“Water always wins.”
I have mixed feelings about “The Waters of Mars”, the latest off-year special with David Tennant’s tenth Doctor. On the one hand, it’s a good old fashioned “monsters against a small group of humans” Doctor Who plot that’s well excecuted and fast-paced. It feels a lot like classic Doctor Who with various modern touches. Up until the last twenty minutes or so, I had decided that it was the best episode of the revived series, and I may still hold that opinion. On the other hand, the end of the story, while interesting, really does go off the rails for a number of reasons which I, as a long-time fan of the show, have a hard time accepting.
In many ways, “The Waters of Mars” borrows from the best of the old Troughton “base under siege” template, and the episode benefits enormously. The Doctor lands on Mars in the year 2059, and is captured by the crew of the first off-world human colony. About the time he arrives, the crew begins to be affected by a mysterious water-borne virus that infects and transforms humans in a pretty nasty way, leading to the reliable old Doctor Who convention of the Doctor falling under suspicion since everything started at the same time that he made his appearance. The twist in the plot is that the Doctor knows exactly what will happen to the base in its crew, and it’s not good. In fact it’s made very clear early in the episode through flashes from the Doctor’s memory intercut with his introduction to the crew that they will all die on that very day, and the Mars base will be destroyed. However, the Doctor cannot intervene to change events or save individuals, since the disaster that befalls the crew and the station is one of those “fixed” points in time that must happen so that future established events will occur.
Throughout much of the episode the Doctor keeps insisting that he needs to leave, and that he shouldn’t be where he is, though at first he’s essentially a prisoner and can’t go. When he finally is given leave to go he stands and watches for a few minutes before finally turning to leave, only to be stopped temporarily by base commander Adelaide Brooke. In story terms, she’s essentially the Doctor’s companion for the episode, running around the base with him and discussing events as they occur. The Doctor slowly lets more and more information out, and finally reveals to her everything about the coming destruction of the base and the death of all crew members, and how her death will shape the future. And he really has an impact on Adelaide, given her actions later on in the story, which I’ll get to shortly.
The threat to the base comes from an alien life form like a virus that lives in and creates water. It’s intelligent and hostile, and it chooses the humans as victims. The base draws its water from a Martian glacier beneath the crater that the base is situated in, and the virus was seemingly frozen there and imprisoned, until the use of water from the glacier freed it. In a nice nod to the old series, the Doctor mentions the Ice Warriors a couple of times, and theorizes that they imprisoned the alien virus in the ice to protect themselves. The makeup used to depict the infected humans is almost genuinely disturbing to look at, with white irises in the eyes and wide mouths that look like dried, cracked mud. Water pours constantly from the victims, either from their mouths or dripping from every pore on them. Sometimes it looks a bit silly, depending on the actor playing the monster, but mostly it’s really rather disgusting and nasty, and therefore generally effective. This is particularly true once doors and sealed buildings prove to be little obstacle to the flood of water these things can produce, meaning that avenues for escape begin to narrow rapidly at the climax of the story approaches.
So the episode seemingly lays its cards out for all to see right off the bat. The Doctor arrives at a crucial point in history and can’t do anything to avert the catastrophe he knows is coming, like the eruption of Vesuvius, mentioned in this very story. History will take its course, and he can do very little about it. We’ve seen this before, and indeed some classic episodes like “The Aztecs” have been built around this very premise. But “The Waters of Mars” throws a curve ball at the audience, as the Doctor finally snaps and decides that he’s the last Time Lord, and the laws of time will be whatever he darn well decides they’re going to be, and he’s going back to save lives.
In other words, the Doctor screws up. Big time. Just how big remains to be seen, but if the trailers for the next episode give us any indication, it’s going to be bad.
But getting back to “Waters”, the Doctor goes back to save the remaining humans and prevent the destruction of the Mars base. A series of events conspire to stop him, which he attributes to fighting time itself. In the end, he is able to save three of the crew members, including Adelaide, and return them to Earth. All credit to the director for making the Doctor’s actions and indeed the whole tone of the final minutes of the episode seem so bleak and wrong. Rather than thanking the Doctor, the surviving crew members that he returns to Earth are shell-shocked, and can’t deal with the situation. Adelaide takes the Doctor to task for potentially altering future events in a drastic way, and kills herself just as the Doctor is about to leave. That’s how seriously she took his recitation of future events.
Now all of this is very interesting, I’ll admit. But it leads me to wonder just what’s happened to the character of the Doctor, who has essentially gone mad with power and is afraid of death. I’m not too sure the character as established would ever actually act this way, and the whole incident makes me somewhat uncomfortable to watch. He’s seen disaster after disaster in his travels around the universe, and seen countless people die. What’s so different about this incident? Are the writers trying to imply that the lack of a companion has done this? I think it’s obvious that they are, but that will become clear in Tennant’s final story.