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Doctor Who Specials Recap “The Waters of Mars”

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Doctor Who Specials Recap: “The Waters of Mars”


David Tennant’s long goodbye to Doctor Who enters its final stretch with “The Waters of Mars,” an outstanding episode which takes a very traditional Doctor Who setting and plot, and adds some extremely un-traditional elements to it. The last episode back in April, the insubstantial “Planet of the Dead,” was even more disappointing than it might otherwise have been due to standing in place of an entire 13-episode series, as the show took time off to make the transition to a new production team (and a new Doctor) for next year. It had nothing to do with the overall arc of the series, apart from some clumsy foreshadowing jammed in at the end (“He will knock four times…”). However, “The Waters of Mars” gets things firmly back on track, taking the Doctor’s character to places he’s never been before and giving a sense of rushing headlong towards a final reckoning.

The setting is a near-future Mars base, a central dome with various subsidiaries around it (bio-dome, medical dome, shuttle pad, etc.). This sort of environment is familiar to fans of the classic series, which produced many stories where a small group of characters is trapped in an isolated place and picked off one by one by some alien menace. Often, as here, they would feature a multinational cast of characters, most of whom are quick sketches rather than fully three-dimensional. The exception in this case is their leader, Adelaide Brooke, superbly played by Lindsay Duncan.

The Doctor, traveling alone as he has been for some time now, arrives on the red planet, and wanders out to explore. He is quickly captured by a flimsy-looking robot, taken into the base, and interrogated by Adelaide at gunpoint. These days, the Doctor normally gets out of this sort of situation with a quick flash of his psychic paper, but in keeping with the more old-style feel of this episode, he talks Adelaide into lowering the gun instead.

In the bio-dome, gardener Andy Stone (Alan Ruscoe) is celebrating the successful raising of the first off-Earth food crops. He pulls a carrot out of the soil, washes it, and takes a bite. He is quickly overcome by a mysterious infection, and when his colleague Maggie Cain (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) approaches, he attacks her.

Back in the central dome, Adelaide is incredulous that the Doctor doesn’t know who they are—the first off-world colonists in history. Shots of news webpages give us the background information (“HUMAN RACE CELEBRATES MARS COLONY”). Then, as the Doctor realizes he’s standing in front of the legendary Captain Adelaide Brooke, his delight turns to foreboding as he finds out the date is 2059. Specifically, November 21, 2059—the day history records Bowie Base One was destroyed and all its crew died in a nuclear explosion.

This scene is pivotal, since it sets up the whole story, but it frankly gets tedious as the Doctor goes around the circle of seven crewmembers, naming each of them in turn so we can see their corresponding obituary webpages. Then he says he needs to leave (“I’m sorry, but it’s one of those very rare times when I’ve got no choice…”) but doesn’t. Instead, he goes around the circle again, shaking their hands and telling them what an honor it’s been to meet them, and gives Adelaide a salute. Then he goes to leave… but then remembers the other two crewmembers and names them, so we get to see their webpages. By now you’re practically begging for this scene to end and something to happen.

Fortunately, it does. A communicator call to Maggie in the bio-dome yields only strange growling sounds. The Doctor reiterates again that he needs to leave, but it’s too late; Adelaide orders his space suit taken away and locked up, and takes him with her and Tarak Ital (Chook Sibtain) to investigate. Now stuck in the situation, the Doctor decides to go with it, telling Adelaide he’s always wanted to meet her and bantering with Roman Groom (Michael Goldsmith), the remote-control operator of the robot Gadget—the Doctor says he hates funny robots (although he makes an exception for dog-shaped ones).

They find the unconscious Maggie in the tunnel leading to the bio-dome, and Adelaide orders her taken back to the medical dome and quarantined. In the bio-dome, Tarak finds the infected Andy Stone. He is now a zombie-like figure, with dead white staring eyes, the whole lower part of his face cracked and fissured, and water constantly streaming from his open mouth and dripping from his hands. It’s an effectively creepy and horrific monster design. He sprays a stream of water at Tarak, infecting him too with the alien plague.

