Monday, 16 November 2009

Doctor Who: Waters of Mars *WARNING: SPOILERS!*


The Doctor just wants a nice, relaxing trip. Nothing exciting, by his standards - just a nice walk across Mars. Shame about the impending disaster at the local moonbase then, really...

Big things were expected of this episode. It's the latest special, an hour of what we were promised would be one of the scariest episodes yet, if not the scariest full stop. Does it deliver? Well...

Let's get the negatives out of the way, shall we? For a start, for an episode that was basically a zombie plague threatening a space camp, this was fairly short on chills and shocks. The Flood were not scary. Slightly creepy, when just standing there, watching you, and the make-up for their faces was brilliantly done, but not scary. Similarly, the idea of water as a weapon, while a good one, was largely squandered. It was only as the crew started to flee that we really felt how scary it could be - particularly the scene where Roman gets hit with a single drop.
On the subject of the crew, there was a familiar problem to the script. Aside from the Doctor and Adelaide Brooks, the crew mustered about one personality between them, maybe two (in a cast of nine or ten). The actors weren't really given much to work with though, or at least, not that made it into the final cut. We got a few references to families back at home, and there were hints of a past relationship between Adelaide and her second in command, but aside from that, they were largely cannon-fodder. They can perhaps be best summed up with the admission that, Adelaide and Roman aside, none of their names stayed in my mind more than an hour after transmission. I wasn't a huge fan of Gadget the robot either, although the scenes with him as a jet ski did make me think "Go Gadget go!", which made me giggle.
Finally, since the enemies weren't really scary, the majority of the episode felt rather pointless. It was established early on that the Doctor couldn't do anything to save them, that stopping the Flood (and the subsequent explosion of the base) would change the course of human civilisation, and not for the better. As a consequence, for most of the episode, it was more an exercise in grim misery than a plot driven thriller, basically amounting to waiting for the next person to die. And given the aforementioned lack of character, it was hard to care that much when they did die, with a couple of exceptions (Roman, with his resigned acceptance, the pilot, blowing up the ship and the blonde one, watching a video of her daughter).

Of course, I did say the majority... It may have taken about forty of its alloted sixty minutes, but eventually, 'Waters of Mars' got the adrenaline shot it needed. And yes, that came with the Doctor. As I explained above, he realised within about ten minutes that the base was going to blow up, and he could do nothing to stop it, due to the laws which he is supposed to uphold. He was therefore rather a passive presence in the episode, although Tennant still performed typically well. He was matched in his performance by Lindsay Duncan, who was superb as Adelaide Brooks - a companion who wasn't all that likeable, due to her strict and overbearing personality, but who commanded your respect. Indeed, this episode was more about her than the Doctor, until those last twenty minutes. It was easy to believe that her legacy and mysterious death could have inspired people to venture out to the stars, forging an empire beyond Earth.

And then the Doctor left. He walked away, listening to them die, their terror. We knew it was going to happen, but it was no less chilling. But he doesn't do that, I hear you cry. Well... You know when I said this episode wasn't scary? I lied. Sort of. The last twenty minutes showed what the Doctor - or at least, this Doctor - would be like without a companion to balance him, no-one to "tell you to stop", as Donna Noble put it so well in 'The Runaway Bride'. Remember him wiping out the Rachni? Remember him imprisoning the Family of Blood for eternity? Remember how scary he was? Guess what - that Doctor was back.

At the start of 'New-Who', with Christopher Ecclestone in the role, Russell T Davies wiped the slate clean, wiped out the Time-Lords in the Time War, and we've been seeing the fallout ever since. In 'Waters of Mars', we saw the logical conclusion of this: the Doctor, listening to people he respects dying in terror, snaps. He realises that he is the last of the Timelords. That if he doesn't like the rules, then he can change them. And he goes mad with power. Sure, saving these people will result in major changes to history that could result in humanity leaving Earth. And? He's the only Time Lord in existence, who is going to stop him?

Who would have thought it possible that we could hate the Doctor? Fear him, yes - we've all seen what he can do when he's pissed off. But hate him? He makes the decision to (potentially) completely change the course of human civilisation. On a whim. "The laws of time are mine, and they will obey me!" Sound familiar? Does that sound like another Time Lord, who goes by the name of the Master? It does to me. The Doctor was, to me, terrifying here, the Lonely God, the Vengeful God, that has been hinted as lying beneath the surface since the revival.

