Saturday, 19 May 2018


Chapter The 86th, which oo-ooh sends me, takes me to the rush hour.

The Doctor and Martha visit New New York in the year 5billion-and-a-bit. Since he was last here with Rose, everyone but those living in the undercity ghettos have died from a virus. The remaining residents have been unaware of this - or at least fiercely in denial of it - for decades, assuming that the government is still around because of some automated systems, and have taken to the motorway in their flying vehicles to escape to a better life. Traffic is so bad that cars take years to travel even one mile, and so the motorists are all unaware or at least fiercely denying that they're going round in circles and will never get to anywhere.

Meanwhile, the cars' choking collective exhaust fumes are feeding savage Macra creatures in the fast lane way down the bottom of the multi-level 'road' system, and they like to destroy any cars that come down that far. The Doctor and Martha get separated and stuck in this system, but the Doctor is transported out by cat nun Novice Hame, and manages to open the motorway roof so all the vehicles can fly up and out, and everyone can repopulate the city. The Face of Boe - who has been keeping things running using his life force - dies, but not before telling the Doctor cryptically that he might not be the last of the Time Lords after all.

I was feeling knackered in the middle day of the - very sunny - May Day Holiday weekend. Usual pattern for such weekends is as follows: Saturday, go out somewhere, full of enthusiasm; Sunday, stay in watching TV hiding from the sun and other people; Monday, do some gardening, full of rue. This one proved no different. For the middle day, I usually plump for a comfort food watch, an Inspector Morse or Hickson Marple perhaps, or a film like The Princess Bride, but sometimes a Who is what the Doctor ordered. Gridlock probably wouldn't be my automatic choice - the random number generator I use to pick which story to watch next is a useful device, but lacks true discrimination - but it was pleasant enough way to spend 45 minutes. Yet again, though, I couldn't interest anyone in the family to join me as I viewed from my DVD copy.

First-time round:
When Gridlock was first broadcast in April 2007, it followed an FA Cup semi-final on BBC1; if the match had gone to extra time, then Doctor Who would have been postponed to the following Saturday. I remember feeling a small amount of worry that this would come to pass, and relief when it didn't. This demonstrates that I was still watching live, and still very much engaged with every individual show at that point. Our first child (boy, who at the time was still under 1 years old) can't have required putting to bed during the Doctor Who slot as he would the following year; it was in that following year that time-shifting became the default for us, and around this time too that the BBC iplayer launched, and BBC3 was repeating modern Who episodes in heavy rotation. So, the new series 3, Tennant's second year, including Gridlock, was our (and possibly many other people's) last point of regularly watching live as it went out.

Let's get it out of the way at the start: Gridlock doesn't have lots of plot holes, it is one big plot hole. It's really hard to reconcile how - except at the allegorical level at which the story operates - any of the character's behaviour makes sense. How can anyone believe there is still a functioning society in place outside the motorway? If the cars can communicate with each other why not the outside world? If so, why can't the Face of Boe or Novice Hame get a message to the trapped motorway dwellers? Or, even better, open the doors so they can fly out? It shouldn't need them to wait for the Doctor to arrive to sort it all out - what if he'd never come back to New Earth? None of this spoils the story, though, as the production integrates so well - in plot, performance and all aspects of design - to achieve the story's central visual metaphor: we're all trapped in our little boxes, going round in circles, in denial about whether or not there's anything beyond.

The comparable story from later would be Heaven Sent (and Eric Saward's abandoned script for the final episode of The Trial of a Time Lord bears some similarities too); maybe something about the stressful idea-consuming week-in week-out grind of writing Doctor Who inspired these repetitive circular narratives. In Heaven Sent, the circumambulation is a single-occupancy hell escaped only by the unstinting perseverance of the heroic individual, whereas Gridlock is a comment on the society stuck in the system. The motorway residents are joined together across differences - race, class, sexuality - through hope. Yes, it may be a delusional hope, but it's a hope nonetheless. The scene where everyone in the cars stops and sings The Old Rugged Cross, was justly praised at the time, and is still electrifying to watch. It silences the Doctor in his full blown self-righteous rant, trying to wake people up to their situation, but it's not really a pro-religion moment, more a humanist one. This is why it was crucial to have an actor like Ardal o' Hanlon who personifies warmth and friendliness, even under wads of fur and latex.

The consolations of denial are not lost on the Doctor either - there's a fine parallel drawn with his actions in the scenes with Martha bookending the piece: he too lies to his companion (and maybe himself) just so he can wish away an awful truth, the destruction of his planet and people in the Time War. In both scenes, and throughout, Tennant is excellent, bedded in nicely now after his less certain first year. The sequence of him breaking out of the side-to-side tyranny and traversing downward through different cars (accompanied by some great Murray Gold music) is Doctor Who as Ferris Bueller, anarchically making a short cut by jumping over garden fences. This sequence also allowed cheap and efficient world building - a redress of  the single car interior set, and a different set of cast members each time, giving brief intriguing glimpses into the corners of this odd place. Writer Russell T Davies finds a new text for Doctor Who, a voracious consumer of influences over the years, to rip off: the Future Shocks of UK comic 2000AD. It's definitely an interesting new texture. The Macra fit nicely into that world too, and it was a fun gag to bring them back.

