Gridlock is the 3rd episode of the revival series’ third season, starring David Tennant, and features a random appearance by some classic monsters, the return of the Face of Boe and Novice Hame, and also a woman with kittens for children.
Story: The Doctor brings Martha to New Earth, which he is surprised to find has been changed since he last saw it into a depressed place with people who cope with life by using mood-adjusting patches. Martha is kidnapped by a couple who want her to be a third person in their vehicle, giving them access to the “fast lane” as they begin a six year journey to a distant part of the world. Pursuing her, the Doctor discovers that thousands of people in this “down below” part of New Earth society live for entire generations in small spaceships on the “highway”, trapped in traffic on their way to what is supposedly a better life. In spite of the overwhelming exhaust fumes, he begins to travel from car to car, attempting to reach Martha, whose vehicle is down below in the fast lane, where they are threatened by giant crab creatures called Macra. However, he is teleported out by Novice Hame, who has been caring for the Face of Boe as penance since the Doctor’s last visit. There, he discovers that the underworlders of New Earth are all that remain after the rest of the society took a mood-altering patch that led to their deaths. With the Doctor’s help, the Face of Boe gives the last of his life energy to set all the underworlders free, exposing them to the sunlight for the first time. Before he dies, the Face of Boe gives the Doctor his final message: “You are not alone.”
Comments: There’s actually a whole segment of this story that didn’t make it into my first draft of my plot description because it’s ultimately irrelevant and unexplained by the rest of the story: the fact that there is a mysterious monster in the bottom-most parts of New Earth that are regularly killing (and eating, presumably) the few residents who make it down to the fast lane. These turn out to be the Macra – giant crab creatures that appeared back in the 1960’s original series story The Macra Terror. These Macra don’t have much to do with their original counterparts, though. This is explained in-story by the Doctor commenting that they have “de-volved”, and really any giant monster could have substituted. There’s no explanation as to where these creatures have come from, how they survive (since so few people make it to the fast lane), or what happens to them afterwords. But it is a nice little shout-out to the original series fans.
Gridlock is a bit of a trickie episode for me to get my head around. There are so many things working against it: the implausible concept that people spends years in traffic, the pretty low production value of the underground portions of New Earth that we see at the beginning, the somewhat annoying relational drama of Martha and her attraction to the Doctor, and the straight-up absurdity that we get with the host of oddballs who are driving all the cars (particularly the family with the kittens). Yet somehow, Gridlock remains reasonably tight and appealing.
It’s probably the Face of Boe aspects of the story that give it its sense of scale and grandeur. Though the concept of mood-altering patches is dealt with pretty blithely, the idea that one got out of control and led the death of the rest of the society resonates strongly. It helps make the drama of the Face of Boe, this impossibly old life form, spending the last of his energy to keep the last remnants of the world alive, pretty compelling.
I also have to say that I appreciate the scene of the daily contemplation, where everyone sings “Old Rugged Cross”. It takes this goofy situation into a bit of a different level, drawing out (briefly) an interesting theme of finding hope in the midst of shared suffering. It’s a brief but appreciated moment.
What really lets the story down, though, is the interaction between Martha and the Doctor. That fact that Martha – who is genuinely likeable – calls the Doctor out and forces him to open up is a positive thing (David Tennant’s Doctor is a character who definitely needs that sort of thing), but there is a way in which she hasn’t really been around long enough to earn that yet. The whole thing makes her feel like a clingy and possessive girlfriend, except that in this case she’s not even going out with the guy.
There aren’t that many lines of dialogue that stuck with me from recently re-watching it, but the one highlight for me was a line that showed a bit of the Doctor’s vulnerability. When Brannigan asks him about Martha, he replies
Doctor: Hardy know her. I was too busy showing off. And I lied to her.
Things to watch out for (vague spoilers for the rest of the series):
• The plot device that an apparently cruel and unjust scenario is really someone’s best effort at saving everyone foreshadows the superior Season 4 story, Silence in the Library.
• Martha’s speech to her captors about how her faith is really in the Doctor foreshadows the mission that she undertakes at the end of the season.
Making sense of it all (Warning: blatant spoilers for the rest of the series):
The Face of Boe’s last message to the Doctor will eventually be revealed to refer to the Master, who is lurking around this entire season as Harold Saxon, and who shows up as Professor Yana (whose name cleverly but insensibly is made up of the initials of the Face of Boe’s message) in Utopia.
It’ll be hinted at later that it’s possible that the Face of Boe is really a future version of Captain Jack Harkness, which explains how he knows various things about the Doctor. If he’s not Captain Jack, it’s never explained how he knows that the Doctor isn’t alone, although he is crazy old and the Doctor travels through time, so it’s just possible he picked up a thing or two somewhere along the line.
Last Word: A bit of a trivial and light-hearted runaround that suddenly becomes key in the season’s arc.