21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Waters Of Mars

The Scariest Doctor Who Yet!

So promised the creaky Doctor Who Hype Machine when promoting the penultimate Tenth Doctor escapade, The Waters Of Mars.

The Hype Machine loves this turn of phrase, so much so that it seems to make every alternate story “The Scariest Yet”. The Impossible Astronaut two-parter was once touted as The Scariest Yet, even though it wasn't that long after The Waters Of Mars. How would the machine have described the 13th and 14th seasons in this fashion: “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang! The scariest story yet! Well since The Robots Of Death anyway...”

Just how scary is The Waters Of Mars? This time around the hype machine near enough tells the truth. A bunch of hapless humans become infected by water, start juddering up and down like they're using a particularly powerful road drill, and then turn out to get serious acne problems while dribbling like babies. To the under-10s, this is quite high on the Alarming scale, but what really seals the deal is the fact that the hero goes bad. The Doctor turns to the Dark Side, a murky void occupied by the likes of Davros, Darth Vader and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Having been suitably rattled by Chops & Gravy Carmen and her edict of death in Planet Of The Dead, the Doctor's not in a good place. It doesn't help that he's STILL in his Johnny No Mates frame of mind, and is by now presumably gimbling away to his own shadow while leaving his washing-up to mount up in a huge pile of rusty metal in the TARDIS kitchen. The Doctor's conflict between good and bad plays out when the TARDIS lands in 2059 – just a stone's throw away from Bowie Base One, a space oddity containing a small group of under pressure heroes who are not loving the alien when he turns into a defiant rebel rebel.

At the back of the Doctor's mind is that nagging sense that the Bowie Base crew are not in for a happy time, and sure enough, it hits him: They're all destined for death. The Bowie Base will be nuked in a huge explosion, leaving no survivors, but allowing for humanity to explore the stars and meet interstellar lifeforms. In short, it's a fixed event that must not be tampered with in any shape or form.

This fact is forever haunting his troubled brain, especially when surly miseryguts Adelaide Brooke's constantly on at him to help. Eventually he does, but it's the wrong sort of help – a bit like asking Hannibal Lecter to organise the catering for a large wedding party. By the final act, the Doctor's turned into a power-mad control freak who seems to think that because he's the last of the Time Lords, he can do what he likes and change history. When he ferries Adelaide, Yuri Kerenski and Mia Bennett back to Earth, he's decided that he should now become the Time Lord Victorious, a man who can mess around with time whenever he wishes. Just as troubling, he's now turned into a snob of the highest order, callously referring to lesser mortals than Adelaide as “Little people”.

Fortunately in the end, the Doctor's promptly brought back down to Earth with the help of Grumpy Adelaide who decides to top herself, therefore restoring history to its rightful course. Not only that, he's confronted by the Watcher-esque sight of an Ood who's inexplicably taken up the post of Grim Reaper. “Is this it?” yells the Doctor, on his knees in terror. “My death?” Mind you, even after the Grim Ood vanishes into the ether, Ten's still deluding himself with a defiant “No!” and a flick of the TARDIS dematerialisation switch.

Now if the sight of the Doctor going cuckoo isn't enough to get the kids behind the sofa, then I don't know what is. While the infected humans are disturbing enough, this is just a sideshow for the central hero well and truly losing his marbles. Older viewers will have seen examples of The Dark Side Of The Doctor, most notably in The Invasion Of Time, when it looked as though the main man really had sided with the enemy. In the end, the manic yelling and turncoat behaviour was just a ploy to catch the Vardans off beam. In The Waters Of Mars, there is no such crumb of comfort, not even a smidgen. It's the tale that looks at what happens when the Doctor finally hits rock bottom, and it's a grimly uncomfortable sight to witness.

As I said in The Christmas Invasion review, the story of the Tenth Doctor mirrors the story of his predecessor. Whereas Doctor Number Nine started out as a morose, battle-scarred loner, he eventually found his inner peace and died a happy man. Doctor Number Ten, on the other hand starts out with unnervingly good cheer, but slowly slides down the slippery slope of isolation. While he's the ultimate people person, forever crowing on about “Bwilliant humans”, this is for a reason. Without those people, in isolation, he's constantly blinded by his own delusions of grandeur. The Tenth Doctor's a cocky little sod at the best of times, but over the course of time, his arrogance spirals out of control. He takes it upon himself to help oust Harriet Jones from power. He regards the whole werewolf saga as a larkabout holiday. He treats Martha with indifferent contempt. Worse still, he doesn't accept that his time's up after taking a bolt from a Dalek, instead channelling his regenerative energy into his hand in a tank.

But having been shaken by Chops & Gravy Carmen, his blind arrogance is at an all-time high. In the last act of The Waters Of Mars, he's furiously railing against his apparent doom, and ignoring the fact that he's breaking all the laws of time, while doing so with a slightly mad glint in his eye. They say that all power corrupts, and never a truer word was spoken when looking at the last few minutes of this tale.

Normally, in Tenth Doctor adventures, the Time Lord saves the day with furious energy and wisecracks ahoy. Now that's technically what happens here, as the Doctor strides back into the base. But the emphasis is all wrong – all that manic energy has been channelled into something far bigger for the Doctor than saving the base from the clutches of the Flood: “We're fighting time itself, and I'm gonna win!” he hollers.

