TV Eye: New Who – “Gridlock”

Okay, we’re in week 3- and the special effects budget is obviously going into overdrive. Some brief Who thoughts follow– and, as usual, fear the spoilers…

DOCTOR WHO – S3 E03: “Gridlock”

Something I’m not used to this week- a Russell T. Davies episode that actually gets better as it goes along. “Gridlock” still didn’t quite manage to banish the vague sense of “meh” that’s permeated this season so far, but at least it hasn’t depressed me as much as the opening episodes of Season Two (admittedly, at that point my hopes were much higher). I’m also strongly suspecting that New Who is now very dependent on getting directors who know how to hit the right notes performance wise, as one of the weakest elements in “Gridlock” was most of the support acting. The actual sci-fi setup of the endless traffic jam was rather fudged- I’m not exactly certain how the jolly vendors in the ‘Undercity’ make their living, or if there’s anyone else in the Undercity except for the people stuck in the traffic. Plus, it’s one of those ideas that sounds great in theory (“Yeah! A twenty-year long traffic jam!”) but when you put it into practice, you start hitting all kinds of realism problems that makes the whole story crumble- or just proves RTD hasn’t thought it through well enough (For a start- I would have assumed that, rather than being surprised by the Doctor’s trans-car journey, people would have been doing that kind of thing all the time, and there probably would have been a fun inter-car economy going on. Plus- how exactly did Gay Old Granny number deux have a convenient book that listed all the car positions?). Another oddball decision- although one which did put a smile on my face- was the reappearence of the Macra, a classic Who villain that nobody expected to get a second chance (and one which fits exactly in with RTD’s general desire to make certain all aliens in Who into cats/rhinos/pigs/budgerigars/insertyourfavouriteearthanimalhere in space). For a moment, considering the Macra’s habit of feeding off slave populaces, I thought it might all be part of a big plan- but the revelation that they’ve conveniently devolved into ‘beasts’ and are essentially now just giant crabs from outer space was rather disappointing.

Of course, convincing sci-fi isn’t really what Who has ever truly been about (although upping the emotional realism means you spot flaws in the story realism), and also let’s not mention that 5 billion years from now, people are still going to be listening to Welsh Voice choirs (Was making Cardiff the centre of the known universe not enough?). While the opening was shonky (and the decision to dress the couple in the teaser in the manner of that old ‘American Gothic’ painting was just plain bizarre), it did gradually improve, leading up to a climax that actually managed to feel logical and organic, rather than RTD’s usual reaching for the Deux Ex Machina button. I’m not sure if he actually realised that despite all the happiness and spirtual uplift at the end, it’s an incredibly dark story- they might be free from the Gridlock, but they’re about to find out that their entire planet is dead, and they’re the only ones left. Not exactly time for breaking out the champagne…

Probably the biggest surprise was finding myself nostalgic for Christopher Eccleston. Now, I’ve always maintained that Eccles was miscast- he gave it all he got, and had some fantastic moments, but never really clicked with the more light-hearted elements of the show, and always felt a little out of place. Tennant has clicked better- but he simply can’t pull off serious gravitas, and his habit of going OTT when angry has a habit of leaving him looking like an excitable, trenchcoat wearing stoat. RTD is still writing big emotional speeches that need someone of the standard of Eccleston to pull them off- and Tennant only getting them so far. It’s a pity, because he’s got gigantic enthusiasm for the part, but the writing of the character is exposing a lot of his limitations as an actor– and it doesn’t help that what we’ve seen is an alternate spin on the “Doctor reveals his origins” plotline from the Season 1 episode “End of the World” which was one of the strongest moments that New Who has so far acheived.

So, not quite fantastic- but not a hideous disappointment either. Another nugget of the season’s big story arc is delivered, the Doctor/Martha relationship takes a small step forward (although one which might take us closer to a more generic Doctor/Companion vibe that’ll end up resembling the one with Rose), and next week we’ve got pig-men, Daleks, and actresses with ear-piercing New York accents to look forward to. I can’t help feeling, I should be a bit more excited than I am…

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