Plato's allegory of the cave is as persistent an idea in SF as it is in philosophy. The idea that what we see is merely a shadow of authentic reality has inspired stories successful (The Matrix) and less successful (The Island), generic (Logan's Run) and visionary (the entire oeuvre of Philip K. Dick). "Gridlock," the Doctor Who episode airing this Friday (July 20th) on the Sci Fi Channel, takes a sardonically humorous approach to Plato's unwitting prisoners. On the planet New Earth, much of the populace lives in a decades-old traffic jam. They're attempting to leave the city to reach greener pastures, but no one's getting anywhere—movement of a few feet is cause for celebration, and a trip of a few miles takes years. The drivers live their entire lives inside their cars, trapped in the fume-filled tunnel of the motorway. (The setting is more than a little similar to that of Jonathan Lethem's story "Access Fantasy", but Who's writers focus more on plot—and metaphysics—than does Lethem.)
The Doctor and Martha are pulled into this traffic jam against their will, and soon set their sights to finding a way out, not only for themselves, but for all of the imprisoned passengers. Things become particularly interesting when we see signs of an external force that's attempting to save the populace as well. Sally Calypso, a holographic news reporter whose broadcasts create a semblance of community in the traffic jam, delivers a weather broadcast that sounds like a prophecy of the kingdom of God:
"The sun is blazing high in the sky over the New Atlantic—the perfect setting for the daily contemplation... This is for all of you out there on the roads. We're so sorry. Drive safe."
Following this broadcasts, the motorists join together in a hymn ("The Old Rugged Cross"). The metaphysical structure of the episode—imprisoned masses unaware of their true status; powers from another realm attempting to rescue them—has a distinctly gnostic tone. The news broadcasts are the "call from without" that Hans Jonas describes in The Gnostic Religion, his overview of the various gnostic traditions:
"The transmundane penetrates the enclosure of the world and makes itself heard therein as a call... it is the "call of Life" or "of the great Life," which is equivalent to the breaking of light into the darkness."
Rescue, when it comes, is akin to a mass religious experience, as the cars—like Plato's philosopher—emerge into dazzling sunlight for a new life. The story starts out seeming somewhat trivial, but there's real power in the image of thousands of people achieving spiritual freedom. As futuristic images of salvation go, it's certainly powerful.For more on the allegory of the cave and religious experience in SF, see chapter 7 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction.