Review: Doctor Who – The Waters of Mars

Best nu-Who ever?

The Waters of Mars

In the UK: Sunday 15th November, 7pm, BBC1/BBC HD
In the US: Saturday 19th December, 9 pm ET/PT, BBC America

Best nu-Who episode ever.


Spoilers lurking ahead under the surface.

Okay, it might not be absolutely the best nu-Who ep (let’s not start that fight), but it’s definitely up there near the top of the list. The episode was essentially two things: a “base under siege” episode crossed with a philosophical musing and character development for the Doctor.

Base Under Siege
This is, like, a Doctor Who technical term. “Base Under Siege” is, as it says on the tin, everyone in a base, the baddies are trying to get in, the goodies are trying to stop them and getting picked off one at a claustrophobic time, and there’s a lot of running up and down corridors trying to escape. It was pretty much every single story of the Patrick Troughton era (there was even a template set up for it by Cyberman creator and series script editor Gerry Davis) but it’s cropped up more or less every season since.

Why? Because it allows you to be creepy and scare little children, which is a good thing.

On the whole, though, this was the lesser of the true strands, although it was certainly no slouch. Not a huge amount happens in the base under siege plot – but then nothing usually does in these plots, beyond horror build-up, moments of horror pay-off, then return to build-up again. Some of the secondary characters could have done with a tad more development to make us care for them, but most of the characters were well served and went off in slightly tear-jerky ways.

While we had Graeme Harper at 90% strength, doing some wonderful close-up work with David Tennant and Lindsay Duncan and creating a very dark scary environment for the show, those running scenes undermined the tension, as did Murray Gold – although he managed to stay in the background most of the time. The sets looked a little flat and cheap (in HD anyway), as did the monster crusting effect, and there were a few moments, such as the Doctor and Duncan on a rocket-propelled robot, that undermined the tension still further.

The infectious water monster was a little inexplicable, was ultimately The Thing (John Carpenter remake), and was a bit dumb to say the least, but nevertheless was very creepy, especially in its ability to break in through various impregnable areas. Again, Waters of Mars was The Thing in its conclusion, as well, but I love The Thing, so I’m not fussed.

But as “Bases Under Siege” go, this was the one of the best I’ve seen for a while. There was real tension, thanks to some good scripting by Phil Ford and Rusty, particularly because we know what’s going to happen from the beginning: everyone’s going to die, even if there was a get-out clause.

Ultimately, though, this wasn’t really what the story was about.

Time Lord becomes god and regrets it
As Rusty predicted, this is the story in which we find out why it’s a good idea that the Doctor has a companion: if he doesn’t, absolute power goes to his head and he thinks he’s above the laws of the universe. We had a similar situation in Fires of Pompeii, but this time we had no Donna to turn the Doctor away from the dark side, and he goes overboard.

For most of the story, though, this just looked like another story of the Doctor’s sad lot in life, thanks to all that responsibility heaped on his shoulders. I was enjoying that. David Tennant was doing some fabulous work, as was Lindsay Duncan. We saw the Doctor being very unheroic, and walking away from a barney.

It was great.

Then for a terrible moment, once he starts to go back and fix things in a very obvious, easy sort of way, I thought Rusty and Phil Ford had ruined everything. Emotional, survivor-guilt laden episode thrown away in favour of the crowd-pleasing option.

But then our hero goes massively over the top and decides he’s god, saves everyone, says screw it to the web of time and says he’s going to keep on doing more of the same. Brilliant. Our hero crosses over to the dark side, because he’s had enough of everyone dying.

Loved it.

Then, better still, everyone goes running off in fear at what the Doctor has become, and Lindsay Duncan kills herself because she understands the true nature of responsibility. Doctor realises he’s crossed the line, sees the time lines change in his own mind, and wonders if it’s time to die now. With an Ood turning up because Logopolis’s ‘Watcher’ couldn’t make it, we’re clearly going into even darker areas for The End of Time, areas that might even be more fantasy and metaphysical than sci-fi. The Doctor’s death approaches and he appears to have a different relationship with it than we do.

So very good, very dark, and very enjoyable in many ways. “Base Under Siege” could have been a bit more tense, and there were a few moments that didn’t make sense, but it was excellent work nonetheless. It’s certainly up there with Turn Left.

Don’t you think he’s looking tired?
One thing I will say though – heretic that I am – is that whether it was the lack of companion or the slight retread of previous themes, Tennant’s Doctor is starting to feel old. For most of the show, the character wasn’t doing anything new. There wasn’t much we hadn’t seen before from this Doctor until the end, and what we saw then was a step too far and what was clearly the beginning of the end.

Maybe it really is time for Matt Smith and Steven Moffat to offer us a new character and a new slant on the series, before DT does a Tombo and outstays his welcome, excellent though he is. With Waters of Mars the last pre-regeneration story of DT, it’s a great swansong from Doc number 10.