|Get it? Boe-tox?|
It’s April 14th, 2007. David Tennant is still terribly happy. Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani, Fray, Fergie, Timbaland, Beyonce, and Shakira also chart, which feels like just about the most 2007 list of musical artists one can muster. Since Shakespeare wrapped things up, the Ministry of Defense allowed the fifteen sailors released by Iran to sell their stories to the press. This was immediately reversed for anyone who did not act on the first day. Johnny Cash’s home in Nashville burns to the ground, and Kurt Vonnegut dies.
While on television we have an unsung masterpiece – Russell T Davies’s best script of Season Three, Gridlock. There is a line of criticism against Russell T Davies that would suggest he is not particularly interested in science fiction. Instead he’s interested in visual spectacle and character bits, and happens to like the way science fiction things look and emotionally feel. But he’s spectacularly uninterested in worldbuilding – his oft cited line about not caring about Zogs from the planet Zog unless there are humans about is not just an observation about the importance of not making things too strange (after all, he did the “no humanoids except for the TARDIS crew” trick on his second script), but an observation about grounding stories in anything other than the day-to-day world of human experience. The creator of Raxicoricofallapatorius, the Moxx of Balhoon, and the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe is clearly not averse to the presence of overt weirdness. What he is averse to is doing a story that isn’t grounded in contemporary Earth culture. And so even when, at the start of the second season, Davies made his high profile “we’re doing an alien planet for the first time” story the alien planet is just New Earth. Davies, in other words, is almost pathologically opposed to alien planets unless he can ground them in day-to-day Earth issues: busses, hospitals, and, in this case, traffic jams. As a writer, he wants either human interaction or massive spectacle.
But in Gridlock we have an odd story in which Davies manages to hit on an approach that does the worldbuilding for him, without him having to actually engage in any of it directly. The basic mechanic of the episode – tons of different people in their cars – means that Davies’s usual trick of “lots of weird and outlandish images” crashes into his other usual trick of “depictions of ordinary people with domestic lives” to create something that Davies never really manages again in Doctor Who: lots of weird and outlandish images of ordinary people with domestic lives. The result is that for the first and only time in the Davies era we end up with a cross-section of an alien society. Because of the particular central image of the story – the act of driving on the highway – it’s possible for Davies to mash up S&M cats, elderly lesbian trainspotters, nudists, and dapper businessmen into something that feels like a sane, coherent world.
The basic fabric of this world is, as is often the case for Davies, drawn from comics, in this case Judge Dredd and the gaudy excess of Mega-City One. Mega-City One fit smoothly into 2000 A.D.’s aesthetic of tremendous excess – it’s visibly from the same comic that brought us the only bear on the CIA death list. It’s also impossible to realize on television. (Heck, it may well be impossible to realize on film, though people persist in saying that the Karl Urban movie was good.) Or, at least, it should be. But in a stroke of grouchy real-world satire worthy of Robert Holmes himself, Davies casually cracks that by having this be Mega-City One after the fall, so to speak. So instead of having to depict massive city blocks the size of small cities, Davies has a bunch of cars. Repeatedly redressing the same set and finding new ways to shoot in it posed its own problems, but these, on the whole, were surmountable ones.
But Mega-City One is, first and foremost, a city about authority. And it’s one that it should be nearly impossible to actually cross the Doctor into. (Although Dave Stone made a shot at it with the Sixth Doctor Missing Adventure Burning Heart, which was meant to feature Dredd, and instead features thinly veiled knockoff characters.) The problem is simple – faced with the autocratic violence that Judge Dredd represents, the Doctor ought have no choice but to completely overthrow him. Faced with the anarchic lawbreaking of the Doctor, meanwhile, Dredd ought just shoot him in the face and call it a day. Since both characters are ontological forces within their narratives, a crossover seems difficult at best – there’s just no way these two are going to team up. They can’t, because the central joke of Judge Dredd is that Dredd is an absolutely terrible person.
Again, Davies deftly finds ways of splitting the difference. By making New New York a ruined city, he moves the authority figures out of reach. There are no more police. This is Mega-City One after Dredd’s fall – indeed, after the fall of the Judges, and of everything else. Everyone is dead. There’s no more authority to overthrow – just a headless corpse of a city slowly winding down with nobody noticing. It’s telling that what authority there was is, by and large, at fault here. The Senate becomes addicted to Umpty Candy… sorry, wait, Bliss, and basically sleeps through everybody dying of an airborne plague. Their last act is to damn the entire planet by declaring a quarantine. What initially looks like a diseased and broken system of authority is just ordinary people running through the rubble of a city that’s lost all of its authority entirely.
