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Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Waters of Mars originally aired in 2009.

Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people, but never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good.

Little people? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they’re so unimportant? You?

For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious.

– the Doctor does a pretty poor job of comforting Adelaide

The Waters of Mars is the strongest of the specials that ran from the end of the fourth season of Doctor Who through to David Tennant’s regeneration into Matt Smith on New Year’s Day 2010. Despite teasing the issue in The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, The Waters of Mars is the first time that the show really engages with the mortality of the Tenth Doctor – exploring the idea that it might be time for the Tenth Doctor to leave. As much as the Tenth Doctor might be reluctant to leave, The Waters of Mars suggests that the character’s flaws are gaining critical mass and that his ego runs the risk of collapsing in on itself.

It’s a very bold and daring piece of Doctor Who, which is quite striking given the audience-pleasing “comfort food” nature of the other specials. Reinforcing ideas that Davies has been hinting at since the very start of the relaunch, The Waters of Mars is about how the Doctor can sometimes be absolutely terrifying.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

There’s a very clear conflict at the heart of Davies’ Doctor Who about the show’s central character. On one hand, the character is a heroic figure who serves as a fantasy figure. He whisks people out of their lives and makes them better. He helps Rose and Martha and Donna become more than they could be under other circumstances. He’s able to save the world and the cosmos on a regular basis. He’s able to topple despots protect innocents.

At the same time, the Davies era presents the Doctor as a force of nature – “the Oncoming Storm” that will not be stopped and will destroy anything in its path. Davies himself introduced the idea in the show’s second episode. Rose pleads with the Doctor to spare Cassandra, but the Doctor’s rage overwhelms him. It’s become more overt over time, with Family of Blood offering the most brutal critique of the Doctor as a man willing to destroy countless lives in order to appease his own conscience.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

Davies’ characterisation of the Ninth Doctor as a man coping with post-traumatic stress disorder was remarkably consistent. The character arc for the Ninth Doctor is one of the most logical and consistent portrayals of the Doctor in the history of the show, as he deals with the anger and guilt and shame of his past actions while trying to find some measure of peace. That said, the Ninth Doctor was a character developed over the course of one season. The Tenth Doctor’s tenure would last for four years; it’s a lot harder to keep the characterisation entirely straight.

Since The Christmas Invasion, this is something on which the show tends to fluctuate quite frequently. It’s hard to tell exactly how Davies feels towards the Doctor at a given moment. It’s hard to reconcile all the complex facets of the character, which is arguably a testament to how complex Davies and Tennant have made their iteration of the character. That said, the Tenth Doctor rarely feels “out of character”, and the show has repeatedly pointed to the Doctor’s hubris as his fatal character flaw.

A cold customer...

A cold customer…

In The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords, the Doctor puts the life of the Master above the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings. Is this supposed to present the character as flawed and warped or as optimistic and idealistic? Is the Doctor’s refusal to kill the Master after repeatedly wiping out entire species intended as a piece of in-character hypocrisy or a quirky inconsistency in writing?

Quite tellingly, Davies returns to the relationship between the Doctor and the Master in The End of Time, but still can’t seem to make up his mind. Although he does at least acknowledge the inconsistency in the Tenth Doctor’s character, without tackling it directly. There’s a sense that a lot of the Tenth Doctor’s character arc was determined in retrospect.

Suit up!

Suit up!

In The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor successfully topples a stand-in for Margaret Thatcher, with Davies finally allowing the Doctor to complete the objective set by Andrew Cartmel when he first took the role of script editor in the late eighties – “to overthrow the government.” Given that the second season’s Tooth and Claw features the Tenth Doctor making a disparaging remark about Thatcher (in a story where he teams up with Queen Victoria), we’re obviously intended to think of this as something of success for the Doctor.

In hindsight, Davies has the story unfold so that it becomes an act of fatal hubris. Indeed, the decision to overthrow Harriet Jones in his first appearance leads quite directly to his regeneration. Had the Doctor not toppled Harriet Jones, the Master would never have been Prime Minister; had the Master not been Prime Minister, he would never have been involved in The End of Time; had the Master not been involved in The End of Time, he never would have set that somewhat conveniently-designed radiation chamber to overload.

