In the second Doctor Who special of 2009, the Doctor is wandering on Mars when he is taken aboard Bowie Base One, where his morality and conscience are tested in a terrifying predicament: Without the Time Lords to stop him, can he change a fixed point in time? If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
I don’t know what to say about this episode. I mean….SO MUCH JUST HAPPENED. If I hadn’t seen the opening credits, I would have guessed that Steven Moffat had written this special. I don’t think I could have ever imagined that someone could make mere water so terrifying, but here it is. Water is FUCKING SCARY.
I suppose I also assumed that, like the last episode, we’d be given a story that in the grand scheme of things was pretty disposable to canon. I thought that maybe the final moments would hint towards a greater story, like Carmen’s words at the end of “Planet of the Dead.” I believed it until the end of “The Waters of Mars,” and then Russell T Davies and Phil Ford PUNCHED ME IN THE FACE WITH ONE OF THE BEST SCENES OF THE ENTIRE SERIES.
Ok. I’ll get there. I promise.
Like the previous special, I was initially blown away by the sheer size of the set (which looked digital this time around) and the dramatic jump in presentation and quality. I feel like the showrunners got an extra million dollars to work with or something, because virtually every special effect in “The Waters of Mars” looked like it was ready-made for a summer blockbuster. It’s a good thing, though, that practically none of this makes the story. That burden lays entirely on the writers, who craft a terrifying story with a heavy moral quandary.
Upon being taken aboard the Bowie Base One (GET IT GET IT DAVID BOWIE GET IT), the Doctor meets Captain Adelaide Brooke and her crew, the first humans to on Mars. The Doctor’s joy at realizing who they are was infectious, but I did not initially understand why images of online news articles kept flashing on the screen. (That took me until the end of the special to understand, for the record.) But that moment of joy is short-lived because the Doctor is a Time Lord. He can see into the Time Vortex and this is one of those times where a fixed event in time that we don’t actually know about happens: On that very day, in 2051, Captain Adelaide Brooke and her crew died in an explosion that obliterated the base. This point is fixed in time because of what it causes: it’s the catalyst for the whole of human exploration. As the Doctor later explains it, Brooke’s granddaughter is inspired to follow in her footsteps and it’s because of Brooke’s death that humans fly out into the stars to make peaceful contact with other alien races.
It’s a fixed moment in time. It’s “The Fires of Pompeii” all over again. Immediately, the Doctor knows that this time around, he simply cannot get involved. He’s seen what happened in the past for him. If anything, it’s time for him to learn from his mistakes and do right by these people. But the Doctor wasn’t going to get out of this that easily, right?
My first thought about the “water” infection is that, aside from a few ridiculous moments, it’s one of the creepiest things that this show has ever done. Like Moffat’s general idea for his “scary” episodes, “The Waters of Mars” takes water and makes it sinister. WATER! Great, now I will never NOT think of this episode when I take a shower. Additionally, the unbelievable make-up and prosthetic work in this special is really what sells it for me. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it must have been for these actors to be rigged with a constant supply of water pouring out of their mouths and jackets. Ugh…I can seriously hear the sound of the water pouring out of those black mouths and FUCKING HELL. It creeps me out so much.
From here on out, “The Waters of Mars” is one of the most stressful, tense, and uncomfortable Doctor Who stories yet. The main conflict is set up: Should the Doctor intervene to save any of those on Bowie Base One or does he allow history to unfold? For the most part, he chooses the route of painful indifference. It’s so awful to see the hurt in the Doctor’s eyes when he knows that these people will die. Captain Adelaide Brooke (played by Lindsey Duncan, who will probably be my favorite guest actress so far) begins to put the pieces together, as she sense the Doctor has been lying to her. But what can you do? This is one of those situations where I can’t begin to pretend I would even remotely know what to do. I don’t. It’s such a torturous gray area. It’s a fixed point in time!!! What can the Doctor do???
Like “Planet of the Dead,” there’s a little bit of postulating as to exactly what this organism is that is infecting the crew of the base, but the answer is still left up in the air. I love when Doctor Who tackles concepts that exist in our world (like when water was discovered on Mars) and puts a unique twist/theory on to it. The Doctor makes reference to a Martian race and I assume that’s from the classic series, yes? (You can answer that.) So, in this history, perhaps those Martian Ice Warriors purposely froze whatever being is doing this.
