And so we’re finally here – into the last leg of the Tenth Doctor’s voyages. A companionless doctor lands on Mars in 2059 and encounters the first Martian pioneers. However something ancient is stirring and the Doctor knows that history does not record a happily ever after for this team of explorers…
The Waters of Mars is the second of the four specials that will end David Tennant’s reign as everyone’s favourite Time Lord. The first of this mini-season specials, Planet of the Dead, met with somewhat mixed reactions - as often do the stories where the writers have their fun heads on.
Now Doctor Who is, and always has been, an anthology show effectively. The format of a character and his companions who can travel to any point in space of time has allowed the show to tell a wide range of different types and styles of stories over the years, ranging far wider tonally than the usual long running series. So as well as the accepted TV detours like dream episodes and Christmas specials, Doctor Who has explored many different favours of science fiction, frequently delved in horror and fantasy and ventured into the realms of outright comedy more than once. And naturally, not every excursion into different genres comes off, but also not every style is to all tastes. Roughly speaking the thrilling and frothy stories often catch a bit of flak particularly from those who like their scifi to be serious and pompous.
Myself, I thought Planet of the Dead was a highly entertaining romp and while it delivered nothing very new, it did it with sufficient style to feel like a rather traditional adventure rather than a by-the –numbers/ going-through-the–motions affairs. And it worked well as the last moments of humour and simple excitement before the storms surrounding his coming regeneration. And from the trailers and publicity materials it seemed that The Waters of Mars would be an equally traditional tale – a base-under-siege adventure, complete with darker tones and a guest cast picked off one by one by the menacing villain.
Considering that these special not only see the end of the Tennant incarnation but series resurrecter and producer Russell T Davies stepping down also, I wasn’t really that surprised that he want a crack at penning a properly frightening episode in the traditional mould before he handed over the reins to new broom Steven Moffat. The base-under-siege is one of the better known tropes of the show; a staple format through Doctor Who’s many incarnations and also most closely associated with the scarier period of the show’s history such as the Troughton series and the first few years of the Tom Baker era. And I had the sneaking suspicion that old RTD was going to be taking a shot for the most frightening episode of new Who crown – currently held by his replacement’s episode Blink.
And indeed, all the things you expect as here – isolated setting, a creeping threat, a high body count, monsters that will probably have the smaller varieties of ankle-biters behind the sofa, and of course, lots and lots of running down corridors. And jolly well done it is done too. However The Waters of Mars has a fair bit more stuffed into its overcoat pockets…
Now before we delve any deeper, I have a confession to make – I am a long time Doctor Who fan. This show was a highly formative influence upon me – indeed one of my earliest memories is seeing the Sea Devils rise from the depths back when Jon Pertwee held the Tardis keys and I could spell ‘dalek’ before I could spell ‘school’. Over the years, my interest in the show has waxed and waned but never dropped off the radar. And despite, wasting more time than is probably healthy pondering minutia such as what’s the chronological order of the dalek stories and when the Doctor got his second heart, I am one of those fans who accepts that not every story is 24 carat flidor gold and if anything I tend to be more critical of the show than the casual viewer.
But like many fans of the series, I tend to assess the show in terms of who is in the producer’s seat combined with who’s inhabiting the script editor’s office rather than which actor’s operating the hexagonal console. And RTD’s tenure has seen a widening of the producer’s role – past producers have penned the occasional script whereas Davies has also taken the mantle of chief writer, not only turning out scripts for the majority of episodes but also polishing the other stories to fit the house style.
And naturally, having scripted over half of all the new Doctor Who, it’s Davies’ stories had have come in for the most flak. When asked for advice for novice writers, RTD often say “Just finish it!”, and while this is sage instruction, it does also reflect his biggest weakness as a creator – namely a reliance on deus ex machine to resolve his stories and a tendency to chuck in action set pieces or emotional meltdowns to zip the viewer over the plot holes. In fairness, this doesn’t affect every RTD offering but unfortunately a good number to conjure up as “as if by magic” solution to resolve the stories and you can’t help wishing he spent a little more time plotting than just speeding ahead to finish the script.
However, as Planet of the Dead and Torchwood – Children of Earth proved, when he collaborates with other writers we do get stronger stories with better narrative structures and conclusions. And The Waters of Mars continues this trend, with Phil Ford on hand to balance his excesses. Hence, although there is a little of the sonic screwdriver as magic wand but crucially this story doesn’t rely on some convenient and hitherto unseen power of said handy device to save to the day.
