Well, Russell has been having a bad time on the M4, hasn’t he?
Obviously our man has been fuming in a traffic jam, and was inspired to write this episode in much the same way as Robert Holmes was moved to write The Sunmakers after a bad experience with the taxman. And you know what? It’s actually pretty good. The sci-fi concepts here are solid and imaginative, and the story moves at a good pace. What’s more, it makes sense. I’ve ranked on Russell’s writing a lot in the past for his tendency to get carried away and let the plot fit his ideas rather than the other way around, but with Smith and Jones and now this, I think he’s really improved. Yes, there are blatant set pieces and “moving” moments, but they aren’t contrived or bolted on but arise naturally from the plot; a vast improvement on our previous visit to New Earth.
The idea of a neverending, lifelong traffic jam is ingenious and amusingly satirical, and the script realises it well, especially in the characters’ sanguine acceptance of it taking years to go ten miles. What’s more, the ultimate explanation for it is equally ingenious, arising from a Red Dwarf: Better Than Life style-addiction that’s caused the death of the civilisation above them. The vista of the Senate filled with skeletons was an impressive one, though one has to ask: how could the Senate have declared a quarantine when they were all off their heads on this Bliss stuff? Small quibbles, really though.
One area Russell’s always excelled at is character and dialogue, and these didn’t disappoint. The range of quirky personalities filling the Motorway was great fun, in many ways a celebration of the British eccentricity Doctor Who has always embraced. Ardal O’ Hanlon was obviously the standout as Brannigan, his charisma making you wonder what he’s doing wasting his time with rubbish like My Hero. The consistently excellent cat make-up did nothing to dim his charm, either. Elsewhere in the smog, the two married old ladies were a hoot, though one can already hear the cries of “gay agenda!” from certain parts of fandom. I also particularly liked the bowler-hatted businessman, who Russell acknowledged was nicked from 2000AD. Likewise, the Oriental girls and the nudist couple added up to a deliberately weird bunch, and as last week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the tongue in cheek style of season 17.
And, of course… the Macra. Why? Well, why not? OK, there’s no real reason why the big monster at the bottom of the tunnel had to be a returning foe, but it’s a nice touch. After all, who but the most ardent fans are going to get the reference? To anyone else, they’re yet another in an ongoing parade of aliens the Doctor somehow seems to know. It’s consistent with their previous appearance too, in that the poisonous fumes of the Motorway are rather nice, as far as they’re concerned. It did occur to me to wonder why they were ten times their original size, mind.
The relationship between the Doctor and Martha also seemed to develop quite nicely here too. Remember, it’s crucial to the future of the show that this latest reformatting is handled well, and the writers are clearly taking pains to do this. The Doctor’s plainly showing off, having promised Martha only one trip and then immediately cheating by taking her off to the future. He obviously wants her around more than he can admit, but it’s more guarded than his overt fondness for Rose. After all, when Martha’s kidnapped he doesn’t go all melodramatic and start declaiming “Now no power on Earth can stop me!”. Thank God. And his descriptions of Gallifrey are heartbreakingly defined for the viewer, who knows the planet no longer exists and winces when Martha eagerly asks to be taken there.
Martha, for her part, is becoming endearingly cynical about her feelings. “You’re taking me to the same planets you took her?” she asks. “Have you heard the word ‘rebound’?” Ouch. Later, in the van with her captors, she gets some great dialogue to describe her feelings, as she portrays the Doctor as an amazing, but somehow unreachable figure.
Finally, there’s the Face of Boe’s great revelation. Well, that took long enough, didn’t it? So… “You are not alone.” Hmmm. Nice, doomy signs and portents there, especially given our suspicions about the rest of the season. If it does tie into that, whatever “that” is, it’s a more inventive storyline than just having one of the characters say “Torchwood” once an episode. Cheers, Russell. Although… the Doctor refers to the Face as “old friend”, despite the fact that they’ve only met three times (remember in New Earth – “We shall meet again; for the third time, for the last time.” Bit like Spaceballs, “At last we meet, for the first time for the last time” but I digress). Anyway, I rarely refer to anyone I’ve met three times with that kind of fondness. Unless I slept with them. Actually, that might be an interesting subplot…
In fact, one interesting thing here was the evolution of the Doctor’s moral code. Clearly, he has no problem with gay couples, but he’s shocked and appalled at the Pharmacists selling artificial mood enhancers. Actually, I thought these, together with the mentions of the Overcity and the Undercity, were a nice crib from the Virgin New Adventures, but it’s telling that in one of those (The Left-Handed Hummingbird), the Doctor not only didn’t object to drugs but got off his face on mushrooms – just to track down the alien menace, you understand. It seems that the Doctor’s moral stance is now firmly rooted in the early 21st century, and while that’s a step up from William Hartnell, it’s a shame Russell couldn’t be more forward-thinking. After all, “drugs” may be viewed as bad now, but they have been, and may be again, very much acceptable in other times.
The direction was good, making impressive use of what was presumably only one set. Mind, that did make one wonder why everyone in the future buys the same model of car, in the same colour. Why it resembles a late 60s Commer dormobile is another question entirely. Seriously though, some of the perhaps overly ambitious CG could have been offset by a bit of variety in the traffic, though I acknowledge that that would have been more complicated and therefore more expensive. In fact, the CG may have been aiming a bit too high, and some of the compositing, especially in the sequence of Macra claws trying to grab the van, was distinctly ropy. Still, we’re spoiled here. It’s worth remembering that in the 70s it would have been an Airfix kit and some bendy toys.
So overall, a mid-range impressive episode with some nice ideas and some great quirky touches. I’m much impressed with Russell’s plotting this year compared to previous seasons, and so far this year is shaping up to be more consistently enjoyable than last year’s wildly variable efforts. Seven out of ten, Mr Davies.