Ah, transport of delight.
You can't beat a bit of British transport. Whether the slow-moving train breaks down or is held up because of a stray crisp packet on the line or whether the plane's been delayed because the pilot's too busy having a crafty fag, it seems that time waits for every man and woman who are just trying to get from A to B.
Then there are the roads. The average road in Britain comprises one long line of cars, lorries, buses, taxis and juggernauts, a depressing vista of never-ending metal and rubber. Still, while you're at the wheel, at least you can ponder on some of life's big questions. Why does it always rain at weekends after sunny weekdays? Is it really possible to touch your elbow with your tongue? Could The Only Way Is Essex be the most depressing thing shown in the history of television?
Doctor Who fans also have a lot to ponder on. Since I'm rabbiting on about cars and traffic jams, then how about mulling over the pandemonium that is Gridlock?
It's an odd story, and one of those tales that divides the fans into two distinct love and hate camps. I'll be brutally honest – I used to be stuck firmly in the hate gang. It's a follow-up to New Earth, which spells danger already. Shouty Doctor's back. Also it's an episode in which Murray's Pompous Choir reign supreme. No good can come from this.
Or so I thought. I saw it again the other day, but in fact, I didn't mind it so much. Of course, the above points still stand, not to mention the fact that the story itself is rather slow and sluggish, and more problematically, has so many holes in it that you could re-brand it and market it as a familiar brand of chocolate bar. But there are some great elements to Gridlock that bear merit. Quite a few times, I found myself nodding in admiration.
I'll save those for later though – a bit like the ice-cold beer at the end of a long commute on a crowded, boiling hot and sticky bus in the middle of July. In the meantime, let's look at the problems. Basically, the plot doesn't amount to much. The Doctor's now humming and hawwing over whether to take Martha on just the one trip, and so decides to generously take her to New Earth in the far future in the year five billion and fifty three. Incidentally, why does Davies sometimes feel the need to go all Dr Evil when thinking up excessive numbers for years or dates? You can picture him sat at his desk with his little finger at the corner of his mouth, shouting “Five BILLION years!!” into thin air.
More to the point, quite why we have to head back to New Earth in the first place is another troublesome poser, especially since the general reaction to the 2006 season opener was lukewarm at best. If there's any proof that the Doctor's still treating Martha badly, then it's his choice of destination in New Earth. Whereas Rose sampled the apple grass and flying spaceships of up above, Martha enjoys a nice cold shower in a grotty old slum: the equivalent of eating in a smelly old burger joint, as opposed to Rose's Michelin star restaurant treatment. This is the lowest of the low, especially with drug pushers selling their wares in the slums.
Unfortunately, the whole scene's played for laughs, what with Murray's silly plinky-plonky music and comedy vendors from what seems to be a fusion of The Apprentice and Why Don't You? A potentially hard-hitting topic for discussion, which is reduced to tomfoolery and predictably crass soapboxing. “Cash up, close down and pack your bags!” yells the Doctor at the comedy vendors, before warning that he will close the street tonight. Nice bit of subtle acting there from Mr Tennant.
Mind you, it's not surprising that the Doctor's angry, since Martha's been kidnapped by two wayward youths as a result of his faffing around and showing off. On a mission to rescue Martha, the Doctor finds himself on a great big motorway which is one long traffic jam, populated by huge numbers trying to get to the fast lane. That's it really. Most of the episode takes place in cramped metal boxes populated by various everyday schmucks like Martha's kidnappers, Milo and Cheen; Valerie (a human), a cat bloke called Thomas Kincaid Brannigan and their feline offspring; two ancient old lesbians; a disgruntled businessman; nudists; a weird cat gimp thing; and so forth.
A big problem with this is that nothing ever happens. Much of the slack is taken up with endless talky scenes about how the population has been trapped in the cars for x-amount of years. There's very little in the way of action in the episode, apart from a tussle with a returning enemy, but even then, this is run-of-the-mill stuff.
The bigger problem is that because the story relies on detailed exposition and big, lengthy scenes of raw infodump, the plot holes loom large and wide. Take the basic concept of travelling five miles in 12 years. Eh? For starters, no sane person would choose to put up with that situation for one year, never mind 12. What about deep vein thrombosis? Or do the travellers have some magical drug that can cure this? Do they have one for claustrophobia, too? Quite how Valerie's 'kids' were born is another big poser, and one that requires more dramatic licence than supplies of cat food.
The confusion keeps on coming. Later on in the story, Novice Hame says that everyone in New Earth was destroyed by an airborne virus in seven minutes flat some 24 years ago. All well and dramatic, if a tad unoriginal: it seemed that Blake's 7 fans would get their fix of airborne killer poisons about three or four times a series. But think on this: how comes the likes of Brannigan and Valerie got to be on the motorway, since they joined less than 24 years ago? Did Milo and Cheen start out on the motorway in nappies? Furthermore, when it comes down to it, all it takes to solve the problem is for the Face Of Boe to channel energy for the Doctor to pull levers and sort out itty bitty wires. Couldn't Novice Hame have used her loaf and done this? Even if she was a technophobe, surely old Boe could have imparted some great knowledge to her?
Another big conundrum to figure out involves the big grand old uncle of Troughton monsters coming back for a second rematch against the Doctor. I wonder how many creaky old fans spluttered their tea at the TV screens when the Doctor whispers: “Macra!” It's a great revelation admittedly, and the realisation of the crab monsters is considerably more effective than in The Macra Terror. But what's the point of the Macra? We're told that they feed off gas. So why do they attack the cars? That's their food supply gone in a couple of seconds.
