Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Doctor Who - Gridlock

So the worst didn't happen and the football match was not a draw and didn't go to extra time, meaning that Doctor Who was transmitted as scheduled. And everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief.

But what of the episode? A bit of a mish mash really. It's another which seems to be dividing opinion as to whether it is the best yet or whether it is somewhat on the disappointing side. I have to say that for me, it's the disappointing side of the fence that I fall. That's the thing about New Who, it is well made, beautifully shot and directed, with some superb CGI effects and performances, and yet the plots ... oh the plots. But we shall come back to that point later on.

We open with a couple, Ma and Pa as they are identified in the credits, in a car, calling for help as they are attacked. This is a great opening, nicked from too many past Doctor Who adventures to be original (The Sea Devils? Terror of the Zygons?) but it still serves. But why is that couple from the opening credits of Desperate Housewives in a car anyway?

Post credits, and the Doctor decides to take Martha to the far future, to the year 5 Billion and 53, to New Earth, where they arrive in the city of New New York, but in the lower levels which seem to be some sort of deserted slum with drug pushers freely hawking their wares from permanent cabins. However the whole grim scene is given an upbeat and lighthearted feel by the music and is basically the same as in The Long Game where the Cronk burger vendors sell their wares. Not a good message to give to kids I'd have thought. The Doctor and Martha meet a girl who wants to forget her parents. Seems they have gone to the motorway and she's lost them. She gets her 'forget' drug and seems happy with this. However next thing we know, Martha is kidnapped by a man and a woman who want her to make up the numbers in their car. They head off to the motorway with the Doctor in hot pursuit.

The couple, Milo and Cheen, nicely played by Travis Oliver and Leonora Crichlow, explain to Martha that they need to get to the 'Fast Lane' which is at the bottom of the motorway which is otherwise choked with cars and pollution and fumes. They're headed for Brooklyn and it will take them 6 years to travel the 10 miles there.

Meanwhile the Doctor also gets to the motorway and is taken into a car by a cat person called Thomas Kincaid Brannigan, played in a nice cameo by Ardel O'Hanlon. Brannigan and his wife, the human Valerie, have a family of kittens and have been travelling for 12 years and have crossed just 5 miles in that time.

Hold on. Woah. All this is very nice, and the visuals are stunning, but let's just think about this for a moment. 12 years to travel 5 miles? Why not just walk? Who in their right mind would spend their life in a car on a motorway? You just wouldn't bother! Moreover this simply does not make sense with revelations later on in the plot ... And how can a union between a cat person and a human result in feline kittens? And presumably Valerie and Brannigan handled the birth all by themselves?

So Brannigan tries to help the Doctor find the car that Martha is in, and so he asks a couple of elderly lesbians called Alice and May, who also happen to be car-spotters. With their help they identify the right car. But how does Alice or May (I'm not sure which is which) know how many cars joined at which junction? She shouldn't be able to see them for the smog, and in any case presumably their car is somewhere else entirely in the melee. If the information is from the computer, then why can't Brannigan access it directly? And even if she could somehow see the cars, how does she know how many people are in each? Nice idea, but it just doesn't hold up.

The Doctor meanwhile realises that there are no police or authorities in the traffic jam, and that all the cars are basically on their own. So how does Milo get authority to go down to the Fast Lane so quickly then? Someone must be working the systems to make that happen. And if you can do that when you have three or more people in a car, then why doesn't Brannigan do the same as they have 'kittens' in the back and thus more than three people ... why would you choose to stay put if you could go to a lane where you might actually reach your destination in your lifetime? Speaking of which, presumably some of the cars have corpses in where the occupants have died ... what happens to them then?

Then we get a tedious bit of hymn-singing for no good reason. This slowed the pace right down and I was starting to drum my fingers. Too many unanswered questions and vast plot holes here. Lots of style but very little substance. Something obviously needs to happen so the Doctor decides to go down by jumping from car to car. Nice idea and effectively done, with lots of little cameos from various people from naturists to white and red people to a couple of oriental teenagers.

Meanwhile Martha, Milo and Cheem have made it to the Fast Lane, but another car, apparently driven by a woman in a badly fitting dog mask called Javil (I think), wants them to get out the way as something is down there. This is the first instance in New Who of a bad looking make-up job. I wonder what they were thinking of? It looked so fake and it's a blessing it wasn't on screen for too long.

So the Doctor arrives at the lowest level of the jam and from a car driven by a bowler-hatted man, creates a pulse which clears the smog and pollution to enable him to see what lurks at the bottom of the tunnel. It's giant crabs snapping at the air and any passing cars - Macra! According to the Doctor, the Macra were the scourge of the Galaxy, feeding on gas and using humans as slaves. However this was billions of years ago and so these Macra have somehow devolved.

But if the Macra feed off the gas, then why are they trying to catch the passing cars? And when Martha's car turns all its power off, and is left alone by the creatures, where exactly is it? Is it parked somewhere? If so, why not turn the power on every so often to replenish the air? None of this is explained.