Obligatory Dalek cameo!

Obligatory Dalek cameo!

How much of this was intended at the time is up for debate, and there’s a sense that Doctor Who never really makes up its mind about the Tenth Doctor’s ego. The Tenth Doctor is at once wonderful and terrifying, enabling and humbling, heroic and horrific. Though Turn Left concedes that the Doctor is probably a greater good, the Davies era still reinforces the idea that he’s a force of nature that leaves ruins in his wake.

It’s a far more polarising depiction of the Doctor than Steven Moffat would present when he took over. To Moffat, as he reiterates in the opening lines of The Day of the Doctor, the Doctor is “a good man.” The Eleventh Doctor might leave his friends and companions scarred through his short-sightedness or his errors, but he’s undoubtedly a force for good. While the Davies era only reflects once (in Turn Left) on what the cosmos might look like without the Doctor, Moffat returns to the image in The Big Bang, The Wedding of River Song and The Name of the Doctor; the results are never anything less than disastrous.

Cool guys don't look at explosions...

Cool guys don’t look at explosions…

Even in that context – in the sense that the Tenth Doctor is a character who is by turns incredible and unstoppable – The Waters of Mars exists as the ultimate cautionary tale. It’s a rather startling reminder of just what a force of nature the Doctor can be, and why leaving him alone and to his own devices is not a good idea. This isn’t a story with any real ambiguity. This is a story about how easily the Doctor could become something truly terrifying.

The show has teased the idea of a “dark doctor” before; most notably during the entire Colin Baker era and particularly when the Doctor’s evil future self shows up as the prosecuting counsel in The Trial of a Time Lord. The Waters of Mars is the first time it feels real. This is a logical extrapolation of familiar character traits. This isn’t the Doctor acting wildly out-of-character. This is the Doctor’s ego turned up all the way to eleven.

Turbo boost!

Turbo boost!

This is the first time we really get a sense of why the Doctor might be afraid of himself. Indeed, the Doctor’s self-doubt continues into the Moffat era. In The God Complex, it’s implied that the Doctor’s own worst fear is himself. In Amy’s Choice, the Doctor’s subconscious turns out to be bitter and resentful. This is a character who can boast about converting all of time and space into his backyard. What happens when he decides to do some re-modelling?

The Waters of Mars serves as a counter-point to The Fires of Pompeii, which is quite clever. There’s a wonderful symmetry to the stories. Water/fire, red/blue, past/future. Of course, setting the story in the future allows for more freedom in storytelling – of course the Doctor can interfere in historical events that haven’t happened yet. Setting the story in the future rather than the past is quite a clever move.

Is there something in his eye...?

Is there something in his eye…?

Like The Fires of Pompeii, The Waters of Mars hinges on quite a contrivance – the Doctor arriving at a “fixed point” in history. Even the Doctor is sort of hazy on what a “fixed point” actually is, and how they occur. Trying to explain his view of events, the Doctor stumbles a bit, “This moment, this precise moment in time, it’s like… I mean, it’s only a theory, what do I know, but I think certain moments in time are fixed. Tiny, precious moments. Everything else is in flux, anything can happen, but those certain moments, they have to stand.”

To be fair, The Waters of Mars makes a decent amount of sense as a “fixed moment”, if one argues about the integrity of history. If the incident on Bowie Base One inspires a whole future generation of travelers, then changing the outcome logically impacts mankind’s journey to the stars. It’s easy enough to conjecture the ripple effect from there, with all the lives in the galaxy touched by humanity and vice versa.

Lording it over us...

Lording it over us…

It arguably makes more sense than treating the death of thousands of people in a volcanic eruption as a “fixed point”, even if the same logic might hold true. Who knows what lives the people of Pompeii might have had if they survived the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius? The whole history of mankind could easily be re-written and re-worked as the result of even a handful of survivors.

Of course, this argument is a bit philosophically shaky. After all, it assumes that the “fixed points” exist to produce the best possible outcome, as if the objective quality of various time lines can be objectively measured. Any argument that suggests Pompeii had to be destroyed so that the modern world could exist is predicated on the assumption that this world is the best possible world simply by virtue of actually existing. It’s the best possible world because it’s the world we live in.