Adelaide: "No-one should have that much power!"
Doctor: "Tough"

And describing his previous exploits as "I've done this sort of thing before. In small ways, helped some little people." Feel the chill. Feel the anger. The "Time Lord Victorious"? No thanks, he's scary and a little evil. Seeing Adelaide commit suicide as a final act of defiance was a magnificently bleak ending

This was very, very brave writing under the circumstances. Never forget, this is a children's show. Making the hero a power mad egotist, who pours scorn on all the people he's saved, and is, ultimately, more concerned with the fact that he saved someone important than the fact that he saved someone's life - more concerned with his achievement than their life. I wonder how many children are looking at that poster of David Tennant with just a hint of trepidation now...

A solid 4/5. While most of the episode felt like good filler, given the quality of acting, spectacle, and the fantastic final section, 'Waters of Mars' deserves the high mark. It's just a shame that quality couldn't carry throughout the episode. Ah well. The Master's back next time, that rascal. Looks good!

Of course, no critique of a Doctor Who episode would be complete without a section covering nit picks and fanboy grumps, so here we go:
1. Fire on Mars? Out in the open? In what is, we presume, still a vacuum? Nope, sorry. Does not compute.
2. A robot suitably advanced to open and operate the TARDIS (admittedly under remote control of the Doctor) seems convenient. Extremely convenient. That said, at least they didn't pull it out of their hats at the end, and it served a role at other points.
3. Daleks. We see a flashback to the events of 'The Stolen Earth', set fifty years prior to 'Waters of Mars'. In this scene, a younger Adelaide Brooks is seen by a Dalek, but it does nothing, only watches for a while before leaving. This inspires her to travel off world. The Doctor explains the Dalek's inaction as it recognising that she would have an important role to play in the future, so it should not kill her. This assumes that Daleks have the innate knowledge of history and time that, previously, only the Doctor seems to possess. In addition, in 'The Stolen Earth', the Daleks towed Earth away to form part of the firing mechanism of a Reality Cannon, or some such nonsense. Whatever the name, it was designed to utterly and completely destroy reality. Why would the premature death of someone with an important role fifty years down the line matter?
4. The Reapers. In 'Father's Day', in the first season, the Doctor takes Rose back in time so that she can be there to comfort her father as he dies - originally, he had died in a hit and run, with no one to take care of him. She instead saves him, resulting in the arrival of the Reapers, dragon like creatures that prey on wounds in time, and they systematically start to kill everything they see - including, ultimately, the Doctor himself (and yes, they kill him. No regeneration.) Of course, everything is fixed in the end, and the reset button gets hit, but nevertheless. Peter Tyler was, in the words of the Doctor I quote above, one of the "little people". His death did not alter the course of human history. So why did the Reapers appear for that minor violation in history, and not the rather more significant one that the Doctor nearly causes here?
I should probably start by explaining that I don't mind this particularly. I think it can be explained quite easily, although of course, this is not official, just my take on things. One answer is, of course, that it's "nearly causes" Adelaide kills herself before anything really has a chance to change. However, there are other possibilites that I would like to suggest, because I *am* that geeky.
For a start, there are different circumstances. Peter Tyler dies of natural causes (well, fairly). He dies after being run over, not by being killed by a Dalek, or a Cyberman, or similar. The Dalek's attacks are, presumably, not a part of the timeline, otherwise the Doctor could not save anybody from them, and pretty much all life in reality would have been wiped out. The villains that the Doctor fights are themselves altering the timeline, and the Doctor is simply restoring the natural order of things. However, disrupting the natural order of things is a big no-no, so the Reapers can attack.
The timeline was already weakened when Rose saved her father. She and the Doctor had travelled back, but she bottled it, running away instead of comforting her father. They go back again, but now there are two of them. When Rose then saves her father, the duplicate Rose and Doctor see them, causing a paradox, which is only worsened when Rose touches and saves her father. If time travel stretches the time line anyway, then having multiple copies of the same travellers in one place must put it under severe strain. When one of those multiples commits two paradoxes in the blink of an eye, bang! Wound in time, enter the Reapers.
And now, since nitpicking in Doctor Who is a) like shooting fish in a barrel, and b) ultimately pointless, I shall leave off.

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