It's a shame that this was the final part of a loosely linked trilogy of stories, as it would have been nice to revisit this world again; but, less is more. The show was getting better at using loose sequels and trilogies, plus running dramatic elements, to improve the season arcs and move away from the "Where's Waldo / Wally?" style of the first two years with mentions of "Bad Wolf" and "Torchwood" smuggled in. This third year culminated a lot of hints and plot elements in its 3-part finale, where the meaning of the Face of Boe's dying words was explained.

Both contain a talking appendage in a jar disconnected from any corresponding body, and in both stories this appendage falls out of its jar and onto the floor. The cat nuns were a sort of sisterhood too, although there's only one still around by the time of Gridlock.

Deeper Thoughts:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of thingummy doodah. A recent nerdy conversation I had (actually it was in January, where has the year gone?) discussed the inconsistency of Doctor Who episodes, and other genre fare. It's rare to find a season of anything without a few episodes one thinks of as duffers. With Who, it's almost part of its DNA: it started - and has mostly remained - as an ongoing series of stories in wildly different locales with cliffhangers leading from one to the next. Is there enough similarity in its overarching themes and characters that someone could like equally a tale of witches in Shakespearean England and a sci-fi allegory about people stuck on a floating motorway? Maybe, but what about the week after that? And the week after that? Sooner or later it seems likely it'll come a cropper. This is a curse of episodic genre television: variety brings with it risk, but the heightened aspects of the genre demand variety to an extent which a soap, say, doesn't have to face.

My exhibit for the prosecution, though, was Endeavour, the latest and current series within ITV's Inspector Morse franchise. It's a big favourite in our house, and I don't think there has been a single story in its five seasons to date that hasn't reached a high level of quality. You could argue that it doesn't face the same level of pressure to be varied that Doctor Who does, but I'm not so sure. It's at heart an adventure story with an intelligent non-violent protagonist, it's a period piece within a somewhat heightened version of reality, and it makes an effort to showcase a new locale each week; the latest series shown earlier this year featured, amongst others, stories set in a boy's public school, behind the scenes on a horror film, a railway station in the middle of nowhere, and an army base - any one of these could have been the setting for a Doctor Who, and some already have. The two key differences, though, are that Endeavour's seasons comprise a smaller number of feature-length stories, and they're all written by the same person, Russell Lewis.

From the early reports in 2003 and 2004, this is roughly the same structure I was expecting for the new Doctor Who. It was mentioned at points that the number of episodes hadn't been decided yet, and there was an impression given that a Russell (T Davies, in this instance) would be writing them all. I didn't expect feature length stories, but I thought there would be maximum 8 episodes, maximum an hour in length, so around the same commitment in minutes per year as the usual batch of episodes of Endeavour, or Lewis before it. The added value - 13 episodes and a Christmas special! - that we got from new Who was a nice surprise. For its latest season, though, Endeavour did 6 films, rather than its usual 4, of roughly 90 minutes each in length with the ad breaks removed. That's as close as dammit to the twelve 45-minuters in Peter Capaldi's last season. And - though it pains me to say it - Endeavour's run was significantly better.

Coincidentally, it was Endeavour's antecedent, the TV adaptation of Inspector Morse, that brought in the format in the first place; no pissing about with cramming a detective mystery into 50-minutes (like the roughly contemporaneous Poirot adaptations) nor of having multi-episode stories with cliffhangers (like the roughly contemporaneous Miss Marple adaptations), Morse from its debut in 1987, decided that each story was going to be a self-contained and feature-length film. Eventually, Poirot and Marple would follow its lead, as well as pretty much every other detective series and a large majority of dramas. If Doctor Who had still been going into the early 1990s, I don't think it would have remained as a multi-camera episodic show, it would have been done on film as 90-minuters with no cliffhangers (for its only outing during that decade, that was indeed its shape). Despite the small-batch approach, Inspector Morse was wildly inconsistent, both in tone and quality, particularly early on. But that was because it was still written and directed by different people each week, who were given a larger amount of freedom than now. Nowadays, protecting a brand is of higher value than giving talent (including quite a few newbies who worked on Morse) room to play.

Perhaps because of the success of Doctor Who since 2005, the Morse format has become less ubiquitous, and cliffhangers have had a bit of a renaissance. For example: in its later series, Morse sequel Lewis starting doing stories in two parts, separated by a week. It looked less like an artistic decision than a scheduling one, mind, and - particularly the first year they did it - the evidence pointed to them being made as feature-length, then chopped up. But, could it be done now? Could you restructure a Doctor Who season as a series of feature-length films? There's no reason why you'd need to jettison cliffhangers or overarching plots - Endeavour still retains vestiges of these - and it might help to keep things more consistent from story to story. But, you would lose something of the variety of locales, and a few people would get very upset that Doctor Who was on for fewer weeks of the year. That's happening a bit, anyway, though: Mister Chibnall's first year is going to be 10 episodes, but they're all going to be a bit longer than previously. Let's see how it goes when we get to Autumn. Exciting! (Why is this year taking so long?!) 

In Summary:
More fun, and more thought-provoking, than being stuck in traffic.

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