The plot for this episode was relatively simple. The Doctor takes Martha to see New Earth, much as he has done with Rose before – a fact that Martha picks up on. However it is not the bright sky and open air view that Rose got that Martha gets to see. This time the travellers touch down in the grimy underside of the city. Martha is swiftly kidnapped by two people who need a third person to allow them to use the fast lane on the city motorway, something which seems rather bizarre, until Martha finds out that traffic in the regular lanes is absolutely gridlocked, and has been for years – people are living on the motorway. The couple want to use the fast lane, only open to vehicles with three or more passengers, but it is rarely used – and they quickly find out why. Living in the fast lane, and feeding off the fumes are the Macra.
Meanwhile the Doctor is desperately trying to catch up with his kidnapped companion, but after leaping between cars in the three-dimensional traffic jam, he is kidnapped himself by Novice Hame, sent by the Face of Boe to find the Doctor. The Doctor now discovers the reason for the ongoing traffic jam – the rest of the city, indeed the whole rest of the planet is dead – the Face of Boe and Novice Hame are the only survivors on the surface, and have managed to save the people down below in the motorway system, and keep everything ticking over, but they need the Doctor to release the trapped vehicles and repopulate the city.
That is really it for the plot, the Doctor manages to release the trapped vehicles, and then the Face of Boe dies, and reveals his secret to the Doctor, which is effectively the main point of the episode.
Essentially at it’s heart this is a character episode. The Macra are primarily there for a bit of peril, but the Doctor doesn’t really defeat them so much as take all their potential victims away by releasing the vehicles. Essentially it could have been anything down there really, it’s just that Russell T wanted to bring back a more minor monster, and the Macra first appeared 40 years ago this year.
There are a number of nice elements of community shown, with for example the people trapped in the jam joining together to sing the hymn The Old Rugged Cross which is broadcast regularly to all the vehicles in the jam, and the people in the jam each have their own lives within their vehicles. Considering that Russell T is well known as an atheist, the fact that the episode closes with another hymn, Abide With Me is even more of a surprise. However the whole crux of the story is to build the relationship between the Doctor and Martha and to sow some seeds for the future.
As the episode opens, Martha asks the Doctor about his home, and the Doctor gives a poetic description of Gallifrey. However, rather than telling Martha the truth of what has happened to his home, the Doctor makes an excuse and dodges the question. However, Martha is then confused when the dying Face of Boe reveals his secret – he first empathises with the Doctor being alone, before revealing that the Doctor is not alone. Of course he doesn’t expand further on that – we’ll have to wait and see exactly how the Doctor is not alone, but the Doctor then does have to explain to Martha that he is the last of the Time Lords, and to explain about the Time War, and the defeat of the Time Lords by the Daleks – just in time for her to meet the Daleks next week!
To some extent this was a pretty average episode, but in terms of the ‘big picture’ much more important. Quite entertaining, but perhaps somewhat overshadowed by what comes next week.