After showing off the power of the TARDIS and taking us to Elizabethan England for a good romp in the last episode, Doctor Who rounds out its opening trilogy of episodes for Series 3 with “Gridlock”. “Gridlock” is also the final installment of a loose ‘New Earth’ trilogy that Russell T. Davies has been writing since the Doctor Who revival began, taking us back to the year five billion one last time to wrap up some storylines about humanity’s distant future. “Gridlock” stands out as a different sort of episode than we’ve had so far since “Army Of Ghosts / Doomsday“. While they’ve all had their fleeting moments of sadness and pensiveness, all of the episodes in Series 3 (“The Runaway Bride“, “Smith And Jones“, and “The Shakespeare Code“) have been fairly lighthearted and adventurous, running on adrenaline and sharp humor. “Gridlock” is the most melancholy and introspective episode we’ve had in a while – commenting on faith, redemption, people turning a blind eye to their fears, and humanity’s ability to always persevere through adversity – which makes it an interesting contribution from Russell T. Davies.
The idea of the Doctor sorting out the world’s largest traffic jam in space sounds really goofy on paper, but in practice it’s surprisingly tense, and at times, rather sad. As a writer, Russell is always at his best when he’s letting some of his inner cynicism bleed through into his episodes, delving into some dark themes and some social commentary about human nature, which gives episodes like “The Long Game“, “Bad Wolf” or “Gridlock” their substance. “Gridlock” is also one of those episodes that’s very compact and really tests the forty-five minute format of NuWho. Like “Smith And Jones”, it’s very fast-paced and it’s constantly throwing new world-building information at the audience; rarely sitting still for long, but not racing along so fast that is threatens to overwhelm the viewers. My only complaint is that after maintaining a steady pace for the first two acts, the episode’s third act has a very massive, very rushed and almost forced info dump of technobabble about how a plague wiped out New Earth to justify the episode’s premise, which is the closest “Gridlock” comes to trying to cram too much plot into one episode.
The Tenth Doctor has always had a semi-reticent personality, but his tendency to try to avoid painful or uncomfortable topics at all costs has only grown worse as of late. He’s basically been running away from his own loneliness since the end of Series 2, and “Gridlock” finally forces him to sit still and confront that bad habit. When Martha brings up the ugly subject of Gallifrey, the Doctor tries to distract them from it with a fun trip to New Earth, which winds up setting off a chain reaction of events that puts them both in grave danger. Ten feels very responsible for Martha’s safety when she gets kidnapped, so the bulk of the episode is devoted to the lengths he will go to to save a friend. Absolutely nothing will stop him, and he once again proves himself to be a stubborn, tenacious, resourceful daredevil of a hero, especially during a delightfully goofy montage where Ten jumps from one flying car to another to get to the lower levels of the skyway. In fact, he’s so focused on saving Martha that he nearly overlooks vital clues about how New Earth’s progress got corrupted, creating the poor predicament that they’re in. During the climax, the Doctor is crushed by the Face of Boe’s death, despite barely knowing him, because he’s lost one more person in the universe that could understand the sort of life he leads as a wandering, isolated immortal. “Gridlock” proves to be another good showcase for the emotional intensity David Tennant can bring as the Doctor, whether he’s an angry authority figure snarling at people, or a strange man waxing nostalgically about the glory days of his childhood, who almost seems to be lost in his memories of a better life. It’s worth noting that when the Doctor finally does come clean to Martha about where he hails from, he seems to romanticize Gallifrey as a far more idyllic and serene place than it actually was, which comes back to bite them both in the ass later in “Utopia“.
Martha (Freema Agyeman) gets drugged and kidnapped by two opportunistic strangers early on in “Gridlock”, and she obviously wants to get back to the TARDIS before the Stockholm Syndrome starts to kick in, but to her dismay she finds she’s trapped on the motorway – so we quickly learn that she is very fiery, abrasive and sarcastic when she’s angry. Martha is very often the voice of reason in a room, and that really works out in her favor in this episode. She’s willing to accept the strange and bizarre at face value, especially after she’s met aliens, so she doesn’t shut down the idea of monsters living in the motorway, and she cuts right through Milo’s denial of the danger they’re in when it threatens to get them killed. She keeps a cool head in a crisis, so she’s the one who keeps them all alive with a clever trick to fool the Macra, and later convinces them to take the necessary risks to survive. Things start to get heavy for her on this trip, when the full ramifications of her choice to fly away with the Doctor start to sink in – namely the possibility that she could die a million light years away from home, and her family would never know what became of her. Nevertheless, Martha trusts the Doctor and his skills by now, and she puts her faith in him to pull off a miracle when she needs him. After the last two episodes have hinted at it, “Gridlock” is the first episode to call out how dysfunctional Ten and Martha’s dynamic can get. At this point, she’s starting to get frustrated with how flighty and tight-lipped he is. Ten is a nice enough man, but she barely knows anything about him. After the ordeal they’ve been through, Martha finally and quite rightly refuses to go any further with the Doctor unless he starts being honest with her, and the quiet, somber scene that follows where Ten shares the truth about Gallifrey serves as another milestone moment for their friendship growing stronger.
