New Series Review: The Waters of Mars

And, we’re back! Temporarily at least. I mentioned recently that I’m taking a hiatus from my regular reviews, mostly due to burnout. With this entry, I’m not promising an immediate and full return; but we’ll see what happens from here.

It’s been quite a while since we looked at the television series in these reviews. When we left off, I had just completed Planet of the Dead, the second of four specials leading up to the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration into the Eleventh. Today, we’ll continue with the third of the four specials, 2009’s very popular The Waters of Mars. Written by Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford, this episode features no regular companion, but includes one-off companion Adelaide Brook, played by Lindsay Duncan. Let’s get started!

waters of mars 1

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not watched this special! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Still traveling without companions, the Tenth Doctor arrives on the planet Mars. Specifically, he has arrived just outside Sanctuary Base 6, humanity’s first colony on Mars. He is collected by a robot from the base—“Gadget”, as it is called—and escorted to the base commander, Adelaide Brook. When he realizes who she and her crew area, and what the date must be, he is alarmed, and tries to leave. The date is 21 November 2059; and history records that the base exploded on this date, killing the crew. The Doctor senses that it is a fixed point in history, and wants nothing to do with it, though it pains him to let them die.

Before he can leave, a new crisis presents itself. A member of the crew, Andy Stone, is no longer himself; an unknown entity has taken him over, and he is emitting large amounts of water from his body. He attacks another crewmember, Andy Cain, and knocks her out in the access corridor to the colony’s biodome. When the crew discovers this, Adelaide takes the Doctor’s spacesuit under the assumption that he is the source of the infection. With no choice, he goes with her to investigate, along with Gadget and the colony physician, Tarak Ital.

Conversing with Adelaide on the way, the Doctor becomes impressed with her drive and her thoughtfulness about the colony and its mission. However, he slips and speaks of her in the past tense, making her ponder his words. Meanwhile they find Maggie, who is unconscious with a cut on her head. Tarak summons the company nurse, Yuri Kerenski, who brings a medi-pack and a stretcher. Adelaide’s deputy, Ed Groom, arrives as well, having realized that Andy was the only other person present. If this wasn’t an accident, then it means Andy has gone berserk; but Adelaide dismisses Ed’s concerns and sends him back. However, shortly thereafter, Technician Steffi Ehrlich runs Andy’s growls through the computer, and determines it was Andy’s voice. She warns Adelaide by comlink.

Adelaide, the Doctor, and Tarak enter the biodome. The Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to reactivate the lights, making Adelaide wonder at him again. Meanwhile, back in quarantine in the colony sickbay, Maggie awakens with no memories; however, she is unknowingly carrying the virus. Yuri refuses to let her out until twenty-four hours have passed. Tarak finds Andy, who pours water on his head, infecting him with the virus. Tarak quickly becomes zombielike, as Andy has already been. Meanwhile, changes suddenly come over Maggie, transforming her into the same type of creature. The virus, speaking through her, expresses a desire to possess Earth with all its water. Yuri reports Maggie’s condition to Adelaide, and says she is exuding water from her mouth and body. Seconds later, the Doctor and Adelaide find Andy and Tarak, and discover their transformation. The Doctor and Adelaide run, managing to get back through the dome door and seal it; Andy sprays it with water and slams himself against it, trying to break through. In sickbay, Ed arrives to find Maggie doing the same thing in an attempt to escape quarantine. He confirms to Adelaide that Maggie is contained; Adelaide warns the survivors not to drink or touch the water. The Doctor reiterates that he must go and can’t stay to the end. However, Andy and Tarak attack the door and break through; the Doctor hotwires Gadget for increased speed; he and Adelaide ride it to safety, leaving a trail of fire behind them (and shocking Roman Groom, Gadget’s operator, in the process. They seal themselves inside the command dome, but the Doctor is not reassured; as he insists, water is patient, and always wins.

The Doctor and Adelaide rejoin the others in sickbay, and examine Maggie. He speaks a bit of ancient Martian, and Maggie seems to recognize it. Adelaide explains that they get their water from an ice field; the Doctor realizes the infection came from the ice, and is ancient indeed. The crew plan to escape in their shuttle, but the Doctor grimly tells them that they could be secretly carrying the infection, as it has proven that it can hide in a host until it’s ready to mutate them. All it would take is one drop to infect the Earth. Adelaide decides to inspect the ice field to try to learn more before they evacuate; against his better judgment, the Doctor follows her. Meanwhile, in the now-evacuated sickbay, Maggie steps up her efforts to escape; she takes out the security camera before escaping, and screams, provoking a reaction from the infected Andy and Tarak.