In the medical dome, Yuri Kerenski (Aleksandar Mikic) realises that Maggie is also infected. Adelaide and the Doctor discover the transformed Andy and Tarak; Adelaide pulls out her gun again, but the Doctor dissuades her from shooting. They leave the bio-dome with the zombies in hot pursuit. These aren’t your typical slow, lurching zombies either; these guys can run. The Doctor and Adelaide reach the airlock just in time, but the zombies start forcing water into the door seals, fusing the systems. They make it back to the central dome after the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to beef up Gadget’s capabilities, turning the crawling heap of junk into a rocketing racer. It’s a moment of laugh-out-loud silliness, but it also sets up an important plot point for later use; this is a very well constructed script.

The Doctor and Adelaide attempt to communicate with Maggie, but fail. The Doctor asks where their water comes from; it’s from an ice field beneath the base, and somehow, something has got through their filtration system. Yuri tells them how Maggie, or rather the thing within her, showed a disturbing interest in the Earth—a world of water. After some prompting from her deputy Ed Gold (Peter O’Brien), Adelaide declares Action Procedure One—evacuation. The crew spring into action, preparing to leave and return to Earth.

Now there are almost two separate stories going on. The Doctor doesn’t interact at all with the other crewmembers, only with Adelaide. There’s a striking shot of him just standing there, totally ignoring the infected Maggie in the quarantine chamber right behind him, both of them simply observing all the bustling activity around them. Finally, he rouses himself to bring up a point which Adelaide has overlooked: the alien organism affected only the humans in the bio-dome, and did not show in Maggie immediately; it waited until she was brought back to the central dome. It can reason, and hide itself—which means any one of them could be infected without knowing it. Adelaide heads off to the ice field to get more information; the Doctor yet again tells himself he should be leaving, but just can’t bring himself to, and runs after her. Left alone in the medical dome, Maggie quickly frees herself, screeching a summons to the other two zombies in the bio-dome tunnel.

At the ice field, the Doctor and Adelaide begin searching for information to determine just when the infection occurred. But that’s just a cover for the real purpose of their conversation—the first of three tremendous one-on-one scenes where David Tennant and Lindsay Duncan simply blew me away. In answer to Adelaide’s probing (“You don’t look like a coward. But all you’ve wanted to do is leave”), the Doctor obliquely starts talking about the concept of fixed moments in time, at this stage calling it “just a theory.”

The Doctor: This base, on Mars—with you, Adelaide Brooke—this is one vital moment. What happens here must always happen.
Adelaide: Which is what?
The Doctor: I don’t know.

But he makes a guess to divert her. “I think something wonderful happens. Something that started fifty years ago.” Astonished, Adelaide tells the story of how her father and mother were lost during the chaos of the Dalek invasion of 2008 (“The Stolen Earth”), and how she saw a Dalek in the sky. A flashback shows the young Adelaide looking at the creature, hovering above her, returning her gaze.

Adelaide: And then…it simply went away. I knew, that night…I knew I would follow it.
The Doctor: But not for revenge.
Adelaide: What would be the point of that?
The Doctor: That’s what makes you remarkable. And that’s how you create history.”

In response to Adelaide’s tale of her past, never told to anyone before, the Doctor gifts her a story of the future. A marvelous account, feeling almost like a fairytale, of how Adelaide Brooke’s example will inspire her granddaughter (seen briefly as a child at the very opening of the episode) to pilot the first lightspeed ship to Proxima Centauri, spearheading humanity’s expansion out into the galaxy. And then the kicker, as she stares at him in wonder:

Adelaide: Who are you? Why are you telling me this? Doctor…why tell me?
The Doctor: As consolation.

Consolation for her—or for him? They discover a log entry from Andy Stone from the day before, showing a broken water filter. Adelaide realizes the infected water won’t have been circulated outside the bio-dome yet; they’re clear to leave. Back in the central dome, she gives the Doctor back his spacesuit and tells him to get out, before diving back into her crew’s frenetic activity—preparing the shuttle for emergency launch, loading up food packs, and so on. None of them notice an alarm sounding, or a monitor showing that the Andy and Tarak zombies have climbed through the base’s ducting and are now on the roof of the central dome; they begin forcing water through the structure. In general, the water zombies (known as “the Flood”) work very well as an implacable, unstoppable threat, apart from one risible shot here of the two of them spewing CGI water from their mouths like living firehoses.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is totally inactive; just standing there watching all this frantic rushing around as if it’s a show taking place on a stage in front of him. The crew eventually notice the zombie threat and become even more urgent. When the Doctor can’t bear to watch any more, he turns and exits; only Adelaide notices him go. With his space suit back on, the Doctor enters the base airlock and hits the exit button. Nothing happens.

