“GRIDLOCK” – Series 3, Episode 3, Story 181 – Written by Russell T Davies; Directed by Richard Clark – The Doctor and Martha Jones head to the future of New Earth as the Doctor takes Martha back to a planet he took Rose, which makes Martha feel like she’s the rebound girl. You’ll remember New Earth from the episode of the same name; or you’ll remember it’s the one with cat lady nuns. Martha gets kidnapped and the Doctor goes on a chase in a fast-paced story about a slow-paced life. And then, because he’s contractually obligated to appear once a season, the Face of Boe shows up to finally tell the Doctor his big secret. The Doctor doesn’t want to hear it because that means Boe is gonna die. And the Doctor takes the Face of Boe’s death pretty hard. Because The Face Of Boe Was The Last Of His Kind, Too.
One of the hardest things to do when evaluating talent – whether it’s creative, athletic, musical, basket weaving, whatevering – is to first note and then change your opinion. It’s the old Restaurant Rule – if you go to a restaurant 19 times and have fantastic meals and then the 20th time it’s so bad you’re expecting Gordon Ramsay to come blasting out of the kitchen shutting the place down, you’re not going to say, “The Chef has lost it.” What you’re likely to say is, “The Chef had a bad night.” You see it in sports with older players – what’s a bad year and what’s the beginning of the end?
My general take on Russell T Davies has been that after a strong beginning with ROSE, his plots have tended to be crap as he sacrifices logic and coherency for emotional fireworks. During Series 2, I’d developed a sense of dread when I saw that he was writing the next episode. Series 3 is starting to make me wonder if we’ve seen a shift. RUNAWAY BRIDE is a bit of a downer (perhaps the most un-Christmas Christmas episode I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen the HE-MAN/SHE-RA CHRISTMAS SPECIAL), but SMITH AND JONES is very good from start to finish. Davies had clearly toned down the emotional explosions post-Rose and strengthened his plotting. It’s not an all-time great, but as I said in my review, it’s what an ordinary DOCTOR WHO episode should be in terms of quality.
After the excellent Gareth Roberts-penned SHAKESPEARE CODE, we’re back to another Davies episode, which proves that SMITH AND JONES wasn’t just that once in 20 visits bad meal at a restaurant. Or rather, that once in 20 good meals at a bad restaurant. GRIDLOCK offers a suitably strange plot that’s got that abandoned life feel of PARADISE TOWERS, but what makes the episode is the surprisingly emotional final act that sees the death of the Face of Boe and the Doctor opening up to Martha about the beauty of the no-longer-there Gallifrey.
I really like this episode. As I’ve said in my reviews of both previous episodes, this is what I’m looking for out of the Tennant/Davies era. GRIDLOCK sees the people of New Earth (which you’ll remember the Doctor visiting with Rose in, um, NEW EARTH) trapped underground in perpetual gridlock. Thousands of identical, rectangular, hovercars sit bumper to bumper in traffic, trapped underground. Martha gets kidnapped by a young couple needing a third person in order to qualify for access to the Fast Lane.
They take her at gunpoint and the Doctor absolutely loses his sh*t about it. If you replace Martha with Rose, the Doctor’s reaction would be grating because there’s the whole romance angle, but since Martha is “just” a Companion, the Doctor’s reaction is a complex mix of emotions. He’s angry, of course, at seeing her kidnapped, but he’s also still dealing with losing Rose and still dealing with losing Mickey and Jackie, and still dealing with the reunion with Sarah Jane. Since I know what’s coming and am therefore allowed to cheat, I also know that this connection with his Companions is going to play a major role with the Tenth Doctor between now and the end (of time … aren’t I clever).
The Doctor heads underground and starts a very enjoyable quest to find Martha, jumping from car to car and encountering a wide array of New Earth citizens. He’s gobsmacked by the fact that these people are totally cool with how they’ve spent years down here in traffic. It is a bit of a plot contrivance that everyone is so cool with it, but there’s a subplot about how New Earth got a bit drugged out attaching mood patches, allowing them to feel bliss or to forget bad things, so the larger point of how a society can lose touch with common sense due to an over-dependence on pharmaceuticals works well enough.
