's different about his Year 5 Billion trilogy is the word "trilogy". Together they attain depth through breadth. These three episodes share cast members and a common history spanning decades, with continuity links both big (the Face of Boe) and small (apple grass is mentioned both in New Earth and Gridlock). As someone who always liked the Peladon stories, I appreciate that. However, leaving that aside, RTD's approach to futuristic stories has always been consistent. Gridlock, Utopia, The Long Game, Insane God-Emperor of the Daleks... in this sense, there's not much to choose between them. It owes a lot to 2000AD. It's big, it's splashy, it's blown up from a single idea and it's using its setting as little more than an excuse to put people in extreme situations and test them emotionally.

Gridlock just happens to get so extreme as to defy all common sense, which from where I'm sitting is the whole point.

I should mention the returning monsters, but it hardly seems worth it. They're a throwaway, the equivalent of alligators in the sewers. What difference would it have made if they'd been called the Gwifflethumps? Personally I'm amused by the obscurity of this continuity reference, but that's all. It's a gag, basically. They're fun, but they don't matter.

The Face of Boe matters, though. He's wonderful. My life is richer because I've been moved by the fate of a giant rubber head on Doctor Who. I'm also never, never, never going to shut up about this being a villain-less Doctor Who episode. There's no baddie! The enemy is yourself! You buy a car. You buy drugs. You put your faith in outside agencies. You cling to even the most far-fetched proposition if it's less scary than the truth. Note that even the initial catastrophe was caused by the people themselves rather than, say, the Macra. That would have been the easy answer of any other Doctor Who writer ever. That would even solve most of the worldbuilding issues, given how many superficial story elements it shares with The Macra Terror. However, that would have been a far blander, less distinctive episode. "Weren't me, guv. The giant alien crabs made me do it."

This theme even extends to the regulars. The Doctor's lying to himself and his friends, since that way it doesn't hurt so much. He saves this world by showing them the truth, but Martha practically has to put a gun to his head to make him do as much for himself. Tennant's great in that scene, incidentally, but just as important is the way earlier in the story he manages to shout without being embarrassing, which is something we could have used the year before. I love the way he grew into the role. However, just as the Doctor had his blind spot, Martha isn't perfect either, though. She believes in him as strongly as anyone in the story believes in anything, but she's the only one who comes out at the end still tilting at her windmills.

From the Japanese point of view, there's a poster saying Bad Wolf in kanji. It's also been decided that we prefer Ernie Vincze's work to Rory Taylor's as Director of Photography.

Overall, one of my very favourite Doctor Who episodes. The portrayal of its car-obsessed society is so extreme that I shouldn't be surprised by the spread of fan reaction, but at least this can't be accused of being another anonymous Who-by-numbers episode like The Lazarus Experiment or 42. I quite like both of those, as it happens, but it takes a little work for me to remember them. This one, I love.

It loses a bit if you've seen too much Captain Jack in Last of the Time Lords and Torchwood recently, though.