And so instead of having to actually collide the Doctor with Judge Dredd we get the Doctor cleaning up after Judge Dredd’d reign. Judge Dredd – or at least the system of uncaring but absolute authority he represents – is brought down on its own terms. The Doctor’s role in proceedings is instead to offer a sort of alternative. But even here, the seeds of the alternative are sewn elsewhere. While the structure of authority collapsed, there is still a larger presence keeping the world of New New York together: the Face of Boe. The Face of Boe is an interesting character – originally just an expensive prop for Davies’s first real visual extravaganza, financial expediency led him to become an oddly mythic and substantive character, as well as one who ties quietly into the longer past of Doctor Who (via the Isop Galaxy). Subsequently, of course, the Face of Boe gets tied into the mythology of Torchwood, making him an odd surrogate of the Doctor himself.
Regardless, it is the Face of Boe’s intervention that has saved everybody – an act of individual sacrifice and kindness. From there, equally crucially, we have a society that has sustained itself. In many ways the most extraordinary moment of Gridlock is the hymn. The exact way in which this plays out was, it seems, at least somewhat contentious – Tennant, for his part, was adamant that the Doctor ought remain at a clear remove from the hymn, which sets up an interesting and productive contrast between him and Martha, who joins in with the hymn and, by extension, the society. Davies, meanwhile, was more ambivalent, and the result is that the Doctor gets it slightly wrong.
Here we have, in fact, a moment where Tennant seems to misunderstand the story he’s in, albeit in a way that is almost too perfect. On the commentary track, Tennant discusses how the hymn is the thing that makes the Doctor angry and makes him decide to force the people of this world to question their surroundings. Which, yes, fine, the way in which nobody asks where the police have gotten off to and quietly ignores the evidence of the broken world around them is a real aspect of the story, but it’s not the entire story. What’s more telling is that Brannigan’s statement right before everybody starts singing is, in the end, correct: “You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.” Which is, of course, true. The drivers are not abandoned, and the nature of their salvation is, in fact, community. Indeed, the message of “The Old Rugged Cross” is specifically apt. “The dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain” perfectly describes the Face of Boe, and indeed, Davies’s Lonely God image at large.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of New New York, lurks the past of Doctor Who. Between the implicit presence of the Isop Galaxy, the quoting of The Sensorites (Susan there describes her home planet, saying “the sky is a burned orange, and the leaves on the trees are bright silver,” both images the Doctor quotes in describing Gallifrey), and, of course, the Macra this story is absolutely drenched in Doctor Who. And not just any Doctor Who, but the old sixties stuff – obscure references that are selected specifically for their obscurity. The Macra, in particular, are there for the precise reason that they’re a monster that less than 1% of the audience has heard of, and that no decent footage of actually exists.
But they’re oddly perfect. The Macra Terror, as dedicated readers will recall, was Doctor Who’s attempt to do The Prisoner in miniature and, to its credit, prior to the airing of The Prisoner. In proper Russell T Davies style, it presents a future world that is really just built out of the imagery of the present: the colony world is really a Holiday Camp, and the story is about mechanisms of social control. Which are, of course, exactly the same thing that’s in play in Gridlock. For all that Davies pretends to have picked a more or less arbitrary old forgotten monster, he ended up picking one from a story that is about the way in which our faith in authority leads to dangerous and exploitative delusion.
But instead of falling into the at times banal anarchism of the Troughton era, in which the Doctor is simply a force that tears down the world, Davies shows the way the world is built. Indeed, the Doctor, after thinking he’s going to tear down the world and reveal the Macra lurking underneath and running everything, discovers that he’s been going the wrong direction all story, and that the hidden Macra aren’t even the point; they’re just mindless, hungry beasts. The real story isn’t pulling the world down – it’s already collapsed. It’s giving the Face of Boe help in building it back up.
In this regard the eventual revelation that the Face of Boe is just what Jack becomes after a couple billion years is perfect. In hindsight, it ties the theme of Torchwood – of existence in the real and material world – into Doctor Who. What’s key is, in fact, that the Doctor gets it wrong and thinks this is a world to overthrow, when in reality it’s a real world. The fact that this is a ground-level story about real-feeling people becomes the point of the exercise. It’s not that Davies has stumbled upon a way in which his approach leads to world-building; it’s that he’s finally shown what the point of world-building is in the first place, creating a world that is built out of the things he cares about – people and spectacle – and not out of abstracted sci-fi rules.
The result is terribly powerful, and is in many ways the story in which we can see the best aspects of the Davies era most clearly working together. This is a story about ordinary people, bizarre spectacle, and the intersection of magic with the day-to-day, in which all of those things are left about even in the mix. It’s not, as Love and Monsters or Midnight are, an experimental piece in which Davies challenges notions of what the show is. Rather, it’s Davies doing standard issue Doctor Who – a flat up Robert Holmes homage – and making it sing. The latter part of the Davies era is, as we’ve noted, characterized by the show’s awareness that it’s the biggest thing on television. Typically it engages with that. But with Gridlock we have something different: a Doctor Who story that manages to be all things to everyone. Which is to say, a story that isn’t about being the biggest thing on television, but that just calmly, quietly, and beautifully deserves to be.