The Waters of Mars: The Best of the Specials
Guest contributor Will Brown looks back on the 2009 special.
In retrospect, 2009 was quite an odd year for Doctor Who. Production-wise, thirteen forty-five minute episodes were cut down to a slender amount of four so-called ‘specials’, and, in my humble opinion, there was a notable dip in quality, even after the mediocre fourth series. So much so, that I think the spin-offs were twice as good as the mother programme, as both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures were on their A-game. Planet of the Dead was a poorly-written mess, despite lavish production values, and The End of Time was perhaps the greatest let-down in the show’s history. But in the middle of them lies a classic: The Waters of Mars.
Being Tennant’s penultimate story as the Doctor, it lays the groundwork for his eventual swansong (none of this foundation was utilised particularly well, but I digress). Here we see the Tenth Doctor at his absolute darkest. He breaks down and snaps, believing that, as the last of his people, he has the right to interfere with the time-line, even with what he thinks are fixed points. We see him release his God-like wrath, meddling with both established history and the ‘little’ people. And it is bloody terrific!
As rare an opinion it is, I personally dislike Tennant’s Doctor. After his insufferably smug relationship with Rose, cruel treatment of Martha and messianic image I thought he was self-pitying, hypocritical and egotistical. This is why I love the ‘Time Lord victorious’ development, as it was highly refreshing to see his numerous undesirable traits depicted in an inherently negative manner. It felt like a natural realisation for the character from my viewpoint, and, conversely, I think that many of his fans enjoyed it as it added an extra dimension to him.
That is not to say that this part of Waters is the singular good part, as the first two acts of the story are also superlative. It is certainly one of the more creative examples of the age-old ‘base-under-siege’ format (it has been around in Who since the late-sixties), as the idea of something alien in the water supply is very intriguing to me, opening up many story possibilities. Using an everyday object as a peril is not new either (just ask Moffat), yet water, the basis of life itself, hits home like no other such danger has.
DOCTOR: Water is patient, Adelaide. Water just waits. It wears down the clifftops, the mountains, the whole of the world. Water always wins.
So, the concept is sound, but how about the execution? Just as good, if not better in my estimation. The initial uncertainty as to whether or not the rest of the crew were infected increased the tension and the level of threat the Flood posed. I also admired their persistence and ingenuity, such as when they damage the circuitry to break through the air-tight door in the bio dome or when they ascend onto the roof. I must congratulate the production team, especially for the design of the infected, because seeing a normal human but with dead eyes and a cracked lower half of the face was an unsettling experience, particularly for the young eight-year-old I was at the time.
As for the supporting characters, I felt that we were treated to some stellar ones here. They did not feel like cardboard cut-outs, rather real, living people. The small, human moments, which are too often overlooked, like the videos of or conversations about family members, all go a long way. They managed to earn my genuine sympathy, in spite of their limited screen-time, and I am usually close to tears when we see them all succumb to the Flood.
The most important of these was undoubtedly Adelaide Brooke, Captain of Bowie Base One. At first, she just seemed to be the rather stereotyped ‘hardened, no-nonsense female character’, but seeing her later open up to the Doctor, and vice versa, was another touching moment. She knew what had to be done, and it was nice to have a protagonist in the show use logic as opposed to ever-so-common blind faith (looking at you, Kill the Moon) and was intelligent enough to criticise the Doctor for his actions and sacrifice herself.
Overall, The Waters of Mars is a truly fantastic story, and probably the best of Tennant’s tenure in my regard as it does redeem him somewhat. With both moving moments and suspense throughout, it is a captivating watch and remains a classic, regardless of the fact that The End of Time kind of ignores it all together. Certainly a story that I can watch to no end.
One last thing; to whomever chose to name it Bowie Base One, I love you.