Adelaide’s face appears on a video monitor; she has trapped him in the airlock until he tells her what will happen today. Again, their confrontation is intense:

Adelaide: I could ramp up the pressure in that airlock and crush you.
The Doctor: Except you won’t. You could have shot Andy Stone, but you didn’t. I loved you for that. [A long pause] Imagine you knew something…Imagine you found yourself somewhere—I dunno, Pompeii, imagine you were in Pompeii…

In “The Fires of Pompeii,” the Doctor had to explain to Donna he couldn’t save the people of that city from the eruption of Vesuvius, a fixed point in time. This story is something new for Doctor Who, a “future historical”—even though we don’t know her, the Doctor treats Adelaide as a historical personage on the same level as Shakespeare, or Dickens… or the victims of Pompeii. History shows that Adelaide Brooke activated Action Procedure Five—detonation, the final option—on this day. Her sacrifice is what inspires her granddaughter. “You die, today. She flies out there… like she’s trying to meet you.”

Painfully, Adelaide is reduced to begging the Doctor to help. But even with his knowledge of the future, there’s nothing he can do; all he can give her is complete honesty.

The Doctor: You wondered all your life why that Dalek spared you. I think it knew; your death is fixed in time. Forever. And that’s right.
Adelaide: You’ll die here too.
The Doctor: No.
Adelaide: What’s going to save you?
The Doctor: Captain Adelaide Brooke.

She lets him go—“Damn you”—as the action starts up again. The water finally breaks through into the central control area as everything goes to hell. Steffi (Cosima Shaw) is trapped and soaked, Roman is infected, and the shuttle has to be destroyed as Ed is hit by Maggie. Through it all, the Doctor is slowly but steadily walking away from the base, listening to the unfolding disaster through his space suit’s communicator. He is thrown to the ground by the shuttle explosion, and sits up to hear the sounds of the three survivors—Adelaide, Yuri, and Mia (Gemma Chan)—trapped in a dying base.

As the Doctor sits there, contemplating the destruction in front of him that he could not prevent (and yes, I know those flames aren’t possible in the martian atmosphere, but it’s still a spectacular image), we hear a montage of lines from the last four years: “I’m not just a Time Lord. I’m the last of the Time Lords.—They’ll never come back, not now.—Oh, I’ve got the TARDIS. Same old life, last of the Time Lords…—Then they died, took it all with them. The walls of reality closed, the worlds were sealed. Gone forever.—The Time Lords kept an eye on everything, but that’s gone now.—But they died, the Time Lords! All of them, they died!—I’m the last of the Time Lords…” And something inside him snaps.

Inside the base, the survivors are waiting for the end, when suddenly the Doctor strides in—backlit heroically, standing tall, all his passivity thrown off, a whirlwind of energy. He takes charge instantly, and seems almost ready to defeat the Flood through sheer force of will. Tellingly, the soundtrack as the Doctor enters uses the same strident, memorable music cue that accompanied the awakening of the Master in “Utopia”—the moment when an incredibly powerful creature threw off all restraints.

Adelaide: You said we die. For the future—for the human race!
The Doctor: Yes, because there are laws. There are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws. But they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to finally realize—the laws of time are mine. And they will obey me!

The way Tennant’s voice cracks on “They all died” is extraordinary. But it seems for a moment that all is lost anyway, as one thing after another goes wrong—he can’t raise the heat and steam the zombies because the environment controls fail, he can’t go outside and fix them because his suit’s helmet gets smashed, he can’t use one of the crew’s suits because they’re cut off by a curtain of water…

Finally, in a storage compartment, he discovers that funny robot. That’s the answer! He sends the souped-up Gadget out of the base, zooming over the martian landscape toward the TARDIS.

In a reversal of their earlier positions, Adelaide is now the one sitting on the sidelines observing all this (to her, meaningless) activity. Yuri reports that something is happening at the ice field—cracks are appearing in the glacier as the zombies are performing some kind of summoning. We never find out what’s emerging, but it doesn’t matter. Adelaide realizes what she has to do, and activates Action Five, starting a countdown to detonation. The Doctor yells at her to stop, but it’s too late.

