Published on November 18th, 2009 | by Christian Cawley
The Waters of Mars
And so it begins. Landing on Mars. Failing to check the date. Cries of anguish. The rash, defiant decision.
The Time Lord Victorious.
The end is nigh.
With The Waters of Mars, Doctor Who stepped up a gear into the now-recognisable Utopia/Turn Left â€œthird episode from the end of the seriesâ€, a marked change from the heinous heist fluff of Planet of the Dead.
A far cry from pointless romps in the desert, The Waters of Mars thrust the Doctor into an unwinnable situation, a real â€œvolcano dayâ€ set 50 years in the future on the first human base on Mars (the wonderfully named Bowie Base One) on the very day the base would be destroyed by a nuclear explosion.
Trying to get away from the base from the moment he realised who the crew were, the Doctor instead found himself on a quest to find out more about the infection, the Water Zombies and generally help as much as he could.
Itâ€™s rare that compassion should cause anyone to be forced to stare into the barrel of a gun – the Doctor has been threatened in this way countless times, but by monsters, Cybermen, Daleks, the master even.
Never by fate itself.
This is only one of the differences between The Waters of Mars and other Doctor Who adventures since 2005 â€“ key differences that mark this as event television despite a raft of familiar elements, notably the base under siege. Itâ€™s heavy stuff though â€“ just the ticket for fans and commentators alike slightly perturbed by the lack of weight to the previous two specials and the hotch-potch finale to The Stolen Earth in 2008.
Somehow Iâ€™ve got half-way through this review without mentioning David Tennantâ€™s superbly measured performance throughout â€“ but I have to stop first at the triumph of the Water Zombies. As Doctor Who Confidential revealed, design for these creatures went through several iterations, and unlike some other creatures over the past 5 years (notably the Jagrafess, the Slitheen and the Cybermen) these slightly lumbering but nevertheless sprightly zombies were note-perfect. There was no way to stop them, no antidote and no replacement water filter â€“ everyone had to die, again down to the compassion that the crew members showed to their infected comrades.
It was compassion that sent the Doctor on a dark journey and ultimately compassion that destroyed the Mars base.
Superb writing by Phil Ford and Russell T Davies, and half of the internet would seem to agree â€“ except they did the easy bit. Itâ€™s a tough job writing television this good, but very easy to let it go to waste.
Step forward then The Guvâ€™nor. Ladies and gentlemen, give Graeme Harper a round of applause for bringing us a cohesive, well acted Doctor Who episode with good visual effects and a good dose of dark and moody camera angles that really soaked up the emotions of the desperate situation on the Mars base. Itâ€™s all too easy to praise and criticise writers when things go well but the end product can only be as good as the director. Harper was clearly the best man for the job.
Watching The Waters of Mars was the rare experience of engaging with an hour of top quality television starring two actors at the top of their game. Lindsay Duncan was marvellous as Adelaide Brooke â€“ fearsome, dictatorial, determined, single-minded â€“ everything a female pioneer should be, and not a million miles from Margaret Thatcher. Her reaction at having being saved by the Doctor, thus existing when her death should shape the future of mankind was a superb mix of anger and disdain â€“ weâ€™ve seen nothing like this in Doctor Who before! As for the heroic suicide that saves the future – well, I’ll let you decide if it was necessary, but it certainly brought home to the Doctor the harm he had done.
David Tennant meanwhile… well what can you say? Whenever the story requires it he can turn on the darkness, the depths to the Doctor that we rarely see â€“ years of loss, frustration, loneliness were etched into his face as the Doctor walked away from the Mars base, bringing home the clear fact that this one actor has been able to display the greatest range of any of his predecessors. In terms of acting ability Tennant is up there with Patrick Troughton â€“ how he and Peter Davison in particular could have shined brighter still with material such as this!
With just over 2 hours of the Tenth Doctor left, Russell T Davies has turned on the quality with The Waters of Mars, leaving the Doctor in a desperate situation â€“ has his realisation that in saving the doomed Adelaide he has gone too far had any lasting effect?