What Davies does very well here is quickly give you a set of tertiary characters that are engaging enough for you to care about. Wisely, Davies builds these characters around romantic couplings – there’s Branigan the Catman, his human wife, and their litter of kittens, two old married ladies, and Martha’s young kidnappers who turn out to be cool and pregnant and promise to drop her off once they get where they’re going in six years. They’ve clearly been designed to show you couples in different stages of a lasting romantic relationship so while they’re different people (thus adding to the plot’s quick pacing), they reinforce the same feeling in the mind of the audience. The Doctor eventually runs into some single-person cars and they’re lack of companionship thus heightens the episode’s drama; the further the Doctor descends towards the Fast Lane, the longer he’s been apart from Martha and the greater the chance that he’s not going to save her and thus render himself alone, just like these poor folks down here who are traveling all by themselves.
When the Doctor hits the car just above the Fast Lane, he sees that in the bowels live the Macra, or as they’re commonly known, Giant Crabs. As the Doctor is trying to figure out how to get down there to save Martha, a cat lady nun pops in and teleports him out of there. The Doctor is all, “Take me back!” and she’s like, “No.” So the Doctor is all, “I want to talk to the Senate!” (what?) and she’s like, “You’re in the Senate and they’re all dead.” The cat lady nun turns out to be Novice Hame, the same cat lady nun that was watching the Face of Boe back in NEW EARTH and she tells him what’s happened to this world. It’s a nice twist – the Doctor has been thinking that the people trapped in the gridlock have been abandoned by the above-ground world, but actually they were trapped below the surface in order to save them.
The Face of Boe has been giving his life force to keep things running, which is awesome except that things really suck below ground because, you know, people have been trapped down there for two decades and there’s Giant F*cking Crabs living at the bottom killing everyone who enters the Fast Lane.
So Davies’ plotting is getting a bit tighter, but it’s not exactly air tight.
It’s all a bit of frenetic fun; the issue is serious enough to generate some real dramatic conflict, but it’s also quick enough and engaging enough that it’s a fun watch. It’s the last ten-fifteen minutes that make the episode, however.
The Doctor is all angry with the cat lady nun, but then he recognizes her from last time and warms to her after she’s told him she realizes the nuns were wrong for relying on all those drugs and she’s spent the last twenty-odd years here, caring for the Face of Boe as penance for her actions. Tennant is excellent playing off the giant Face, drumming up real emotion at what the Face of Boe has sacrificed and concern for his approaching death.
The highs experienced with the safe return of Martha are instantly cooled by the final moments of the Face’s life, and Davies script and Richard Clark’s direction really ratchet up the emotional drama without resorting to anyone yelling or screaming. It’s a fantastic sequence and Tennant and Agyeman do great work conveying the differing sadness of the Doctor and Martha. The Doctor is sad to lose another friend and Martha is saddened at the loss of life of this strange, noble being.
Boe tells the Doctor that “You are not alone” just before dying and the Doctor is all shocked and disbelieving of the implications that perhaps he’s not the last of the Time Lords, after all.
The Doctor is all, “Right then, let’s go, Martha Jones,” but Martha grabs a discarded chair and sets herself down. She might be willing to play sidekick but she’s not playing the rebound girl and she starts demanding some info from the Doctor about what the Face of Boe meant. The Doctor is reluctant to let any of that personal stuff out, but grabs his own chair and starts telling Martha about the Time War and what it was like on Gallifrey with its orange sky and leaves of silver, and as the camera soars away from them, his voice fading away, you have the sense that the Doctor is finally coming to grips with all that’s happened in a healthy manner.
GRIDLOCK is the third really solid episode in a row. As I’ve stated before, this time period is when DOCTOR WHO started becoming I had to watch every week. Glad I picked these nights to sit down at the restaurant.