The Doctor tells Adelaide a bit about the Ice Warriors as they overlook the ice field in its dome. As they analyze the ice, Adelaide confronts him about his knowledge; the Doctor hedges a bit, but finally tells her about fixed points in time, and that the base is one of them. However, he denies knowledge of the base’s fate, and redirects her by mentioning something from Adelaide’s past: an encounter with a Dalek, and the deaths of her parents (during the events of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, fifty years earlier). That story, which she has only told to her daughter, will inspire her granddaughter to lead humanity’s expansion to the stars—but only in the presence of Adelaide’s death on the base. When she asks why he is telling her this, he says it is as consolation.

They determine that the water was fine until the filter broke, allowing the virus in, just that morning. But, it would only have infected the biodome; the rest of the water would not be exchanged for another week; this means the others are not infected, and can leave. This prompts the Doctor to admit to Adelaide that it is their deaths that constitute the fixed point—she must die here, today, and he cannot interfere. This is something the time-sensitive Daleks would have sensed, as well, which is why it let her live in childhood. Angrily, she sends the Doctor away with his spacesuit.

However, before the crew can leave in the shuttle, Andy and Tarak climb the outside of the main dome and begin flooding it from above. As the water pours in, it infects Steffi Ehrlich, and then Roman. Roman warns the others to run, just before he transforms. Ed preps the shuttle for takeoff, but Maggie manages to infiltrate it and infect Ed. Before he can transform, he tells everyone goodbye, and triggers the self-destruct system. The shuttle explodes, trapping the virus, but also trapping the survivors. The Doctor escapes the blast, but is tortured by the suffering behind him…and he makes a fateful decision. He decides that, as he is the last of the Time Lords, the laws of Time belong to him—and he can make his own rules. He returns to save the crew.

Only Adelaide, Mia, and Yuri remain, and the base is collapsing. Adelaide tells him to save himself; he remarks about the prophecy of “four knocks” preceding his death, and insists it won’t be here and now. At that moment, Andy begins slamming his fist on the door; but after three knocks, the Doctor electrifies the door, cutting him off. The Doctor decides to heat the environment and boil the water, killing the virus. Adelaide reminds him of his own words about their deaths; he declares that the laws of Time will obey him.

An explosion destroys the environmental controls before he can act. His suit is damaged in the impact. He plans to get another from storage, but finds that section flooded. Maggie heads to the ice field and screams, cracking it; realizing the final death of the base is at hand, Adelaide activates the nuclear failsafe device under the base, planning to destroy the Flood even at the cost of their lives.

Taking his final chance, the Doctor deploys Gadget to the TARDIS, and remotely pilots it to the base. Just before the explosion, the Doctor brings the TARDIS inside and gets the survivors inside. Just after they escape, the explosion destroys the base, taking the Flood with it.

The TARDIS lands on Earth, near Adelaide’s home. In shock, Mia and Yuri run off. Adelaide demands to know what will happen to humanity’s future now, and the Doctor tries to justify his actions; he states that she can now inspire her granddaughter in person. He insists that he didn’t survive the Time War; he won it, and that makes him the “Time Lord Victorious”. He claims this new power will allow him to save influential people such as Adelaide, and also little people like Yuri and Mia; Adelaide rebukes his arrogance, insisting that he can’t decide who is important. She enters her house. The Doctor thinks all is well; but as he turns away, a laser blast is heard inside the house, and he realizes she has killed herself, undoing his changes. The fixed point, it seems, has reversed itself; though history records that Adelaide died on Earth, her granddaughter will still lead the way to the stars, based on stories of Adelaide’s heroism as told by Mia and Yuri.

The Doctor is struck with horror at what he is done, and knows there will be consequences. He sees a vision of Ood Sigma, and questions whether it is time for him to die. He stumbles in to the TARDIS, and hears the cloister bell ringing. He activates the controls, defiantly trying to put off his own death.

waters of mars 2

The Waters of Mars was something quite different from the average Doctor Who episode, and it shows in the reception: the episode won a Hugo Award in 2010 for its writers. (I’m not making commentary there; I think the show in general is great, but it doesn’t usually win Hugos.) While it wasn’t the first story to mention fixed points in time, it was perhaps the first in the television series to explore the concept so deeply. As a consequence, it also introduced a new (and mercifully brief) direction for the character of the Tenth Doctor: the much-debated “Time Lord Victorious”. Interestingly, it’s also a Mars story that doesn’t deal with the Ice Warriors, although it mentions them in passing.

