About a year ago when the new Doctor Who‘s second season began a frequent chorus was heard in online fandom–“David Tennant is good, but I can’t help but wonder how Christopher Eccleston would have been.” Tennant seemed traditionally Doctorish, while Eccleston’s performance was something else, like a force of nature. Eventually the chorus died down as the scripts began reflecting Tennant’s strengths as an actor and his clear exuberance in the role. For instance, I couldn’t imagine “School Reunion” or “The Girl in the Fireplace” working for any Doctor but Tennant.
And now we have “Gridlock.”
I could talk about the monsters, and I won’t. I could talk about the plot, yet other commentators would be far more capable. What I will talk about is David Tennant’s performance, because here we have another episode which only Tennant could do.
The Doctor in “Gridlock” is very driven. His companion has been kidnapped. He needs to get her back. Okay, it’s “The Runaway Bride,” part deux. Only it’s not.
There’s an undercurrent of guilt and remorse in the Doctor in “Gridlock.” The Doctor went after Donna in “The Runaway Bride” because she’d walked into danger and didn’t realize it. The Doctor went after Martha in “Gridlock” because his own actions had put her into danger. Worse, his own behavior had put her into danger. He had lied to her–admittedly, a lie of omission rather than an overt lie–and that led to the time and place where he brought Martha for her trip into the future. And because that omission put her into danger, he was driven to get her back.
What was that lie? Martha wanted to visit Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet. The Doctor said he didn’t want to go, it was an old hat to him. What the Doctor didn’t say? That Gallifrey burned in the Last Great Time War and no longer existed. So he took her to New Earth instead. And that led to her kidnapping.
Martha comes to realize that she doesn’t know the Doctor at all. Yes, he’s a goofy guy who takes her places and saves the world, but she has no idea who he is. He’s a complete stranger to her. She knows he’s keeping something from her. She knows he has his defences up. The Face of Boe tells her one thing she never knew–that the Doctor is the last of his kind–and that only raises more questions. In the final scene Martha wants to her answers.
Here we come to the scene that I’m certain no one other than Tennant could do.
Eccleston’s Doctor had a scene with Rose at the end of “The End of the World” where he talks about the burning of Gallifrey. What we get here in “Gridlock” is completely different, though. In “The End of the World” the Doctor says, basically, “Gallifrey burned. I was there. I survived,” and he moves on. He doesn’t elaborate. In “Gridlock” I have the sense that this is the first time that the Doctor has ever really talked about Gallifrey and what happened. He pulls up a folding chair, sits down, and looks inside himself in a way that he clearly never had.
Watch the acting in the scene. There is such an sense of raw anguish in Tennant’s quiet dialogue about the Last Great Time War and the wonders of Gallifrey that you can’t help but be moved. The Doctor is opening up, and it’s clear he’s never done this, and certainly not with Rose. For all of Eccleston’s fine talents, I don’t think he could have shown the same hurt that Tennant has on display throughout “Gridlock,” especially the final scenes from the Face of Boe through to the final scene of Martha and the Doctor talking in the alleyway.
As for the rest of the episode, who’d have thought that Ardal O’Hanlon could be so… restrained? If you’ve ever seen him in Father Ted (one of the funniest sitcoms of all time) or My Hero (not as funny, but still pretty good), then you know how completely out there O’Hanlon can be. Here in “Gridlock” he was just a normal guy–a cat guy, but still a guy–stuck in his car.
Oh, and there were some monsters in it, too, but they were so incidental to the story as to not really matter.
And there’s the oddity of “The Old Rugged Cross” being sung five billion years in the future. As someone who likes John Lennon’s “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink,” to hear a Christian hymn as a touchstone of the far distant future’s culture was more than a little disconcerting.
No, the real reason to watch “Gridlock” is for David Tennant’s performance. He plays the raw, hurt, lonely Doctor very well. It is amazing to watch.