Doctor Who Review: Gridlock

This review contains spoilers.

Gridlock‘s another new Whoepisode that made me weep when I rewatched it recently. If anything has convinced me that, no, it is not just nostalgia that makes me hate everything Stephen Moffat has ever written, it is this.

In the third episode of new Who‘s third series, the Doctor and Martha visit New Earth. True to form, instead of the dazzling cities full of glittering skyscrapers that the Doctor’s promised, they find the most almighty traffic jam in the universe. Forget the M25 on a bank holiday; the people of New Earth’s motorway have spent entire lifetimes in their floating cars. It takes twelve years to travel just five miles.

There’s a plot going on somewhere about Martha getting kidnapped and the Doctor’s search for her, but that’s easily the least interesting thing about the episode. As in much of Russell T. Davies’ Who work, it’s the imagery of the story and the feel of the world that makes it memorable. We have some great secondary characters: an Irishwoman married to a cat-person (they have kittens, it’s adorable); two little old ladies who’ve been driving since they got married 23 years ago; the improbably good-looking pregnant couple who kidnapped Martha so they could get in the fast lane out to Brooklyn. There’s a sequence in which the Doctor drops through a series of cars and we get little insights into people’s lives: it’s a way of establishing the vastness of this world, the scale of the motorway, and the defiant individuality of those who are trapped in it.

But it’s the imagery that made me cry: the way the story works metaphorically. See, the secret of the motorway is that it’s been quarantined from a plague that killed everyone on New Earth in seven minutes. The Face of Boe’s been keeping the motorway on for 23 years, all alone with his carer Novice Hame, but now the Doctor’s here he can finally let them all out. Let’s not dwell on the dodgy plot logic here: the point is the image of thousands upon thousands of flying cars swooping up out of the shadows of the motorway, up, up into the sunset and a skyline full of glittering towers. I love how this image taps into something fundamental about the idea of a journey: we sit in traffic jams and endure overcrowded trains and comply with arcane and inconvenient rules about cabin baggage because we hope that there will be something wonderful at the end of it. Home, or friends, or a place we find magical. When we travel, we are hoping, and it’s a hope that nothing earthly ever exactly fulfils.

But, in Gridlock, it is fulfilled. That time on the motorway is, finally, worth it, as the people of New New York come into their own again.

There’s something very Christian, too, about Gridlock. I don’t think I really noticed this until the very end, when the people of the motorway sing notorious weepie hymn “Abide With Me” as they fly up into the sunset, but once I did notice it helped me clarify my feelings about why this episode works so well for me. We have not one but two saviour figures: the Face of Boe, who sacrifices himself to save the people of the motorway, and the Doctor, whose presence in some undefined way facilitates this action. The opening of the motorway is a sort of harrowing of hell, in that it’s full of smoke and there are actual monsters at the bottom, and of course its denizens literally ascend to the heavens, into a paradisical and empty city. And the Doctor is hunting for a specific person, a single sinner, we might say. This is possibly a stretch, but for me it calls to mind Luke 15:7:

there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s a hidden Christian message in Gridlock; just that it uses familiar images from the Christian story to push our narrative buttons. It works for British audiences because most of us grow up with these images of hell and sacrifice and celestial cities, and it’s so embedded in our culture it’s almost invisible. Traffic jams and warm fuzzy non-denominational Christianity are possibly two of the most British things there are.

I think, though, there is a reason why the Christian stuff is there; I think Davies is repurposing it. The people of the motorway are definitely Christian: references to Jehovah pop up in passing, and they actually sing two hymns in the episode. But it’s important that their ascension is secular and rational, that it’s enabled by that figurehead of rationality the Doctor. The episode is a humanist declaration, not a religious one; it places its faith not in an abstract god, but in the power of rationality, community, diversity and love. Despite its hellish trappings, the motorway is a community. Almost everything we see a secondary character do is about respect or support or friendship, whether that’s offering a random drop-in a cup of precious water or warning a stranger about the monsters at the bottom of the motorway while being eaten by them. It’s how they’ve survived on the motorway for decades. And it’s why they deserve the secular heaven they’re eventually given. Not because they’ve followed some obscure religious commandments, but because they’ve been nice to each other, because they’ve kept faith in their essential humanity.

And that’s why Gridlock made me cry.

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