Doctor Who Re-watch: Gridlock

Ah Gridlock, the intense traffic jam episode with bonus Face of Boe, how I’ve always enjoyed you! Really, this season is quite good!!! Fair warning re this review: Ben got a bit carried away with his write-up and was so enthusiastic, I let him dominate in this week’s review 🙂 He has a lot of great stuff to say.

The Pre-Titles Sequence

Ben: This episode opens with a strange mix of old-timey fashion – the couple is very American Gothic – mixed with futuristic tech – it feels very Blade Runner (yes, I know Blade Runner was very fashion forward, but it’s more the mix of new and old I’m talking about). Anyways, the scene ends with the couple dying what sounds to be a painful death at the hands of something unknown. Cue The Doctor to come save the day!

Maureen: I know what you mean about the Blade Runner vibe, Ben. This is one of the Doctor Who sci fi concept episodes that does a lot of world-building very quickly. It’s a proper old-style Who episode! Even the smiling bureaucrat reminded me a little of Blade Runner!

Gridlock

The Companion

Ben: Poor Martha has a bit of a bad run this episode; first she asks The Doctor about Gallifrey, then he takes her to a place he’s already been with Rose, and not even to the nice parts! And then, to add insult to injury, she gets kidnapped! She’s doing a pretty good job managing on her own until her kidnappers drop the bombshell that their 10-mile trip to Brooklyn is going to take them 6 years!! According to her captors they’ve brought enough supplies to last them the trip, including such fun things as artificial muscle stimulants to fight off atrophy. What a world Martha and The Doctor have found themselves in!

Maureen: I just loved all the little world-building add-ons like the artifical muscle stimulants and that awfully disturbing scene where a woman bought mood pills to forget her own parents. But no, Martha was NOT having a good time. I love that The Doctor can’t help himself – he claimed he’d only take Martha on two adventures but now he can’t stop! I quite enjoyed the Gallifrey speech Ten made and his quip that going home wouldn’t be any fun and then whoops, Martha is kidnapped! I actually noted that this set-up reminds me a lot of Australian sci-fi shorts I’ve read. This episode really shows how often Doctor Who opts for fantasy tropes over sci fi ones. Though I enjoy both, it’s nice to have a change.

Ben: Things really start to go pear-shaped when the car Martha’s in makes it down to the fast lane at the bottom of the highway. And with all the turnoffs closed, there’s no way out of the fast lane and whatever else lives down there. It takes a black cat lady in what appears to be fetish gear invoking Jehovah’s name and then dying in the fast lane 50 yards behind them for Martha’s kidnappers to accept there is in fact something down there with them, and by then it’s too late to get out of the fast lane. (maybe that’s supposed to be a metaphor for living life in the fast lane … nah I’m probably overthinking things). Anyways, Martha’s quick thinking buys them some time when the Macra start attacking them, she’s the one who powers down the car – the Macra can’t detect them when they go dark.

Maureen: I am really loving how clever Martha is. I can’t believe I never appreciated this element of her character as a teen and a young adult. She feels much more consistently written than Rose so far. Even the irritating Doctor love is at least consistent with everything that’s come before.

Martha: You’ve got your hymns. I’ve got The Doctor.

That quote by the way, fits pretty neatly with the Season Three finale. This is probably one of the reasons why Season Three was always my overall favourite of the RTD era, even with the Doctor Jesus flaws.

Ben: Next, we get a great scene with Martha where she muses on the possible mistake she made in travelling with this strange man who calls himself The Doctor – she doesn’t know anything about him, her parents have no idea where she is. She could die billions of years into the future on a distant planet and nobody would know what has happened to her. This kind of reflection is completely different from anything we got from Rose, who jumped at the chance to travel with The Doctor and never looked back. She’s put her life in the hands of a complete stranger (who isn’t a medical doctor and therefore automatically trustworthy).

Maureen: I wonder how old Martha is meant to be? Early twenties vs. Rose’s nineteen? She feels a lot more mature and again I love how her musings here fit in with her finale exit. I suspect that if Martha ever met Rory, she’d get on with him like a house on fire.

Ben: After her introspective speech, Martha needs to get the power back on so she and her kidnappers don’t suffocate, so it’s back to dodging gigantic crab claws as best she can. I know they can’t move properly into the next lane up, but surely they can move up a little bit, just to be out of range of the claws. Luckily The Doctor manages to save the day, and Martha finally puts her foot down and gets some proper backstory out of The Doctor – he’s not just a Time Lord, he’s the last of the Time Lords. It’s been a while since The Doctor has gotten this serious, and it’s a great way to end the episode, mirroring how it started, with The Doctor telling Martha about Gallifrey.

The Doctor

Ben: Tennant does some pretty great acting at the start when Martha asks the Doctor about Gallifrey. The sad music playing as the Doctor describes the planet he lost to the Time War was getting close to tear inducing.

Maureen: God, I love the season three soundtrack! And the Gallifrey theme Murray Gold wrote for it is one of the best until ‘I am the Doctor’ came along in Season Five and blew everything that came before out of the water … but I digress.

Ben: The Doctor’s introspection doesn’t last long, as he chases adventure to defer grief. Bring on the 15th New York! After a very dramatic introduction to the city, the Doctor rushes off to rescue Martha – but not before pulling his angry holier-than-thou act on the street vendors who sell the emotions. Sure, going for the little guys is really gonna solve shit, Ten!