Under the Doctor’s control, Gadget arrives at the TARDIS, enters and sets the controls. In the base, the survivors are huddled waiting for the end—Adelaide looking up at the Doctor, still fighting, eyes wild, hair practically standing on end with energy. They hear the sound of the TARDIS arriving, uncomprehending.

The countdown reaches zero. Bowie Base One is history.

In a wonderfully jarring change of scene, the TARDIS materializes on a quiet, snowy London street; it’s as if the traditional Doctor Who Christmas special has arrived early this year. The Doctor steps out with his usual grin back in place, but ominously, his first words to the shellshocked survivors as they stumble out into the snow are, “Isn’t anyone gonna thank me?”

Adelaide realises the darkened, empty house they’re standing in front of is hers. It’s still November 21, 2059—they have been transported, miraculously, back to Earth in an instant. It’s all too much for Mia, who runs away. Yuri goes after her, leaving Adelaide and the Doctor alone for their final confrontation.

Earlier he had convinced her she had to die, to ensure the future of the human race. Isn’t that future in jeopardy now? He breezily tells her she can now inspire her granddaughter in person and it will only change a few unimportant details. Adelaide is horrified at his dismissal of her concerns: “You can’t know that! And if my family changes, the whole of history could change. The future of the human race. No one should have that much power!”

As if to remove all doubt about how far the Doctor has fallen, he brags about how he’s “done this sort of thing before, saved some little people… But never someone as important as you. Ooh, I’m good!” David Tennant’s portrayal of a Doctor who has lost his moral compass is terrifying—a real behind-the-sofa moment for adults. It’s also the culmination of a thread that’s been running throughout the new series. Back when he was Christopher Eccleston, the Doctor’s reaction to being the last survivor of the Time War was bitter and ironic—“I’m the only one left. I win. How about that.” (“Dalek”) Tennant’s Doctor was initially given to blustering things like, “I’m the Doctor. And if you don’t like it, if you want to take it to a higher authority, there isn’t one. It stops with me.” (“New Earth”) But now, under pressure, that bluster has turned into a naked assertion of power.

The Doctor: For a long time now I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious.
Adelaide: And there’s no one to stop you.”
The Doctor: No.
Adelaide: This is wrong, Doctor. I don’t care who you are. The Time Lord Victorious is wrong.
The Doctor: That’s for me to decide.

With a wave of his magic wand, the Time Lord Victorious unlocks the door of the house and sends Adelaide on her way. (“Is there nothing you can’t do?” “Not any more.”) But Adelaide finds the way of taking back control of her own destiny. Perhaps she could have lived without endangering the glorious future the Doctor painted for her, but she refuses to take the risk. She draws the gun which everyone (including the Doctor) had forgotten she was still carrying, enters her house, and quietly closes the door.

Hearing the sound of the gun firing, the Doctor reels back against the TARDIS. He realizes immediately what has happened, as we see Adelaide’s obituary updated to show she died on Earth. Other webpages show that Mia and Yuri eventually tell the story of what happened on Mars, and Adelaide’s granddaughter still goes to the stars, her grandmother’s legacy intact.

Shocked out of his attack of megalomania, the Doctor suddenly sees a vision of an Ood standing in the snow—the same Ood which once told him, “I think your song must end soon.” The vision vanishes, and a shaken Doctor enters the TARDIS to contemplate his future, as the ominous cloister bell sounds. Then he comes to a decision, and with a final ambiguous, defiant “No!” he’s off.

As you can probably tell from the sheer size of this recap, I thought this was an outstanding episode of Doctor Who. This is the kind of story that can only be told at the end of a Doctor’s life, since it makes a major alteration to a character that normally doesn’t change much from episode to episode. The writing from Russell T Davies and Phil Ford is top-notch. Ford is the major writer for the kid-oriented spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and also contributed the excellent episode “Something Borrowed” to the second series of Torchwood. Davies here brings into Doctor Who some of the darkness of his immediately preceding work, the bleak finale of Torchwood: Children of Earth. Graeme Harper directs with his usual flair for action and tension, but it has to be said that, thanks to tour de force performances from both Tennant and Duncan, the zombie-attack plot remains a sideshow beside the story of the Doctor and Adelaide Brooke.

Next Week: It’s the beginning of the end for David Tennant, with “The End of Time, Part One.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “The Seeds of Death,” starring Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury. The Doctor fights a different Martian menace—the reptilian Ice Warriors (who get a passing mention in “The Waters of Mars”).

Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.