“THE WATERS OF MARS” – Post-Series 4 Specials, Episode 3, Story 201 – Written by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford; Directed by Graeme Harper – The Tenth Doctor heads to Mars for some sightseeing and discovers here’s arrived on the day of one of those “Fixed Point in Time” things he’s always yapping about. He’s shown up just in time to watch the first human colony blow itself up, which ends up inspiring future generations to travel to the stars and other dramatic things Tennant can say in that slow motion way he does. The problem is that the Doctor doesn’t realize he’s here on this Fixed day until he gets inside and creepy things start happening with the water infecting people and, well, he can’t really help himself because you know how he is, so he gets involved and tries to change the timeline. Because He’s The Last Of The Time Lords And While That Used To Make Him Weepy, Now It Makes Him The Winner.
THE WATERS OF MARS might just be my favorite Russell T Davies’ script. Co-written with Phil Ford, WATERS is a tightly-packed, emotionally charged thunderstorm of a mini-movie that sees the Doctor confused, stunted, and then decidedly god-like. It’s a fantastic script, dominated by the Doctor, this story’s “Companion,” Adelaide Brooke (played by Lindsay Duncan), and the situation itself – the Doctor being present on the day when the first Earth colony on Mars is destroyed, killing everyone inside.
I love stories that address the questions you’re not supposed to ask, and in WATERS we’ve got one of those stories. If you’re a Time Lord and you’re clever and you can go anywhere you want and do anything you want, why not change history? Why not travel through the past stopping every great crime man has ever committed? There’s a practical answer to that, of course. DOCTOR WHO would be a very different kind of show if the Doctor showed up at Auschwitz or decided to stop the American slave trade or even if he just decided that April 3, 2011 was going to be a day where nothing bad ever happened to anyone and he just went around from city to city, reading April 4th’s paper to scan for Bad Things and then popping back to stop them. (And he could have a cat and Fisher Stevens could play his Companion.)
Just because we all know there’s external reasons why the Doctor doesn’t do this doesn’t mean there’s no internal story to mine, and WATERS picks up where THE FIRES OF POMPEII left off – what moments are you allowed to change and which moments have you always changed?
Style-wise, WATERS has much in common with the Tenth Doctor/Rose two-parter, THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET and THE SATAN PIT, and the Tenth Doctor/Martha story 42. Like the earlier episodes, WATERS is set out in deep space in a trapped, but constructed, environment. The Doctor shows up and an impossible situation starts to develop. There’s a clock running and people dying and claustrophobia begins to heighten everyone’s tension.
Both of those previous stories were excellent and WATERS continues in that tradition. What sets WATERS apart is that we’ve got an untethered Doctor at play here. Still Companion-less after the events of JOURNEY’S END, the Doctor is on Mars for a bit of sight-seeing and gets arrested by a rover and brought to the station’s commander, a no-nonsense human woman named Adelaide Brooke.
Brooke isn’t playing any games with the Doctor’s presence, befitting her position as the leader of the first human colonization of Mars. It’s not likely for someone to just pop by for a chat and she’s not immediately taken with the Doctor’s charms. The Doctor does his usual happy-go-lucky traveler bit to ingratiate himself with the crew but when he discovers he’s at Bowie Base One on the day it gets blown up, he decides he needs to check out.
But he doesn’t. An emergency in the biodome area sees him sticking around as his curiosity and desire to help (and the colonists taking his space suit) keep him situated with them.
In the biodome facility the workers are being taken over by water. An incorrectly-fitted filter has been installed and some kind of virus in the Martian water infects the people it touches. It’s a really nice visual effect as those infected just keep leaking lots of water out of their bodies. The focus is never really on the infected, though. They just serve as the means to turn up the pressure on the rest of the crew to get off Mars as quickly as possible.
Davies’ use of future history here is done to great effect. We know that the base is going to blow up, killing everyone inside. We also know that because of this, Adelaide’s granddaughter is one day going to be the first human to pilot a ship to go to … I don’t know, I forget. Someplace spacey and far away. (I’d say Tatooine, but I used that joke last review.) Look, the point is that because Adelaide dies in this explosion, her granddaughter leads Earth into the starts a bunch of years later. The Doctor tells Adelaide this and tells her that this makes today a “Fixed Point” in time.
