What exactly does Gridlock have to say about faith? A quick Google search will show that this is an episode claimed by different commentators as being pro-religion or anti-religion. All this from an episode which centres around a big traffic jam. What’s going on?
Let’s start here: movieguide.org is “the family guide to movies and entertainment”. It awards the annual Epiphany Prizes which “endeavour to encourage the production of feature films and television programs which are wholesome, uplifting, and inspirational and which result in a great increase in either man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God.” Gridlock was reportedly nominated for the 2008 awards but it didn’t win (The Valley of Light, a romantic drama, did).
So there’s definitely something about Gridlock which speaks to (at least some) Christians. I couldn’t find any details about how the episode earned its nomination (indeed, it’s not even listed among that year’s nominees). But I can make a stab at it. The New New York of Gridlock is a place where the population is trapped in a purgatorial existence, midway between a hot, dank hell filled with beasts and a glorious heavenly city. To help them cope, the drivers and passengers trapped on the highway periodically join in chorus to sing hymns. The Doctor commits the sin of lying (so what’s new?) and spends the rest of the episode seeking redemption. In the end, a mysterious being gives his life so that others may live.
The apparent paradox is that writer and showrunner Russell T Davies is an atheist. He’s not a writer who’s going to put pro-religious messages in his scripts. Quite the opposite. And yet he wrongfoots his audience by regularly using imagery which references the Bible. Such references pop up regularly in his Doctor Who work. Voyage of the Damned features angles which help the Doctor float to a higher floor, a la the Ascension. The Last of the Time Lords features a whole world united in prayer for the Doctor. Gridlock, features not one, but two hymns.
But Davies, doesn’t see this referencing as evidence of a religious subtext. In DWM481, when discussing Voyage of the Damned he said: “I just think all that iconography is up for grabs. As an atheist, I don’t accord it any special power. So using an angel is no different to using The Robots of Death or The Poseidon Adventure or Annie Get Your Gun.”
So for RTD, the Bible is as a text like any other, to reference as and when he wants. Davies, I imagine, would reject the idea that Gridlock is pro-religion. And there is certainly evidence within the episode of it being anti-religion, most prominently that the faith of the highway dwellers has dulled them into an intellectual stupor, so they are no longer willing to ask the hard questions none of them want to face: where are the police? Why do they hear nothing substantial from the surface? What if they’ve been abandoned? (It’s reminiscent of its crabby forebear The Macra Terror in this respect. It also featured a populace too fixated to ask basic questions about the world around them.) Not to mention that it’s hard to imagine a story promoting traditional Christian views including two married lesbians and a dominatrix cat.
But the point in the episode where the highway folk’s faith is most keenly demonstrated – and criticised – is the singing of the hymn The Old Wooden Cross. Catkind driver Brannigan (Ardal O’Hanlon) rebukes the Doctor for stirring up trouble by asking. “You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.” And all the car dwellers we meet join in the song; there are no abstainers. Companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) is moved to tears by the profoundness of it and joins in. The Doctor (David Tennant) does not. He can see that faith is what’s holding this society back.
But even here we’re getting mixed messages. The Doctor’s reaction could be seen as a severe critique of religion, but the production acts against that conclusion. The power of that song, the reactions of the actors, the direction, the music… Everything points to that hymn being a strength of these people not a weakness. You can see how the confusion about where this story stands on religion emerges. The script indicates one thing, but an extra layer of meaning emerges through the production.
But it’s not just the gap between concept and realisation. It’s also that RTD regularly uses the accouterments of Christianity in his writing. As he said in DWM, he sees these as powerful images which he uses in a secular way, but this is clearly not how movieguide.org views them. Gridlock is after all, a story that ends with the world singing Abide With Me, and not in an ironic way, but in a genuinely reverent way. You can see how a pro-religion reading is possible, and as valid as an anti-religion reading.
Read Gridlock anyway you like, and people inevitably will. But it’s interesting that this episode has become the focus of Doctor Who‘s relationship with religion. Particularly as Davies points out in The Writer’s Tale “I didn’t write Gridlock thinking this is my take on religion. My foremost thought, and my principal job, was to write an entertaining drama about cats and humans stuck on a motorway.”
But if the author is truly dead, as the old post modernist credo goes, then Davies’ intentions are irrelevant. And thus his atheism is irrelevant. And whether he thinks using biblical imagery is as innocuous as using secular imagery is also irrelevant. It’s the reader that constructs meaning.
Personally, I think it’s great if a story like Gridlock can generate multiple and seemingly contradictory readings. How much better is that than something simple and didactic? It means that people will be debating this episode for years to come. That’s brilliant and exciting.
Now if you can all turn to page 181 in your hymn books, and join in…
LINK to The Idiot’s Lantern. Both have links to the Troughton era. Gridlock via giant crabs, and The Idiot’s Lantern through the casting of Margaret John who was in Fury From the Deep.
NEXT TIME… A dislike of the unlike. We’re heading all the way back to meet The Daleks.