...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Day 2295: DOCTOR WHO: Gridlock


Daddy PROMISES that he did NOT KNOW!

In “Gridlock”, Russell T Davies has written a rather beautiful fairy story, or possibly a future-religious mystery, of a community of people trapped in a perpetual circular purgatory who nevertheless keep the faith and are eventually released to enter the heavenly city through the actions of two people seeking redemption and the sacrifice of a lonely immortal.

The story is profoundly allegorical: heaven is dead; no one realises it, because they think they are still hearing the voice of an angel, even if it’s just a traffic update. People who lie or kidnap find themselves on the fast lane to hell, where even the monsters have “fallen” from their one time pride. The hope for the future is the everyday folk, the salt of the New Earth in all their myriad forms, who are just struggling to get through the daily commute.

The Doctor goes all “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”: when he sins – lying by omission about Gallifrey – he loses Martha who becomes the object of his quest, leading him to cross the threshold from the mundane world of the pharmacists’ alley and enter the dark underground place (the “belly of the whale” – just look at the architecture!). There he faces trials of endurance and supernatural monsters before receiving aid from the wise old mentor who ultimately dies, having passed on his wisdom. In the end, the Doctor is able to surrender his own ego – his quest to forgive himself by saving Martha – in return for a greater boon for all mankind – releasing the trapped drivers to take their places in the city.

(Joseph Campbell’s 1949 work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is, of course, famously one of the main inspirations for “Star Wars”, so there’s no irony in New New York looking like – and indeed rather better than – the “Star Wars” capital of Coruscant. Or indeed from the fact that the Doctor’s lost home had two suns, just like Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine.)

As a flag for the way that the series might be going: in a story that is very much about Gallifrey being dead, the Doctor repopulates the heavenly city with humans, even as he learns “you are not alone”. And the story closes with a view of the burnt orange sunset over the city skyline, a reflection making it look for a moment like New Earth might have two suns. A kiss to the past, or a promise of a future?

As science fiction, of course, it’s nonsense.

Too many bits of the story wilfully ignore real world considerations.

There’s something rather… Castrovalvan about the situation that the population of the motorway find themselves in. Their cars are designed as living spaces and all come stocked with food and fuel and the comforts of living… even the ones that have been there from when the gridlock began twenty-four years ago.

Because of the plague, the motorway is supposed to be sealed. People are trapped on the motorway because all of the exits are closed… but new cars can still join the motorway so how sealed is it? And has no one, no one in twenty-four years, thought of driving the wrong way up an entry ramp just to get off? If the motorway is such a nightmare, why not just turn off the auto-pilot and take your anti-gravity car up over the top? It’s not like there are any police left to nick you. For that matter, has no one thought of just walking into New New York?

We might perhaps infer that the motorway is New New York’s M25, the ultimate orbital from hell, encircling the “promised land” of the city that people from the suburbs are trying to reach. They enter from the outer side of the motorway, but all of the inner exits and entrances are sealed.

But the situation still requires that no one outside the city – and definitely no one on the motorway – knows that everyone in the city is dead. Can it really be the case that no one in the suburbs has noticed that the only communication from the city is an automated traffic hologram?

And you would think that sooner or later those little CB communities on the road would pass round enough messages that someone would work out that every route into the city is sealed, and then leave the other way to try and get some news.

And where does the smog actually come from? How can the cars have self-regenerating fuel cells if they are pumping pollution out the back end in thick clouds? If they are pumping stuff out there must be something that they are using up. Or are they effectively getting more fuel from nowhere? I suppose you could argue that the clouds coming out the back are actually the toxic products that the cars air-conditioning has extracted from the air drawn in so that the people inside can breathe… but then why are there any toxins in the air in the first place? The entire system seems to be supporting itself – like Baron Munchausen – by pulling up on its own bootstraps.

To be honest, the problem is at least in part caused by Russell wanting this story to continue characters from his last Year Five Billion story, which limits the time gap from New Earth. Though would it have been that difficult to say it was 250 years later – the Face of Boe is almost immortal anyway, and Novice Hame could have had a throwaway line about being on her ninth life (haha). A bigger time gap would have allowed for the traffic jam to have existed for longer than anyone we meet has actually been in it – long enough that it is reasonable for it to have become a permanent feature, and long enough that the Doctor could be excused not discovering it last time.

