Sunday, November 15, 2009 by Jack Kibble-White
What is Doctor Who without hope? Or to put it another way, if you were a Time Lord, wouldn’t you make damn sure you avoided landing at a “fixed point in time”? “The Waters of Mars” ushered in the end of the Russell T Davies years by bringing us perhaps the most un Doctor Who episode ever made, in part because for the first time ever the development of the main character was prioritised higher than the story itself.
The Doctor being helpless to intervene as history obliterates a nascent colony makes for a great character study, but left you wondering whether this was to be a real story or just a sequence of events observed, and in this respect “The Waters of Mars” could be said to partially revisit the Schrödinger Cat analogy used in the Steven Moffat episode “Blink”.
Tenuous thematic connections aside, Davies and Ford’s script for “The Waters of Mars” seemed to owe other debts to Moffat, most obviously taking an everyday phenomenon and turning it into a source of terror. We’ve had light (or lack thereof) and now water – can we expect air and time to be the next microscopic predators to come after the Doctor?
But this is not a criticism, the extrapolation of H20 as a foe was expertly done, in particular the Doctor’s line about water being able to fell a mountain was chilling. Indeed much of the dialogue in this episode crackled, in particular those exchanges between Tennant and the always brilliant Lindsay Duncan. The moment in which she refuses to allow the Doctor to escape until he has fully appraised her of her imminent death was perhaps the most mature and complex scene Doctor Who has given us. While the moments after when the Doctor is able to hear the colonists’ desperate screams was Who at its all time grimmest.
It was also the point, when the Doctor’s personal future, appears to have pivoted and set off towards this incarnation’s demise. We can’t be sure, but it does appear that the Doctor’s reckless actions on Mars, have triggered everything that will now follow, as the Time Lord comes to learn that no one is bigger than time itself.
In the cold light of day, one might question why it would be this small band of space explorers that has finally pushed the Doctor over the edge, rather than – say – Pompeii, or the countless other events he has witnessed, and although the production worked hard to sell us the atrocity of these events, the Doctor’s motivation to act in this way and at this time still felt a little unclear.
But that aside, “The Waters of Mars” was brilliant television, a fantastic fillip to much of current weekend TV, willing to be bold and dark, as well as stupid and fun. Adelaide’s brush with a Dalek was poetic and affecting, the Doctor’s descent into a kind of madness, thrilling and scary, and the battle with the waters of Mars a visceral, cinematic tour de force.
We’ve seen such work from Davies’ Doctor Who before, but here it was all the better for not feeling in the least bit grandiose or operatic, this was hardcore, something we haven’t experienced before. And by the end of the story the Doctor had become a figure that we would no longer run to, but run from – now that’s definitely something new.