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Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars

Of all the people to survive, he’s not the one you would have chosen, is it? But if you could choose, Doctor, if you could decide who lives and who dies… that would make you a monster.

– Mr. Cooper, Voyage of the Damned

The Waters of Mars is a lot more intense than I was expecting. It started out as a standard base under seige story with more than an echo of the era of the fourth Doctor about it, but then something happened. The Doctor made the decision that he’s made before – and which he explicitly compares in the episode to the decision to watch Pompeii burn in The Fires of Pompeii – the decision to walk away. And then the episode kicks it up a notch and becomes a fantastically appropriate penultimate story for this incarnation of The Doctor.

waters

A Mars attack...

Note: There are naturally spoilers for the episode under discussion below. If you want a recommendation, then here it is: this is the best episode of the new series since Midnight over a year ago. It has some pacing issues and a very standard opening half. But the finalé is a perfect dovetail of the core themes of Davies’ run on the show.

Mars is a fixed point in time and space. Everyone must die there. And, unlike the abstract thousands of inhabitants of the doomed city who we never meet or identify with, both he and the audience must watch as they die. One by one – people we’ve come to identify with, people who we’ve gotten to know for a few minutes. And The Doctor walks away. Because there’s nothing he can do. Those are the rules. Them’s the breaks, kids. Then he remembers that there’s no one to enforce the rules. No one to keep him in check. No one to tell him not to interfere. No one to stop him. He decides that there is nothing to stop him choosing who lives and who dies. Being the last of the Time Lords is no longer a burden of responsibility, but an absolute freedom.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The episode opens as a fairly standard “there’s something on the base” style storyline, with the terraforming of Mars interrupted by something which has been hibernating for quite some time. The Doctor arrives at the wrong moment (or the perfect moment) and is obviously suspected for a few scenes before he gets caught up in the running (lots of running – maybe he should pack a bike of his own in future). The show is a fairly standard Doctor Who adventure, almost a vintage one.

The alien creatures manage to skirt the line between ridiculous and freaky in the way that true Who monsters generally do. They look ridiculous when they run, but when they stand there with their cracked faces the seem oddly menacing. Part of me thinks the creatures would have been so much more effective had the original designs (outlined in the companion Confidential) been used – shaving their heads – but then I remind myself that this is a family show as much as it is a show for the sci-fi audience like me. And I wouldn’t change that. Still, the creatures are perhaps too well lit for their own good (no matter how good the design or make-up, too much light can kill any scary creature).

The first half involves perhaps a bit too much of the goofy humour that Davies is fond of injecting into his scripts. A goofy robot who Ten gives turbo boosts (which leave fire trails like in Back to the Future), for example – but for the most part Davies gives us a delightful cast of expendible crew members. Throughout his run, Davies has always been able to write a decent group dynamic and make us care for or identify with the humans unfortunate to get caught up in The Doctor’s net. We also get some nice individual touches (Bowie Base One, for example, or The Doctor’s response when asked for name, rank and purpose – “The Doctor, Doctor, fun”).

Perhaps more than either of the specials before it (and harking back to the only solo adventure of the original show The Deadly Assassin), the episode demonstrates the narrative purpose of a companion. Someone to whom The Doctor can offload handy exposition. Someone who he could confess the doomed nature of the mission to. Instead we are treated to shots of a computer screen with headlines, making it look like Ten gets his history facts from browsing the world wide web. It works, but it feels a little clumsy. Perhaps it might have been better to hold off on the revelation that everyone on the station was doomed until later in the episode. This would certainly have helped with the huge mood dissonance between “Ten knows everyone is going to die” and “Ten likes to ride turbo-boosted robots”.

It’s light and fun – if nothing novel – until around the half-hour mark. And then it becomes an all together different creature.

godawful

Not quite a godawful small affair...

The scene where The Doctor makes the decision to abandon the astronauts to their fate is amazingly powerful. I know we had images of random people (and the family who survived) during the volcano erruption last year, but nothing with so strong a human face on it. He literally listens to them die. And then Russell T. Davies actually follows through on a topic he’s broached throughout his run: if The Doctor is the sole remaining Time Lord, with all that it implies, why does he have to obey the rules? Surely he can bend time to his whim?

The reason he shouldn’t, we’re told, is because some deaths have meaning. Sometimes dying can be as important – if not moreso, than living. When the Dalek spared Adelaide, it was not allowing her to live – it was allowing her to die. On Mars. When Adelaide activates the nuclear device to kill everything on Mars, it’s more than like that Ten saw himself a few years back. Killing his friends and colleagues in order to prevent a deally enemy from reaching the cosmos. When The Doctor destroyed Gallifrey (in what has been described as fire), he carried out his own Action Five. By saving her, he was saving himself. Of course, he can’t save himself.

It’s worth remarking that – following the events of this episode – if the deaths on Mars can be undone, than so can the destruction of Gallifrey. I imagine (moreso since I’ve seen the clips at the end of this episode) that Davies may explore just this question in the final episodes of Tennant’s run.

Why do we have rules and laws? Are they to preserve society, to allow it to function. Are they that pragmatic? If our own society collapses, would the survivors be free of those rules or laws? Or do these rules of existence and nature serve a deeper, moral purpose. Are they our moral core? Do they help and guide us rather than constrain us? I am proud that the script – and Adelaide – called The Doctor on his actions. Davies has called him “a lonely god” throughout the reimagined series, but he’s never really explored the implications of that sort of power. Sure, he’s arbitrarily called The Doctor on some of his actions and had him face consequences from time to time (The Parting of the Ways comes to mind), but he’s never explored if the character can hold too much power. What does being the last of the Time Lords entail?

But you’re changing history. Not just Earth, the entire universe.

I’m a Time Lord. I have that right.

– The Doctor and The Master, The Last of the Time Lords

It’s interesting. Without discussing any rumours or even the trailer for the final run of Tennant’s time in the lead role, it seems that The Doctor is gaining an understanding of The Master. The Master has always been The Doctor just that little bit more self-righteous. That little bit more selfish or self-important. The guy who believes that because of his birthright he deserves the authority to rewrite the entire history of the universe and kill countless millions to recreate the universe how it should be. The Master and The Doctor may differ in their own end goals (in how they perceive that the universe should work), but their viewpoints are becoming more and more aligned.

I’m proud that Davies didn’t pull his punch at the episode’s finale. Even Ten realises how far out of line he has stepped and how close his impending death must be – and maybe, just maybe, it’s for the best. The Time Lord Victorious. Tennant really has to sell that moment, and he does. He convinces the audience that he is the same character we’ve known for five years now, but that he’s finally snapped. And we’re not seeing something new. This is the same arrogance that has always been part of his character, but this time it is unchecked.

These last few episodes are going to be very interesting indeed.

The technical production values are fantastic. From the little robot sidekick to the exterior shots of Mars, the episode is hard to fault technically. Murray Gold’s score did get just a little bit out of control at various points during the episode, which is the first time I’ve really noticed it happening.

After watching this, I’m beginning to understand Planet of the Dead a bit better. I was as surprised as most that it was a throw-away stand alone episode that was full of wonder and standard lines and a ridiculously happy ending. Ten deserved another almost-“everybody lives” episode before he goes, and it turns out that The Waters of Mars was certainly not that. Giving him such a light episode before the grand finale seems like a great idea in hindsight, even if it seemed like a waste of one of the crucial final five episodes at the time.

All in all, a fascinating piece of television and a good omen of things to come.

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