But does any of this matter? Well, no, not compared to the fact that a story with the Macra in it was able to make me cry twice.

Oh yes, it’s got Macra in it and the giant crab/insect/bacteria/metaphors of the Troughton era join a surprisingly elite band of Doctor Who monsters who have returned for a second appearance.

Daleks and Cybermen; Yeti and Ice Warriors; Autons, Silurians and Sontarans. And the Slitheen. You might also add The Mara from the Peter Davison era and Sil/the Mentors from the Colin Baker era. And depending on definition, you might want to add humans and Time Lords to the list. And Aggedor, the eponymous Monster of Peladon does make a come back too, if you must (though it would turn him quite puce with shame to call Alpha Centauri from the same stories a “monster” – and when is the hexapod ambassador coming back in the new series, then?).

In the original “Macra Terror” the Macra are literally as well as metaphorically in control. Here they are more a symptom of the problem than the disease itself. Some have argued that it would have been nice to find a giant white Macra squatting in the senate, responsible for the plague of Bliss that killed the city, but I think that would have detracted from the tragedy.

The CG realisation is pretty much as ropey as the original fibre-glass prop versions – and quite right too. The moment when they emerge from the smog was terrific in spite of the cartoon look. Their arms may resemble Florence the Plasmavore’s bendy straw, but their huge claws were magnificent. If their brain power has diminished, their physicality has gone the other way: the 1960’s giant crabs were the size of a mini, but these fellows are big enough to grasp something the size of a VW Dormobile between their pincers – truly they have become titanic. And in such numbers that they certainly would crawl all over you!

In the end, the Macra are there because if you’re going to have a monster that lives in the fumes at the bottom of a tunnel, then it might as well be the Macra.

And it’s not like they’re dead at the end – room for another Year Five Billion sequel next year if you want, Russell.

(Although allegedly David Tennant jokes on the podcast commentary: “next year, the Monoids”. So, let’s set it in the year 5,000,000,700 and really annoy the people who insist that “The Ark” must still take place in the year 10,000,000 rather than, say, admitting that the notoriously accurate first Doctor just got the date wrong!)

But never mind the Macra, in spite of all the huge CGI spectacle – killer crabs included – this is a remarkably personal story, about the Doctor and his realisation that Martha is worth more to him than just as a quick fix for dampening his sensation of his losses, of Rose and of Gallifrey.

In many ways, the Doctor’s mad scramble down through the cars of all the wonderful people that he meets is really a journey to discover that Martha is uniquely valuable for herself.

And a brief note to the people who complain about “cats” breeding with “humans” – there aren’t any humans. Lady Cassandra was the last human – she explicitly says that all the others have become blended with other species. They’re all just people now: Ben Aaronovitch might call them People (if Iain M Banks wasn’t calling them the Culture) or Lawrence Miles might call them Posthumans.

There are some wonderful touches in all those magnificently diverse posthuman people, different and yet together in their community – yes, obviously we loved the married old ladies, they were gorgeous and sweet and hooray a same sex couple! and we loved the naturist couple, but we loved the white person and the red person and the furry person and the cat person too. We even liked the American Gothic couple at the start, their appearance foreshadowing both the New New York setting and the religious overtones.

But it’s still a story about the Doctor. Freema continues to be brilliant as Martha, brilliant scared, beautiful and lovely, saving the day because she watched a film on television once. But this is the Doctor’s story. And David Tennant really shows us what he can do here, delivering a heartrending performance, as we first here him talking about Gallifrey with a longing and lie that it might still exist, through his anger at himself and the realisation at what he has done, to the conclusion where he is honest and sad and at least able to share his secret, broken heart(s) with Martha.

And the Doctor’s line in the “Next Time” trailer, just for once perfectly chosen in what it reveals: “they always survive… when I lose everything.”

Next time… from New New York to Old New York; from one old enemy to another. They always survive. “Daleks in Manhattan”

No comments: