Saturday, July 21, 2007

“Stop that modern talk, I’m an old fashioned cat!”: Doctor Who

It’s a return to New Earth in one of the best episodes of Doctor Who’s third season, ‘Gridlock’. As befits such an integral instalment, it’s written by show runner Russell T. Davies. His scripts rarely miss their mark and ‘Gridlock’ is no exception – in fact, it may be the best episode he has written for Who so far.

On our last trip to New Earth, in season two’s aptly titled ‘New Earth’, we visited the higher levels of New New York and spent most of our time in the city’s hospital. This time Davies takes us to the lower levels, or the slums, and into a vast underground motorway where all of the planets’ surviving inhabitants (although they are not aware of this status) are all driving – or rather, edging along at a snail’s pace. One couple we meet have been on the motorway for twelve years and yet have travelled only five miles. It’s an ingeniously subtle concept - a dystopian hell based around tedium. It also contains within it one of Davies’ favourite themes: the overriding strength of the human race. The thought of being trapped within a car for years on end sounds like torture, and yet most of the drivers we see have taken it in their stride, refusing to give up hope that one day they will be rescued by the people on the higher levels. The Doctor at first assumes that they’ve been abandoned, but it turns out to be quite the opposite – due to a virus outbreak in the city, they are the only remaining survivors of New Earth.

That is, apart from the lovely ol’ Face of Boe, making a welcome (and possibly final) re-appearance. In ‘New Earth’ he confirmed that he had a message to deliver to the Doctor, but that it could wait until their next and last meeting. Here he finally delivers those four words which will prove so important towards the end of the season: “You are not alone”. I was always irritated by the Doctor simply brushing off the message as a mistake (it stinks of a stall tactic) but I guess Davies’ idea was that he is in denial. Rest assured it all pays off in a big way.

More than anything else, ‘Gridlock’ is a hugely powerful episode. Two moments in particular get me every time: all the drivers singing a hymn (‘The Old Rugged Cross’) together as a symbol of their unbreakable spirit; and the final scene, in which the Doctor finally tells Martha the truth about Gallifrey. Early on in the episode she asks about his home planet, and if they could visit it. He duly describes it, but neglects to mention that it has long since been destroyed, indicative that their relationship is not yet in the same league of that which he shared with Rose (he told her the story of Gallifrey at the end of their first adventure, 'The End of the World').

After the events of the episode woke her up to how dangerous travelling with the Doctor can be, Martha demands that he at least talk to her properly. The Doctor proceeds to tell Martha the truth about Gallifrey, and paints her (and the viewer) an evocative picture of the heavenly place it once was. It’s a beautiful monologue and Tennant plays it beautifully in what may be his best bit of acting on the show. Like ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ before it, ‘Gridlock’ here shows that Who can be gut-wrenchingly sad when it wishes to be. Just like the final scene of 'The End of the World', it also represents an important turning point in the Doctor and Martha's relationship. It should be noted that 'Gridlock' is a visually beautiful episode (making the most use of CGI of any episode so far). Yet it's that wonderful last scene which has stayed with me the most. Indeed, if anyone were ever to claim that Doctor Who is just a bit of fun, one needs only to show them 'Gridlock' as proof of how very wrong they are.

Next week: Daleks in Manhattan. Sounds a lot cooler than it actually is, sadly.

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