Saturday, 16 August 2014

Space Under Siege

Doctor Who
The Waters Of Mars
2009 Winter Special

And now for something slightly different.

On the face of it, The Waters Of Mars is business as usual.  A base under siege?  Most of us Doctor Who fans (and sci-fi fans in general) bought that T-shirt many times over.  Russell T Davies and Phil Ford shake it up a bit, making it a fixed point in time so the Doctor cannot intercede.  But we've seen that before too, in The Fires Of Pompeii.  This time, however, the Doctor's not going to let it happen.  He's the last Time Lord, so why not?  What's the worst that can happen?  The Waters Of Mars is at its most interesting when it's asking these questions.

"You could have shot Andy Stone, but you didn't.  I loved you for that."
What, for endangering everyone's lives?  Pacifism is super, but it's not
that simple if you know you'll have to "deal with them" later anyway.
Which he does.
Mind you, there's a lot of business (as usual) to get through first – after all, you can't turn it upside down unless it's right-side-up to begin with.  Please find enclosed 1 x Base, 1 x Alien Menace, 1 x Group Of Survivors Picked Off One By One and 1 x Doctor.  There's a lot of running back and forth, and making jokes about running back and forth, and locking doors to keep the monsters out, and making jokes about how that doesn't seem to work, and then doing it some more anyway.  "Routine" is a fair description; you just wait for them to get on with it.  As for what the monsters want, take a wild guess.  (It rhymes with "Blinvade Flanet Mirth".)  All in all, The Impossible Planet pushed this setup further in 2006.

But if we must do it all again, at least they've come up with a decent monster.  A water-borne virus is turning the pioneers of Mars's Bowie Base One into something new.  Think 28 Days Later zombies with water pouring out of their mouths and hands.  It's a simple idea, oh-dear-god disturbing to look at.  The obvious suggestion of insanity gives them an extra (arguably excessive) scare-factor, particularly the one that doesn't come with reassuringly alien contact lenses.  (No reason given: she's just "closer to human" than the rest of them, because terrifying.)  Water makes a suitably ambiguous and ever-present threat, and as it's set on Mars, it allows for a bit of name-dropping for the Ice Warriors.  Which this fanboy was more than happy with.

As soon as the Doctor arrives, we learn that Adelaide Brooke and the rest of her team will die in the next 24 hours.  And let's just get this out of the way: we learn all of this in due course, seeded in dialogue and in the Doctor's attitude, which is beautifully understated but still makes it clear.  It's very well done, but there's a lot of blunt flashbacks and computer-screens full of information to help us along as well.  This stuff is completely unnecessary.  Accompanied by ridiculous "Crash, boom!" sound effects, it's literally the clunkiest exposition I've ever seen.  Thanks, guys, but I was already paying attention to the dialogue and the acting.  I wish it were possible to remove these steaming info-dumps and let the story make its own way.  We're not idiots.

Right, back to it: their deaths will propel the human race into a realm of space exploration, so the Doctor must let it happen.  It's a neat idea to put a fixed point in the future, as the audience is automatically more ambiguous about changing it.  Does it really matter?  I never really liked the whole "our deaths = incentive for our descendants" idea, but they do set it up with Adelaide's history.  She went into space because of a personal tragedy, and the same happens to her granddaughter.  Fair enough, they need to go.  (Although, about that: a Dalek spared Adelaide's life because it knew her death was a fixed point.  So it must have also known the Dalek plan would fall on its arse.  "Uh, guys...")

The Doctor's conflicting emotions make sense.  Without a Donna, a Martha or a Rose, he's got no one to argue that he must help no matter what, so he could just get on with letting it happen – but he knows what they would say, and he's tired of letting this sort of thing happen.  David Tennant is fantastic, wrestling with this the whole way through, and it's absolutely captivating to watch – one of his top performances.  (And on that note, how bloomin' amazing is Lindsay Duncan?  Just goes to show you don't need to drum up a "companion" in these Specials – you can just pit the Doctor against another brilliant character.)  I can believe that after losing everything again and again, the Doctor's ready to snap.

