THIS RECAP CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING IN THE EPISODE, SO PLEASE BE AWARE AND READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. AND HOPEFULLY ENJOY!
This is rather a long recap (a review is hopefully shorter) but it shows that this time there’s actually more to look at and appreciate!
New Who’s third series has already been more consistently rewarding than the previous two, and the scripts are finally standing up to a little scrutiny, rather than falling apart like a soggy fruit cake. This third adventure makes it three for three, with the Doctor taking Martha back to New Earth, just as he took Rose there in the first episode of the second series. Martha finds out this reptition and justifiably mutters about the Doctor being on the rebound. Remember, she CANNOT REPLACE ROSE, but she is proving to be a fairly different person.
The Doctor has also taken her to the slums, rather than the dodgy CGI cliffside of last time. The slums are a single grubby street where vendors are selling plastic tabs of different moods. On the streets of New Earth it’s possible to buy Happy, Forget, Anger, Honesty…and Martha astutely points out that these are exactly the same as drugs. The difference being that you can show them at 7pm on a Saturday evening on BBC1.
While shocked by the drugs available, Martha and the Doctor meet a woman whose parents have gone ‘on the motorway’ and are unlikely to return. This seems highly probable, as before the title sequence we saw an elderly couple, dressed like the American Gothic painting, riding in a floating car which was then attacked and apparently destroyed by an unknown beastie. This girl appears to be their daughter, dressed from head to foot in a hooded black shawl. She buys some Forget and uses it before the Doc can ask her more about the motorway.
This is okay, though, because then Martha is attacked by a young man and woman and dragged away before the Doctor can do more than scream at them to let her go. They vanish behind a door and use Sleep on Martha before shoving her into another of the flying box-cars and scooting away. These cars look like the natural evolution of the Fiat Panda, only with slightly more design flair.
The Doctor threatens the Mood Vendors with – well – something if they are not gone by the time he gets back. Then he runs off to find the motorway. He goes through a door and out onto a balcony not dissimilar to the one Deckard stands on in that great scene in Blade Runner, with flying cars going past him. This part of the city is even smoggier than LA in 2025, and the Doc is soon coughing and choking as he tries to spot Martha’s kidnappers. Before he keels over, the car in front opens its door, and a masked figure with the voice of Father Dougal urges the Doc to get aboard.
The Doc complies, and hops in. Safely inside the car, Father-Dougal-voice removes his scarf, revealing the lovely cat makeup from New Earth. He’s a friendly Oirish cat-man, played to cuddly effect by Ardhal O’Hanlon. He has a lovely human wife and some truly adorable fluffy baby kittens. Apparently they say Mama, although I didn’t hear it. The Doc quickly asks what the heck is going on, and then we’re back with Martha.
Martha comes round in a similar Panda-car-from-Hell. This one is kitted out with practical things – medical supplies and containers – and the gun they used to kidnap her. She points it at her kidnappers, but they persuade her that the gun isn’t real, and that they wouldn’t know how to fire it anyway. Martha tries to find out what’s going on. It turns out that the motorway has a car-sharing policy for the Fast Lane, and they needed an extra person so they could get onto it. They promise to drop her off once they arrive at their destination, which they should reach very quickly – in about 12 years from now.
No one ever seems to leave the motorway, although everyone’s quite positive and resigned to the endless delay. It’s a great mirror to hold up to British attitudes to queing – even if they are supposedly in New New York where absolutely no one appears to have an American accent! This M25-in-hell situation means that neither Martha nor the Doctor will be able to escape their situation for a while. As they both contemplate their terrible fate, in a room somewhere else, the cat-nurse from the New Earth episode hefts a gun and talks to the Face of Boe (The End of the World, New Earth). She says that she’ll go after the Doctor, whatever it takes. This doesn’t sound good for our favourite time-traveller (the close second favourite being Marty Macfly and Doc Emmett brown, of course)!
There’s a lovely moment where the TV plays a hymn for all the travellers in a sort-of daily pep-talk. While everyone else sings along in solidarity, Martha despairs, but there’s worse to come. As she and her kidnappers descend to the fast lane, there are very weird noises that could well be air vents, or they could be the mysterious force living in the smog that’s led to many cars disappearing forever. What are the chances it’s the last option? They find out pretty soon as something repeatedly wracks the flying-car, and they begin to panic.
The Doctor, fearing for Martha’s life and highly suspicious of the cheesy TV messages, and the lack of Police presence or rescue craft, finally decides to take charge. With the help of an elderly lesbian couple, he discovers which car Martha is stuck inside. Expressing how responsible he feels for getting Martha into this mess, he figures out that he can open the small hatch in the bottom of the cat-family’s car and drop through to the roof of the car below. He means to continue like this all the way down to the Fast Lane, and them to somehow get Martha out again.
The cat-man calls this plan ‘insane, and a little magnificent’ and he’s right! It’s great to watch the Doctor falling from one car to the next like a lanky SuperMario. The effect isn’t all that bad, either. Only one transfer looks a little ropey, but no worse than Legolas on the back of the Cave Troll. I like the little microcosms of the people inside each car. It’s like living in your bedroom. The car owners range from nudists, to a literal red dwarf, a pair of Harojuko Japanese teenage girls, and finally a Monty Python-style English businessman, complete with bowler hat and snotty attitude. With his help, the Doctor looks down to the smoggy floor below, and spots the nightmarish occupants – giant Space Crabs!!!