In past adventures, we've seen the worst excesses of Doctors turned against them, but in The Waters Of Mars, this is taken to the limit, even more so than in Midnight in which his cockiness held no water with his fellow passengers. What Davies does here is to take that arrogance and multiply it a million-fold. The end product of all that arrogance is a mad, god-like delusion in which the Tenth Doctor believes that he's the controller of time who can decide what laws stand and what laws don't. “It's taken all these years to realise the laws of time are mine!” he bellows. “And they will obey me!”

Fortunately, the Doctor hasn't quite attained full Looney Tunes status just yet. By the end of the episode, he does realise that he's gone too far, causing the suicide of Adelaide and nearly wrecking the course of history. This will be explored further in the finale, The End Of Time, particularly in his tearful confession to Wilf in the café. But this is Doctor Who at its darkest, and the script's positively inspiring David Tennant to push his Doctor into brand new spheres. Which he does exceedingly well, what with the manic eyes and top-volume shouting. Tennant's very good at playing slightly unhinged lunatics – check out his turns as loopy Gordon Stylus in an early Reeves And Mortimer episode of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) or as Barty Crouch Jr in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. Tennant brings all that unhinged mania to his portrayal of the Doctor in the last act of The Waters Of Mars and it works brilliantly. Another stunning performance from Tennant, who's constantly rising to the challenge of providing fresh takes on his Doctor.

Even without the Dark Doctor (presumably this would have been the apotheosis of the Cartmel Masterplan), The Waters Of Mars is still pretty grim stuff. It's the archetypal Troughton Base Under Siege story as imagined by Stephen King. The Flood's possession also harks back to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes days, when innocent characters would be taken over by an alien force. Most of the base suffer this grisly fate, and it's harrowing stuff, especially when they all seem quite likeable sorts.

Take poor old Steffi Ehrlich – she's a perfectly harmless family type, but by definition, she's a victim from the word go because of her niceness – and as in most Davies stories, the nice ones end up goners. Poignantly, the last thing that she does before she's possessed is to watch her daughter on a communicator screen. Davies juxtaposes the humanity of Steffi's love for her daughter with the monster that she becomes seconds later. The make-up for the victims is very well done, and the way in which they transform from human to possessed is nicely disconcerting, all inhuman judders, as if something's forcing its way into the body.

The crew of Bowie Base One are well written and well acted. Admittedly, none of them are out of the ordinary, containing well-worn stock clichés such as the nice guy and gal; the surly second-in-command; and the tough-as-nails boss. Adelaide isn't exactly the sort of boss you'd want to go for a drink with after hours. She's forever pouting and barking orders at her quaking minions even before the crisis begins. This take-no-prisoners attitude does, however, stand her in good stead for the way in which she deals with the Doctor. She doesn't cower away from the crowing Time Lord at the end of the episode, but instead stands up to him and tells him that he's in the wrong (“LITTLE people?? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they're so unimportant – you?”). In the end, she's the only one who can bring the Doctor out of his delusion by killing herself, thereby restoring the balance of history.

Having a main character kill themselves on Sunday tea time TV is pretty strong stuff, but in the context of the story, it's a pivotal, powerful moment. Lindsay Duncan steals the show in this episode, making Adelaide into a memorable sub-companion. Would Adelaide have worked as a long-term companion? Blimey, imagine the arguments. The yelling. The Doctor would have done well to keep all his best china well and truly hidden.

The rest of the guest cast generally do well. Ex-Neighbours star Peter O'Brien does a good job as the scowly Ed Gold, and his self-sacrifice is another strong moment. Seems that Doctor Who's got a bit of a thing for casting ex-Neighbours stars in the late Noughties, to the point where I half expected Mr Udagawa to turn up as Rassilon. Sharon Duncan Brewster, another ex-soap star (Lucas' weird, death-by-rake ex from EastEnders) makes for a memorable presence as Maggie, and the scenes of her rolling her eyes and screaming at the top of her lungs undoubtedly made kids clutch the cushions in terror. Elsewhere we have great turns from Gemma Chan as Mia, Cosima Shaw as Steffi and Aleksander Mikic as Yuri Kerenski.

Another fine guest list as assembled by Graeme Harper, and typically, with a cracking story like this, he can't put a foot wrong. This is direction of the highest order, jam packed full of great action shots which help to build the tension (especially in the climatic last few scenes) and quieter moments which are equally strong (such as Adelaide's flashback to a Spot The Dalek moment and the Doctor's terrified reaction at seeing the Ood in the snow). Every single shot is carefully processed, assessed and filmed to perfection. The transformation scenes are not shown in blatant close-up but as out-of-focus events taking place in the background. Because they are filmed so casually, this makes the possessions so much more terrifying. Overall, Davies' and Phil Ford's vision for this story is perfectly realised with much style and imagination.

Unlike Planet Of The Dead, The Waters Of Mars deserves its special status. It's a gripping hour of excitement, moral debate and horror, with suitably dark overtones. It's very Old School in its feel (Base Under Siege) and its amusing acknowledgements of the show's limitations, such as the endless corridors and the presence of the silly robot. GADGET, nevertheless proves to be a pivotal tool in the final denouement, as the Doctor uses it to return the TARDIS to the base before it explodes. This is a common boon of Davies' scripts – to include a throwaway element early on in the story which turns out to be a key linchpin. The story is well constructed, memorably freaky for kids, and takes Doctor Who to a whole new darker world that's rarely been seen before.

And with only one story to go, including the return of Wilf, Donna and a skeleton Master, it doesn't look like The Tenth Doctor's going to get an easier ride before he saunters off into the sunset forever...

* Plenty more scary tales to remember in my ebook guides to the eras of 1970s and 1980s Doctor Who!


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