Which he certainly does.  When the Doctor finally comes around and decides to hell with it, he'll rescue them anyway, all his usual manic energy is amped up to complete madness.  This juxtaposition, as he does what would be entirely normal if there wasn't a fixed point, i.e. rescuing people, is amazingly jarring.  Coupled with the monsters succeeding way more than usual (breezing into the base and killing nearly everybody), this makes for an intensely horrifying and unforgettable second-to-last-act.  It's powerful stuff.  (Also, I like that he uses a little robot to zoom across Mars with the TARDIS key.  Fixed-point-wrongness aside, it's really cool.)

Wait – does the robot trundle through the water?  The infected water?
It sure looks like it.  But the Doctor drops that sucker on Earth!
Better hope nobody touches it...
Dropping off the three survivors, the Doctor then has a rant about how powerful he is, and how "little" almost everyone else is, much to the horror of Adelaide – and us.  It's a new dimension for the Doctor, like that bit in The Armageddon Factor where he pretends he's gone nuts, only for real this time.  Is it believable?  Well, yes and no.  These are extreme circumstances.  He's going directly against what it means to be a Time Lord, and he pays for it.  Ood Sigma appears (more or less) to signal that he's gone too far and this is it, regeneration soon.  He knows at once that it was wrong to behave like this, and that in all likelihood, this is how bad Time Lords get started.  His urge to do good and to survive are not innately destructive things, but The Waters Of Mars pushes them to extremes.  It's bold.  Though inevitably, divisive.

Because on the other hand, that crack about "little people" goes beyond nervous breakdown and into Acting Like Someone Else Entirely.  The Doctor loves everybody.  It's who he is.  I can believe that he'd do all this in a moment of madness, and that power corrupts, but sneering at the humans he's going out of his way to save is a nearly impossible sell.  Wasn't the moment loaded enough already, rocking back and forth in five minutes from "Time Lord Victorious!" to "Is this how I die?" to "No!", without throwing in a completely new personality as well?  I think so.  Oh well.  For good or ill, there is a hell of a lot to chew on.

And that's not all.  Finally accepting her place in history, Adelaide takes matters into her own hands and shoots herself.  History gets right back on course, despite the Doctor's interference.  This is impressively shocking at first, but as often happens when Doctor Who gets clever, it raises further questions.  If her granddaughter was inspired by her mysterious death on Mars, does it go without saying that she will be inspired in exactly the same way by a suicidal corpse turning up in her living room?  Even in the throes of (what I assume to be) a nervous breakdown, the Doctor seems confident that history will stay the course.  And it does – two of them survive, and no harm done.  Would Adelaide's survival, and her ensuing support for little Suzie, really prevent all that space travel?  Is her corpse automatically a better solution?  As the Doctor says, the details may change, but the story stays the same.

Speaking of other solutions, the Doctor brings up The Fires Of Pompeii.  As well he should, it being another fixed point and all that, but aren't we missing a sort of elephant-shaped-thingie in the room?  In Pompeii, faced with a fixed point in which everybody died, the Doctor still managed to save a group of people.  He just tucked them away somewhere else.  (And presumably told them not to mention Pompeii.)  What's stopping him sneaking Adelaide and everyone else somewhere they won't do any damage?  It's a big universe.  All they'd have to do is live quietly.  Their mysterious deaths are a part of history, but their corpses aren't.

Hmm.  It's definitely dark, unsettling drama, but also puzzling and perhaps a bit muddled as well.  Where the really good stuff is concerned, it's great that Doctor Who can go there, especially on a prolonged home stretch when you're not expecting very much.  You've no idea where the story will go from this point, other than the fact that it's nearly over, and kudos for that.  More's the pity The Waters Of Mars still goes exactly where you'd expect for the first 45 minutes.  It's a toss-up between The Fires Of Pompeii and Every Base Under Siege Ever, at least until the end, which is the bit you'll remember anyway.

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