I love the idea of the the Fixed Point, that no matter what anyone tries to do, there are certain events that just cannot be undone. It’s a workable solution to why the Doctor doesn’t just go back in time and stop every bad thing from ever happening, and it helps keep the timeline in order. The Doctor might be able to alter some events in World War II, but he can’t change the outcome of the war (one presumes). During THE FIRES OF POMPEII, we learned that the Doctor’s vow to not interfere and then his subsequent decision to interfere is actually what causes the volcanic eruption.
In WATERS we’ve got a Doctor trapped by Pompeii, trapped by his curiosity, trapped by his determination to help the people involved, and trapped by the future history of this moment triggering humanity’s transition from a planet-bound people to a space-faring one. Tennant does a bang-up job showing off the Doctor’s different states of mind. He’s cool under pressure (telling Adelaide they need bikes because the corridors are so long), always thinking through the problem (he thinks that the Ice Warriors were perhaps responsible for keeping this new Martian water virus trapped in the glaciers buried beneath the surface of the planet), and yet he’s also indecisive about whether to stay and help or go and let history play out like he knows it should. He looks like a guy going through a mid-life transition, but it’s one he doesn’t welcome and it’s one he doesn’t know how it will end.
In the best sequence of the mini-movie, Brooke hands the Doctor back his space gear after she’s made the decision to flee Bowie and wishes him luck. He puts on the suit and heads for the exit, but when he gets to the exit door he can’t get out. Adelaide is holding him there, refusing to let him leave. She wants to know what he knows and this is when he tells her the future history of her death and Earth’s ascent.
It’s such a great contrast. Both of them are alone in their small compartment, but the Doctor has the quiet of Mars on the other side of the door while Adelaide has the craziness of her crew trying to get out of Dodge behind her.
After hearing what’s to come, Adelaide grants him his escape.
Which he doesn’t take, because he’s the Doctor. He heads back to command, determined to save the day. Tennant is on fire here as a man slightly unhinged. He has that look of a train traveling just a bit too fast for its tracks – it hasn’t jumped them, yet, but you can see that it’s going to.
When it becomes obvious that he can’t stop the water, the Doctor sends a robot (Gadget, gadget!) to go get the TARDIS and bring it to him, and he takes Adelaide and two of her crew home to Earth.
Maybe there’s something about this being a last second escape rather than last second victory, but the crew of the Bowie Base are none too pleased with finding themselves transported to a snowy London. They all pile out of the TARDIS and stand there.
“Isn’t anyone going to thank me?” a very-pleased-with-himself Doctor asks.
One of the crew is horrified and another goes after her, leaving the Doctor and Adelaide standing there. She’s furious with him, but the Doctor isn’t having it. He tells her he’s been looking at his situation as the Last of the Time Lords all wrong; he’s not a tragic figure but the winner and there’s no one left to tell him what rules he does and doesn’t have to follow. He tells her he’s “the Time Lord victorious.”
Adelaide thinks this is too much power for one man, to which the Doctor replies, “Tough.” He declares that he’s going to do more than save the “little people” and Adelaide is horrified at his arrogance.
Adelaide thinks he should’ve left all of them to die on Mars because of the importance of their deaths, but the Doctor says she can inspire her granddaughter in person and sends her into her home. Adelaide is still disturbed by the Doctor but goes inside anyway, only she doesn’t go hug her family. Instead, she pulls out her gun and kills herself in order to re-establish the timeline.
It’s a risky move, of course, because there’s no real way to know that killing yourself in your den is going to have the same effect on your family as exploding on the surface of Mars, but that’s not really the point. The point is that someone feels the Doctor has gone too far and is willing to kill herself to remind him of this fact.
It’s the Doctor’s turn to be horrified and then scared as Ood Sigma shows up to stand there in the snow and watch. The Doctor completely breaks down, knowing he’s going to have to pay for what he’s done, and becomes something of a blubbering idiot. As we saw in STOLEN EARTH/JOURNEY’S END, this Doctor has no real interest in dying and values this regeneration’s life to the point where he seeks to avoid the death that is, for all living things, inevitable.
It’s a powerful transition to watch from Time Lord Victorious to Time Lord Frightened and Tennant sells it convincingly.
His actions do raise the question about whether Fixed Points really are Fixed, and what exactly that “Fixed” means.
It also makes me wish Davies had tried his hand at writing more horror; while WATERS isn’t scary, the tension generated by horror puts characters right in Davies’ emotional wheelhouse. Combine that with Graeme Harper’s always excellent directing (his use of high and low camera angles is particularly great here) and WATERS of MARS delivers the goods.