Doctor Who: Revisiting THE WATERS OF MARS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting THE WATERS OF MARS

Tony’s on the dark side of the Red Planet.
“State your name, rank, and intention.”

“The Doctor. Doctor. Fun.”
Well, good luck with that. The Waters of Mars is among the darkest of Doctor Who stories in almost 60 years. And that, for a Doctor who usually masked his serious side behind a cheeky chappy grin and a screwdriver-waggle, is what makes it one of the very, very best.

It has one of the most visually arresting ‘monsters’ in the show’s history, and that monster embodies a fundamental fear – that vague, niggling sense that everything we have, everything we try to do, is impermanent. That water has both force, and power, and patience. That it always ultimately wins.

More than that, The Waters Of Mars uses every trick in the book to double and triple down on its stakes, to be about more than a typical base under siege. There’s not a single bad performance in it, and it brings the David Tennant era shockingly to a point we’d never considered it could reach. A point where we’re scared of the Doctor.

All in all, if you’re going to find a story more excellently packed with poignancy in the history of Who, you’re going to have to look pretty far and pretty hard. Maybe, Androzani. Maybe.

The set-up though is neatly easygoing.

Colonists on Mars, one of whom, Nurse Yuri Kerenski (Aleksander Mikic), uses a solar panel for a joke. He is reprimanded by relatively hard going deputy, Ed Gold, played with charm and the heavy efficiency of sublimated emotion by Peter O’Brien. Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay ‘Makes Everything Better’ Duncan enjoys a few moments of interplanetary Zoom time with her daughter and baby granddaughter before solar flares interfere, cutting the planet off from communication with Earth for a couple of days.
Meanwhile, the Doctor arrives and strides across the surface of Mars, pleased with himself for returning to business as usual after a freaky prophecy in Planet of the Dead announced his imminent death. Nuts to imminent death, his grin seems to say. I’m on Mars – imminent death can’t get me here.

Then a vaguely ludicrous, sparking robot pulls a stick-up on the Doctor, claiming he’s under arrest.

And cue titles.

This is going to be fun, we think. Romping on Mars with daft robots. Maybe even a hint of the Ice Warriors, famously born and raised on Mars.

Cut off from Earth for a couple of days.


Alone in the universe.

Just saying.

There’s an Alien vibe to the crew, each of them seeming believable for their age, speciality and sketched-in temperament, but writers Russell T Davies and Phil Ford pass off the imminent danger as just one of the many hassles of being among the first colonists on a new planet. You occasionally have to deal with communication blackouts. It’s a pain, but it goes with the territory.

That lightness of touch is something of a masterstroke.

But The Waters of Mars doesn’t wait long to stick its boot into our sense of optimism and our hope of Martian romping. While technically being interrogated as to what in the name of the seven red hells he’s doing there, the Doctor realises exactly where and when he is, naming the crew of Bowie Base 1 one by one and immediately having slam-dunk memories of reading the reports of their deaths.

All their deaths. On the same day.


Is it a bit of a cheap trick, underlining this foreknowledge for us in advance, and undercutting the drama of what’s to come?

It could be, but it isn’t, because a) it quickly, effectively adds another layer to the dilemma of the piece, and b) Russell T Davies and Phil Ford use our expectation and fold it back on us at the end, to give us something wholly new.

The other layer of the dilemma? The Doctor has arrived at another wretched space-base with another crew of hardworking specialists – and he knows they’re going to die today. It’s like being a wildlife cameraman, watching gazelles on the African plain. Seeing the lions, knowing there’s only one way this ends – and not being allowed to do anything about it.

Because that’s the point. Most of the time, the Doctor gets stuck in, helps people against the lions of their fate. But today, he can’t. Today’s a fixed point. What happens at Bowie Base 1 – the death of the whole crew in a nuclear explosion – must always happen.

In the abstract, that’s fine. We can watch the gazelles get chased, and pounced on, and eaten. It’s the Circle of Life, and all that.
But it’s different when the gazelles are your friends. When you know they have daughters with money worries, and brothers who make them laugh, and poetical souls that want to name a base Eden because of its potential for a new beginning. When they pilot life-saving robots and make them sound funny, or when they show off with solar flares just to impress a girl. And your mind is full of the footage of the lions, muzzles red with blood, chewing on their carcasses.

But for the Doctor, the sudden realization of where and when he is goes further. Because it’s not that he likes the crewmembers that stops him from interfering. It’s the knowledge of what happens next. Adelaide Brooke dies on Mars. That death inspires her granddaughter to race out across the stars and start the whole development of an Earth-based space federation. The whole future of Earth as a space power, going back to the Troughton and Pertwee eras, and visited only recently in Series 4 of New Who, begins with the actions of Adelaide’s granddaughter, Susie Fontana Brooke – and those actions depend on the death of the Bowie Base crew.


As such, the Doctor knows his responsibility under the laws of time. He should leave. He should not contaminate the potential of the timestream.

And then he remembers there are two more crewmembers. The so-called ‘gardeners,’ out in the base’s biodome, Andrew Stone and Margaret Cain (Alan Ruscoe and Sharon Duncan Brewster, respectively).

Oh, the gardeners.

