DOCTOR WHO - The Waters Of Mars / Review

BBCHD - 15th November 2009 - 7.00pm

No flying bus, no cat-suited jewel thief, no babbling on about chops and gravy.

Well, that's a good enough start for me. The Waters Of Mars sets its stall out with great panache and stylishly recycles Who tropes with ballsy direction from the ever reliable Graeme Harper. It gleefully inverts the 'base under siege' plotting by initially distancing the Doctor from the participants in the story with his mantra of 'I should go' but also by gradually allowing the audience to witness the Doctor's dark sovereignty as the 'Last Of The Time Lords' to finally express itself in that highly charged scene where, spacesuited, he walks away from Bowie Base One and listens to humanity, in all its Troughtonesque international manifestations, 'rage against the dying of the light'.

'The Flood' and its zombified, infected humans, the international crew, the retro-NASA production design (and a nod by the sound boys to 2001 with the proximity detection noise) and the crisp CGI Martian landscapes are the perfect adornments to a particularly unpalatable poison chalice. We've had hints of a Doctor out of control and dealing with fixed points in time in previous episodes, with The Runaway Bride, Family Of Blood and The Fires Of Pompeii being particularly good examples, but he's always been tempered by a human companion and prevented from going too far. The distancing effect between Doctor and human victims here is crucial to understanding that on some occasions the Doctor is actually supposed to do nothing and to preserve key moments of history. He knows it and we know it.

Russell T Davies and Phil Ford perceptively and, as the Matt Smith incarnation waits in the wings, some would say inevitably, get the Doctor questioning his own use and abuse of power, the reasoning and morality of his decisions. The results are devastating. He becomes a Doctor we don't recognise and a callous, arrogant figure who denies the life and death democracy of humanity as represented by the Bowie Base crew. In that return to Earth, he expects the survivors to be grateful in a way that we've never witnessed before. He demands that his ego is stroked and in that moment, where he has right of force of command over himself as a Time Lord in control of the laws of time, he removes the rights of the humans in his care. He choses which ones will be saved and which ones will be forgotten.

In the current series, the political power of the Time Lords, as a project and as a philosophy, has completely collapsed. Time and the universe are actually free of their gaze until the Doctor attempts to resurrect himself as 'Time Lord Victorious' and in doing so we see that in fact a 'Time Lord Victorious' throws into crisis the notion of temporal government. It begins to force 'the little people' of each race out of the picture and ignores the political value of the multitude. In essence therefore, Adelaide and the Doctor struggle with the core idea of what it is to be free. They both provide us with interesting examples of what it is like for humans and Time Lords to have sovereignty over one's self and one's fate. As the Doctor undergoes the traumatic process in The Waters Of Mars of naming himself the 'Last Of The Time Lords', we can see that if Tennant's era has been about anything then it is about the Doctor's reluctance to accept that he really is the last of his kind and to acknowledge that the burden of responsibility, the carrying out of the laws of time, is now his alone. It's only as we get to the end of The Waters Of Mars do we truly understand what that burden is and how safe the universe has been in the hands of a war survivor Doctor.

The virus that infects the Bowie Base crew is also a powerful metaphor about the way globalisation strips humanity of its identity. As Adelaide explains to the Doctor her reasons for why she's out on the new frontier we get an image of a severely compromised Earth that isn't that far away from current predictions. The virus is a global force, highly pertinent that it's in the water, that removes 'difference'.  It's an  homogenising element that destroys the very human qualities we cherish - self, love, identity, home. The zombies that it creates forgo the memories of their families or their children and the ability to feel any kind of human compassion. This is emphasised by the death of Steffi Ehrlich who rewatches a video message from her family as the waters close in and possess her. The various nationalities on the base are not just an homage to the similar set-ups in the Troughton era but they are in effect a microcosm of our own world where cultural and social differences are being eroded away by the tides of monocultural globalisation. The story positions the alien as homogenising aggressor and the human as a force for the greater good.   

The Doctor also requires the very qualities that the Flood seeks to snuff out in a human companion. Adelaide, just like all his companions, is there to humanise him but also to assist in the denial by him of the true freedom to completely own the power of the Time Lords. We see here that once he takes ownership of the laws of time he's immediately corrupted and dangerous to himself and to us. Once he strays down that path then all the fixed points in time become unfixed and are simply divested of their importance to the web of time. They are meaningless as great achievements born out of death and sacrifice because the Doctor now believes he has a right to unfix their necessary circumstances. For example, the deaths of Adelaide and her crew are to an extent prevented, their sacrifice becoming illusory narratives of redemption. It's a redemption that leads to Adelaide's suicide.