I’ll say it again – Giant Space Crabs!
They’re preying off anyone who flies down low enough – and this includes Martha! The crew of her car are soon desperately dodging the giant claws. The male driver does seem pretty good at dodging them whilst holding a tense conversation with Martha and his wife, and they’re very lucky that their square car apparently handles like the Millenium Falcon. Martha has the bright idea of switching off all the engines and keeping very quiet, apparently from seeing it in a film. Maybe she watched all those Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea repeats in the early 1990s too? Her suggestion appears to work – and can I just add that this is what Doctor Who is meant to be about. The Doctor’s assistant should always be caught in a struggle against the monsters or the evil system, or circumstances beyond their control. Then the Doctor can get on with rescuing them, and sorting out the situation whilst the companion(s) keep the guest stars alive. This has been commented on on other sites, and holds especially true for this episode.
So, in trying to rescue Martha, the Doctor has made it all the way to the bottom and is trying to figure out where to go next, when the cat nurse (Sister Haim) transports onto the roof and catches up with him. She insists that he comes with her, and before he can stop her, she’s zapped them both out of the businessman’s car and into a darkened room.
The Doctor realises that he’s now in the higher section of the city, way up in the clouds. The Doctor is furious and demands that she takes him to the Senate so that they can warn people about the Crabs, until she points out that the Senate are all around them, and very very dead. I may have watched Fellowship of the Ring too much, but the musty hall full of rotted skeletons totally resembles the dwarf (Dwarve?) hall in Moria just before the Balrog. Not bad, either.
Sister Haim explains that everyone died from a virus that mutated from a mood drug called Bliss. It took 8 minutes, and there was just time to seal the lower levels (yes, the slums) and warn other planets to keep the hell away until the hundred year quarantine is over. Haim was looking after the Face of Boe, and his mist somehow protected her from the virus, leaving them the last creatures alive. His power kept the systems running, and the motorway is not a trap, it’s a way to keep them all alive.
It turns out that there’s also a legitimate reason why they needed the Doctor, and only the Doctor, to help them. It’s never quite clear how they know that he Doctor will conveniently show up, and I’m still not sure if 100 years have actually passed. These curiosities aside, they basically require the Doctor to use his technical genius to sort out the planet’s power problems and rescue everyone below. He takes to this task with admirable enthusiasm! If he can help everyone escape the motorway, he can save Martha too!
Martha’s decided to try and fly off in the car again. They don’t have much choice, as the air supply is reliant on the smoky engines (isn’t there an electric car system 5 million years in the future)? So, off they go, Falconing it out of the grasp of the claws. It’s a mystery why they don’t just go UP, apart from a brief line from the driver, who mutters something about being unable to spot the cars directly above them. Sounds like BS. Anyway, they keep dodging, and up above them the Doctor is frantically rewiring things. Luckily all the power supply technology appears to be in the Senate building.
The Face of Boe gives him a hand with last bit of power needed to boost the city, and the doors all fly open above the motorway and the under-city. Success! A jubliant Doctor instructs everyone to fly up-up-up, as the smog clears and the cars burst into beautiful sunlight. Although you can see the joins, the effect of the cars amid sunlit spires is a very beautiful one. Happily, the Doctor calls Martha and directs her to the building.
The Doctor’s joy is shortlived as Nurse Haim cries out that the Face of Boe is dying. When Martha arrives, she’s scared by the skeleton, and even more by the Face of Boe itself. The Doctor sweetly reassures her about Boe and ‘the cat, don’t worry’ and Boe tells the Doctor he has a message for him. As prophesised, the Face of Boe has a last message for ‘the Time Traveller’. He tells the Doctor something that most fans have long-suspected. He is not the only Time Lord left in the Universe.
The next scene is Martha and the Doc back in the alley where they arrived. Here is where Martha shows more mettle – pulling up a cheap white chair in the alley and demanding that the Doctor tell her the truth about him and his people. He began the episode by telling her about the beauty of his home planet, and confesses to her now that it no longer exists, that it was destroyed in the Time War. Pulling up another chair beside her, he says he is sure that he is the only one of his people left.
This final scene works well as the Doctor waxes lyrical about his lost home. It suggests a more grownup bond between this Doctor and his new companion. It’s good that she’s making him look inward, and to release some of the pain honestly.
A solid piece of what I’d have to call ‘retro-Who’, in that it behaves and feels more Whoish than a lot of the previous episodes. The Third series has been a lot better than the last one, and I like the low-budget effectiveness of this one. It still feels like a cheap show, but finally it’s an effectively produced one.
The final scenes were especially good, and this is what Doctor Who does well – letting the Doctor save the day whilst his companions socialise with people on the strange new worlds and times they find themselves. I was interested throughout and I’m really looking forward to the next episode for the first time in ages! Given that I totally forgot when the first episode of series 3 was on, this is a huge improvement!
Next week: Daleks in Manhattan!