Region 1
box set

Region 2
box set
Region 2
plain 3-episode volume
(Doctor Who Story No. 185, starring David Tennant)
  • written by Russell T. Davies
  • directed by Richard Clark
  • produced by Phil Collinson
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 1 episode @ 45 minutes
Story: Returning to the planet New Earth a generation after his last visit, the Doctor encounters the less fortunate side of the city of New New York, and he and Martha get separated in a futuristic dystopian traffic jam. The Doctor's quest to unravel the mess reveals some old friends and foes, and takes him to some seldom seen areas of the city....

DVD Extras (box sets only) include:

  • Audio commentary by executive producer Julie Gardner, actor Travis Oliver (Milo), and visual FX producer Marie Jones.
  • Doctor Who Confidential featurette: Are We There Yet? (12 min.) with Oliver, David Tennant (The Doctor), Freema Agyeman (Martha),
    Ardal O'Hanlon (Brannigan), Lenora Crichlow (Cheen), director Richard Clark, writer Russell T. Davies, and producer Phil Collinson.
  • David Tennant's Video Diaries (3 min.) with Tennant and Anna Hope (Novice Hame).
  • BBC One trailer promo
  • Closed-Caption subtitles

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

Although this turns out to be a decent and very enjoyable story in the end, it has a lot of cruder rough edges to wade through, particularly in the first half. But do wade through, and do brush up on the show's history, and a very rewarding second half with much repeat-viewing potential will unfold.

The opening teaser isn't much good for drawing one into the story; it is, in fact, more off-putting and confusing. The setting is unclear, limited to a confined space with an inset TV broadcast of a news-reader, giving one the impression of run-of-the-mill-Earth, perhaps a few insignificant years into the future. An elderly couple proceeds to panic, for reasons that don't make any apparent sense yet. Writer Russell T. Davies is holding back too much of the wrong thing at this point. Watching a few minor characters fall into the major danger of the adventure is the most predictable content for a Doctor Who teaser / opening scene ever, and this particular one isn't visually interesting at all, does nothing to really define what the major danger is or where and when we are, and won't make much sense until you watch the episode a second time.

The Doctor and Martha are introduced fairly well, and have an excellent scene together in the TARDIS interior. However, the TARDIS itself is not having its greatest day, as all materializations of the police box are neglected for the second story in a row. Not a good idea to be ignoring this so often this early for any viewers who started watching the show when Martha joined, and not very satisfying for the long-term fans either. At least there is some wisdom in the smooth juxtaposition of TARDIS interior and exterior scenes, when a nearby cutaway scene could easily have interrupted them if a certain 1980's mentality had entered the editing room.

That cutaway scene, featuring characters from a previous story, is gold within the first half of the story - pretty much the only thing sustaining a bit of anticipation that the tale is headed somewhere interesting.

The exploration of the setting continues, and is vastly disappointing. It actually turns out to be New Earth again, an "alien" planet that tries too hard to make us feel like we haven't actually left Earth. And instead of exploring the futuristic side of things, we're stuck in the slums, looking at a run down environment filled with various run-down & desperate people.

Just as things feel like they might be picking up a bit via some action, we instead get trapped inside some tiny flying cars in a traffic jam. This drags on throughout the second quarter of the story, without anything in it to suggest that we won't continue to be stuck in those tiny cars for the rest of the entire adventure, and it all begins to feel like a cheap "filler" story within the season. The single biggest improvement this script would have needed would have been to put something more into this section, maybe several somethings, to help the audience anticipate the variety of story elements coming up in the second half. One seriously risks losing the casual viewers at that point, who have become well-accustomed to cost-cutting episode structures on TV, and in sci-fi TV in particular.

There is a bit of style-over-substance excellence again when the CGI environment of the motorway tunnel comes into view for the Doctor and the audience. I propose that we only find it excellent because it is a difficult special effect. If such a real place existed and they had simply filmed it, who would get excited about a big, filthy old car tunnel? One wouldn't even be able to appreciate the grand scale of the architecture, with all the exhaust fumes blocking our view. And the production has to take a hit for making all the cars in the tunnel exactly the same boring black box, mainly because it was established in "New Earth" (story no. 172), that this particular city is already more believably populated by air cars of several different varieties and colours. The tunnel is also too big and spacious to make the traffic jam feel like a jam. How much are the cars locked by computer control? What would be the logic of preventing them from freely using the upper half of the tunnel?

One of the benefits of returning to New Earth is of course the fact that it is populated by cat-people in addition to humans. If you are going to be trapped in a small space for a long time, it's good to have a few friendly aliens along, particularly ones with such a successful prosthetic process and good actors allowing them to emote considerably. Ardal O'Hanlon guest stars as the first male of the cat species to grace the screen, and he shines in the role, making Brannigan a much-loved new character on the series. Sadly, the species still doesn't acquire a proper name for itself. They need something cool, like "Mrrshan" for the cat-people in the video game "Master of Orion II".