As you would expect from a Russell T. Davies episode, there are a lot of colorful side characters populating this story, like Tom Brannigan and his wife Valerie, a cat man and his human wife who have had kittens together in a delightfully naughty running gag; or the Cassini sisters, a pair of wise elderly lesbians who are handy on speed dial; or Milo and Cheen, Martha’s rather creepy kidnappers who get their just deserts when they bite off a bit more than they can chew in the fast lane. Russell T. Davies loves to dish out some social commentary on human society during his episodes that are set in the future: something he’s very good at it is singling out negative traits most humans have and magnifying them through the power of science fiction allegories to create a nightmarish scenario that’s very ugly and disturbing, and yet hits a bit too close to home for comfort. In that regard, “Gridlock” is a throwback to episodes like “The Long Game” and “Bad Wolf”. Compared to the sleek, pristine environment New Earth was in Series 2, it’s become a post-apocalyptic planet that’s gone horribly wrong in Series 3. The upper levels of the city have been sealed off from the lower levels, leaving the people there to live in the slums and scrounge for food. Without any new resources or job opportunities, people go to the motorway eventually to travel elsewhere and they never come back. The motorists have a very warped idea of what a good existence is: they’ve all become accustomed to their horrific living conditions, because a good number of them were born on the motorway and it’s the only life they’ve ever known. Since the motorway is flooded and jammed with billions of flying cars who never actually reach their destinations, people can spend years or decades of their life there, inching along, barely making any progress at all while they hear the Macra below them.
It turns out the bottom layer of the motorway has giant killer crabs in it, who devour cars that fly a bit too close to their nest, causing numerous motorists to go missing over the years. The people inching along through the chaos have turned a blind eye to all these horrific things and chosen to stay willfully ignorant, despite the nagging fears they all have that something is not right, blindly putting their trust in authority figures. They’ve stubbornly trusted the system to protect them all these years, despite all the red flags, because the alternative is too terrible to consider – that the system is broken and it’s failed, that they’ve all been abandoned to fly around in circles again and again for the rest of their lives, with no help coming. This is very disturbing, but it’s also very human: no one would ever want to think that the world is broken and that everyone is going to die, especially if they’ve spent years living in their own little bubble. The motorists have turned to each other for support soldiering on all these years, and there’s a rather telling example of how the Doctor stands apart from humanity (for better or for worse) when Martha is moved to tears by a bit of human solidarity, while Ten just looks disturbed by it and finds it incredibly unhelpful to either saving Martha or liberating all the people on the motorway. “Gridlock” is also an episode that touches on the nature of faith. Like “The Satan Pit” from last season (or “The God Complex” in Series 6), “Gridlock” implies that everyone has some kind of belief system they fall back on for strength when times are bleak, whether it’s religious faith, faith in your community like the kind the motorists have, or faith in your friends. Back in “The Satan Pit”, the Doctor stated that if nothing else, he has faith in his friends, and we get a lovely callback to that scene in “Gridlock”, when Martha decides she has faith in the Doctor to come through for her – a sentiment that comes back in a big way in “Last Of The Time Lords”.
The first act of “Gridlock” makes it apparent that the citizens of New Earth have a drug addiction problem, which turns out to be a Chekov’s gun as to why the planet’s society fell apart. “Gridlock” serves as a loose sequel to “New Earth” by following up on what happened to Novice Hame, one of the cat nuns who was arrested for conducting illegal experiments on cloned humans. The Face of Boe took custody of her, became her mentor and gave her guidance, helping her to repent for her crimes. When a viral plague wiped out everyone in the upper levels of the city, Novice Hame and the Face of Boe were the only survivors, working alone for decades to protect the people in the undercity as best as they could. The Doctor stepped in at the last minute with a bit of technical help, but it’s really these two characters who deserve most of the credit for saving everyone, especially since the Face of Boe gives his life to finish the job. The Face of Boe cements his reputation as a wise and altruistic, if enigmatic, man here, and his already poignant death scene grows even more bittersweet upon rewatch once you know he’s Captain Jack, one of the Doctor’s companions from Series 1 who Rose unknowingly cursed with immortality. After five billion years, Jack has outlived everyone he’s ever known, even other immortals, and changed radically as a person. But in his advanced age, he’s remained dedicated to serving the greater good of humanity, and finally found peace, dying for a good cause. Jack was nowhere near a perfect man (his bigger role on “Torchwood” will leave you with no illusions about that), but it feels right that his death is a fundamentally noble one in spite of the faults he had in his life. Before he goes, he gives the Doctor a warning that he’s not alone in the universe, drawing back on some memories from a long time ago.