She's behind you!

She’s behind you!

This is, in a short, a very conservative way of looking at the universe. It hints at a conservatism at the heart of Doctor Who, a show that is generally considered to be quite liberal and libertarian. The “fixed” point in history is the point at which even the Doctor’s liberalism comes to an end – the point at which there is no possibility of a better world that might be created, and preserving the status quo is the best that he can hope to accomplish.

It is, for better or worse, the point at which the show embraces the controversial politics of the Jon Pertwee era. The politics of the Pertwee era Doctor Who are frequently derided by fans and critics as being too conservative. Paul Cornell famously quipped about how the era turned the Doctor into a Tory. Still, The Waters of Mars suggests that maybe there’s a limit to the Doctor’s liberalism, a point where even he must accept the status quo and the natural order of things.

The red planet...

The red planet…

It’s an uncomfortable idea, particularly for a version of Doctor Who that is as radical and liberal as the show produced by Davies. Then again, The Waters of Mars is a story that’s also about the Doctor confronting the fact that his life has run its course; a universal truth and inevitability as inescapable as the “fixed” points. The Tenth Doctor’s regeneration still feels uncomfortable, because it’s fixated on the “death” of the Tenth Doctor, rather than exploring how regeneration allows the Doctor to cheat that most universal of constants.

In the c0ntext of the show, “regeneration” is a wonderful way of evading death and avoiding the laws of narrative and nature that assure us that all things must pass. The Doctor isn’t beholden to the rules of nature any more than he is constrained by the rules of society. The Doctor is a rogue who doesn’t just defy the system or even the inevitability of history, he also defies death.

A wash-out...

A wash-out…

This is part of the reason why the regeneration of the Tenth Doctor seems so strange – because the show has to teach the Tenth Doctor that he can’t really defy death or the rules of the system. After all, regeneration is death to the Tenth Doctor. It isn’t life. As much as the Ninth Doctor might have described it as a “change” and “a way to cheat death”, the Tenth Doctor sees his regeneration as nothing short of death – something the character elaborates quite candidly on The End of Time, Part I.

In that sense, the conservatism of The Waters of Mars makes sense. The Tenth Doctor needs to learn that his “death” is an inevitability, so he needs to understand that there is a natural order of things. Even when that natural order involves letting good people die. As a result, it’s no surprise that Davies follows up The Waters of Mars with a clear and affectionate homage to the Pertwee era of Doctor Who. (It also lends a great deal of symmetry to Davies’ vision of the show, given his tenure began with a gigantic homage to Pertwee in Rose.)

Reading the signs...

Reading the signs…

So the inclusion of “fixed points” in the narrative of The Waters of Mars makes sense, as much as the concept of “fixed points” in history can ever make sense in the grander concept of Doctor Who. The Waters of Mars is the point where the Tenth Doctor has to learn that there are rules and that those rules can’t be broken, whatever he may wish. It makes a grand sweeping change from the freedom that we’re used to in Doctor Who, the sense that there’s a whole universe where things can be changed and reworked and improved.

After all, Davies quite cleverly parallels the central crisis of The Waters of Mars with the Tenth Doctor’s pending regeneration. While it’s certainly not on par with the “entropy” theme running through Tom Baker’s final season, there’s something rather funereal about the specials. It’s a shame that these episodes weren’t produced as part of a regular season, as it feels like the impending regeneration is lost in the holiday shuffle of The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead.

In space, no one can hear you faint...

In space, no one can hear you faint…

The threat facing the base is water, a natural force that the Doctor describes as inevitable – a force that will eventually triumph through its patience. “Water is patient, Adelaide,” the Doctor advises Adelaide. “Water just waits. It wears down the cliff tops, the mountains, the whole of the world. Water always wins.” In a way, the Doctor is talking about time itself. The Tenth Doctor cannot fight his own inevitable regeneration, a comparison made explicit at the climax. “We’re not just fighting the flood, we’re fighting time itself. And I’m going to win!”

