Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Abide With Me 2.0

This is an edited and partly-rewritten version of something I posted at the old site.

In a world in which 99% of all TV is 99% predictable 99% of the time, ‘Gridlock’ seems like an impertinent rejoinder to everything else on the screen, as though the Doctor Who production team are blowing contemptuous raspberries at the people who churn out all the beige wallpaper that constitutes most modern telly. ‘Gridlock' hammers every bit of mass-produced, by-the-numbers, formulaic drama that clogs up the channels. Then, just for good measure, it laughingly refuses to play by the rules of Doctor Who, old or new.

There is no invasion and no tyranny to topple; there are no corridors and no captures (well, there’s one… sort of) and no escapes; there are no fascist guards, no rebels, no evil masterminds; there is no ticking time-bomb, no race against time, no evil plot for the Doctor to foil. Other writers might have made the story about the Doctor trying to stop everyone dying because of the BLISS patches. In ‘Gridlock’, RTD has the Doctor arrive when this is all over and almost everyone is long dead. Imagine what ‘The Ark in Space’ would’ve been like if the Doctor had arrived years after the Wirrn had already eaten almost the whole of the human race… mind you, even then there could’ve been a Doctor-and-rebels-fight-monsters tale. In ‘Gridlock’, there are no monsters in the proper sense. The cat people are both nice, the Face of Boe is without malice. Even the Macra are not allowed to take over the script or be this week’s baddies. Their fate is not even alluded to at the end. The Doctor’s priority is to clear the gridlock. The death of the Macra that feed on the exhaust fumes is a by-product of his main aim (one assumes that some of the unscrupulous entrepreneurs of the undercity are going to get rich selling lots of crab meat). Some fans have criticised what they perceive as the way the Macra were underused… but really, did we need another story about the Macra running a colony of slaves? I know the original Macra tale is sadly missing, but a story that was all about CGI Macra being naughty wouldn’t have brought it back. Besides, ‘The Macra Terror’ is a tale of its time, expressing the anxieties of the 60s generation about brainwashing, conformity and consumer culture. Putting the Macra at the centre of ‘Gridlock’ would’ve made ‘Gridlock’ a story about the Macra, yet another bad old monster stomping about.

‘Gridlock’ is almost unrelentingly surprising, even to people me who, let’s face it, watch far too much telly. Not only is ‘Gridlock’ unpredictable, it’s tricky too. It deliberately leads you down blind alleys and then presents you with a basket of kittens. Just when you think it’s going to be about urban guerrillas kidnapping Martha, the urban guerrillas turn out to be a nice guy and his pregnant girlfriend who just needed an extra passenger. Just when you think it’s going to be about a dystopian tyranny in which the nasty old government is deliberately keeping people in a jam, the government turns out to be long dead. Just when you think it’s going to be about the Doctor leading the oppressed to revolt, the oppressed tell the Doctor they’re not going to help him because they’ve got the kids in the back. Just when you think it’s going to be about Novice Hame getting her revenge, it turns out that she has found redemption. Just when you’re sure that the fast lane is reserved for cars with three passengers so that the Macra can be sure of getting enough meat per can… it turns out that the three passengers rule is just an archaic leftover of when the motorway actually worked and the Macra are just getting lucky. Just when you think it’s going to be about the Macra setting up a system and manipulating their human slaves (yawn, just like last time), it turns out that the Macra are parasitic upon a situation not of their making. The script keeps setting you up for some revelation of structured conspiracy and instead produces another layer of morbidly absurd accident… which is, in case we hadn’t paused to notice and appreciate this, the exact antithesis of almost all TV and movie sci-fi since The X Files made paranoia the dominant fantasy mode.

‘Gridlock’ not only has a narrative texture like little else seen before but also a visual texture to match. Even its antecedents ‘The End of the World’ and ‘New Earth’ look tame by comparison. Moreover, the episode’s riotous visuals are coherent in that they stem from and complement the story being told on both literal and metaphorical levels. For once, the whole thing looks multicoloured and multitextured for a reason. The reason is that this twofold.  Firstly, the episode wants to portray the epilogue to the end of civilisation, so it uses the visual style of the pastiche associated with what's called 'postmodernism'.  Secondly, the episode is an extended celebration of human variety and multiplicity, contrasted with the nightmares of a cityscape gone wrong: dilapidation, drabness, and congestion. “Change and decay in all around I see” as the lyrics of ‘Abide with Me’ put it.

