A couple straight out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic drives their van, watching a cheery video traffic report about carjackings. Where are they, Detroit? When something claws at their vehicle, Ma yells at Pa; he lied about having three passengers. Pa’s frantic calls to the police only reach a recording; they’re placed on hold. Screaming, sparks, and smoke fill the van. “Missing you already,” the traffic reporter signs off.
Meanwhile, the Doctor muses he’ll stretch his “one trip” promise to Martha. Can they go to his home planet, Martha asks. The Doctor describes Gallifrey, becoming emotionally transported. “Nah,” he says abruptly, shifting the mood, “where’s the fun for me?” in visiting home? Set sail for New New York instead! Uh, is the Doctor so bad at making plans on the fly that he needs to repeat Rose-focused trips?
“He has arrived,” the Face of Boe tells his Cat Nurse solemnly, sending her armed to find the Doctor. In the slums of the Under City, the Doctor reacts enthusiastically, and Martha laughs “you’d enjoy anything.” “That’s me,” he says brightly. Man, Ten is so different from Nine that way. Martha soon realizes he’s brought her to retrace a trip he took with Rose, and shockingly, takes offence! “Ever heard the word rebound?” she snaps.
Stalls open, hawking not food but moods. A woman wants “Forget”: her parents (Mr. and Mrs. American Gothic) are gone. “Everyone goes to the motorway in the end,” everyone agrees. An armed couple grabs Martha, apologizing as they drag her off. The Doctor will kill them for taking her, Martha shouts. But “never mind him, I’m going to kill you myself!” Go Martha! Bah, they stop her struggle by applying a “Sleep” mood. “MARTHA!” the Doctor yells, anguished, and yes, IT WAS IN ALL CAPS!
With a third person now aboard, it’s “access granted” to the fast lane for Martha’s kidnappers! In the slums, Doctor yells he’ll shut the mood-stalls tonight. Martha wakes to Cheen and Milo (who’s like a young, prettier Nine) talking rapturously of the city awaiting them, where there are jobs and blue skies, unlike Pharmacy Town below, or the motorway where all you can see are layers of flying vans and exhaust fumes.
When Martha rips off “Sleep” and aims their gun at them, they swear they’ll let her return to the Doctor when they arrive. Cheen swears they’re telling the truth (“Look, ‘Honesty’ patch!”) Upon hearing Cheen’s pregnant, medical Martha rips off her mood. How long until they arrive? Let’s see, ten miles, so six years, in time for their baby to start school!
The Doctor runs to a platform; the motorway fumes overwhelm him. He’s urged into a van for safety. Brannigan, a Cat Man in aviator gear, introduces his human wife Valerie, and their children, a basket of kittens the Doctor coos over, awwww! (Yay, he got over his cat resentment from “Fear Her”!) They’ve “never known the ground beneath their paws”; “children of the motorway,” Brannigan calls them. Poor puttytats.
In twelve years, Brannigan and Valerie have traveled five miles. It’s six months until the next lay-by (platform), so “you’re a passenger now,” Brannigan tells the Doctor. Shocked, the Doctor phones the police; he’s speedily put on hold. But Brannigan offers the folks on their “friends list” in other vans to help the cause of finding Martha.
Martha hears an ominous sound, which Milo dismisses as the air vents. Cheen tells stories of cars vanishing, something living in the smoke that’s “huge and hungry,” while Milo is like “I CAN’T HEAR YOU, TRALA LA LA LAAAA!” In the other camper, Brannigan phones “the Cassini sisters.” They’re a married couple, one of whom is a “car spotter”; her notes help determine which camper carries Martha.
Valerie and Brannigan reject taking the fast lane to find Martha. They won’t risk the children, but they also refuse to explain the danger. How long will they drive? “Until the journey’s end,” Brannigan says. The Doctor asks the Cassinis if they’ve seen any official vehicle in the twenty-three years they’ve traveled. “What if there’s no one out there?” he asks. What if there’s nothing but the motorway?
The discord the Doctor’s caused with his tough questions is interrupted when Sally Calypso, the traffic reporter, leads the “daily contemplation.” “We’re not abandoned,” Brannigan insists. “Not while we have each other.” He and Valerie hold hands, and begin singing a hymn; a wider shot shows endless lanes and layers of vans, the same song rising from the passengers within each. Even Martha joins in, moved by the devotion of the moment to tears, though the Doctor remains silent.