As mentioned earlier, The Waters of Mars is a typical base-under-siege story and as such it really benefits from the tighter sscripting. To begin with it neatly sidesteps the cliché one by one wandering off alone and get taken over motif. And as soon as three crew members are infected by the alien threat, the remaining team members do the sensible thing and make moves to get the hell out for change. Equally refreshing, is the fact that for once the Doctor doesn’t know a thing about the nature of the threat on Mars – too often these days, the Doctor’s encyclopaedic knowledge is over-used as a plot mechanism.
And indeed, it is in the portrayal of the Doctor that The Waters of Mars really shines. Here instead of the Doctor’s expansive intellect and Time Lord familiarity with all history being a device for lazy writing to escape from a tricky plot corner, it forms the focus of a classic Whovian moral dilemma. The base-under-siege is a story format that has been done many, many times in the past, but The Waters of Mars presents something very new – what happens when the Doctor appears somewhere and knows that the events about to unfold can’t be changed.
Although The Fires of Pompeii in the new series and The Aztecs in the classic run both touched on this concept; that some events cannot be changed due to their importance in the web of time, never before has the issue been so centre stage. And here the moral dilemmas facing the Doctor are the crux of this story, with the typical base-under siege shenanigans gaining a far deeper emphasis and significance than the usual run-around under steel skies.
And aside for providing a fresh and dynamic spin on an old story format, the decisions the Doctor must make have real weight, and without going into the spoiler vortex these choices are literally life changing for our Time Lord hero. I was reminded very strongly of Utopia in Series 3, which although was billed as a stand alone story, actually turned out to be the first part of a trilogy of episodes, and The Waters of Mars is effectively the beginning of the Tenth Doctor’s swan song. It might be not a true first instalment delivered by stealth – and we’ll find out if it is come Christmas - but the events of this adventure are certainly integral to Tennant’s finale and serves as a prologue or prequel to the final story The End of Time.
It delivers a solid story backed up with splendid performances and some of the best special effects to come out of the Mill so far. However I did a few niggles with it, and they are the same irritants that have characterised the Davies era. First up and most petty was the robot. Now this automaton has received a bit of stick from other reviewers for its design but in all fairness, GADGET does like exactly like a real world robot i.e. built by scientists rather a special effects guys’ idea of a cool droid. My problem however was its tendency to chirrup ‘Gadget! Gadget!” which brought back unpleasant memories of the Old Republic droids’ “Roger” Roger!”. It’s a small point but it did highlight the fact that like prequel era George Lucas, RTD does tend to insert material into his script that are too self consciously kid friendly, and speaking frankly, unnecessary – you’ll have most children’s interest as soon as you show a spaceship.
More seriously, The Waters of Mars features yet more “oh humanity you’re brilliant” speeches from the Doctor. Now while in this story, the admiration the Doctor has for the human race’s character and achievements fit perfectly well and mesh beautifully with the plot’s ethical considerations, the trouble is we’ve been hearing such sentiments spouted for the last five years in the series on a regular basis and often with far less script justification. And as such, this does undercut the drama slightly, as when Tennant starts gushing about the Martian pioneers you tend to think ‘oh here we go again’.
And another related problem is Murray Gold’s score. Now in this episode, and in the series as a whole, generally Mr Gold provides suitable stirring music, but tends to go all overblown and intrusive when scoring the dramatic scenes. Now admittedly in new Who there is a tendency to being a tad too much sentimental and particularly in Davies penned episodes. Sometimes it seems that the scripts are striving for genuine drama or operatic emotional set pieces, but end up melodramatic and slushy. And undoubtedly often the root cause is weakness in the writing, but in a lot of cases and this is particularly true in the Waters of Mars, I am unsure whether the problem is with the script of with the way it’s been scored. On balance, generally the script and music hit the right tones but there were a couple of moments when I felt the music was over selling and over stating – less would have been more.
But all that said, these gripes are minor and reflect more general issues I’ve had about the style of RTD Doctor Who. They are niggles that come fitted as standard with the revived series but it has to be said that in The Waters of Mars they are at their most minimal. And really, perhaps the biggest problem with this episode is not from these issues about general styling of the series – the trouble is that it functions so well as a lead in to the big regeneration story, you end up more excited about what is to come than what you have just watched… it looks like The End of Time is on target to deliver a suitable epic conclusion to the Tenth Doctor’s travels. Roll on Christmas!
JIM MOON, 18th November 2009