The Macra's lone function is to act as Monster Of The Week. Considering that the story deals with overtones of brainwashing and hordes of people stuck in a brain-dead rut, surely it would have made some sort of sense for the Macra to be behind the whole sham? That would have offered some reasonable explanation as to the background. Plus, given that in The Macra Terror, the colonists were given updates by a mysterious, smiley Controller figure, then surely it would have made more sense for Sally Calypso to be a similar Macra-influenced illusion. But nothing comes of this. The Macra snap their claws a bit, like psychotic flamenco dancers, but that's all. It's a great big wasted opportunity.
All told, my head's in a spin, so much so, that it's detached itself from my body and flown across the room to crash into the wall on the other side. Normally, I'm not one for picking plots to pieces. There's some past Doctor Who stories which contain plot holes like Pyramids Of Mars and Earthshock – the difference is though, that these are propelled by fast-paced action and horror. There's no time for the viewers or nit-pickers to analyse the plot too closely, because they're having too good a time. Gridlock, however, is more slow-moving and cumbersome. It's meant to be a pause in what's quite a fast-paced season, but the downside is that all the flaws are there for all to see.
It doesn't help either that the plot slows to a crawl at times for no good reason, such as the odd “Singalonga Murray's Pompous Choir” bit in which the passengers start singing some dirgey old hymn. Presumably this is meant to be all emotional and deep, but it drove me mad with boredom. If snoozy old hymns are your bag, go and watch Songs Of Praise or reruns of Highway with Harry Secombe.
But hymns in Doctor Who? Nah.
Despite all these illogical caveats and frequent bursts of ennui, one or two praiseworthy elements stand out in Russell's script. One thing I've noticed is that he enjoys writing satire about various aspects of modern society. Like all good Doctor Who writers, Davies always champions the need for knowledge, independence and good, while attacking greed, insularity and narrow minds. Insularity is at the core of Gridlock – the car inhabitants are stuck in their own little bubbles, not looking at the bigger picture, and at times, refusing to believe that help isn't on the way.
Not only that, but there's a sly look at early 21st century culture with parodies of Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, with access to friends on the computer screens. A small minority seem to live their entire lives through such means, and this lack of empathy with the real world is cleverly parodied in Gridlock.
Another aspect of the script that I like is the Doctor's tight-lipped schtum about Gallifrey. When quizzed about his home world by Martha, the Doctor quickly changes the subject. It's only at the end when Martha firmly confronts him that he opens up about the planet's death in a beautiful little monologue: “Oh, you should have seen it – that old planet. The second sun would rise in the south and the mountains would shine...” Intriguingly, the Doctor never waxes lyrical about the stuffy old court rooms or duplicitous renegades who wanted him dead like the Monk or the Master. But never mind – this is stirring stuff: it's genuinely moving, and David Tennant makes up for his earlier shouty moment with a delivery that's just perfect. It's emotionally performed, but not too over the top – his bottom lip wobbles and his voice starts to break, but Tennant pitches the speech at just the right level. It's probably one of his finest moments on the show.
Freema Agyeman continues to impress, despite Martha being portrayed as the consolation prize. It's good to see the feisty Martha back, whether she's furiously wrangling with her captors Milo and Cheen, or actually forcing the Doctor to face his demons. Freema's also pretty good with the humour too, such as her horrified reaction to eating a recycled waste biscuit.
If you shut the brain off while watching Gridlock (probably the only way you'll survive this), then there’s quite a lot to admire here. The emotional side of the story is a winner, with the Doctor's teary speech and also, the Face Of Boe's final death. A giant dreadlocked head on the floor shouldn't be so moving, and yet somehow it is – a result of RTD's writing, and especially Anna Hope's acting. Richard Clark's direction is generally very good, and his effects scenes of the motorway are well done.
This story proves to be a tour-de-force for the costume and make-up departments who really go to town. Applause please for the work on Novice Hame (which subtly makes her a lot older than the version that we saw in New Earth) and most notably for Brannigan (who was apparently based on that 1990s Children's BBC floating cartoon head called Ratz). If you'd had the sound turned down, there's no way on New Earth that you could work out that Ardal O'Hanlon (best known as Father Dougal from Father Ted and Jack Mooney from Death In Paradise) is behind the mask.
O'Hanlon gives a great performance as Brannigan – it's hugely engaging and provides a nice balance between good humour (“Did I tell you Doctor, you're not bad sir?”) and quiet denial. Anna Hope is again excellent as Novice Hame, and like the make-up, she manages to subtly bring out the older, wiser aspects of the cat nun. There's good support too from Jennifer Hennessey as Valerie, Travis Oliver as Milo, and Being Human's Lenora Crichlow as Cheen.
Gridlock proves to be not so bad, sir. It does suffer from too many poorly thought-out ideas and concepts which ultimately don't add up, and personally, I find the story too slow. But for all that, there's a good heart at Gridlock's core, it's superbly realised and acted, and contains some notably moving scenes.
Not only that, the Face Of Boe tells the Doctor a big secret. “You are not alone”. Hee Hee, what can Boe mean? Could it be that there's another Time Lord waiting in the wings? Or is he just about to recount his entire collection of Michael Jackson records? Who can tell at this point?
Overall though, Gridlock emerges as a better story than I'd previously given it credit for – although maybe it's one to sit through with the heart in gear rather than the head.
* More blasts from the past in my 1970s & 1980s Doctor Who ebook guides.
JON PERTWEE ERA - £3.86
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1 - £3.07
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2 - £2.51
PETER DAVISON ERA - £2.98