There's an awful poignancy about all those people stuck on the motorway: all alone, doomed to spend their lives locked away in their boxes. Many of them have little idea of their true predicament. The smiling faces on their screens tell them everything is okay, but really they are entirely trapped in a world with no upward mobility, where the desperate end up racing to the bottom to try and get ahead. In truth we never see more than snapshots of this society, but the people we meet conduct themselves with such dignity. Brannigan, Mrs and Mrs Cassini, even that chap in the bowler hat, they're all putting on a brave face and trying hard not to make a fuss. If this is a dystopian future, it's a very British one.
In the old days, if the Doctor was going to foment revolution, it took a while, usually four to six weeks. He did manage to topple Helen A's regime in a single night in The Happiness Patrol, but even then the BBC managed to string it out for half of November 1988. Since 2005, we've seen him uncovering plots and invasions, stumbling into unfolding situations or even causing problems himself, but we haven't seen him do this: combatting the system itself.
The speed of his revolution is so breathtaking that Gridlock seems to run almost in real time and for some this might make it less credible - but the speed is the point. To a world trapped in a traffic jam, the Doctor should seem like a lightning bolt, a restless blur of action. He can't sit still and he refuses to accept constraints to which the survivors have long since become inured. In fact, it is their coping mechanism - the communal singing that brings them such comfort on the long road - that triggers him to leap into action. The Doctor, falling from car to car, perceiving a new direction, turns the stationary world of the motorway through ninety degrees - not a full revolution, but literally the beginning of one. A few minutes later, speaking from the Senate itself, he saves everyone. It's completely appropriate that it seems ridiculously fast. To Brannigan, who has just watched the Doctor vanish through a trap door only to reappear a moment later at the apex of society, it should rightly feel like a magic trick; incomprehensible, insane and a bit magnificent.
How appropriate that all this should be bookended by talk of Gallifrey: the original stagnant society, founded on the very idea that the Time Lords would "neither flux, nor wither, nor change their state in any measure." I wrote last time about how the Doctor is essentially a character of the very highest privilege, but the corollary of that is that he is also a natural rebel, someone who rejects systems and rules, and delights in the mild anarchy of personal freedom. Unable to cope with the stuffiness of Time Lord society, he left, throwing himself into the messiness of the universe and becoming, irrevocably, involved.
Ancient history by now as far as the show is concerned, but still personal history for the Doctor. Despite the subtlety of some of Eccleston's performances, the effects of the Time War have caused some heavy emotional outbursts. The Doctor's reactions here are beautiful, understated and all too human. At first he can't bring himself to have the conversation with Martha, unwilling to explain once again that Gallifrey has gone. Instead, he offers her a memory, a picture of the long vanished world of his childhood. When she confronts him at the end he gives in and admits to her what has happened. But almost immediately after spitting out the words 'Time War' and 'Daleks' he returns to those memories: the red grass, the orange sky, the sun glinting on the dome of the Capitol. Whether Martha is in the loop or not, he'd rather reminisce about the Gallifrey he left than face up to the reality of its destruction. As he talks, the city begins to fill with song once more, its people drawn together by shared experience. It just makes it clear to us that it doesn't matter with whom he shares his grief: the Doctor remains alone.
I mentioned that this episode isn't perfect, but I have only really tiny niggles. It's never properly explained how the Undercity connects to the Motorway, or to the rest of New New York, and so there's this nagging doubt as to how people can still be joining the traffic jam after all this time. And if the Undercity is sealed off along with the Motorway (as the script seems to imply) then why don't some or all of the motorists abandon the road and try and make a fist of things there? The other small gripe I have is that the Doctor doesn't arrive at the Senate through his own agency - he is trying to reach Martha, but Novice Hame kidnaps him in order to bring him to the Face of Boe. It feels a little forced and it would be better if he had to abandon the rescue attempt, and/or was persuaded that he could save Martha if he went to the Senate. But, of course, that would all take too long and this story just has to crack on.
Throughout, Gridlock is full of clever economies that make sure it can do just that. The absence of a true villain removes all sorts of obstacles from the plot. The cars themselves, a single set redressed for different motorists with a uniform exterior mass produced by the Mill's CGI, give this story a grand scale while allowing us to see a diverse array of characters with some intimacy. Martha continues to be very good. The very fact that she has only just met the Doctor gives everything an edge, whether it's her realisation that her life depends upon a man who is essentially still a stranger, or the way in which she eventually forces him to open up. Throughout these early episodes she is continually challenging the Doctor, asking questions and demanding his respect. Slowly she is earning it.
Meanwhile, the boys are growing tired of me asking for their thoughts on each episode. Which is okay, because they are certainly not getting bored with watching Doctor Who and that is much more important. They only gave Gridlock a seven in any case, but each to their own. The things they really liked - the description of Gallifrey, the Face of Boe's warning - hint that they're increasingly interested on the programme's ongoing overall storyline rather than individual episodes, which makes complete sense considering what the next couple of series are like.