Maureen: Ah, Ten. This is why you’re not my favourite. You’re just so sanctimonious at the drop of a hat. Like, maybe try a little empathy for these people and the harsh world they live in? But then, The Doctor can be judgmental and at least Ten managed violent emotion, which is more than Thirteen managed in her entire season :/

Ben: Anyway, cutting to the motorway, The Doctor manages to hitch a ride with a lovely catman, his human wife and their kittens! Such an adorable little family THAT’S BEEN DRIVING ON THE MOTORWAY FOR TWELVE YEARS?!? Anyways, thanks to the assistance of a little old lady (I wonder how long her and her wife have been on the motorway for) who likes to carspot, the Doctor is able to pinpoint the car that Martha is in. The question now is how to get to her. It’s also the Doctor who realises what no one’s been wanting to say – that the highway has been abandoned by New New York – no police, no ambulance, just the motorway. I particularly loved the sequence of the Doctor jumping through car after car to get down to the fast lane – all the different car interiors and passengers was just really fun. Anyways, once The Doctor gets to the row of cars just above the fast lane we finally get a look at what’s really down there, and we find out the cat lady Boe sent to find the Doctor is hot on his tail! Novice Hame catches up to the Doctor just as he discovers the Macra and whisks him away to the Overcity of New New York. And THAT is when shit gets real.

24 years ago the entire population of NNY was wiped out by a new chemical called Bliss – a virus mutated inside Bliss and became airborne, killing everyone in 7 minutes. The only way to save the Undercity was to seal it off. The highway has been running on automatic for 24 years, with the Face of Boe and Novice Hame keeping everything running as best they can. Hell, Boe even wired himself to the mainframe, giving his lifeforce to keep things running and prevent the Undercity from falling into the sea. They couldn’t even call for help because the planet is under quarantine for 100 years.

Given this new information, The Doctor struggles to work his magic with what little power there is left in the system, which is when the Face of Boe gives everything he has left to power the system – enabling The Doctor to open the roof of the motorway and free everyone who’s been trapped there. Before Boe dies he gets to say his tearful (for everyone else) farewells, and impart a final secret to the Doctor – that he’s not alone, he isn’t in fact the last of the Time Lords.

Face of Boe: You are not alone, Doctor!

Maureen: Well, I have nothing to add to Ben. He’s on fire this week!

The Monster of the Week

Ben: Right from the beginning of the episode we know there’s something big and bad out there, big enough to break through a transport to get to the people inside. First, all we hear is some ominous creaking and groaning from below the car carrying Martha and we’re assured it’s just the air vents (which Martha points out are obviously non-functioning considering all the smog). Although we do then get a folk tale about how there’s in fact a huge scary monster down there who’s the reason a whole bunch of people have gone missing. I wonder which of the two reasons will turn out to be true … Well, if you guessed option B you’d be correct! Turns out it’s giant crabs called Macra that thrive in gas – the filthier the better according to The Doctor. Apparently, billions of years ago they used to rule the galaxy, with humans as their slaves. I dunno how crabs without opposable thumbs can rule anything, but I guess stranger things have happened. Anyways, they’ve devolved somewhat since then, but they’re still enough of a threat to the occasional carload of people who get within claw range. They don’t really suffer a defeat in the climax of the episode so much as everyone is able to move far enough away that they’re no longer a problem. So, victory? I guess?

Maureen: I sort of feel like there wasn’t really a villain this week. The Macra were minding their own business in the smog. It was only when humans got too close that they attacked. The humans with the synthetic emotions were making money off trauma, but well, why shouldn’t they in such a bleak dystopia? Maybe it was a civil service. As to the cat lady and the Face of Boe, they are ambiguous as to their innocence or villainy at first, but by the end of the episode we know the traffic jams have been caused for the greater good in a move of ultimate sacrifice on the part of Boe. Incidentally, I thought it was incredibly chilling when Martha and The Doctor walked through the skeletons of The Senate (how prequel Star Wars). That scene really showed why Boe did what he did, even if that meant consigning humanity to a boring and cruel existence in the smog indefinitely.

Final Thoughts

Ben: The Face of Boe showing up was a happy surprise, and initially with his cat companion arming her weapon I though he had nefarious designs for The Doctor. Turns out, no! And then adding to this vision of a dystopian future, there’s street vendors selling synthetic moods and feelings. 21st century drugs have nothing on them, that’s for sure. Selling a young woman ‘forget’ so she could forget her parents who went on the motorway? Oof. The world-building in this episode is insanely good. All those cars, spitting all those fumes inside a tunnel for decades! No wonder there’s a monster down there picking off cars. We get some more excellent world building in the second half of the episode with the dead Overcity, and a great dramatic conclusion to the episode with the Face of Boe making the ultimate sacrifice to save the city (and Martha). All in all, I really loved this episode, and any faults I have with it are relatively minor. I’m going to give it a 9/10.

Maureen: I think this is a weird Doctor Who episode. It’s not showy. It’s not wildly ambitious like some of Moffat’s work, but it tells an interesting future-set story with great world-building and doesn’t shy away from tough moral choices. And yes, I was happy to see the return of Boe. I also think this episode works hard to set-up Season Three’s overarching themes about what it is to be the last of your kind, what it is to travel as a human companion with The Doctor and why The Doctor matters. I loved this episode from the first time I saw it and my opinion on it has never changed. I also give Gridlock 9/10 inky stars

About InkAshlings

Maureen, Australian, young aspiring writer.
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