TARDIS File 04-16: The Waters of Mars

TARDIS File 04-16: The Waters of Mars

The Big Idea:The Doctor arrives on Mars at the site of Bowie Base One, humanity’s first colony on the red planet. He’s powerless to stop a terrible tragedy…and then things get darker.

What’s so great…

  • Lindsay Duncan’s controlled performance as Captain Adelaide Brooke. Every note of her characterization is pitch perfect: icy and driven, yet still likable as she demonstrates her sense of wonder, compassion and honour. Whether she’s pleading to live or making the tough decision to end it all, she was captivating.
  • Sue me for calling out David Tennant’s performance yet again, but particularly in the last act of the story, it’s amazing how he manages to take the familiar Doctor ‘notes’ and subvert them just enough to raise eyebrows. The pain in his eyes as he walks away from the doomed colonists is heartbreaking, while his proclamation of Time Lord Victorious is chilling.
  • Now put the two great tastes together and you have several exceptional scenes between two actors immersed in their craft. Adelaide’s childhood memory scene, the desperate exchange between the two when he’s in pressure chamber or the final jaw dropper, it’s all top notch stuff.
  • The single drop of water that drops on Roman’s head. Sure it’s probably cribbed from 28 Days Later, but it far more horrifying than any of the projectile water vomiting that preceded it.

Some Quick Bits of Trivia: Bowie Base One was named for singer David Bowie who penned and recorded the classic song “Life on Mars” on his 1971 Hunky Dory album. There is a humorous reference to an organization called the “Branson Inheritance” which pre-supposes that British businessman extraordinaire, Richard Branson, will leave a legacy related to his space travel aspirations. The special was dedicated to former producer Barry Letts who died earlier this year. Letts was a beloved producer, director, and writer who left an immeasurable stamp on the world of Doctor Who.

Things to geek out about:

  • Adelaide’s remembrance of the Dalek is lovely on so many levels: it’s a wonderful economy of storytelling, taking a previously seen adventure (The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) and adding to it’s lore; it offers the intriguing implication that the Daleks have a similar time sensitivity to Time Lords (think about—they are equally matched in many ways); and it draws us closer to Adelaide’s character, like she’s already part of the program’s mythology.
  • A neat little allusion to the Ice Warriors (popular classic era monsters) and how they might have been responsible for freezing the viral entity under the ice. The Doctor also speaks ancient Martian.
  • The Fires of Pompeii is referenced with regards to fixed points in time, and how the Doctor tried to save the people there.
  • hen the Doctor backtracks about people giving robot’s cute identities he’s clearly having a moment of self awareness and his attitudes towards his own former companion, K-9, his dog shaped computer/robot.
  • The Doctor is wearing the spacesuit he presumably kept from his experiences in The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit.
  • Once again the TARDIS Cloister Bell is heard sounding, at the end of the story, announcing “wild catastrophe” to come…
  • Davies teases the audience by evoking Carmen’s prophecy from the previous story (Planet of the Dead), ”He will knock four times,” when one of the water zombies bangs three times on door.
  • Ood Sigma makes a mysterious reappearance at the end of the story. Previously the character was seen in Planet of the Ood, where the aliens prophesied that the Doctor’s “song would soon end.”

Not To Complain, But… The cliffhanger before the credits was a little lame and belied much of what was to come, but then again perhaps it was Davies’ intent to lull the mainstream audience into a sense of cutsie calm. The “gadget-gadget” robot was probably annoying to most adults, but kids may have found it amusing in a Short Circuit kind of way. The portrayal of the possessed humans was often unintentionally funny rather than creepy, in particular Sharon Duncan Brewster’s mugging as Maggie. All the projectile water kept evoking vomit scenes from “Family Guy”.

All Things Considered… Boy was that dark. The task put to Russell T Davies and Graeme Harper was a complicated one. Playing with viewer’s expectations of how a Doctor Who story should unfold, and subverting them. The Doctor’s traditional role is to enter the scenario and save the day (past stories like Midnight, Turn Left or even Revelation of the Daleks have played with the idea and subverted it for good or ill). Davies follows up on his “fixed points in time” concept from The Fires of Pompeii and ramps it up in terms of actions and consequences.

We got lots of familiar beats for a Davies era story: the ordinary feature of life made dangerous (water), the cute gimmick (robot), base under siege (more of an all time Doctor Who setup), the “getting busy scene” with bracing Murray Gold score and Graeme Harper precision direction—we even have the whimsical snow. We’re meant to feel we’re in familiar territory. Our hearts respond accordingly. Yay, the Doctor will save the day. Everything goes by so quickly that one could almost miss the moments where something is not quite right. And then the familiar trappings are subverted in a quiet little scene on an ordinary street in anywhere’s-ville. “It’s bigger on the inside,” suddenly becomes a statement of fear rather than shock and awe. Nobody is thanking the Doctor.

As noted above, the great strength of the story is the relationship between Adelaide and the Doctor. It really binds the story together through the shifts in tone. The Doctor clearly needs to unload to her in the way he traditionally does to a companion, but conversely she isn’t a companion, she’s more like his equal, at least in terms of morality. The supporting case is quite good for the most part.

One could argue that the story would have benefited from more quietly creepy moments (like in The Impossible Planet), but like it or not, Davies clearly knew what he wanted to do. He choose Graeme Harper to direct it after all! And I think his direction certainly helps to move things along in an unconventional story that has a lot of talky bits that require visual diversion.

By the end, the stage is set up for Tennant’s two-part finale. The seeds planted in this episode promise an epic finish for the beloved Tenth Doctor.

Line of the week:   “For a long time now I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s what I am: the Time Lord victorious.

TARDIS File prepared by Scott Clarke

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