But knowing what that THING is isn’t important to the story. It’s what Doctor Who can do very, very well. The pieces to this complex moment in time fall into place, as we learn that there’s a self-destruct mechanism onboard that can be triggered by the Captain in the event of an emergency, so it seems their fate is now explained. The base wasn’t blown up by accident at all. The Captain did it. It was hard to single out one moment that best represent why this story was so phenomenal to me, but the quiet moment where the Doctor explains to the Captain why she is so important nearly set me into sobs. Can you even conceive of having to tell someone that you know they’re going to die, but yet you can do nothing about it?
That’s when the Doctor truly realizes what’s happened here: as the infection spreads closer to the center of the base, he knows it’s “The Fires of Pompeii” all over again. The bomb goes off because of him. It’s a fixed point in time because he exists and because he traveled there. One of the most depressing things on the entire run of this show is watching the Doctor walk away from the base and listening to the crew become infected, one by one. It is a futile, hopeless moment, one full of the dread of the inevitable, and it’s filmed beautifully, cutting between the Doctor and the radio transmissions and images of chaos on the base. There’s nothing he can do. The path of time is inevitable.
EXCEPT IT’S NOT. Because the Doctor has seen so much death and destruction and has stood aside while cities crumbled and burned, as his companions have been left in parallel worlds or in a haze of permanent amnesia and HE IS DONE TAKING YOUR SHIT. He is the last of his kind. THERE IS NO ONE TO STOP HIM. No companions, no Time Lords, no laws of Time, no celestial being or governmental force. Nothing at all. And by god, he is going to SAVE THE SHIT OUT OF THESE PEOPLE.
But that isn’t what happens. Good fucking god, that doesn’t happen. Instead, we see the Doctor out of his element. He’s worried. He’s unconnected to what’s happening. He’s desperate, trying his best to bend time to his will. Even worse, Captain Adelaide has already resolved herself to accept her fate. She is about to die. And even when the Doctor sends out that irritating little robot to get his TARDIS, she activates the final self-destruction sequence.
The real shock for me was when the bombs went off and the TARDIS appeared on earth. I expected the Doctor to step out of the TARDIS alone, having failed to save the three remaining survivors of the bomb blast. But when Mia, Yuri, and Adelaide followed the Doctor out of the TARDIS, I…..what? WHAT???!?!?! HOW IS THAT AT ALL FUCKING POSSIBLE. How can the Doctor change a fixed point in time?
“For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. A Time Lord Victorious.”
I will admit that the character transformation is quick, but it’s astounding. Here is the Doctor without a companion and without anything or anyone to stop him. He believes he is doing right, but what he’s done is frightening. I’m reminded of Mr. Copper’s words to the Doctor, about holding the power of life and death over people. And now we see that acted out to its horrifying conclusion.
Adelaide has every right to feel as upset as she does. How does the Doctor know what he’s done? How does he know how it will effect the rest of history? I can’t believe I am saying this, but this is the only time I have ever feared the Doctor, to look into his eyes and see a being who knows that he has absolute power over everything.
The last couple minutes of this episode are truly horrifying, more so than anything else, more than those water creatures, more than the thought of the overarching mortality of it all. Adelaide kills herself in her flat, and time unravels. The Doctor changed nothing. NOTHING. The details were different, but Adelaide still died, the bomb still went off, human history proceeded on course. The Ood shows up (!!!!) and the Doctor knows he has done something truly, truly awful. It’s time. It’s the end. Time is catching up with him and his song is arriving.
It’s the end of time. HOLY SHIT I AM NOT EVEN REMOTELY PREPARED.
- Seriously, GADGET was annoying.
- Seriously, get some bikes! They’re awesome!
- Seriously, when Andy was knocking on the security door, I almost peed myself. I thought he was going to knock four times. GOOD GOD.
- What was that bell at the end of the episode? The one the Doctor seemed to run from.
- “State your name, rank, and intention.” “The Doctor, doctor, and fun.”
- “Imagine…Imagine you knew something. Imagine you found yourself somewhere. I don’t know, Pompeii. Imagine you were in Pompeii. And you tried to save them. But in doing so, you make it happen. Everything I do, just makes it happen.”
- perpetually unprepared.