“Gridlock” is helmed by Richard Clark, who utilizes a large amount of panning-down overhead shots (which are surprisingly underused in Doctor Who), a generous number of uncomfortable, extreme close-ups once the threat of the Macra is steadily built up, and in a few cases, full rotating shots of Martha, Milo and Cheen being tossed around their car as the Macra try to crush them to death. Add in some tight editing in post-production, and “Gridlock” is an episode that creates a large amount of kinetic energy. The Mill has their work cut out for them in this episode. Series 3 has already required a larger amount of CGI than usual, since the show is starting to become a bit more ambitious about its destinations, but here the special effects team has to create an entire CGI environment for the motorway, a place filled with thousands or billions of near-identical flying cars, and they do a decent enough job of it – even creating some beautiful shots of the motorists savoring their newfound freedom and flying through New New York’s skyline at the end. With his score, Murray Gold weaves the opening notes of Ten’s theme, “The Doctor Forever”, and Martha’s leitmotif, “Martha’s Theme”, together to symbolize their growing friendship throughout the season (which he does again in “The Family Of Blood“). “Gridlock” also marks the debut of Series 3’s pulse-pounding, action-adventure theme, “All the Strange, Strange Creatures“. It’s fitting that it makes its first appearance here: Martha didn’t quite know what she was getting into when she ran off with the Doctor in “Smith and Jones”, but she does now and she’s still onboard for more. Variations of it are used throughout Series 3, culminating in “42“, one of the most dangerous adventures of the season. Lastly, the Face of Boe’s theme (simply titled “Boe“) is given a gentle, gorgeous vocal presentation for his death scene that really warms your heart.
Compared to other writers from the RTD era, I feel like Russell T. Davies wasn’t always given his due, because of misfires like “Aliens Of London” or “Love And Monsters“. When he wanted to, the man could write some thoughtful, moving episodes, and “Gridlock” is one of them.
* “It’s all your fault, you lied to the computer, you said there were three of us! You told them there were three!” “Repeat, urgent assistance. Car one zero hot five. This is an emergency! Help us! Oh my God, I’m begging you, please, help us!” Damn, Doctor Who didn’t waste any time with the traditional red shirt murder in this episode.
* “What’s it like? Are there outer space cities, all spires and stuff? Great big temples and cathedrals? Lots of planets in the sky?” “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”.
* “So that’s the human race five billion years in the future. Off their heads on chemicals”.
* “Word of advice, all of you. Cash up, close down and pack your bags” “Why’s that, then?” “Because as soon as I’ve found her, alive and well – and I will find her alive and well – then I’m coming back, and this street is closing tonight!” Umm, Doctor, those dealers don’t even know who you are, why would they be scared of you?
* “I’m pregnant. We only discovered it last week. Scan says it’s going to be a boy” “Great. What do I do now, congratulate my kidnappers?” Yes, drag them, Martha.
* “It’s only ten miles” “How long is it going to take?” “About six years” “….What?!”
* ” Is there anyone else? I once met the Duke of Manhattan. Is there any way of getting through to him?” “Oh now, ain’t you lordly?”
* “They say people go missing on the motorway. Some cars just vanish, never to be seen again, because there’s something living down there in the smoke. Something huge and hungry. And if you get lost on the road, it’s waiting for you”.
* “Someone’s got to ask, because you might not talk about it, but it’s there in your eyes. What if the traffic jam never stops?” “There’s a whole city above us. The mighty city state of New New York. They wouldn’t just leave us!” “In that case, where are they, hmm? What if there’s no help coming, not ever? What if there’s nothing? Just the motorway, with the cars going round and round and round and round, never stopping. Forever“.
* “He’s completely insane!” “That, and a bit magnificent!”
* Funny background detail: that sharply dressed gentleman goes from looking very confused to looking very alarmed when the Doctor brings up how Novice Hame used to grow humans to experiment on – just tossing that little tidbit out there without context.
* “But that means that the only hope right now is a complete stranger. Well, that’s no use!” “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”.
* If the Face of Boe really is Captain Jack, think of how surreal his previous episodes must have been. The Face of Boe was there when Rose took her very trip through time with Nine in “The End of The World”, and seeing her wide-eyed and young again for the first time in five billion years must have been like looking at a ghost.
* “I have seen so much. Perhaps too much. I am the last of my kind, as you are the last of yours, Doctor” “That’s why we have to survive. Both of us. Don’t go” “I must. But know this, Time Lord. You are not alone”.
* “You should have seen it, that old planet. The second sun would rise in the south, and the mountains would shine. The leaves on the trees were silver, and when they caught the light every morning, it looked like a forest on fire. When the autumn came, the breeze would blow through the branches like a song”.