The only glimpses of the outside world we see (until we’re two thirds through the episode) are of the “undercity” and the subterranean motorway. The undercity is a rotting urban wasteland which seems to service the travellers when they can briefly disembark at a layby (this is, presumably, when they pick up food, fuel and other essentials; the mood sellers in the back alley imply a whole underground economy parasitic upon the gridlock in very much the same way as the Macra). The denizens of the undercity are personified by the smock-wearing pharmacists and their black-robed customer/victim. People don’t want to live in this shithole, that’s why they’re prepared to live for years in a traffic jam instead. They’re hoping for something better, all hoping for a better life somewhere else. They’re not on the motorway for fun. They’re escapees, pilgrims hoping to make it to Sugarcandy Mountain. Their occasional foraging/shopping trips in the undercity must only strengthen their resolve to keep going and get away, to make it all the way to the better life that they half know is impossible to reach. The rest of their lives are spent inching forward in their aircars inside a tunnel of poisonous smoke... but when they think about the undercity, it must seem worth it. Escape must seem so good. Of course, like drugs and religion (two other temptations in which they dabble), their escape is fake. But, all the same, it must just feel good to be going somewhere, to be moving, to be heading away from the bad stuff, to be making plans for the kids to have a better life. Years spent in a car would be a tiresome life, but preferable to eking out an existence in the City of Last Things.

And they can always buy some moods for when they weaken. The city itself is the only advert for their wares that the pharmacists need; a familiar syndrome to anyone who knows anything about the link between drug abuse and urban poverty. The black robed girl is content to buy some complacency from an unscrupulous mini-capitalist on a street corner. Those little patches are symbolic of booze and junk and TV, of all the things we pay for to help numb the boredom and the pain instead of doing something about them. Interestingly, the pharmacists don't just sell pleasant moods, they sell ANGER too. Any emotion is preferable to numbness, emptiness and boredom. Within the jam, inside the cars, things are different. The drabness of the undercity is left behind. A whole panoply of human social existence is thrown at us. The different colours and styles and shapes, the different takes on life, the sheer strangeness that we can encounter just by dropping into somebody else’s personal space.

Also, ‘Gridlock’ revels in the sexual diversity of humanity. We have a straight couple but we also have an elderly lesbian couple (one of whom is yet another of RTD’s affectionately drawn geeks) and a woman who’s had a litter of kittens by a cat/man. To talk about a “gay agenda” seems redundant when confronted by ideas like this. It's a human agenda.  In this story, even animals aren't off-limits, as long as they’re old enough, sapient and bipedal. The lesbian couple in ‘Gridlock’ are extremely important because the portrayal is utterly free of the exploitative muck that usually clogs up representations of girl-girl relationships. They’re not young and glam, a turn-on for the lads. Nor are they miserable and stunted, a comfort to the bigots. Positive images of human sexuality in many variations.

The production design employs pastiche (or blank parody, to use Frederic Jameson's phrase) to further emphasise the cultural post-apocalypse and the paradoxical diversity of human social life. The people have only the fragmentary ruins of culture left, but - and this is crucial - they've either decided to trust the ruins or turn them to use.  Source after source is ransacked and jammed crazily into Russell T. Davies’ postulated future, a future of scrambled history and recontextualised images. Brannigan’s flying jacket, the police shield, Sally Calypso’s hairdo, the old ladies’ china tea set, the towering cityscape and the posters inside the car owned by the two Asian girls (which recall Blade Runner, another film that used pastiche to create an image-soaked, post-apocalyptic, po-mo future of bunched-up history and decaying consumerism… with techno-blimps booming “a new life awaits you in the offworld colonies…”).  This represents the condition of moderntiy in decline and fall, but also opens a field of opportunity for the refugees.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic is pulled into service, providing us with the couple at the start, instantly conjuring up ideas of a society built by hardy settlers. Wood’s famous and much parodied image is a lightly-ironic but affectionate paen to the descendants of those Americans who travelled (sometimes for years, stuck in little caravans that they made into moving homes) to make a new start in the wilderness. New New York is a rebuilt and reimagined version of old New York, the city we know, that was created by waves of settlers and immigrants. Like settlers, immigrants always think that things are better and more free somewhere else, somewhere over the horizon. Let’s not forget that New Earth itself is the place where humanity made its new home after the destruction of the old. It’s a new world, built by settlers, colonists, people who (presumably) trekked through the wilderness of space and carved out a recreation of home… very much like the antecedents of the people in Wood’s famous painting.

