“The Waters of Mars” represents a marked contrast from DOCTOR WHO’s Easter special, “Planet of the Dead,” because it signals the beginning of the end for the 10th Doctor; Mars is the first step on the Doctor’s path to his own planet of death. PotD was the last hurrah for the fun-loving 19th persona; a romp meant to bid adieu to the footloose adventurer. In his place, we see the Doctor in his familiar role as self-appointed “Maintenance Man of the Universe.”
WoM is serious business. It’s packed with action, smothered in melancholy, and tinged with regret. The opening sequence is highly ironic, because the Doctor tells the scientists that he is on the red planet for “fun.” But the wind is taken out of his sails not by the whisper-thin atmosphere but by the realization that he is addressing the pioneers of Bowie Base One, the first human colony on Mars; a colony that mysteriously self-destructed on Nov. 21, 2059 – the very day of his arrival. The Doctor understands that the loss of the colony with all hands is important to the advancement of the human race. The terrible event represents a “fixed moment in time,” and thus he is forbidden to interfere because, “What happens here must always happen.” So the Doctor faces a decision: turn his back and preserve the timeline by letting everyone die, or interfere and let the “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” fall where it may.
Needless to say, the Doctor dabbles… and things go downhill from there. Or, story-wise, uphill. WoM is a cracking good adventure yarn, up there with the best of show-runner Russell T Davies‘ work. It mixes big ideas with small moments, using the Doctor as connective tissue. He may have been traveling solo when this tale began, but he is at heart a people person, and the gregarious Time Lord instantly bonds with the motley crew of scientists, led by the brilliant and gutsy Adelaide (Lindsay Duncan). The Doctor makes his deepest connection with her, as she is quite literally a lynchpin of human history. Adelaide’s tragic death on Mars inspires her granddaughter to lead mankind to the stars; the Doctor is afraid of altering that paradigm, yet hesitant to simply let her die. As a sort of compensation, he tells Adelaide what her death will ultimately mean, and his speech is as eloquent and moving as the 10th persona has ever been, and David Tennant is positively stellar as the conflicted Time Lord. “Your death creates the future,” he whispers to her, his eyes filled with sadness.
The threat that leads to the destruction of Bowie Base One is a collection of water-based creatures that take over human bodies and generate their own waves of water. With their cracked lips and blacked-out mouths leaking a steady trickle of fluid, the possessed crew members are a truly frightening sight. As the colonists are converted, they are not ravenous beasts, but rather strangely calm and quiet – patient. There is an underlying sense of confidence and inevitability to the threat, because the creatures know time is on their side. “Water is patient,” the Doctor notes, piling on the dread. “Water just waits. It wears down the cliff-tops and the mountains; the whole of the world. Water always wins.”
Davies is a master at working sentiment for the common person into his scripts, and in WoM, this can be seen when a sobbing Steffi desperately watches a video of her children in the final seconds before the infected waters consume her. Davies also always includes something for the kids, and in WoM that would be the silly robot dubbed Gadget. “I hate funny robots,” the Doctor sniffs. But it is not long before he is souping up the mecha to save the day — twice! Gadget also has the honor of being the first nonsentient to pilot the TARDIS!
The episode is directed with precision and imagination by Graeme Harper, who uses shadows artfully to lend menace: Consider the scene in which the infected Andy and Tarak chase the Doctor and Adelaide: the monsters are completely backlit, so their faces are shrouded in darkness, making them look like black ghosts pursuing our heroes through the cavernous, darkened agriculture dome. The studio sets never feel claustrophobic in a bad way – just small enough to leave no place to hide from the relentless waters.
I loved the Doctor’s repeated references to the Ice Warriors, “a fine and noble race who built an empire out of snow.” He even tried speaking a little Ancient North Martian to the water creatures. But despite such fan-oriented shout-outs to the past, Davies used this story to build on his Gallifreyan legacy. So many Davies stories emphasize the loneliness of the last of the Time Lords, but this one harped on the responsibility the Doctor feels as the last of his race. And the wildly eccentric Doctor cracked under the pressure. Faced with the paradox-creating conundrum of Bowie Base One, the Doctor decided to take matters into his own hands. “It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine,” he railed. “And they will obey me!” This was not the Doctor’s usual determination and never-say-die optimism. This was the Time Lord christening himself a god. But Time itself refused to yield, and flowed on the way it was always meant to, honoring the fixed point, but in a slightly different way.
The Doctor was shunted back into his own time stream, which cascaded relentlessly on, toward his death. Ood Sigma, who told the Doctor “your song is ending,” in the story “Planet of the Ood,” manifested to the Doctor. Ood Sigma appears to be functioning like the Watcher from “Logopolis,” or Cho-Je from “Planet of the Spiders” – as a harbinger of the Doctor’s death. The ringing of the cloister bell only confirmed that the end of time is imminent (this Christmas, to be precise). But the Doctor had not quite learned his lesson, as he preferred to flee rather than travel to the Ood Sphere.
While attempting to placate a worried Adelaide about what will happen to Bowie Base One, the Doctor suggested, “I think…something wonderful.” He was right. “The Waters of Mars” is truly something wonderful.