Beyond the realm of believability

Traffic is still a problem in the future.

Traffic is still a problem in the future.

I’ve mentioned a few times recently that one of the things I really like about the Doctor Who audios is that they have this surreal quality to them that doesn’t seem to exist in the new show. The problem is, if you don’t listen to the audios, it’s very difficult to explain what I mean. Well, I found that I was wrong, that this quality does exist very rarely in the modern show. The episode I’m thinking about is “Gridlock,” the second episode of Series 3. This is the one where the Doctor takes Martha to visit New Earth, where she’s kidnapped by a couple so that they qualify to drive in the fast lane on the motorway beneath New New York.

When I was new to Doctor Who and watching this episode for the first time, it baffled me. It seemed completely unrealistic that there could be a motorway so vast and so clogged that people would drive for years on it. Then, I found out that the motorway is completely enclosed and that the people on it never realize that they’re stuck there forever, and that compounded the disbelief. Add to that the weird people in the cars and the hymn they all sing together, and it added up to an episode that really rubbed me the wrong way.

When I rewatched it, I liked it a lot better, but I’ve found that is true for every Doctor Who episode I’ve rewached (which includes all of them except “Love and Monsters”, “Rings of Akhaten”, and all but two of the current season). Knowing what was actually causing the problem made it a lot easier to believe in the first place and I was able to pay a lot more attention to the story without the distraction of disbelief. This was the same problem I had with “Blink” the first time I watched it: the Weeping Angels that got frozen when anyone looked at them were so unbelievable to me that I couldn’t concentrate on the story; the episode was far better the second time I watched it and could ignore the implausibility. (Sadly, I’ve never been able to suspend my disbelief for any of the later Angel episodes.)

I haven’t seen “Gridlock” for a long time, and since then, I’ve listened to a number of audios and come to appreciate their feel. Then I watched “Gridlock” this weekend, and I found that it has that same surreal feel that I love so much, and, in fact, so did the previous episode set on New Earth (named “New Earth” of course), though “Gridlock” let you see New Earth a lot better. It has this undercity (which reminded me a lot of Final Fantasy VII) with street vendors calling out moods to sell, and this huge motorway full of horrible fumes and bumper-to-bumper traffic. The inhabitants of the cars are normal, perhaps a bit too over-the-top normal, even though this is set far, far in the future. There’s a cat married to a human, and they’ve had kittens, and this is perfectly fine.  The whole city is normal when it really shouldn’t be, and yet it’s not. And it’s all portrayed with overly-bright colors. It’s surreal.

That’s the quality that I love. The world could have been filled with futuristic science-fiction people like you find in any other imagined future society, but instead, they chose to make them too normal in a too-strange world, and it fits very well: with the exaggerated normality of the world, the exaggerated traffic jam becomes plausible. Probably the most obvious example of this in the classic series is “The Happiness Patrol”, with its legions of happiness officers arresting anyone who wasn’t happy, and its candy monster that executes prisoners by drowning them in syrup, but I’d also include “Logopolis” and its planet of mathematicians sitting in tiny huts, creating the universe in this category. I wouldn’t be surprised if the classic show opted for surrealism more often simply because they decided that since the viewers could tell that sets were flimsy, they might as well emphasize the unbelievableness of the settings.

This is something that Doctor Who has definitely moved away from. The only recent episode that wasn’t in a traditional sci-fi or historical setting was “The Wedding of River Song”, and it was surreal because the plot required it to be – time was imploding on itself. “Voyage of the Damned” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” provided great opportunities for surrealism, with their Earth vessels traveling through space, but they both opted to duplicate the historical contexts, rather than emphasize the anachronisms.

The surrealism was something that set Doctor Who apart from other science fictions shows, with their plausible settings and aliens. I’m definitely looking forward to more gems along those lines from the audio plays and the classic episodes I haven’t seen (which are a lot), but I’m always keeping up hope that we’ll get a good, nicely strange new world or society now and again in the future.

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