In a very economical scene, we see Andy Stone waxing lyrical about the wonders of producing vegetable life on Mars. He rinses some carrots in water and takes a bite. Then there’s a genius camera trick. The focus is on Maggie as she talks, and in the rear of the shot, blurred, we see something is very wrong with Andy. His back is turned to us, but he’s having what are clearly convulsions. And when Maggie realises he hasn’t been answering, the focus shifts back to him. He looks sweaty or wet, and when he turns, we get one of the most genuine jump-scares in New Who, because his face is so disturbing. Andy doesn’t live here any more.

It’s a trick that’s pulled almost move for move several times in the story. When Chief Medic Tarik Ital finds Andy, we get a re-run of the turn-around, this time staying longer on Andy’s hideous, crazed water-zombie face.

That’s the point about the monsters in The Waters Of Mars. They’re an effective do-over of all the many ‘Touch – you’re it’ zombie monsters in the history of Doctor Who, but they have an extra element – they don’t need to touch you. They create water, and if one drop of that infected water touches you – you’re it. You’re dead. And the Flood will rise to take over everything you are, every hope you ever had, and make you part of itself.

Director Graeme Harper pulls the out-of-focus convulsion trick again when Maggie is brought back into the base and put under 24 hours of observation. Yuri, foregrounded, talks about his brother and his brother-in-law and their wonderful, daft relationship, while Maggie transforms, and makes her plans to go to Earth, and to transform all of that planet’s water into the Flood.
From then on, there’s a good deal of traditional base under siege fare, with the Flood-humans driving home the horror by their appearance, their movement, and their power over the waters. But there’s also episodic advancement of both Adelaide’s story and the Doctor’s dilemma over not getting involved. He finally only works up the strength to walk away from them all once he’s told Adelaide the truth about her death and her part in the web of time.

He only manages to walk away when all hope is lost. When there’s panic, and screaming, and shuddering death in his ears. Then and only then does this complex, sometimes childish Doctor find the courage to disentangle himself from events.

But when Ed is infected and destroys the shuttle that was the crew’s potential safe route home, something hardens in the Tenth Doctor.

What happens next is actually not that extraordinary. The Doctor, infused with new hope and spirit, sets his synapses fizzing, Does A Clever Thing, and saves the day. Adelaide sets the base to explode, and it does, taking the Flood with it. But the Doctor rescues Adelaide, Yuri, Mia Bennett (Gemma Chan), and even Gadget, the ‘funny robot’ that has helped several of the chase sequences in the episode zip by under Graeme Harper’s inspired direction.

But the reasons.

Oh, the reasons.

Where normally, the Doctor saves people because he can, or because they’re in danger from the bullies of the universe, here it’s all suddenly, horribly about him. About him being sick of feeling helpless. Sick of feeling like a victim, a relic, a survivor, creeping by in the universe and tinkering at the edges.

In among the chaos and the screaming and the death and the countdown to destruction of Bowie Base 1, something in the Tenth Doctor rebels. Rebels like it always could have and never has. Rebels wild, and personal, and powerful, and wrong. Rebels like a smug tantrum of self-empowerment.

Rather than the survivor of the Time War, he becomes the Winner of the Time War, the Time Lord Victorious – with no-one to stop him, no-one to say no to him.
With Rose trapped away in another dimension, Martha off on her own adventures, and Donna having forcibly forgotten him, there’s no-one to stop this inventive, successful Time Lord ruling time and space, without check or hindrance. And that pride, that smugness, that almost spite at having played by the rules for so long, teaches us the thing we’ve always feared – that if the Doctor were ever to stop being the Doctor, the whole universe would shake in fear.

The Flood are arguably the most visually effective and philosophically interesting villains of the Tennant era, but one thing they can’t do is scare us more than the Time Lord Victorious himself. Because almost every word that comes out of Tennant’s mouth once he flips the switch to the Time Lord Victorious is wrong. It’s the Doctor tearing down everything we’ve ever understood him to stand for – bearing in mind that we had no idea that the War Doctor existed when The Waters of Mars was broadcast.

We know something has to bring the Time Lord Victorious Down if he’s ever to be our Doctor again, and Adelaide does precisely that. She berates him for the wrong he’s done, the meddling with the possible consequences of history. And ultimately, she sacrifices her life – her time with her daughter and granddaughter, potentially even the greatness of her long-earned reputation – and she does it in just a handful of heartbeats, proving herself the brave one among them. The one who does what has to be done, rather than the one who caves to their own desire.

There’s rarely been a story like The Waters of Mars, and it really should be a rarity, because to have these episodes too often would be to cheapen the impact of them. You could argue that Hell Bent was another such episode – the Doctor beyond the limits of the moral code that makes him who he is, and in danger of losing our sympathy.

But really, The Waters of Mars stands alone.

It’s an impeccable base under siege story with so much more than that going on. It has probably the best visual monsters of the New Who era, and possibly the ones where the borderline of ‘too scary’ is pushed. Sure, Weeping Angels, but still.

But more than anything, it brings us the idea that our Doctor’s hand may not be safe to hold in the wide cosmos of the bullies and the frightening monsters – and for the performance that convinces us of that, along with its rock-solid production values and its peerless class, it’s one of David Tennant’s finest hours on screen.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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