Aired 14 April 2007
‘Gridlock’ is an odd episode, a follow-up to the already-divisive ‘New Earth,’ and another episode that is sure to have both its lovers and its haters. The story is rather light on plot, and the story itself comes about from the Doctor trying to decide if he’s ready to take another companion aboard the TARDIS full time after decreeing that Martha would only get the one to Shakespeare’s time.
Unfortunately for the Doctor, Rose still weighs heavily on his mind and, whether it’s because of his alien nature or because of an emotionally-driven misjudgment, he decides to take Martha to the same planet as Rose’s first trip with him. Whereas Rose got to sample the fresh air and technological marvels of the countryside, Martha gets to experience the inner slums of the city, emerging into a street full of drug vendors- portrayed in a rather comic fashion due to the family nature of the programme, of course.
Martha is soon kidnapped by two young people claiming her so that they can use the motorway’s fast lane, prompting an outright fury in the Doctor that is brought out well by David Tennant as he threatens to close down the shady vendors and soon finds himself on the motorway that gives rise to the episode’s title. The majority of the episode, then, involves the Doctor going from car to car as he continues his search for Martha, coming across a number of interesting individuals but in itself not adding much to the plot. It’s a fascinating concept that these individuals have spent the majority of their lives trapped on the motorway, an inch of progress seen as a reason to celebrate, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of action aside from the very surprising return appearance of a devolved form of the Macra, making their first appearance since the Second Doctor story ‘The Macra Terror.’
Even with this seemingly basic concept, there are some obvious holes in the plot that aren’t thoroughly explored. The Macra are a much more primitive form that seen previously, essentially reduced to claw-like crabs, but their attacking of the cars seems to go against their basic needs of the exhaust and pollution of the cars to survive. It’s a shame and a bit of a wasted opportunity that, given the Macra’s potential for mind control, they are not behind the whole sequence where people willingly subject themselves to lives stuck in a car, especially with the Sally Calypso figurehead that seems the perfect cover for them. Also, given that the New Earth population was entirely destroyed by an airborne virus some twenty-four years ago, it’s never sufficiently explained where the newcomers to the motorway originate.
Despite the slower pace and lighter plot, there are still some very good aspects to ‘Gridlock’ as well. The potential effects of drugs is dealt with head on, and the overall allusion to modern culture is not lost, everyone living in their isolated cars with only social media programmes for interaction, refusing to believe in or accept a bigger picture. Towards the end, Martha finally gets the Doctor to open up about his home planet, and the emotions David Tennant exudes as he gives the first real description of Gallifrey in the modern series is fantastic, the quivering lip and breaking voice working wonders in what is surely one of Tennant’s greatest scenes. Freema Agyeman also returns to her feistier self, willing to fight against her captors and force the Doctor to face his past.
There’s some strong emotion in play as well as the story reaches its conclusion, and the final sacrifice of the Face of Boe to help the population is particularly moving, and his final message to the Doctor that ‘You are not alone’ eve more so. The feline costuming on display is once again excellent, Novice Hame’s aging since ‘New Earth’ displayed well and Brannigan brought to life wonderfully well. Anna Hope and Ardal O’Hanlon are spectacular in those respective roles. Unfortunately, there are too many poorly-realized ideas in a rather sparse plot to keep ‘Gridlock’ from managing to become anything great.