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Gridlock ★★★★

A touching drama evolves from an interminable traffic jam. Ardal O’Hanlon guest-stars as a feline driver

Published: Tuesday, 15th October 2013 at 3:06 pm

Story 181

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Series 3 – Episode 3

“Ten miles in six years. How come?” – Martha

Storyline
Returning to New Earth, the Doctor finds a much darker world in the year five billion and 53. Street traders sell pharmaceutical moods to New New York, where the motorway is clogged with millions of barely moving vehicles whose journeys take literally years. Martha is kidnapped by a couple desperate to fulfil the three-to-a-vehicle policy necessary to use the fast lane. There they discover crab-like Macra picking off humans in the smog, while the Doctor is found by Novice Hame who explains that the motorway was designed to save people from a virus, which has now expired. The Face of Boe has kept the system running, but with his dying breath enables the roof above the roads to open, freeing humanity….

First UK transmission
Saturday 14 April 2007

Production
September–October 2006. Main locations: Temple of Peace and Ely Papermill in Cardiff. The Maltings in Cardiff Bay. Studio: Upper Boat Studios, Treforest, Pontypridd.

Cast
The Doctor – David Tennant
Martha Jones – Freema Agyeman
Brannigan – Ardal O’Hanlon
Novice Hame – Anna Hope
Milo – Travis Oliver
Cheen – Lenora Crichlow
Valerie – Jennifer Hennessy
Alice – Bridget Turner
May – Georgine Anderson
Whitey – Simon Pearsall
Javit – Daisy Lewis
Businessman – Nicholas Boulton
Sally Calypso – Erika Macleod
Ma – Judy Norman
Pa – Graham Padden
Pale woman – Lucy Davenport
Pharmacists – Tom Edden, Natasha Williams, Gayle Telfer Stevens
The Face of Boe – Struan Rodger

Crew
Writer – Russell T Davies
Director – Richard Clark
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner

RT review by Mark Braxton (published 14 April 2022)

New companion Martha has already had adventures with the Doctor in the present and the past, so there’s only one way to go in this story of surprises. David Tennant’s elongated pixie cranks up the year lever and they hurtle forward to New Earth in the distant future.

Far from the gleaming Persil-land that he took Rose to, the planet has become a gloomy, fume-filled netherworld of carjacking and chemical dependency. Everyone flies black, wheel-less Commer vans and is content to sit in traffic jams for literally years. But why?

It’s a premise with “dead end” written all over it, but maybe that was just crafty Russell T Davies painting himself into a corner to flex his creative muscles. Martha and the Doctor both look like they’re stuck with nowhere to go, but it’s who and what they separately encounter that fires up this gridlock holiday.

The vehicles creeping along the motorway may all look exactly the same, but Davies has clearly had fun peopling them as diversely as possible. There’s the strait-laced pair who seem to have come straight from Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting – all the man needs is a pitchfork!

Then there’s the feline Father Dougal (within the space of a few words, we know who’s under the fur of Thomas Kincade Brannigan: it’s Ardal O’Hanlon) with his human partner Valerie (superb utility player Jennifer Hennessy) and their kitten offspring (!).

And the delightful old dears, like Dolly and Cissy Godfrey from Dad’s Army – one is knitting and has somehow kept a handwritten log of every car on the road (again, best not to ask). Other notables, rather cheekily for a family show, are the two naturists...

But Davies focuses on Milo (Travis Oliver) and pregnant Cheen (Lenora Crichlow, just two years away from greatness in Being Human). These aren’t the conventional kidnappers of a TV crime drama, merely an eternally optimistic young couple who dream of a better life.

Story bonuses include some top-hole FX (the sequence in which the Doctor swaps vehicles by jumping from one to another took The Mill nearly three months to complete) and heaps of fun spotting the influences (Blade Runner is a given, but there’s more than a nod to the packed freeways of The Fifth Element, and to the Star Wars planet of Coruscant when daylight finally floods in). Personally I don’t have a problem with this – after all, back in the day, 1970s producer Philip Hinchliffe never stinted on homage.

Fans with memories stretching back to the 1960s can enjoy the snappy reintroduction of the crab-like Macra, even if their appearance here is little more than a shrug when they’re shown to pose no threat whatsoever.

In another shock, atheist Russell T Davies includes the Christian hymns The Old Rugged Cross and Abide with Me. Maybe to reflect the patriotic singing of his Welsh homeland or, more likely, to typify the communal spirit of humanity in the face of adversity. Whatever the reason, they provide moving moments – even fish-out-of-water Martha joins in.

Speaking of whom, she gets unfavourably compared with her predecessor but I always felt from the outset that Martha was her own character, and Freema Agyeman was never less than excellent. In a recent tweet appealing for things and characters fans would like to see returning in the new RTD era, there was a lot of love for Freema. On this showing, it’s not hard to see why.

So, after a slow start, Gridlock accelerates to its finishing line with important revelations, the dissolving of barriers between the Doctor and his new friend, and an unexpectedly touching reunion with the wise and ancient Face of Boe.

The latter, together with his nunny nanny, Novice Hame, preserve important continuity, and even though Boe breathes his last, his legacy will continue. (Fan rumblings will eventually prompt an admission from Davies that Boe and Captain Jack are one and the same, though quite how fascinating that revelation is, is a separate matter.)

More interesting by far is the Doctor’s description to Martha of his home world. With its burnt orange sky and silver leaves, harking back to Susan’s words in The Sensorites in 1964, Davies gave viewers a tantalising glimpse of Gallifrey. They would only have to wait another two months to see this colourful, fantastical vista with a “citadel enclosed by a mighty glass dome”.

The thawing of the frost between the two travellers is set in motion with Martha ticking off the Doctor for not talking to her. He admits he lied to her, and begins at last to make the conversation two-way. But there’s still time for one final surprise – his belief that he’s the last of the Time Lords doesn’t square with Boe’s assertion that the Doctor is “not alone”. Just how will that play out?

*

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