Adelaide completely recognises how the Doctor's moral core shifts here and she realises that she has to take the Doctor's redemptive actions on Mars to their proper conclusion. This goes beyond caring about her legacy and achievements that are continued down the bloodline. It's an existential decisionism where she must refashion history and enable it to escape from the Doctor's new found pedagogy. The incredibly powerful scene where she relates to the Doctor her encounter with the Dalek suggests that the time-travelling Daleks are also aware of the construction of history and Adelaide's place in it. This encounter, as the Dalek literally gazes into her soul, suggests the existence of the web of time from which no one can escape even if there is an arrogant Doctor who believes he has the law of time on his side. It's a dark vision that goes back all the way to the Enlightenment.

This web consists of a penetrating, constant gaze which harvests information in order to create profiles and classifications (tangibly enforced by those quick cuts to the Bowie Base team biogs, announcing births, deaths, places); there is also a constant reinforcement of norms in such a way that one cannot operate outside of them without some sort of sanction (the Doctor's refusal to interfere in fixed points in time, his recognition that he shouldn't be there and his later his self-sanctioning to do so); finally, there is a human based social rather than a Doctor based sovereign power, which operates without a tangible leader and instead along myriad lines, through a multiplicity of relations (Adelaide and her legacy which leads to the human colonisation of the galaxy). Power and knowledge are at the centre of The Water Of Mars - a companion's ability to understand the need to reinforce the social order and a Doctor's hubris in acknowledging himself as 'Time Lord Victorious'. As Adelaide commits suicide to preserve the normative structure of time, the Doctor, emulating the young Master as he looked into the unfettered schism of the vortex, catches a glimpse of himself as its future, dark architect.

Tennant and Lindsay Duncan are simply superb in this drama. Both give very subtle performances that elevate these themes above the horror and science fiction trappings. Tennant in particular showcases his ability as an actor to turn the character on a sixpence. The man that emerges from the TARDIS in London 2059 is clearly not our Doctor simply through the way Tennant physically occupies the space, holds himself and through the set of his facial characteristics. There's something dark going on behind the sparkling eyes. Duncan is excellent as the non-nonsense and practical Adelaide and she peels away the layers of the character gradually as the story progresses, revealing a thoroughly romantic vision in the anecdote about the Dalek and finally railing against the Doctor's self-satisfaction, his smugness, by confirming that death is just as important as life. Her suicide is one of the most powerful moments in the story, and perhaps in the entire run of the new series, underlining the narrative force of death that echoes down the 47 year history of the show itself.

And it's not all dark. There is that rather lovely in-joke about Doctor Who consisting of people running down corridors. In The Waters Of Mars the corridors are very, very long and people do a lot of running and this prompts the Doctor's witty little joke about providing fold-up bikes. The first encounter with Adelaide, as she trains her gun on the Doctor, and demands his rank, name and intention, and latterly gets the response 'fun' is also very amusing. Gadget the robot threatens to become an annoying creation but again the Doctor hurls the kind of abuse at it that the audience would clearly empathise with and thus it creates a sense of knowingness between character and audience about an object of vilification. In the end, Gadget is merely a means to an end to get the TARDIS to the base and fulfills its function without diluting the rest of the drama.

In the end, this was the perfect response from Russell T Davies in a post-Torchwood: Children Of Earth conclusion to the Tenth Doctor's era. The idea of a Doctor claiming control for himself over the laws of time is a perfect reflection of Torchwood's depiction of politicians choosing which children need to be sacrificed via their social importance. It's rather frightening now to consider that there's a Doctor out there that makes similar decisions on how the 'little people' are or aren't important to the web of time. And that's not right. We've come a long way from the joyous exultation of 'this time...everyone lives' from a Time War damaged Doctor in The Empty Child. 

Bookmark and Share

One Response to “DOCTOR WHO - The Waters Of Mars / Review”
  1. wytchcroft says:

    Such a shame - two years on and no-one has left a comment?!?!?

    One of Ten's best performances and a generally strong (and not wasted) cast for a change. A very strong (and probably doomed to be overlooked)episode and miles better than much of its era.

    My only genuine gripe so long after the event is that the Doctor's arc which your review neatly sums up could in fact have begun from Family of Blood and the Doctor's actions at the conclusion.

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2023 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.