Doctor Who - The Waters of Mars
The Doctor, still without a companion at the moment, is sightseeing. He lands on Mars and whilst wandering around stumbles upon a colony base, headed by Captain Adelaide Brooke. At first the Doctor is glad to see them, notwithstanding their suspicions on seeing a stranger in their midst. However his pleasure turns into horror when he realises what the mission actually is. It is 23rd November 2059, and this is Earth’s first mission to Mars. They have been there for over a year, and today is the day when every member of the crew dies. Brooke will be hailed as a hero back on Earth, leading to others taking her lead and pushing Earth’s space program further than ever before.
So the Doctor can’t alter anything. He shouldn’t - it’s Pompeii all over again. But he’s still going to see the end come, and it starts very soon after his arrival. Something is possessing members of the crew, something in the water supply. Something that even creates water; water that can seep through ceilings and airlocks, contaminating whatever it touches. Something that would just love to get to Earth, a planet with a surface covered 60% with water.
There’s no choice. The Doctor has to allow events to run their course. Doesn’t he?
The TV listings magazine Radio Times played this up as ‘the scariest Doctor Who ever!’ That might be good advertising; it’s not the most honest, though. First of all, yes, this is one of the ‘horror’ adventures, and it succeeds admirably, but I’m not sure it can claim to be the scariest so easily. The real problem, however, is that it seriously undersells the adventure. If you’re only looking for a frightfest you’re missing half the content. After beating The Fires of Pompeii to death for botching its premise so much, I was amazed to see The Waters of Mars tackle precisely the same issue and pull it off.
The Fires of Pompeii asked why the Doctor couldn’t change history – why, for example, he couldn’t save people from the eruption of Versuvius, or prevent the Second World War. It then proceeded to spend the entire forty-five minutes avoiding having to answer the question. In The Waters of Mars the same situation arises. People are going to die if the Doctor doesn’t help, and because of history he can’t afford to help. (By the way, it’s good to see the problem happen with a future event – as I’ve said before, it’s very rare to see the Doctor refuse to change events in the audience’s own future) However, in Waters the question is (almost) ignored in favour of a different angle. There’s no companion to argue with. There’s just the Doctor, ever conscious that he should leave and not look back. Waters is about the crushing responsibility of knowing that people will die and doing nothing to prevent it.
The style of the episode – horror – is thus perfect for the dilemma. The more horrible the fate of the victims, the more agonising it is when you try to ignore it. In a brilliant scene towards the climax, the Doctor is walking back to the TARDIS in his space suit, which is still rigged up to the communications system. He is thus able to hear three people die, but he must keep walking…
And he can only do it at the last moment. At first he cannot leave the base, as his spacesuit has been confiscated. But by the time it is returned to him, the problems have already started. His natural curiosity won’t allow him to leave until the last possible moment, and neither will his reluctance to abandon the innocent crew. As the remaining survivors run around the central compound, collecting supplies for their ‘lifeboat’ rocket back to Earth, the Doctor stands there, watching them. Watching the monitors as the ex-human creatures try to get in. Not helping, but not leaving either.
One other person knows what’s going to happen. Captain Brooke is not the most easy-going of leaders, but she is brilliant at her job and cares about her team. The Doctor not only admires her for her professional achievements and the example she sets for the human race, but because she is at heart a good person. She also has the same drive as he does to explore the universe. She is someone he can relate to. His respect for her and his inability to keep his mouth shut leads to him dropping too many hints, and she finally gets the truth from him. In order to stop the creatures, Brooke will end up detonating a nuclear bomb under the base.
There are no hysterics, and Brooke is determined to fight, but she never questions the Doctor’s sincerity. She never tells any of the crew, and still tries to get to the rocket. But once she realises there is no other way out, she initiates the detonation procedure without a qualm, even whilst the Doctor finally tries to save the remaining crew members. Why would she prefer to walk to her own death than survive? Ironically, because of the Doctor.
To cushion the blow, the Doctor has told her what her death will lead to. Her death means that Earth will reach out even further into the cosmos, further than she could ever dream. If she does not die, history will be changed. This bit of sympathy means that Brooke knows her fate is fixed; she doesn’t want the Doctor to interfere because she doesn’t want history altered. She knows the law of unintended consequences.
And I’m on her side. Because the Doctor goes mad.
As he walks away from the base, hearing the deaths of the crew, the Doctor decides to fight back, time and history be damned. Donna Noble will get her wish, albeit too late for Pompeii. But what prompts this change of heart? The real answer is that the Doctor is psychologically incapable of letting go. He has to intervene or he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. But he rationalises this in a horrible, horrible way. He claims that he is the last of the Time Lords, so what he says goes. He is able to do anything at all, able to choose who should live and who should die.
That, my friends, is the most terrifying part of the adventure. The Doctor as God - something other Doctors would flee from as fast as they could. It is literally madness, and Brooke recognises it for what it is.
The Doctor rescues her. And then she shoots herself.
She has to. It might not matter where exactly she dies, but she has to die. As it turns out, not only for the sake of the human race, but for the sake of the Doctor. It brings him back to his senses, horrified by what he’s been saying.
One must wonder if Russell T Davies has been taking notes from critics here. I’m not the only one to complain about Davies setting the Doctor up as a god. This seems to be Davies’s response to such accusations, an answer that he would never go the full distance.
The Waters of Mars, then, is not a ‘mere’ horror story. But even if it were, it would be terrific. The monster make-up, with black mouths and cracked skin, is suitably horrible, but the genius is in making water the threat. The creatures are soaked in it, with it constantly pouring out of their cuffs and mouths, and a single drop of it is enough to turn someone. (I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few children were nervous about cleaning their teeth tonight!) Water can also get everywhere, leading to a brilliant moment as it cascades through the ceiling, trapping one of the crew members. In tears as it moves ever closer, her last sight is of a video transmission made by her children – a final remembrance before she transforms.
I’m also fond of the moment when we find out that one drop of water really is sufficient to turn someone. As the crew try to get to the rocket, the victim tells them that they have no choice; they must leave him behind…
There isn’t a single weak link in the cast, and I have to single two people out for praise. The first is Lindsay Duncan. Apparently the Doctor Who team have been trying to get Duncan to appear in the programme for some time, but something has always prevented them. I can only say that it was worth the wait. Duncan gives one of the best performances of a guest star in Doctor Who. Her role is difficult, but wholly successful. You believe in her character, you can see why the Doctor admires her, and when she argues with the Doctor just before her suicide the cold anger is almost tangible.
The second person deserving accolades is David Tennant. A few small moments aside, this is possibly the best performance he’s given yet as the Doctor.
I hope it continues, because the next two episodes are his swansong. The Master is back (hurrah! It’s John Simm, too!), as are Donna and Wilf – looks most promising!
PS – It appears that by 2059 Russia has legalised gay marriage. Congratulations, Russia. In order to fulfil the programme’s prediction, I recommend you draft the law as quickly as possible.