The Waters of Mars

TARDISFrom DWM #417. This was the first-ever Doctor Who TV story I reviewed for DWM. It displays my preoccupation with the distance between writing these things, and their publication. Dunno why I have a thing about that. Upon reflection, it’s a bit OTT. I’m a little embarrassed. But then, The Waters of Mars was rather good.

DWM #417A question for you, people of the future: What’s it like living in a post Tenth Doctor world? As these words are written, we’re weeks from The End of Time’s broadcast, and one particular image from The Waters of Mars remains burnt onto the retina: The Doctor raging against his impending death. He’s incandescent, dangerous… never more alive. “No” is his last word as that good night beckons and it just seems unthinkable he’ll soon be in the past tense.

But of course, he is. It’s written in time.

What’s been remarkable about The Waters of Mars is the way it’s reclaimed Doctor Who as Russell T Davies and David Tennant’s show, right here, right now (or ‘there and then’ for you Tomorrow People). As snippets have filtered out about what’s to come in 2010 (New costume! New logo! New TARDIS!) I’ve heard folk whisper – whisper, mind you – they just want to rattle through the Tenth Doctor’s last tales tout suite and get to the shiny new new-ness of Number Eleven.

Luckily, Davies and his planet-sized brain foresaw this and – paradoxically – just as Ten’s on the verge of becoming a ‘former Doctor’, his stopover at Bowie Base One results in him transforming into a truly new Doctor. He’s something we’ve never seen before, he’s “Time Lord Victorious”.

“Only when this Doctor’s story is coming to an end can you be as bold,” Tennant told DWM’s Benjamin Cook in interview. “We couldn’t have done it at any other time, and Matt Smith and Steven Moffat can’t do that when they start. It’s only in extremis that you can allow the character to unravel a bit.”

Take that, new regime! Here’s shiny new new-ness! A reinvented Doctor! And that means bad news for Bad Wolf/The Parting of The Ways, the number 10 story in DWM’s Mighty 200 poll. The Waters of Mars has surely hurtled straight into the upper reaches of the – umm – Mighty 201, knocking Christopher Eccleston’s swan song out of the top set as it lands.

Talking about landing, when the Doctor arrives on Mars we’re reminded of the essence of his character. Simply put, he’s a traveller. He’s just there to take in the sights. The base is “beautiful” to him, speaking of a similar desire in humanity to get out there and see it all. Upon reaching the story proper, his stated intention may be “fun”, but that’s hardly the keynote for this adventure – particularly when he realises who the red planet crew are. From then on it’s all just death. “You’re only 27 years old,” he says to Mia, speaking her eulogy.

This pervading sense of doom is unlike anything we’ve witnessed in Doctor Who before. The Caves of Androzani – the Fifth Doctor’s parting shot – was fatalistic, but throughout he was fighting for his friend’s life. And where there’s life there’s hope. Here? Nothing. The lengthy sequence where our hero turns his back on the besieged base, the crew’s death throes audible over the communication system as he trudges away, is the series’ bleakest ever moment. It’s actually not very Doctor Who at all.

But the odd thing is, when the Doctor does return to save the day – a striking figure, picked out in a halo of light – it still doesn’t feel right. It may evoke a similar ‘I’m in charge’ moment from Voyage of the Damned, however here it’s anything but reassuring. In fact, it’s wrong. “The laws of time are mine and they will obey me!” he rails dangerously, as though purloining a line from the Master. He may claim he’s fighting time itself, but in reality the Doctor is battling death. His own. It seems that, somehow, if he can rescue the crew, he’ll also be able to stave off his demise.

This is extraordinary; the Doctor desperate and feral (“If I have to fight you as well then I will!” he warns Adelaide). He’s crossed a line and there’s no way back. It’s perhaps the most exciting development in the character’s history. He’s been broken. “I’ve gone too far,” he realises at last, dropping to his knees. What happens next is anyone’s guess (alright, alright, you know). It truly could be anything.

Russell T Davies and Phil Ford’s script deserves huge praise. Obviously. Although there’s the odd tonal mismatch (the riffing about bikes and the in-joke about robot dogs don’t play well – a leftfield attempt to lever in some light) it’s a massive achievement that, for a while, we do truly believe the Doctor is going to let everyone die. And the whole concept of the Flood is epically scary. “Water is patient… water just waits… water always wins”. We’re up against an elemental force, slow, ancient, eroding. And just one drop is enough. In the case of GADGET’s operator Roman, it lands on his cheek and rolls down his face, like a tear. Such a clever image.

With just a few deft strokes, this script even presents a new take on the Daleks, one appearing to the young Adelaide as a Visitation – unknowable, but inspirational.

Sorry. Like the Flood, I’m gushing. But batten yourselves down, there’s more to come.

In Adelaide Brooke we were promised “the Doctor’s most strong-minded companion yet”, according to the pre-publicity bumph. Well that’s nonsense. She’s in no way a companion, although she does fall into line as a confidante. Lindsay Duncan plays the control freak base commander (“Everything through me!”) with wisdom and presence. When the Doctor is left impotently lurking in the background – a bystander in his own story – as the crew prepare to evacuate, she’s more than capable of filling the gap. She’s the Doctor’s counterpart, and this story is their two-hander.

Unsurprisingly, Duncan’s scene with Tennant, via a video screen as the Time Lord attempts to exit, is mesmerising. It’s a TV cliché that in drama, when the surgeon or police officer arrives with dreadful news for the next of kin, the camera pulls back and we leave the characters to that conversation in private. Here, though, we hold the line and that dreadful exchange is played out in full: “Your death is fixed in time forever, and that’s right”. Both actors’ faces are massive and static on camera. Duncan’s eyes glisten in terror, while Tennant’s are huge, appearing almost bruised inside that space helmet. There’s no shouting, or histrionics. And you can’t look away.

It’s a supremely still moment, and one the story needs among its flash-frames, and whip-snapping camerawork. As ever, director Graeme Harper is hyper-active, it’s action, action, action. Occasionally, that gets a little wearing – particularly the innumerable scenes of butch running – but mostly the adventure barrels along, successfully evoking the sense of everything on the verge of collapse.

All the while, Mars (exquisitely realised) looks on impassively. As Bowie Base One self-destructs, we cut to a long shot of the planet. Silent. Unaffected. It might almost be thinking, “Oh man, look at those cave men go. It’s the freakiest show”.

The Tenth Doctor’s stint is nearly up. His death is fixed in time, and that’s right. Steven Moffat and Matt Smith are standing patiently off-camera, waiting for their cue. In fact, where you are, they’ve now begun. What they do next is sure to be exciting and fantastic and new. But on the basis of The Waters of Mars, am I really ready for all of this to be over?

No.

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