SATIRE SATIRE SATIRE
There’s a point at which satire becomes so broad that any attempt to make it appear realistic is doomed to failure. I suspect that this episode may be a case in point. I actually really like the high concept premise of a futuristic motorway (an, ahem, “Road to Hell”, if you will) in which everyone is perpetually stuck in a traffic jam, always travelling and never arriving. It’s not just high concept satire it’s also, like, totally a metaphor for life. The problem is that the episode has to perform so many gymnastics to make this high concept premise exist in a real place and time that by the end of it it seems like one contortion too many, even to the likes of me who are fairly forgiving of lapses in plotting. In some ways this episode is so arch that it would sit comfortably alongside lambasted Sylvester McCoy fare such as ‘Paradise Towers’.
Within this highly artificial world-building bubble sits a story that checks most of the boxes you’d want from an episode of New Who. The Doctor gets to build his relationship with Martha: at first flip, then gradually moving to a more genuine emotional connection. There’s a tale of humanity suffering great adversity, cowed down by fate, clinging desperately to hope even as it awaits a saviour – and then emerging, triumphant. There are moments of almost surreal beauty, moments of adventure, and a stock monster from Classic Who (which may as well not be an obscure Patrick Troughton enemy for all the difference it makes). The supporting characters are likeable, and we even get a return from one of the new series’s most effective creations, the Face of Boe.
I’m hard pressed to say why I feel so underwhelmed by it, therefore. My wife preferred it to last week’s Shakespeare-oriented instalment, and I can understand why, but something about this week’s episode just didn’t grab me where it counts.
I do quite like the idea of the eternal motorway, and in particular the sequence in which the Doctor travels down through the traffic jam. The hymn that brings the travellers together is well-realised and the Doctor and Martha’s different reactions to it are nicely judged, as are the (anachronistic) vignettes of little Englanders carrying on under intolerable circumstances with cheerful indefatigability.
I also continue to like the Face of Boe who is both a very convincing physical creation and an intriguing character. His revelation to the Doctor is also very promising (no spoilers please as at least some people in this household are not yet spoiled!) This element of the story works well.
Martha remains just a little bit too willing to scream when in peril, but is also able to come up with sensible ideas under pressure which just about lets her off the hook. I enjoyed all of her scenes with the Doctor, particularly the early scene in which he blithely conceals Gallifrey’s destruction, and their final moments together in which he comes clean. While David Tennant still can’t sell the Time War like Christopher Eccleston, his wistful longing works better for this current incarnation than Eccleston’s full-on grief and guilt.
The more I think about the episode the more I find there’s a lot to enjoy. Ultimately it’s the sheer accumulation of contrivance piled on contrivance that makes it feel overly cartoonish and stops it from gelling into a satisfying piece of television. If it were a little bit less broadly written on all fronts, and a little bit more believable in its world-building, I’d have enjoyed it a lot more. As it stands, it’s only quite good.