Saturday, February 15, 2014

Gridlock - "They're all gone now. My family, my friends, even that sky."

Gridlock (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 3, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #185)

Doctor Who Gridlock

New New York's got a bad case of the crabs after a drug binge spread a virus (in seven minutes?!) that wiped out most of New Earth. The Face of Boe sacrifices himself to help the Doctor free the survivors from the undercity gridlock and sets the stage for the return of the Master when he utters his final secret to the Doctor: "You are not alone."

This is a bit better than "New Earth" but probably makes even less sense. Self-replicating fuel, the seven minute virus, Boe as a battery ... it doesn't hang together very well. It's saved by the Doctor finally speaking truthfully to Martha at the end, which takes the edge off what jerk he's been to her up that point, and by the wonderful device of having the Doctor drop into the mobile homes of a cross-section of New Earth society as he tries to make his way back to Martha. All those little scenes of domestic weirdness are a wonderful way to embrace the diversity of what makes people happy and gives unusual depth to world in which we've been dropped.

Those crabs menacing the fast lane at the bottom of the motorway ... they're Macra. "Macra!" the Doctor gawps. Meaningful to him, but not so much to those of us who aren't old enough to have seen that lost story when it was broadcast. Crab creatures from the smoggy depths is all they are and, that's fine, but how did they get there again?

There's a thing that Davies does here that I want to like more than I did because it's a thematically nuanced look at religion in society. The hymns uniting the society that's stuck in the motorway are touching and they serve an important purpose. Brannigan, the cat half of the cat-human family the Doctor encounters upon entering the motorway, puts it well when he says: "You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we're not abandoned. Not while we have each other." And he's right, they're getting by and their daily moment of contemplation is key to that. Humanity (and the cat people) need these affirmations that they are all in it together.

And yet, they don't question why they're sitting in gridlock for years. They agree not to talk about the scary stuff, to not face the truth of their situation and work together to try to get out of it. Instead, they use this beautiful hymn to cement their complacency, to comfort themselves in docility to authority. Atheists, it seems, tend to focus on the latter aspect of the religious temperament while discounting the power and, dare I say it, the glory, of the human spirit expressed through those moments when people raise their voices in song together. "Gridlock" gets this complexity about right. The message is clearly, "Don't be sheep," but it is cognizant of the beauty of the song, or at least of the act of it being sung en masse. A little too cognizant, perhaps -- and this is why I don't like it as much as I want, despite being exactly what I think Doctor Who does well when embraces humanism -- I wouldn't have had Martha shed a tear and sing along. That was more than a bit much.

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