If they won’t take him, the Doctor will go himself. “What are you doing?” Brannigan asks while the Doctor readies to jump to the van below). “Finding my own way,” he tells them, like usual. Martha must mean a great deal to him, then. “Hardly know her,” he corrects them. “I was too busy showing off. And I lied to her. Couldn’t help it, just lied. Bye then.”
Oh man, I love how this crisis of separation forces him to realize how he’s kept Martha at arm’s length! He’s “clearly insane!” Valerie bursts out, scandalized. “And a bit magnificent,” Brannigan adds, moved by the Doctor’s devil-may-care heroism.
There’s an absolutely fantastic old-school sci-fi bit in which the Doctor jumps vans in quick succession. As he moves we glimpse the intensely encapsulated worlds of single or paired passengers. One man and his entire camper is all in white; another, all in red. “Enjoying the motorway?” the Doctor calls out to one, pretending he’s taking a survey. “Not very much,” says the driver, though soon the Doctor’s jumped to the next vehicle, and then the next, passing funkified Asian women, nudists, hippies, and so on.
At the turnoff for Brooklyn, Milo finds the exits blocked. The terrible sound is heard; Milo nervously dismisses it as “hydraulics.” Another car calls them, urgently. It’s a black Cat Woman who’s obviously a kickass dominatrix with two scared blond girls sharing the passenger seat. She yells at Milo to “go back up,” for the exit is “always closed.” Milo won’t believe her, but “They’ve got us!” she calls in terror as her vehicle rocks back and forth. “Just drive, you idiots! Get out of here!”
The Doctor drops into a vehicle driven by an etiquette-conscious man wearing a pinstripe suit and bowler hat. Motorway Foot Patrol, the Doctor claims to represent, then, “Whatever,” as he’s weary of making up excuses. He demands the driver take him to the last layer of vans. Pinstripe refuses, as they can’t cheat the automated system.
The Doctor hears growling, and tries to see out into the depths below. Crap, there are GINORMOUS snapping claws down there! “Macra,” the Doctor pronounces grimly. THEY’RE LIKE MECHA KILLER CRABS!
“Turn everything off!” Martha orders, so whatever’s heard them will think they’re gone. Man, she’s seriously good at quick deductions — the power goes off, and the attack stops. “I saw it on a film,” Martha confesses, about submarines. Hee, I do love Martha’s generic knowledge playbook! But eek, they’ve got eight minutes of oxygen left.
The Macra, the Doctor explains to Pinstripe, used to be empire builders who kept human slaves and fed off gas. They’ve devolved now, “just beasts.” The Cat Nurse, who’s been trailing the Doctor, jumps in. “Nurse Hame!” he exclaims (recognizing her from “New Earth”). He hugs her but then pushes her away, remembering her part in a terrible conspiracy that victimized human clones. But she’s “sought forgiveness, under his guidance!” “Don’t you dare!” he shouts as she orders, “Transport!” and zips them out.
In the High Above City of New New York, the Doctor demands a word with the Senate about the millions trapped on the motorway below. Uh, they’re in the Senate: skeletons of departed legislators sit where they died. “The city died,” Hame says in anguish, twenty-four years ago. The “Bliss” mood started an airborne virus. “Everything perished, even the virus,” though it killed the world in seven minutes.
They had only enough time to seal off the Under City to stop the spread of disease, though they couldn’t muster resources to rescue them. It was the Face of Boe, who the Doctor recognizes with sadness, who plugged himself into the mainframe, giving his life force to keep the population until the hundred years of automatic quarantine ended.
Martha and her crew have two minutes left, with no hope in sight. “There’s always the Doctor,” Martha suggests. “Are you and him?” Cheen asks gently. Gah, it really drives home how aside from a few solo drivers, EVERYONE is in pairs in these vehicles. The Doctor and Martha, by contrast, are so alone. Sometimes she thinks he likes her. But “sometimes I think he just needs someone with him.” Poor Martha. She’s not wrong.