(I used to think the guy in the suit was a reference to Magritte.  I don't read 2000AD, you see.)

The concentration in image and representation is significant.  In a way, the gridlockers are trapped in a giant representation.  Motorways lead somewhere, this keeps you circling. You’re not on a journey, just in a picture of a journey. You’re not in a city but in a pretence of a city. You’re not in a society, you’re on someone’s Friends List.

Ah, is that what ‘Gridlock’ is about? The internet? Maybe the apocalypse that decimated New New York came from computers rather than drugs, or some strange mixture of the two. Perhaps it was software patches and a computer virus. The language is ambiguous. And the gridlock seems worryingly familiar to any internet junkie. Like the motorway, the internet is a fake escape... an 'e-scape', if you like. All of us shut up in our private boxes on the “information superhighway”, all sat at control consoles, looking at screens, communicating via technology with the people on our Friends Lists and shutting ourselves away from the daylight… while beneath us, the monsters of the repressed stir in the waste (technological, cultural, material) that we create. There are, as we all know, monsters lurking within the internet, feeding off it; predators who claw for the straying sheep. Is that the significance of the black wolfwoman and her two chained female captives?

Which leads us to the monsters. The monstrousness in ‘Gridlock’ is the monstrousness of the by-product. This whole story is full of monstrous by-products. The virus is a by-product of the patches and the patches are a by-product of the rampant apocalyptic unease. The gridlock is a by-product of the virus. The toxic smoke is a by-product of the gridlock, as are the creatures that live within it. As soon as the Macra appear we assume that they created the gridlock for their own purposes… but like the society of New New York, the Macra have devolved from the highpoint of their civilization. They’re there because of the gridlock, not the other way round. The monsters (both of the literal and figurative variety) aren’t at the centre of this tale, they’re at the edges, emergent properties of the malfunctioning, dying society of New Earth. Is it any wonder that the Macra live in the filthy smoke belched out by the motor city? Carbon fumes are the ultimate by-product of our civilization, a by-product that is destroying our world.

If you view ‘Gridlock’ on its own, the Macra are inessential; make them giant slugs and call them the Zargoids and it wouldn’t matter. However, if you remember their first story they suddenly become thematically perfect for ‘Gridlock’. Even in their first appearance they were bacteria as much as crabs or insects, germs breeding in the body politic, infections in the social wound. They’re our antithesis (they breathe what poisons us) but they depend upon us, upon our industrialisation. In ‘The Macra Terror’, they lived on the fossil fuels mined by a smiling, happy, consumerist totalitarian state that played the community card and then sent its citizens to the loony bin if they uttered unorthodox thoughts. A very 60s nightmare. A nightmare that reflected a Britain of holiday camps, of commercialised rebellion, of North Sea oil, of politicians invoking the Dunkirk spirit. In ‘Gridlock’, a very 2007 nightmare, the Macra are living on the noxious fumes of a motor society that now exists to keep people alive by stranding them in a futile and absurd merry-go-round. They’re living on the lead and carbon monoxide. But, as ever, this isn’t about the future. It’s about us. It’s about the hidden killers that live in the exhaust fumes (literal and metaphorical; gaseous and psychological) of our absurd society.