The Doctor’s death is just as inevitable as Adelaide’s death. It’s quite telling that The Waters of Mars spends a significant amount of time dwelling on Adelaide’s legacy. She might die, but she becomes immortal, after a fashion. “Today, on the twenty first of November 2059, Captain Brooke activates that device, taking the base and all her crew members with her,” the Doctor explains. “No one ever knows why. But you were saving Earth. That’s what inspires your granddaughter. She takes your people out into the galaxy because you die on Mars. You die today. She flies out there like she’s trying to meet you.”

The far from perfect Ten...

The far from perfect Ten…

Adelaide is initially stubborn. “I won’t die,” she vows. “I will not.” She seems as angry and as resistant as the Doctor himself. The Doctor can only offer the most superficial of consolations. “But your death creates the future.” It’s a nice way of discussing the Doctor’s pending regeneration. This iteration of the character will fade from memory, and will be replaced by another version. That version will take the show forward, into the future.

So the Doctor goes mad with power. He takes it upon himself to re-write history. “There are Laws of Time,” he assures Adelaide. “Once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws, but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realise the Laws of Time are mine, and they will obey me!” This is the ultimate moment of the Doctor’s hubris, something that Davies has been hinting at since the show came back.

A screw(driver) loose...

A screw(driver) loose…

The Doctor is completely off the walls here. He takes sadistic glee in electrocuting one of the alien creatures. He goes mad with power. David Tennant plays a power-mad Doctor with incredible skill. Tennant always had his own knack for playing up the Doctor’s alien nature in the most subtle and unsettling of manners. Here, he lets rip and turns the Doctor into a selfish force of nature.

The Doctor is terrifying. And here Davies effectively foreshadows The End of Time, Part I. The writer has been hinting for quite some time that Gallifrey wasn’t simply caught in the crossfire of the Doctor’s decision to end the Time War. The implication here is that a power-mad and desperate Time Lord facing the end of his existence is a horrific idea indeed. After all, The End of Time, Part II juxtaposes Rassilon’s refusal to die with the Tenth Doctor’s reluctance to regenerate.

A drop in the ocean...

A drop in the ocean…

If the Tenth Doctor is willing to throw the laws of time out the window in order to prolong his own existence, what would the Time Lords do when confronted with a Dalek invasion? The Time Lords of the classic series were disinterested bureaucrats with a great deal of power they seldom used. On a small scale, The Waters of Mars gives us a taste of the use and abuse of such power.

The Tenth Doctor might be motivated by the greater good – he is trying to save lives – but his own mortality is clouding his judgment. This is as close as the Doctor will ever come to understanding the Master, a character whose most famous appearance in The Deadly Assassin (and whose follow-up appearance in The Keeper of Traken) has the villain desperately trying to ensure his own survival at the most horrendous of costs.

Growing pains...

Growing pains…

Davies underscores just how unsettling the Time Lord Victorious must be. “What is that thing?” Mia wonders as she emerges from the TARDIS. “It’s bigger. I mean, it’s bigger on the inside. Who the hell are you?” The TARDIS is one of the most iconic and recognisable parts of Doctor Who. “It’s bigger on the inside” is one of the show’s most affectionate recurring gags. There’s something quite quaint about something so large fitting inside something so small.

And yet the presence of the Time Lord Victorious serves to draw attention to how strange and downright creepy that must be. How alien and unnatural the TARDIS must be, when viewed in a certain light. It’s such an effective demonstration of how far things have gone wrong that Steven Moffat recycles it for The Night of the Doctor, where the sight of a TARDIS is enough to drive the pilot of a warship to suicide. This is wrong.

Brooking history...

Brooking history…

The Doctor has broken the rules of the narrative. The Tenth Doctor has cheated and so has warped the show to the point where even the most standard of tropes have been broken and distorted. Eventually, things snap back into shape, but it takes a suicide to push things back to normality. Those few minutes from the climax of The Waters of Mars are terrifying because they are so inherently and completely and fundamentally wrong.