The "Mrrshan" race of the Fieras system

The story earns a few minor points when the major danger for the story is finally revealed, but I think one really needs to be a fan well-versed in the show's history to appreciate it. Since I fall into that category, I enjoyed a moment of exquisite heightened excitement.

However, newer viewers will probably just hear a name and not really get enough background to glean anything from it. By the time this revelation occurs, there isn't much time left to do anything with it.

Old Rugged Dystopia

A traffic jam makes for a very weird dystopia, yet one that resonates with today's society with surprising ease. Viewers will probably be split on whether or not it makes sense that people would still be accepting enough of the length of time that a motorway journey takes to start out on it in the first place - would they not be more keen to find other ways? At times, their reasoning only seems to make sense on subsequent viewing, and still feels a bit contrived to serve the dystopian idea that the writer wants to set up.

But, as Brannigan points out, we viewers shouldn't think that we know the New New Yorkers and their motives so well, just before the city launches into a congregational choir singing of "Old Rugged Cross". While easily appreciable for the beautiful melodic qualities the production manages to give it, the lyrics contain some subtext and deeper meanings. DVD owners, turn on your closed-captions if you need to. This hymn, neatly embedded in the heart of a science-fiction dystopia, successfully paints a picture of Christian beliefs as a dystopia in itself, proclaiming an embrace of and love for ritualistic suffering, while the last line, the final exchange of old ways for something brighter and more appropriate, is phrased as something to be procrastinated indefinitely. How often is this aspect of Christianity not only accepted but celebrated by members of our society? And how often do we repeatedly head into the predictable traffic jams on our main city highways, while neglecting to even seek out and learn alternate routes through lesser known streets? Human nature isn't as far flung from the portrayed habits of New New Yorkers as we detached viewers may wish to think.

Driving the point home more clearly, two interesting things happen immediately. The final swell of the music coincides with Martha's car being given access to the fast-lane, and her party rushes off to embrace the dystopia's false promises. Contrasting that as the music abruptly ends with a dischord, the Doctor launches off on his own tangent, not just thinking but acting outside the box, literally. It's as if the hymn has spurred him to realize that the time to exchange the cross for the crown is long overdue, and he wastes no time.

Insane, and a bit magnificent!

This is the point at which I realized, on first viewing, that "Gridlock" was going to be an interesting story after all, and Murray Gold steps up with some driving heroic music to help drive that point home. Dystopias everywhere beware: the Doctor is in, and he will be as much of a catalyst for change and the unraveling of dystopian power here as he had been previously in so many other worthy tales. The second half of the story throws a lot of enjoyable twists and turns at the viewer, some literal, some subtle, and at least half of them are accompanied by stunningly beautiful or richly exciting visuals. The Doctor is kept very busy with several heroic story beats, and has a chance to interact with pretty much every other character and setting in the story, even if all too briefly with some of them. Very well done.

5 Billion Year Secret? Really?

Well obviously I can't talk about any of that in this no-spoilers environment I've created under the "Buyers' Guide" label. You'll just have to watch the episode, and come back to read the In-depth Analysis version of this review later. Or, if you fear no spoilers, go ahead and brave it now.

Murray Gold delivers a lot of excellent music in this episode, reusing old themes where appropriate, and developing them further into new renditions that are immensely pleasing. The action motif going up and down minor thirds from "Smith and Jones" (story no. 183) is a much welcome addition to the recurring roster.
Music by Murray Gold
"Martha's Theme", "Gridlocked Cassinis",
"Drowning Dry", "The Doctor Forever",
"Evolution of the Daleks",
"All the Strange, Strange Creatures",
and "Boe" are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Original Music from "Series 3"

More info & buying options

The final departure scene departs interestingly from what you normally expect at the end of a Doctor Who story. Visually, the set is nothing you want to be looking at, but it doesn't matter, because the actors and their dynamics are so superb. I may not believe in some of the content of the dialogue, but Tennant nails it and puts so much expression into it, you know that the Doctor believes it, and you feel it with him. A worthy moment, and a worthy visual closing shot, neatly wrapping up an unusual but very worthwhile adventure.

Although "Gridlock" may never rank too highly in fan's lists of the show's best stories, there is a lot here for both the casual viewer and long-term fan to appreciate, particularly when one gives it deeper attention and lets it take one where it wants to go. Definitely better than "The Shakespeare Code" (story no. 184), but unable to match either the "Smith and Jones" season opener, or its own predecessor "New Earth".

This story has become available on DVD:
DVD NTSC Region 1
14-episode boxed set
for the North American market:

DVD PAL Region 2
14-episode boxed set
for the U.K.
DVD PAL Region 2
plain 3-episode volume
U.K. format only

Note: The full season sets contain commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and other extras. The smaller volumes only feature the plain episodes.

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "Evolution of the Daleks"

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