However you look at them – as the dark side of the digital information age, as the toxic by-products of industrial civilization, as the harbingers of killer climate change - the Macra in ‘Gridlock’ are the monsters of the repressed, waiting to devour us if we face them.  They're the hidden things at the back of our minds that we don’t want to think about; unpalatable facts that we dismiss as “air vents”.  This, by the way, makes 'Gridlock' very gothic.  The gothic is all about being confronted by that which has been repressed. 

Thatcher said “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families”. Separated from society, staying as individuals or families, staying safe in gridlock, we can cheat the monsters and pretend they’re not there. But get three people in a car and suddenly that’s not a couple, that’s beginning to look like a society. The temptation of the fast lane is too much. And then they get us. And then we see what our world has really become, a breeding ground for monstrosities that breathe our pollution. 

The Doctor guesses that the people in the traffic jam know (on some level) that their civilization has vanished, that they are alone and going nowhere, that the places they were trying to reach are as gone as the places they left. Why else would they be so discomforted by his questions?  If they didn’t know they were trapped in a representation, they wouldn’t have to stop off to buy mood patches. They’re stuck in a quest for a better life over the horizon, a quest that they all know is doomed to failure. Their only option is to stop, but they can’t because they’re committed to the journey. In a sense, since the jam was their only possible destination, they’ve already arrived but can’t disembark. They can’t stop. They can’t go up. That just leaves down, into the fast lane where they meet the things they were trying to blot out with hope, hymns, drugs, isolation and wilful complacency. Down in the fast lane, they meet the by-products of the jam: the smoke from the exhaust-pipes and the deadly, snapping, carapaced truths that lie within it.

Is ‘Gridlock’ a religious allegory? It is possible to read New New York as a picture of some kind of crude religious cosmology. A gleaming Heaven above, Purgatory in the middle and a Hell full of monsters below. But, if you read it that way, you soon notice that 'heaven' is empty. No God to be seen. There may be a religious theme here but there's no mysticism. The Face of Boe might sacrifice himself to save the gridlocked people but he isn't then resurrected. He doesn't convince as a Christ figure. Besides, you can just as easily decide to read 'Gridlock' as a Freudian picture of the mind by substituting Heaven, Purgatory and Hell with superego, ego and id.

Some people have suggested that 'Gridlock' is a religious allegory because the people in the jam sing hymns. But that’s a bit like saying that because of the mood patches, the episode is a drugs allegory. Okay, the patches clearly denote drugs (legal mood stabilisers and anti-depressants as much illegal stuff) but they’re just one part of the picture. In a way, the religion on display is a drug too. An occasional fix of hope and camaraderie.

This story is more about alienation.  It approaches this via a depiction of faith as a social product and a social expression.  Startlingly, it fits directly into the classical Marxist view of religion.  Marx called religion “the opium of the people”, everybody knows that, but he wasn’t just sneering. He also said, before the bit about opium, that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” Religion is subjectivity constructed to express and fend off alienation. Alienation, for Marx, is the syndrome whereby people are robbed of their subjectivity in a society that takes their labour - and the products of their labour - away from them and then uses it to dominate them in the form of capital (i.e. technology that is not used for the satisfaction of real human needs, etc.)  This is absolutely implicit in 'Gridlock'.  The people of New New York are tyrannised by the effects of the technological product, communicate via technological products, live in technological products... technological products have destroyed their society, destroyed even its capacity to produce anything but waste products and/or monstrous by-products.  Capitalism has eaten itself alive... the only remnants being the petit bourgeois mood traders.  Even the upper reaches of the system, the government, has been desolated by the maximum socia/technological entropy generated by the system.  Marx once ironically described "the heaven of the state" where all must appear just and fair and right and good, so as to disguise the squalid reality of a system based on exploitation.  Well, in 'Gridlock', the council chamber is a ruined heaven, decimated by the runaway processes that it once presided over.