Prior to rewatching for the sake of this review, it’s been a few years since I last watched this episode. I had gotten impatient with it in the interim, and developed a fairly negative opinion of it. Chiefly that is due to the Time Lord Victorious arc. This is a subject that falls into the category of “small issues that get an undue amount of attention”, at least in my opinion; and I was frustrated with the way that it seems to be such a popular subject for debate, when it essentially begins and ends within ten minutes of a single episode. Now, rewatching, I realize that it’s unfair to judge the episode badly for that reason, when in fact it’s a great story, with a great presentation. I do remember being very impressed with it the first time I watched it, not long after it premiered. It’s one of the best examples of the base-under-siege format in NuWho; it layers body horror atop that format, which is usually a good strategy; you have attack from without and from within at the same time, thus upping the tension. (For reference, compare The Seeds of Doom in the Fourth Doctor Era, which does the same thing via the Krynoid.)

The episode is an early example of a companion being the voice of reason over an out-of-control Doctor. This is something that we’ll see a little more under the Eleventh Doctor; but it becomes a prominent theme with the Twelfth Doctor and Clara Oswald (though I hate to admit it, because I can’t stand Clara in that time period—it kills me to admit she may be right on some occasions). The Waters of Mars is more remarkable yet, because it has the companion doing so at great personal cost, not from a sense of heroism, but simply because it’s what must be done.

My only real complaint about the episode is that it serves as a hasty patch for an issue the production team likely didn’t see coming. I can’t verify, but I suspect that Russell Davies formulated the ending he wanted for the Tenth Doctor’s era (as we’ll see in the final special), and then realized that it was going to require considerable setup. There wasn’t enough time left to execute that setup properly, and so it was squeezed into a single episode. The Time Lord Victorious arc was a good innovation (all debate about it aside, anyway), but it really needed more development time in order to set up for the next story. With a little more time, we could also have seen a little more of the aftermath of this choice, in the Doctor’s attempts to put off facing his death. Another minor issue: at this point, we had reason to think that the Doctor still had two more lives (having not discovered the War Doctor yet), and so his reluctance to regenerate seems less warranted than it would ultimately prove to be. Admittedly, this is partly because the Tenth Doctor’s life had been particularly short compared to his other lives, but it would require some studious observation to realize that fact.

Some continuity references: Fixed points have been referenced in too many stories to mention; however, the concept in a more generalized form dates back at least as far as The Aztecs, where the First Doctor was reluctant to tamper with history. That was his general stance on all historic events, but with good reason, knowing that some events MUST not be changed. The Doctor mentions his visit to Pompeii (The Fires of Pompeii; he has been there many times, but is almost certainly referring to this episode). Adelaide Brook encountered a Dalek during the events of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. “Knock four times” is a reference to the prophecy revealed in Planet of the Dead. The Doctor’s space suit was first seen in The Impossible Planet. The Doctor mentions the Ice Warriors, first seen in the serial of the same name. He previously electrified a bulkhead door in The Ark in Space. Adelaide mentions an “oil apocalypse” (The Infinite Quest). The Doctor sees a vision of Ood Sigma (Planet of the Ood). The Time Lord Victorious arc continued in an alternate timeline in the comic Four Doctors. The cloister bell rings to represent the Doctor’s impending death, something last seen in Logopolis. The Doctor’s line about the laws of Time—“And they will obey me!”—is reminiscent of the Master’s frequent “and you will obey me!”.

Overall, I think it’s a fantastic episode, and the high point of the “year of specials” leading up to the regeneration. (Or perhaps the low point, from the Doctor’s point of view.) Unfortunately, in terms of argument, it gets a bit overshadowed by the next special, the much-debated The End of Time. It’s still very much worth a watch, however, especially if you’ve never seen it.

Next time (whenever that may be): We’ll wrap up the Tenth Doctor’s era with The End of Time, a serial that’s either loved or hated. After that, we’ll look ahead to the Eleventh Doctor’s era with The Eleventh Hour. See you there!

Please note that all previously-cited links to Dailymotion have been removed by the user at that site. Doctor Who may be viewed on Amazon Prime and Britbox.

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