Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Gridlock

By Jonn Elledge on 22 April 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

If you’ve spent any time in the last two years in the festering cesspool that is ‘Doctor Who’ fandom, then you’ll know there have been two distinct reactions to Russell T Davies’ reinvention. One faction believes he’s married clever stories with great jokes and generally made the show better than it’s ever been. Another reckons he’s ruined it by spending too much time on those silly humans and their silly emotions, and that frankly it was all much better in the seventies.

The latter group are, of course, wrong. But if you’re one of them, be warned now: you’ll hate ‘Gridlock’. It’s silly. It doesn’t make sense. The monsters are barely used, and the Doctor doesn’t do something clever to defeat them.

It’s true that the plot is almost ludicrously simple. The Doctor takes Martha to New Earth, where it turns out that what remains of civilization is nearly entirely trapped in traffic. People have spent decades in their cars, driving in achingly slow circles and apparently never noticing that the city above them is dead. Occasionally one of them will relieve the monotony by getting eaten by a giant crab. With the aid of everyone’s favourite animatronic giant head, the Face of Boe, the Doctor does some rewiring, opens the skylight, and saves the day. That’s it.

But to complain about the lack of plot in ‘Gridlock’ is akin to complaining that ‘Hamlet’ should bloody well get on with it, and for those who like RTD’s writing this is one of his best efforts yet. One of the most impressive things here is the characterization of the Doctor, which runs through his entire repertoire. In 45 minutes he moves seamlessly from clown, to action hero, to the mythic last of the Time Lords, and finally to a man who needs a hug from a companion he barely knows because a creature he empathizes with has died. Martha, incidentally, is also brilliant here: smart, ballsy, and more than capable of dragging the Doctor out of himself.

Then there’s the Face of Boe himself, who speaks his mildly cryptic last words before snuffing it after the better part of 5 billion years. It’s a testament to the strength of this episode that his death works at all: this is, after all, an enormous head in a jar, who has had about a dozen lines in three years. But the combination of the Doctor begging him not to go, the tearful devastation of his (cat nun) nurse, and Murray Gold’s soundtrack make the scene unexpectedly moving – so moving, in fact, that you should think twice before watching it with any non-fans.

What’s really impressive about ‘Gridlock’ is the distance it travels in 45 minutes. It starts off feeling like a throwaway runaround and ends up feeling like an epic. On the way it features two characters from a Grant Wood painting, a character from ‘Judge Dredd’, Father Dougal as a giant cat, and a woman who has kittens. And it does all that while re-introducing a 40 year old monster for the sake of ninety seconds of CGI. Now that’s style.

If you don’t like RTD’s vision of ‘Who’, though, you’re going to hate it. Never mind. The Daleks are back this week – maybe they’ll be more to your taste.

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By Jonn Elledge

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