But Limbo is still there and people are making the best of it.  Inside their little cars, the people have created colour, texture, comfort and meaning.  Domesticity on the move, family life within a small space, prayers of communal determination, hymns to the eventual salvation, a pilgrimage to the promised land. Their pseudo-journey has taken on religion as the heart of their heartless world, a construction of meaning from meaninglessness. Escape is their real religion and their real drug. Like both religion and drugs, their escape is an illusion. But their lives are not illusions, their children and relationships and friendships are real. Domesticity may be an escape, and a compromised one, but it also has value in itself. E. M. Forster wrote novels about this sort of theme… though, admittedly, none of them had giant crabs in them.

No, ‘Gridlock’ isn’t Doctor Who’s answer to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress... but it does show people trying to use religious ideas as a guide and map, just as in Bunyan.  But crucially, in ‘Gridlock’, the pilgrims don’t make any progress, at least not on the pilgrimage road. They have mistaken the map for the territory. 

‘Gridlock’ is a humanist allegory because human social life, in its successes and failures, is depicted as the source of all meaning. ‘Gridlock’ features hymns as human social defences against despair, not messages to a mystical God. The story isn’t starry-eyed about people. It depicts them as sometimes unscrupulous, predatory, complacent, self-deluding and lonely… yet what hardy and stubborn determination they have to find colour, life and meaning in their relationships and in their own selves. Even locked away from each other in little boxes, people refuse to be squashed and isolated entirely. Even when trapped inside an absurd system, people find ways to make sense out of senselessness.

There is a reason that this episode features hymns so prominently, desides the depiction of alienation and solace. What are hymns but attempts to unite a congregation in communal meaning. And ‘Abide with me’ is well chosen. To “abide” means to live, dwell, endure. Live with me. It isn’t a hymn of praise but rather a plea for God’s companionship. In this context, ‘Abide with Me’ signifies not only the human instinct to construct meaning, but also our desire to live in community and communality, to dwell together, to comfort and be comforted. Hymns might be expressions of delusion, alienation, protest... but they’re also an expression of togetherness. ‘Gridlock’ itself is an agnostic hymn to the social, to the manifold follies and possibilities of human communal existence.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that perhaps Marx was wrong about revolutions being the locomotive of history.  Perhaps revolutions are what happens when the passengers on the train pull the emergency cord in order to stop the train careening towards a disaster.  He saw the system as rushing onwards to catastrophe.  To escape the catastrophe, you have to stop the onward rush.  Well, the people in 'Gridlock' didn't manage to pull the cord in time (neither are we managing this, so far) but they did manage to escape the crash.  The next thing for them to do is to break out of their limbo, to break out of the continuum in which they are stuck (to use another of Benjamin's favourite metaphors).  They do this, with a little help from the Doctor.

This is, of course, the Doctor’s journey too. The Doctor is stuck in gridlock, running away from a dead home, running on escape and bliss and forgetfulness, travelling in absurd circles inside a box, always moving but never getting anywhere permanent. Now that Rose has gone he’s reverted back to the lonely man he was when we met him again in ‘Rose’. He doesn’t want to talk to Martha, to tell her the truth, to properly engage with her as a person, to take her on more than one trip, to do anything more than just show off to her. And there’s no wonder he finds New Earth so attractive. It’s a recreation of a destroyed world, recreated by the survivors. He’d like something like that for himself. He’s attracted to the idea of surviving and rebuilding, as anybody from a destroyed home and a dead race would be. It’s very apt that as he rescues the gridlocked people from their absurd and accidental apocalypse, as he makes social life possible for them again, the Face of Boe finally tells him that he is not alone.

After all, isn’t that what ‘Gridlock’ tells all of us? That we are not alone.


  1. This was one of the most enthralling essays on Doctor Who that I've read in a long, long, looong time, and it needs like a thousand comments. I'm going to go back and rewatch Gridlock right now.

  2. I already adored "Gridlock," but you've added considerably to the ways I can look at it, and I love it -- and this essay -- even more now. Thanks!

  3. Great essay ... but the hymn is not "Abide With Me." It's "The Old Rugged Cross".

    1. They sing 'The Old Rugged Cross' half way through. They sing 'Abide with Me' at the end.

  4. You've really added more layers to my future viewings of an episode I already loved. Thanks again Jack.