Tuesday, 12 April 2011
Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars
“Don’t drink the water. Don’t touch it. Not one drop.”
I’ve written three pages of notes for this one, possibly a new record, and trust me, I’m well concise. This review could be a bit long.
Doctor Who certainly looks great, these days. The CGI is simply incredible; this is the Martian surface at its most iconic. And the first few minutes set up the “base under siege” scenario with superbly economical handling of the exposition. We’re introduced to the whole crew, all of whom have the required degree of depth for their respective life expectancies, and there’s a comedy robot to lighten the tone. Best of all, the excitement starts quickly enough for us to avoid any of that tiresomeness that often ensues when people become suspicious of the Doctor.
It’s an interesting future, too, a reality sketched out by the odd line here and there. It’s 2059, and after forty years of environmental struggle, humanity is finally stepping towards the stars with its first colony on another world. I love the fact it’s called Bowie Base One. It’s a multinational group, too- there’s a large bunch of flags on the wall of the control room. Base under siege, multinational crew… it’s just like the late ‘60s all over again. Oh, and there’s the “Branson Inheritance”.
We have Lindsay Duncan as the tough but principled Adelaide Brooke, who understandably dominates given her role in the story. The other characters are there for background and flavour, really, but it’s impressive that you can’t tell which ones are going to be the redshirts.
The threat besieging this particular base, a kind of sentient water, isn’t as scary for me as many have said it is. That doesn’t matter, though; the possessed people still look amazing and the sense of threat is very real. For me the effect was more that of a disaster movie than a horror movie, but that’s no bad thing. The threat is effective, that’s what matters. I love the scene where we slowly see and hear the change in Maggie from over the shoulder of the oblivious Yuri. And there are some very human tragedies, particularly Steffi’s tearful final moments watching footage of her daughter to Roman, who spends most of the episode as an annoying young smarty-pants, courageously accepting that the one drop that fell on his face means he must stay and die.
It’s nice that the Ice Warriors get a nod, too. And that 42nd century spacesuit has probably finally featured enough to become part of the Tenth Doctor’s iconography.
But all that is the surface. More than any episode we’ve seen before, this story drills deep into the core themes of the programme, and does this brilliantly. The concept of changing history has been around since the early Hartnells, and has come to the fore again in recent years with the added concept of “fixed points in time”. The Doctor mentions The Fires of Pompeii to Adelaide, of course, and the echoes of this story are loud indeed. But I’m reminded equally of The Aztecs. It’s a benchmark, a line in the sand, which shows us how far the Doctor has come since those days. Because he is, of course, the last of the Time Lords.
Twice before the climax the Doctor has a chance to leave; two moments of temptation. He may only stay, once he finds out where and when he is, because he’s forced to remain, but he changes his mind about leaving, just as he warns Adelaide that anyone could be infected. And, of course, there’s the long, drawn out moment of temptation just before the climax.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This story is our first real example on screen of the much-mooted concept of an “historical” set in our future. To the Doctor, this “history” is every bit as immutable as the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day or the destruction of Pompeii. But, at this point, with no other Time Lords to set the boundaries and no companion to stop him, will he act in the way he advised Barbara to act, long ago at the beginning of the Marathon? The whole story pivots on the Doctor’s decision and what it means for his character.
The character of Adelaide is important here; as someone the Doctor respects, she’s made privy to the Doctor’s deliberations. As an historical figure, she was even spared by a Dalek fifty years earlier, implicitly because of the weight of her historical importance. It is because of her sacrifice that her granddaughter is set to become the first human to reach Proxima Centauri by faster-than-light travel. And she’s shown, and portrayed, as someone with gravitas, dignity, but also integrity and humanity. The Doctor trusts her enough to know that she will release him from the airlock even as he tells her the full, horrible truth. These are very deep dramatic themes.
We know what’s going to happen, and the thought is terrifying. He’s the only Time Lord left, with no peers to condemn him. He has no companion to temper his Time Lord arrogance with humanity. And he is alone, a Lonely God. He makes up his mind, and sets out to do all the things he implored Barbara not to do. Because he can. His self-imposed limits are gone, and he becomes dizzy with dangerous, tempting, corrupting power.
These scenes are brilliantly written; the Doctor is a subtly different character here. All of his usual mannerisms are present and correct, but he’s so arrogant and self-centred, even self-obsessed. Having not mentioned the hints of his future thus far this episode, now his” Three knocks is all you’re getting!” shows us the fear of death which perhaps underlies what he’s doing. Sounds like the denial phase to me. Worst of all is “It’s taken me all these years to realise the laws of time are mine. And they will obey me!” The echoes of the Master are deliberate, I’m sure. We see where this path must ultimately lead.
After a dramatic countdown the Doctor saves the day, and the survivors stand in shocked silence on a central London street. There’s an awkward mood. Adelaide, understanding what the Doctor has done, is appalled: “No one should have that much power!” Mia and Yuri are simply scared of this capricious, godlike figure, who cavorts with mortals for his sport. Worse of all is Adelaide’s realisation that he has no idea whether or not humanity’s future in the stars will now happen. The Doctor, in the knowledge that his song is ending, has become so fixated on saving lives which are a proxy for his own that he has lost sight of the things which he once found so important. And he’s oblivious of this, demanding why no one is thanking him. Only when we hear the shot from inside Adelaide’s home (a surprising moment for a family show, although the suicide isn’t too explicit) does he realise what has happened. He has indeed gone too far. And the vision of the Ood is not just a rebuke bit a reminder that he must finally accept that his song will end. He isn’t quite redeemed, though. He spends the last few moments clearly terrified of what awaits him. His sudden and symbolic pulling of the lever inside the TARDIS to escape the scene of his crime indicates that he is still afraid to face what is to come.
Sublime, perhaps the Boom Town of the specials (and I loved Boom Town, personally) in that this episode wraps up the deep, thematic stuff in preparation for the fireworks that are to come. 5/5.