This is an edited and partly-rewritten version of something I posted at the old site.
In a world in which 99% of all TV is 99% predictable 99% of the time, ‘Gridlock’ seems like an impertinent rejoinder to everything else on the screen, as though the Doctor Who production team are blowing contemptuous raspberries at the people who churn out all the beige wallpaper that constitutes most modern telly. ‘Gridlock’ hammers every bit of mass-produced, by-the-numbers, formulaic drama that clogs up the channels. Then, just for good measure, it laughingly refuses to play by the rules of Doctor Who, old or new.
There is no invasion and no tyranny to topple; there are no corridors and no captures (well, there’s one… sort of) and no escapes; there are no fascist guards, no rebels, no evil masterminds; there is no ticking time-bomb, no race against time, no evil plot for the Doctor to foil. Other writers might have made the story about the Doctor trying to stop everyone dying because of the BLISS patches. In ‘Gridlock’, RTD has the Doctor arrive when this is all over and almost everyone is long dead. Imagine what ‘The Ark in Space’ would’ve been like if the Doctor had arrived years after the Wirrn had already eaten almost the whole of the human race… mind you, even then there could’ve been a Doctor-and-rebels-fight-monsters tale. In ‘Gridlock’, there are no monsters in the proper sense. The cat people are both nice, the Face of Boe is without malice. Even the Macra are not allowed to take over the script or be this week’s baddies. Their fate is not even alluded to at the end. The Doctor’s priority is to clear the gridlock. The death of the Macra that feed on the exhaust fumes is a by-product of his main aim (one assumes that some of the unscrupulous entrepreneurs of the undercity are going to get rich selling lots of crab meat). Some fans have criticised what they perceive as the way the Macra were underused… but really, did we need another story about the Macra running a colony of slaves? I know the original Macra tale is sadly missing, but a story that was all about CGI Macra being naughty wouldn’t have brought it back. Besides, ‘The Macra Terror’ is a tale of its time, expressing the anxieties of the 60s generation about brainwashing, conformity and consumer culture. Putting the Macra at the centre of ‘Gridlock’ would’ve made ‘Gridlock’ a story about the Macra, yet another bad old monster stomping about.
‘Gridlock’ is almost unrelentingly surprising, even to people me who, let’s face it, watch far too much telly. Not only is ‘Gridlock’ unpredictable, it’s tricky too. It deliberately leads you down blind alleys and then presents you with a basket of kittens. Just when you think it’s going to be about urban guerrillas kidnapping Martha, the urban guerrillas turn out to be a nice guy and his pregnant girlfriend who just needed an extra passenger.…