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November 16, 2009

Defying Gallifrey

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars

When The Twin Dilemma was inexplicably released earlier in the year, once play.com had posted it to me, I undid the shrink wrap, watched the Stripped For Action documentary then put it on the shelf, the main feature unwatched.  Despite working my way through the Eighth Doctor novels, I’ve never enjoyed the Virgin New Adventures much and find the latter parts of the McCoy era near unwatchable.  For a period I wondered why this was the case (beyond quality control concerns) and it struck me watching closing minutes of The Waters of Mars.  When the Doctor stops being the “benevolent alien” he stops being my Doctor.

In each of these stories or eras, the creative team turned the character, to varying degrees into a darker figure, play up his superhuman qualities, his arrogance, his willingness to bend the rules, made him cruel as a way of differentiating him from us, a mystery, a who, an other (and in the case of the New Adventures apparently literally The Other).  The problem was that much of this work was done abruptly, unheralded, with no cooling off period and with a foggy attitude to justification.  Except if you’re a decent writer you want to keep your character interesting, you have to go there, you have to show what happens when the responsibility of power takes hold.

David Most often the approach is to create a parallel character, very much like the hero but whose back story is just different enough that the audience can see what would happen if the hero gene was in the wrong place.  Star Trek (and dozens of other genre series and films) have made this explicit by literally giving the lead character an evil twin, but that can only go so far.  In Doctor Who, The Meddling Monk and later The Master and later still in the novels Sabbath were created to fulfil this criteria.  But that too only goes so far because it’s not really the lead character but you have to be very bold to show your hero going to the dark side and do it in such a way that he can still retain our sympathy. 

This latest production team are bold; at the dawn of the new age they want develop the character, but they’re also clever enough to know that you can’t abruptly make a change like that, you have to lead the audience towards it, so that, when the Doctor becomes the arrogant figure, “timelord victorious” we understand, so the audacious structure of The Waters of Mars is designed to get the audience from smiling with the Doctor as he steps onto the red planet to frowning with him as he realises he’s taken his power too far and the web of time gets ready to smack him down.  The Twin Dilemma failed because we were meant to believe that this is the new Doctor, whether we like it or not.  Yeah, great.  What all the time?  No wonder the ratings dropped.  They didn’t have a recipe.  Russell T Davies and Phil Ford had a recipe.  And here it is:

he’s taken his power too far and the web of time gets ready to smack him down

First, take the most traditional Doctor Who story cliché you can find, something nice and overripe.  A base under siege.  The boyabase, sorry, Bowie Base, was literally a base under siege.  Then emphasise all of the elements of that cliche.  Include a large room where most of the action takes place.  Lightly sprinkle an alien threat, in this case a horrific possession via water infection, not too much, just something sticky enough that it could potentially destroy the Earth.  Keep the fans happy by referencing the very monster they’re expecting to be involved but aren’t but imply they could be anyway (squee).

Lightly sprinkle hardy crew members ready to picked off by whatever monster is loose in the station.  They’re basically the same lot who fought the manic Ood and Abaddon’s cousin in The Impossible Planet’s Satan Pit with slightly different names, clearer international origins and more historic relevance, with the Doctor wearing the space suit he picked up in that story as a constant reminder, or any number of Troughton era stories.  But unlike most stories (with the exception of the commander) be careful not to make them too individual, too special.

Crew Once that’s set, take a brush and glaze this concoction with another cliché, but one which isn’t often been used in conjunction with the first ingredient, like adding chilli to chocolate, in this case that the events that are happen on the base are fixed point in history which cannot be changed ever.  I talked at great length about this in my Fires of Pompeii review but in essence my theory on how the process works is that the Doctor can happily change history unless he’s aware of it.  He could do what he liked down the Satan Pit or on the moonbase or inside Sea Base 4 because he didn’t have prior knowledge of what happened there. 

So when faced with Adelaide Brooke and friends and with his mental Wikipedia (bang, bang, bang) not down for maintenance his logical instinct is to walk away, but his benevolence is telling him to stay.  Like the space suit, offer a reminder, verbally in this case, to the last story the audience saw such a scenario in to add an extra layer of understanding of what’s being faced.  Later in the episode confront the person who’s going to be directly effected by events with the news of their own demise.  And if you’re really clever, tie this in to a previous story too (though oddly, it means that the Daleks must also have residually known they’d fail too if young Adelaide wasn’t meant to die then).

Place in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 6 for thirty minutes.  I’m not sure why gas mark 6, but everything I cook these days seems to require gas mark 6, so it must also be the setting the production team used in preparing to perfection this magnificent episode.  During the cooking time, on the edges, the clichés bond together to create something new, a flavour the like of which has never been tasted and for the sake of my own sanity and because I’ve stretched this metaphor I’d best stop here before I start comparing David Tennant to yeast.

The point I’m trying to make is that the production team in throwing these two seemingly insoluble elements together somehow created a kind of narrative comfort food which like a desert in an Agatha Christie mystery is discovered mid course to be laced with cyanide.  But unlike the then new Doctor in The Twin Dilemma or Time’s Champion, we understand the events which led to that change and that’s what makes it acceptable.

They twist his benevolence so that it becomes his downfall.  Impudently, they have the Doctor walk away and because we’ve been perfectly conditioned, we want him to.  For once, we don’t want him to go back and save the base or its crew and when he does it’s a shocking betrayal and even as he does all of the Doctorish things we’ve loved to see him do in the past, we’re frowning because it’s wrong.  Oh so very wrong and potentially even more acutely for long terms fans who've had the concept of the web of time rammed down their throats for so long.

But because of all of the careful writing and directing which has led up to the moment, the heartbreaking moment when, in the wreckage of the rocket his own words come back to haunt him, we’re still sympathetic, but it’s the sympathy we give someone with an addiction perhaps, in this case to power.  Pity and an understanding that the actions we’re witnessing will ultimately be self destructive unless something happens to bring him down to earth. 


We are confronted with the dark version of the Doctor, the same man, but with his moral compass given a Daliesque melt, the forces he’s otherwise kept in check given reign.  He’s scary and with no influence other than his own conscience, he’s the monster, whose own benevolence his downfall.  Still my Doctor and also not.  And utterly compelling.  We’ve glimpsed him once or twice before, notably at the close of The Family of Blood, but then his darkness was measured.

This is a man who now looks at human beings and picks out the important ones.  And we understand because the writing and direction have done that too throughout the episode, whole scenes played in master from the point of view of the Doctor stood metres away instead of in close up on their faces.  That’s the change.  Before, every life was important.  When the Doctor falls to the ground after seeing the blue light in the window are we completely sure it isn’t because he’s let one of the important ones die anyway?  The psychological complexity of this story, both in the conception of the lead character and the expectations on the audience for understanding thereof is breathtaking and this is one of those occasions when I'm not sure I've done it justice.  I'm not sure it's even possible to do it justice.

Through a combination of the writing, the direction and devastatingly detailed performances from David Tennant and Lindsey Duncan (who magnificently and rightly got her name in the titles) on the one hand The Waters of Mars was as traditional a story as you could possible find, but on the other, something totally new, Doctor Who’s equivalent of Torchwood's Children of Earth with a conclusion somehow even darker because it’s in a family show.  I’m still reeling.  Can you believe that Doctor Who registered the suicide of a character in the eyes of its leading man?  Doctor Who?  If Midnight was dark, The Waters of Mars was like being lost in the countryside at one o’clock in the morning without a flashlight and weird clicking noises all about you.

Next time: The finale.  Yay!


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