You have to admit there is something magical about a television series that can make its audience cry over the death of a giant animatronic head. One of the many things Russell T. Davies does brilliantly is to play with our emotions, and it is almost impossible to get to the end of this episode with dry eyes! If the haunting rendition of Old Rugged Cross or the death of the Face of Boe doesn’t get you going, then the Doctor’s emotional speech to Martha at the end surely will. He is almost in tears himself as he describes his home planet, and what a beautiful description it is too.
But Russell doesn’t let all the emotional stuff get in the way of writing a jolly funny episode as well. Ardal O’Hanlon gets the best line about the 50 foot head: ‘imagine picking that nose!’
Gridlock is an episode that wows us with powerful, memorable images: the flying cars on the motorway, the Doctor dropping from one car to another, the doors opening in the roof to let in the light, the sun setting over New New York, the skeletons in the senate, and the snapping claws of the Macra. It is always exciting to see an old monster return but it is something special for the classic series fans when a lesser known monster comes back. It is always worth looking to the Sixties for returning monsters. It was an incredibly inventive era of Doctor Who, when everyone was striving to push the boundaries on a tiny budget. Of course, that’s still happening to a certain extent. The budget might be a lot bigger nowadays, but there’s never quite enough money: the kittens must surely be an indication of the money running out on this episode – nothing left over for half-human, half-cat babies?
But words can often do the job of a big budget even more effectively. Instead of an expensive CGI shot of Gallifrey, we get these words, which live in our imagination in a way that a picture on a screen never could:
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.
And then, bookending the episode, and to the sound of a choir singing Abide with Me, this:
They’re all gone now. My family, my friends, even that sky. Oh, 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.
Ultimately, Gridlock is a parable. It teaches us about the dangers of pollution caused by increasing traffic levels and the risks of drug-taking. It shows the value of atonement (Novice Hame) and the peace this can bring. It speaks of the simple joy of a longterm relationship, with married couples happily coexisting in the same tiny space for years, which could so easily have been shown instead to be a destructive situation. The one thing that is unequivocably right with the world that is built here by Davies is the strength of all the loving relationships. And Gridlock shows us the power of faith and hope: ‘we’re not abandoned, not while we have each other.’ The Face of Boe’s message to the Doctor is beautifully paralleled in the message of the whole episode:
You are not alone.
The view from across the pond:
As one leaves New Jersey for New York via the Outerbridge Crossing on Easter Sunday, one can’t help but think of the Doctor Who episode Gridlock. Or, as I like to think of it, The Fury of Rush Hour. It should not take 25 minutes to drive 2-3 miles, yet that’s exactly what happens. And Doctor Who is notoriously good for taking a mundane thing and making it scary. But writer Russell T. Davies did not make being stuck in traffic scarier; he made it more blissful. I would have given quite a bit to be able to drive down into the loving embrace of some Macra, just to get out of the stupidity that was yesterday’s traffic.
That aside, being able to relate to what characters go through is not the only element of Gridlock worthy of note. In fact, Gridlock is a seriously good episode because it has so much going on. Turning traffic into something devious is great because, we really can relate to that nightmare. But then we get the third appearance of The Face of Boe with a final message for the Doctor. When we think of Boe, one can’t help but wonder why we like him so much. He’s ancillary to The End of the World, remaining in the background the entire time. He gets a brief mention in The Long Game but doesn’t make a proper return until New Earth. By this point, he considers the Doctor an old friend, but we have no reason upon which to base that claim. Now, in the third season of the regenerated Doctor Who, we get the final interaction with this “old friend” and though there’s actually a long history between them, we won’t find out what that is until the end of the season. It is literally a long game, but the payoff is worth it, and counterintuitively, we have Gridlock to thank for it.
Then there’s the whole drug thing. It’s a great commentary on the dangers of drug use but more than that, it’s a commentary on the dangers of masking one’s emotions; trying to bury them and control them. It leads to the death of an entire senate filled with people who have all followed in the footsteps of Narcissus (who died of hunger while blissfully starring at his own image). It leads to the disturbing image of a room full of the dead who all died while sitting together, all able to help one another but all failing to notice they needed saving. In the midst of the iGeneration, it’s frighteningly prescient. In the episode, it’s not explicitly stated but if one is willing to infer, the viewer is treated with some deep thoughts on the dangers of not confronting ones emotions head on and being too caught up in our “substances” whether that is a drug or a device. The use of the moods in the episode is a pandemic, but what’s worse is that so many drugs are so easy to obtain, and I’m not referring to the illicit ones; our society is so over-medicated with prescription drugs and many of those drugs are used to control our emotions; it’s easy to extrapolate this outcome but I don’t think it would take 5 billion years to get there, sadly!
Gridlock also gives us some spiritual stuff; faith is never so strongly represented as it is here. There has always been this underlying theme of the Doctor as Savior, but it’s really brought to light here. Brannigan (played brilliantly by Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon) refers to the Doctor as a magician but as the Doctor tells everyone to fly towards the light and saves them, the image is less magician and more miracle worker. The use of such songs as “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Abide with me” just reinforce that imagery. Flying “up” and into “the light” further drive that point home and it’s not getting stuck in traffic. The message is clear and as many a Doctor Who fan will attest, the show itself has offered fans a sense of joy and belonging not unlike a religion. The unfortunate question one has to ask is, are we using it like those moods? I guess it depends on the viewer.
Commentary aside, let’s not ignore the lore Gridlock gives us. We get to learn a little bit about Gallifrey. After all this time, we’re finally getting a picture painted for new series viewers! Gridlock gives us a few moments of absolute sadness and beauty as the Doctor reminisces over his lost home. And the Macra are back. Now, properly mindless beasts but so lacking in the fear-factor that the only thing they remind us of now is giant monsters from a Godzilla movie. Unlike the title role in the Troughton episode, they are truly in the background of the story adding menace only to people who use the HOV lanes.
The supporting cast is great. I’m very fond of Lenora Crichlow from her work in Being Human and Black Mirror. Brannigan and Novice Hame are some cool cats that add to the fun of an episode deep with allegory. And Boe… what can we say? Thanks for being a friend.
Gridlock is that kind of science fiction that sits in your head. It’s not epic in scale, but keeps us thinking. And we don’t need a mood enhancement sticker for it. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Daleks in Manhattan