The Doctor does a U-turn on his promise to give Martha one trip, and one trip only, in the TARDIS and the pair arrive on the planet of New Earth in the far, far, far, right a bit, go a bit further, far future. This is a nice throwback to the first series of the new Doctor Who, ticking all the right boxes again - contemporary Earth with alien threat (check); time travel to Earth’s past with sumptuous period detail and celebrity figure from history (check); jump forward to New Earth in the far future and show what the effects boys can do (check).
And that’s no bad thing as it often pays to revisit these standards, and as such, Gridlock takes the same futuristic backdrop as earlier episodes The End of the World and New Earth. It’s a neat way of getting the audience to swallow the often difficult pill of Doctor Who’s more sci-fi based, alien plots, something that Russell T Davies has always been (quite rightly) wary of. With a New Earth, we’ve already acclimatised to the other worldly setting, so onward with the story…
And Gridlock is disarmingly simple - as the streets of the under city of New New York become flooded with drugs that make emotions a high, people are heading to the motorway to get away to a better life, only to find that there isn’t a better life. The motorway has become one giant, multi-levelled, roofed in gridlock that passengers have been stuck in for decades. But what of those up top, in the Belsize Park of the city? Why aren’t they coming to help, and (because it’s Doctor Who, so there has to be something) what nastiness is hiding at the bottom of the gridlock?
As is often the way, the Doctor and Martha become separated, with our new heroine carjacked by a young couple to bring the number of passengers up to the magic three and therefore let them gain access to the fabled Fast Lane. This provides Freema Agyeman the chance to come out from behind David Tennant’s charismatic sparkle, as the characters are not together for much of the action. Agyeman’s confidence in the role continues to grow, able to dominate scenes located in one cramped set with the deft skill of an old pro. Her hurt realisation that the Doctor is taking her to the places he visited with her predecessor is well played, displaying a subtlety that the much-feted Billie Piper would be hard pushed to match.
Tennant himself gets to have some fun in a series of vignettes as the Doctor makes his way down through the various levels of vehicles (and the same set, redressed) and encounters the various passengers stuck in the gridlock. He’s in good, high-energy hero mode here, but please, can we stop having script moments that call for the Doctor to be indignantly angry and shouting at mostly innocent people who are just a victim of the system? These moments are at odds with the character and turn the Doctor into a shouty Gene Hunt that simply does’t work.
Ardal O’Hanlon gives a good turn hidden under some feline make-up as the twinkle-eyed Brannigan, with playful verbal sparring with Tennant as the Doctor invades his vehicular domicile. Shame about Martha’s travelling companions who just don’t seem to be throwing themselves whole-heartedly into the Doctor Who fun.
And then there’s the question of the nasties lurking at the bottom of the Fast lane, snatching anybody ‘lucky’ enough to get down there. Giant crabs, otherwise known as The Macra. Who? Most of the audience will just blink and not really care, seeing some entertaining CGI crabs with big snapping claws to bring the kids back on side after a lot of talking in cramped rooms. To the Doctor Who die-hards, their hearts will have skipped a beat at the name, with these sadistic shellfish having turned up in a 1967 Patrick Troughton story. You could ask: why bother? But on the other hand: why not? Your mainstream audience are not going to be worry, and it’s a quick manifesto moment to give the fans a moment to call their own. What’s the point of having a rich history if you don’t call on it?
It looks good - the CGI vistas of the upper city looks beautifully big budget (if calling to mind some of the later Star Wars films) and here is where the plot takes an odd turn - the Face of Boe (you remember, that big old boat race from previous episodes) has been keeping the motorway going after the population of the upper city were wiped out by the drug Bliss. He’s been waiting for the Doctor to turn up so he can deliver his final, dying message - the Doctor is not alone. The Doctor is curiously non-plussed by this and almost shrugs it aside as he gets down to business by opening the roof of the motorway and releasing the trapped passengers into the new life they’ve been searching for.
It’s the usual, life-affirming Doctor Who moment, but one wonders why the Face of Boe didn’t just open the roof in the first place. But, like many of Russell T Davies’s scripts, it’s best to dismiss your niggling doubts over some loose plotting and just enjoy the spectacle, character and drama.
Next Week: Daleks in Manhattan (yes, that really is what it’s called!)