Martha starts to realize the extreme choice she made following the Doctor. She doesn’t really know who he is, because there’s so much he won’t say. Their only hope is a complete stranger? Trust me, Martha urges. They have their faith, their hymns; she has the Doctor. It’s wild, because Martha’s really creating her own emotional support, not from the Doctor, who can’t give that kind of sustainment, but from her own belief in the Doctor. She’s taking some big leaps of faith (as opposed to the Doctor’s literal ones).
The Doctor finds proof that Martha’s vehicle still survives. “Every switch on that bank up to maximum,” he instructs Hame. While he can’t power the city, all the city needs is people to recover. Eeek, Martha’s van gets Macra-Clawed! “Doctor,” the Face of Boe calls, but “Not now,” the Doctor says, intent on saving everyone. “Don’t you go dying on me, you big old face. You’ve got to see this. The open road!”
The metal casings sealing off the Under City begin to clack apart as the Doctor redirects the power. “By all the cats in the kingdom!” Brannigan exclaims: it’s the sun. The travelers the Doctor met in passing react joyfully, laughing at the rays of light spilling over their vehicles. Suddenly the Doctor appears on their screens, in place of Sally Calypso. “Everyone drive up!” he urges them joyfully, so they can clear the fast lane.
The Doctor sets a flight path for Martha’s van, but as she’s traveling to him, the Face of Boe’s glass cracks. When she arrives, fearfully thinking a skeleton is the Doctor, he calls her to meet the Face of Boe, who (as Hame says tearfully) “gave his life to save the city.” The Doctor tells Boe he’s got, “plenty of life yet,” and “you’re not about to give up now!”
Hame mentions the legend saying the Face of Boe will speak his last secret to a traveler. “Don’t. There’s no need for that,” the Doctor says, in part warding off the moment of death, but also wanting more than anything to stave off losing someone who is the last of his kind, just as the Doctor is. “That’s why we have to survive,” he urges. “Both of us. Don’t go.” “I must,” Boe says. “But know this, Doctor. You are not alone.”
The Doctor and Martha return to Pharmacy City, where all the stalls are closed. Nurse Hame will help everyone reestablish the city, the Doctor says: “Just what every city needs. Cats in charge.” Skeins of yarn all around! Did the Face of Boe mean the Doctor’s no longer alone “because you’ve got me?” Martha asks hopefully. “I don’t think so. Sorry,” the Doctor answers right back, and man, man. It’s a stark contrast to the comfort he took (as Nine, as Ten) in Rose always reminding him he had her.
What did it mean, then? “Doesn’t matter,” the Doctor says, brushing off Martha, saying, “Off we go.” She sits in a chair, stubbornly refusing to move until he tells her more. Sound floats down from the High Above: all the passengers are singing a hymn. Finally the Doctor confesses he lied to her, because he liked to pretend the others were still alive. But he’s the last of the Time Lords, and no matter what the Face of Boe said, he’s all alone. He mentions the last Time War, the Daleks, the family and friends he lost.
While above them singing continues, the Doctor remembers his planet’s landscape: “When the autumn came, the breeze would blow through the branches like a song.” Ah, it’s fantastic, not just in developing Martha and the Doctor’s relationship, but also in beginning to unfold how much the Doctor suffers. The poignant descriptions of Gallifrey, how lovely the Doctor remembers it to be, drives home all that he’s lost, all he can never return to, even as New Earth begins a new age with their own joyful songs.
Wow, excellent episode, so emotional! The hints of back story are fabulous! *rolls around in them* I appreciated the Doctor admitting he lied, realizing he’s playing with Martha, even if it’s because of the pain he carries as the last of his kind. It’s a terrific development, and I’m so relieved to see it, really. Though I quite liked Ten last season, I didn’t feel like he really got a character arc showing substantial change (unlike Nine, who changed amazingly in one series, boy howdy). But now we’re really seeing the Doctor’s flaws, his faults, and the ache inside him that he brings to every relationship with a companion, and that he brings to every planet he tries to save.
Awhoo aheee woohooo awhoo! Join me Sunday when I recap our all-new Doctor Who episode! And then next week, I’ll continue our past-series recaps. From now on I’ll only recap two past-series DW eps so I can keep up with Series 7. Join me for all of it, won’t you?