We’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.
Gridlock is absolutely fascinating; it’s one that, despite not having watched it in several years, I’ve become convinced is something of a masterpiece. I’m happy to say that my rewatch of the episode proved this belief to be correct – it’s certainly one of the most nuanced and thoughtful episodes of the Tenth Doctor’s run.
Much of this comes from the episode’s mediation on faith, which forms the spine of Gridlock. Indeed, the episode seems largely caught between two ideals – that of blind faith, and that of action and autonomy. On an obvious level, the divide is represented by the passengers in the cars contrasted against the Doctor; where they’re content to wait, seeing nothing else, he acts. The Doctor “finds [his] own way” – and that’s what makes him a hero. Conversely, they all wait; they refuse to acknowledge the fact that there are no police, no authorities, no one waiting for them. The moment the Doctor challenges Brannigan and the Cassini sisters is a fantastic, electric scene; it’s filmed in close-ups, emphasising the claustrophobia of the scene, making it palpable, and making it so clear just how trapped they are.
Certainly, that’s what Russell T Davies argued, and believed when he was writing the script; in The Writer’s Tale, which is still the best book about writing ever, he comments that he thinks that passengers are all “wrong and passive”. And indeed you can understand where that argument comes from, and how it’s conveyed across the story itself – if you maintain that the programme is all about that great spirit of adventure, then, of course, the people who sit and do nothing are going to be considered to be in the wrong. Ultimately, they’ve been stifled – they’re complacent and limited and unable to do anything about their situations.
And yet at the same time, I’m not wholly convinced that’s entirely correct. Certainly, it’s one interpretation; it’s not the only one. To paraphrase something Neil Gaiman once said, if someone tells you what a story is about, they’re probably right – but if they tell you that it’s the only thing it’s about, they’re absolutely wrong.
The crux of the episode is the Old Rugged Cross scene, where the travellers unite in singing their hymn – what Russell T Davies said was his attempt “to show how good faith can be, regardless of the existence of God – how it can unite and form a community, and essentially offer hope”. (Again, the direction of this scene is excellent; the close-ups that previously denoted claustrophobia now emphasise the intimacy of the community shared by the travellers. The tone of the episode shifts entirely, forcing us to reassess how we view the passengers.)
Now, of course, Davies thinks this is wrong, and that the most meaningful consequence of the hymn isn’t to inspire them. In uniting, the travellers become passive; it’s the fact that the hymn makes the Doctor realise there’s no “ultimate authority” and in turn prompts him to act that’s the most significant aspect of the scene. It’s when the episode pivots, moving into the next stage of the drama.
And yet surely the most significant reveal is that actually there is a higher authority: the face of Boe. It’s surely no accident that Novice Hame deifies Boe through her language, referring to him in the definite article – it’s clear each time she says “Him” or “He” it’s in the religion sense, the capitalised form of the pronoun – with the conclusion of the episode being that Boe saves everyone. There always was a higher authority there, keeping the travellers safe. Aren’t they right to have their faith?
Indeed, the same is essentially true of the Doctor – as soon as he’s introduced, he becomes that messianic figure. It returns to the Old Rugged Cross scene once more; even though the Doctor doesn’t sing, and he rejects it, Martha does sing. Because she has faith in the Doctor – made explicit, of course, as she says “You’ve got your faith, you’ve got your songs and your hymns, and I’ve got the Doctor”. Martha is shown to be right to have faith in the Doctor, much as the people were right to have faith in something.
Arguably, that’s the whole point of Boe’s final revelation: You Are Not Alone.
Across the entirety of Gridlock, faith is directly linked with community. It’s what unites the travellers on the motorway; the song represents their faith, which in turn provides them with unity. But while we always focus on the Old Rugged Cross, it’s perhaps also worth noting the significance of the song the episode ends on: Abide with Me. A plea, in essence, for someone always to stay with you – to not be alone. The travellers were never alone; even when they had nothing else, they always had each other. In that sense then, they had something the Doctor never had.
Though of course, this song also plays over the Doctor’s admission of his lie to Martha, which is another fantastic aspect of this episode. That the hymn is playing then is indicative of how the Doctor is opening up to Martha; much as he dismissed her suggestion that he had her, he does. In a significant way, he’s now less alone than he was previously.
And that’s perhaps the more significant aspect: knowledge.
Gridlock doesn’t reject faith; it celebrates the ways in which it can draw people together, forging a community and providing unity. Creating hope – Doctor Who isn’t a programme that would ever reject hope entirely. Yet by the same token, what Gridlock does reject is blind faith. Martha is right to take faith in the Doctor because she’s seen him in action before; despite the fact she doesn’t know him very well, she can trust him. Where the travellers’ faith lets them down is where they’re uncritical of it; not acknowledging its limitations is a problem in and of itself. This thread is apparent throughout the entirety of the episode – it’s even there in the mood patches, of Forget and Bliss. Ignorance, it seems, isn’t Bliss.
But of course, the best part of this episode is that that isn’t quite it. There’s still more to discuss; you can argue further still either side, or neither. There’s more to say, to analyse, to write about – and that, if nothing else, is the mark of a successful piece of drama. If you can engage with it, and think about it, and debate with it, then it’s done its job properly.