Okay ... time for some explanation at least. The Face of Boe who is in the upper city, has sent Novice Hame to find the Doctor which she does by jumping from car to car ... now the chances of her actually finding him by this method are millions to one against, so how does she do it? And she has a teleport to bring him back but only enough power for one trip ... all sounds very convenient. The Doctor then learns that the city above is dead apart from the Face and Hame. Everyone has been killed by an airborne virus which wiped the population out in 7 minutes some 24 years before. They just had time to shut all the cars in the motorway thus saving the occupants from death...

But hang on ... what about the drug vendors, Cheem and Milo, Brannigan and Valerie? They all joined the motorway less than 24 years ago. Why weren't they all killed by the virus then? And if they can join the motorway, it can't be sealed off. So why are all the exits to it sealed? And if there's no power to open the motorway without the Doctor's intervention, then why waste power on things like Sally Calypso and pointless police 'on hold' messages? And there must be some systems operating as the access request to use the Fast Lane still works. It's all so fragile on logic.

The Face of Boe gives the last of his energy to allow the Doctor to open the hatches above the motorway and to allow all the cars to fly up and out - I assume he also disabled all the limiters on the cars which prevented them from changing lanes or flying out of formation - I have never seen such a well behaved traffic jam in my life! But why couldn't Hame do this? All the Doctor seemed to do was to connect up some wires and pull a lever ...

The Doctor tells Martha to come to the Senate building - like she would know where that was! - and she arrives in time for the Face of Boe to die, but not before telling the Doctor his great secret ... that the Doctor is not the last of the Time Lords and that he is not alone. Gosh.

And that's about it really. Way, way too many holes to hold together rationally at all. The Macra were a nice idea but very throwaway, adding nothing to the skeletal plot and being just a nice kiss to the past.

But what a crying shame when the whole thing could have been far more integrated. How about this for starters ...

The Macra, as established in The Macra Terror, have an intelligent leader which infiltrates a colony and using hypnosis and mind control, makes the humans do its bidding to generate gas so it can survive. So when Martha's car stopped at the lower level, the group leave it to try and find another way out. Cue lots of creeping through dark tunnels, chased by giant crabs and the like - resulting in tension and excitement and kids hiding behind sofas. Meanwhile the Doctor discovers that the Macra are behind Sally Calypso and the other messages, controlling the motorway and sending cars down to be snapped up by the young Macra at the base who like some meat with their gas. The whole traffic jam is being kept down there by the Macra to provide the pollution for the creatures to breed and survive. So the Doctor defeats the Macra Controller up above, and Martha and the others find a way out down below, or maybe switch on the air vents or something so that the pollution can escape - thus showing Martha's inginuity and making the Doctor realise that he may need her in the future.

This uses the same basic set-up, but is an actual story to go with the characters and the situation that is in place. It doesn't need much tweaking for this to be done and yet instead we get something which is fundamentally forgettable and which puts all the focus on the wrong things for a 45 minute story to work - namely the Doctor and Martha's relationship and the whole, ultimately dreary at this point, business with Hame and the Face of Boe (and I know this is meant to be significant for later in the season, but this could still have all been included, but better integrated into a good, solid story rather than feeling like tacked onto the end).

It's such a shame when everything else is so right, that a coherent plot could not have been developed to wrap it all up in. As it is, I wonder how this 'story' will be remembered in years to come - certainly my brother could not remember what it was all about a few days later, and his 6 year old son was fidgety and bored for most of it ...

Next week: 'They always survive while I lose everything.' The Daleks are back!


Colin W said...

David - As usual you are spot on with your review. You picked out more plot holes than I did but then this is usually the case and by the time I had read your review my thoughts on this episode changed from it being rather poorly plotted to being a bit of a stinker!
I wish RTD wouldn't write so many of the scripts. You can't knock the bloke for bringing back Doctor Who but his scripts tend to swing from the really good (Smith and Jones, Army of Ghosts, Doomsday) to examples like Gridlock that have more holes than Swiss cheese!
I can't help but feel that he is not objective enough about his own stories and should pen less of them so that we get more quality and less quantity.

Peter said...

Hello! I'm one of those hidden fans of your blog of which I'm sure there are many. The points you bring up are terribly interesting, rather like your books.

Anyway, I was wondering what you thought about the 45 minute system? I'd much rather see more two parters. The number of New Who episodes with terrible plots are far too many. I think old Who has survived and retained its popularity today because of the plots (admittedly most were nonsense, but it was nonsense that was taken seriously dammit!). Character stuff is nice but not watchable on its own. You need both elements. It's television missing one of it's most vital elements...

David said...

I think the 45 min format works OK, but I really do miss the cliffhangers. Also, the stories do seem to suffer because of the format with many being rushed and feeling incomplete somehow. I totally agree that we need more plot as well as the character stuff, and my main concern, as with Gridlock, is that it can be sorted out really simply.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Just a quick point- the couple at the beginning is actually a reference to Grant Wood's painting American Gothic.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I enjoyed the episode tremendously because of the superb acting by all involved and entertaining production touches. However, I can appreciate why you were disappointed.

Incidentally, since I am not resident in Britain and have been receiving these episodes sporadically, I have not watched them in broadcast order, and only saw this one after I saw the two-part Dalek story. I'll comment on that one in its place.