Davies touches upon The Parting of the Ways here. The Parting of the Ways features the Ninth Doctor accepting his ultimate fate, to die at the mercy of the Daleks and refusing to commit genocide and to destroy the Earth to save the universe. It’s a very morally ambiguous decision, one of those horrible “moral arithmetic” questions that tends to pop up. The Ninth Doctor rejected the option to commit genocide, taunted by the Dalek Emperor. “What are you?” it demanded. “Killer or coward?”

He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And... he's terrifying...

He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s terrifying…

“Coward, every time,” the Ninth Doctor reluctantly conceded. Davies brings that a full circle here. Discussing the Doctor’s desire to leave, and his willingness to leave the base to its ultimate fate, Adelaide muses, “You don’t look like a coward, but all you’ve wanted to do is leave.” Given how events ultimately play out when the Doctor decides to stay, it seems that “coward” is the correct choice in this situation.

Of course, Davies doesn’t seem entirely consistent on this point. While The Parting of the Ways had the Doctor refusing to re-enact the climax of the Time War, The End of Time, Part II sees the Doctor consciously deciding to plunge Gallifrey back into the abyss. It reads almost like a final vindication and justification for the Doctor’s genocide, despite the way that The Parting of the Ways and The Waters of Mars seem to endorse the Doctor’s “cowardice.” Here again we run into the central ambiguity of the Davies era, where it seems that Davies himself isn’t sure what to make of his protagonist.

Snow escaping fate...

Snow escaping fate…

There is something a bit frustrating about how The Waters of Mars using Adelaide to teach the Doctor a lesson. One imagines that her family will come home and find her body in the living room, which feels a little bit too morbid. The story isn’t too clear on how Adelaide dying on Earth may have inspired her granddaughter, but I suppose it doesn’t have to be; the whole point is that the Doctor can’t cheat time. (And, after all, the mystery of how she got home could easily have inspired her granddaughter.)

The problem is that Adelaide’s suicide feels a little too spiteful and a little too convenient. Couldn’t Adelaide just go on the run or hide from her family if she wanted to preserve the time line? The suicide is a much more effective and striking visual, but it still feels like Adelaide stops being her own character and starts existing solely as a means to teach the Doctor a very important lesson.

Go, go, Gadget!

Go, go, Gadget!

This is a bit of a shame as Lindsay Duncan is a wonderful actress, and Davies’ script works hard to ensure that Adelaide herself is an interesting character in her own right for most of the hour. Indeed, The Waters of Mars really plays to Davies’ strengths, and the writer does a great deal of work to insinuate all these unspoken nuanced relationships between the characters on Bowie Base One. There’s all these insinuations and suggestions that aren’t quite articulated, much like the crew in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit.

It’s also worth mentioning the introductory sequence where Adelaide listens to a recording from home talking about paying the mortgage and lots of other little worries – it feels like Davies having fun at former script editor Andrew Cartmel’s infamous suggestion that Davies should write a story about somebody struggling with the mortgage after turning in a draft of what became The Long Game. Here, Davies teases, it’s quite possible to tell that sort of story without losing the enthusiasm and excitement of exploring the universe.

Ask not for whom the Cloister Bell tolls...

Ask not for whom the Cloister Bell tolls…

The Waters of Mars is the strongest of the specials, and the only time it feels like Davies really knows where he’s going with the Tenth Doctor’s journey towards regeneration. It’s the point at which the Tenth Doctor’s end truly feels inevitable, and almost necessary. He’s broken the rules of time, and of the show’s narrative. His time is up. There are some interesting and thoughtful ideas here, setting up a lot of what’s to come; it’s a shame that so many get a bit lost in the muddle of the final two specials, as Davies rushes to wrap up every possible loose end and refuses to really commit to any of the big ideas broached here in a direct manner.

The End of Time plays quite well off some of the themes here, but the a lot of the nuance and intrigue gets lost in the shuffle.

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2 Responses

  1. What is this episode trying to say? That saving people is wrong? That saving ‘certain’ people is wrong? Because the chick at the end asks who the doctor is to decide.

    So what? Save no one… do that and we ain’t got a series.

    • Yep, it’s an example of the show brushing against the limitations of its “fixed point” logic, which works as a character beat for the Tenth Doctor, but makes no sense in any moral manner.

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