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November 19, 2009

Strife on Mars

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars

Mars1 In a parallel universe The Waters of Mars is a run-of-the-mill base-under-siege romp. The Doctor turns up, he defeats some water-based monsters with a cheeky wink and a breathless "Allons-y!", and then he skips back to the TARDIS just in time for tea. It's no great shakes. Much like 75% of the new series to be blunt. Oh well, it's their loss.

Having said that, the majority of this universe's version of The Waters of Mars is nothing to write home about either. Admittedly, there's a very nice set, an interesting monster, some engaging performances, and a postmodern joke about corridors, and it's all very nicely done, in sparkling HD no less, but you couldn't call it anything special. We've seen this play out a hundred times before, or as the wife so succinctly puts it: "David's working his notice".

She couldn't have been more wrong, because bubbling away beneath the surface of this tale (no pun intended) is a plot twist so profound it actually made me sit up and question exactly what it is that I want out of this show.

I lived for my monthly dose of the Virgin New Adventures, especially the ones where the 7th Doctor was a complete and utter ****

When I was in my 20s I yearned for a dark-Doctor. I lapped up the moral ambiguities of Ghost Light, I subscribed wholeheartedly to the Cartmel Masterplan and I lived for my monthly dose of the Virgin New Adventures, especially the ones where the 7th Doctor turned out to be a complete and utter ****. I adored how this incarnation of my childhood hero was suddenly an angst-ridden enigma who seemed to be embroiled in a Machiavellian plot against the laws of the universe itself. He took LSD. He let his companions shag their boyfriends in the TARDIS before letting said boyfriends die grisly deaths in front of them. He even managed to drive Ace so insane she actually tried to kill him once. Yes, he was a bit of a git, but he saw the big picture and I couldn't get enough of him. One day, I thought, I'll see this version of the Doctor on television. Yes, one day...

Unfortunately, the 10th Doctor has been the very antithesis of this "fantasy Doctor" that I've always longed for. This Doctor is smug, self-congratulatory and sentimental, with more annoying catchphrases than Cannon and Ball. During the transmission of seasons two and three of the new series, I kept kidding myself that this ebullient bonhomie was a fragile mask and deep down inside the 10th Doctor was a brooding psychopath who was ready to snap at a moment's notice. We even saw glimpses of this hidden persona on-screen, most notably in the closing moments to The Family of Blood where the Doctor decided to torture and humiliate some second division villains for all eternity, just because they broke his hearts. But in the end I gave up, figuring that if bleating on and on about the bloody Time War year after year wasn't going to push him over the edge, nothing was.

Mars2 I honestly believed that The Waters of Mars would conclude with the Doctor walking away from Bowie Base with the deaths of the crew echoing poignantly inside his helmet. As the screen faded to black I would have risen from my chair to applaud the sheer audacity of that denouement, glossing over the inevitable coda where we see Adelaide's descendants leading the human race into space in a cutesy rocket, accompanied by a sorrowful, but hopeful, speech from Tennant. I would have been happy with that: I would have bandied the word "brave" around in this review and I'd have been raving about the achingly powerful scene in the airlock where Adelaide and the Doctor lay down the rules for the show and still manage to make them sound beautiful. Or the fantastic moment where Peter O'Brien blew himself up just as he was about to turn. Or that great bit when that geeky bloke simply resigned himself to his fate. All incredible moments. All eclipsed by the shit storm to come.

if bleating on about the bloody Time War year after year wasn't going to push him over the edge, nothing was...

Because the only way to stem those scenes of highly stylised carnage was for the Doctor to single-handedly take on the Laws of Time. And every Doctor Who fan knows that our hero would never ever do that, no matter how hard we might secretly want him to. And you definitely can't do it if you've just spent 45 minutes banging on and on about how you really, really, really can't. I know RTD has taken the art of copping-out to giddy new heights during his reign but surely even he couldn't concoct a happy ending out of this mess.

Mars3 When the moment finally arrived it was heralded by a wonderful subversion. We've seen this all before: that heroic slo-mo shot of the Doctor striding through a wall of flames (on the surface of Mars? really?) enveloped by a Murray Gold crescendo, determined to save the day. It's become something of a motif in this era of the programme but this time I was shouting "No! No! No!" at my television for entirely different reasons.

Normally, when Tennant turns up the volume and really lets rip, I can't help but wince. But when he unleashed merry hell here, raging against Time itself, I was completely sold. I think the brilliance of that scene is that no matter how wrong you know it is, you can't help but be carried along by the Doctor's mania. You know that it goes against everything he stands for, and you know that it'll eventually end in tears, but still, how cool was that escape? Even if the robot was knowingly shit.

This would have been incredible enough on its own, but it got much, much worse. The Doctor's reckless act isn't a short-lived aberration driven by adrenaline and instinct, and when the TARDIS arrives in yet another snowy suburb (and yet another subverted motif) the Doctor expects to be congratulated when he really should be consumed with guilt and regret. I expected him to have second thoughts and to take them all back to bravely face their fates. That it takes Adelaide to show him his error of his ways is truly chilling. For a moment there the Doctor really loses it. His reference to the "little people" is horrific. Is this what he really thinks, all of the time?

Tough.

Enveloped by a Murray Gold crescendo...

I've criticised this show in the past for not having the balls to kill any of the really important characters so nothing could have prepared me for the climax. I thought Torchwood was sailing close to the wind with an implied infanticide at 9:55pm, but this... I can hardly believe it. I'm just relieved that I wasn't watching it with an 8 year old child. Having to explain to them what that flash was, or why David Tennant looked so horrified all of a sudden would have been a real pain. Or am I blissfully naive? Are kids really that desensitised today? Do implied suicides take place on Home and Away, or whatever passes for Byker Grove these days, on a regular basis? Not that I'm complaining but... blimey! Doctor Who hasn't been this bleak since the early 1970s!

Mars5 And now I truly believe that this incarnation of the Doctor must die. And he knows it too. Because if he's caved in once he'll probably do so again. And while it is certainly tempting to witness a whole episode where the Doctor gallivants around the universe, erasing World War 2 and then having to deal with the (inevitably far worse) consequences, this dark Doctor only enjoys approximately 7 minutes of screen time. And I was actually kind of glad.

Because we don't need a dark-Doctor. There's enough darkness and ambiguous protagonists on the telly these days without dragging our hero into it. Battlestar Galactica has a lot to answer for, and most of it ends up on Five, so I was actually relieved when it dawned on the Doctor that he'd gone too far, as the time line (almost a character in its own right) remorselessly reasserted itself. For once, his arrogant smugness is turned against him and I was literally gobsmacked.

It's an incredible performance from Tennant, and it the tradition of the Watcher and Cho-je, we even get an eeire apparition signaling the character's demise. It's a fabulous moment that evoked the pathos of Davison and the stoicism of Baker, and it was hard not to get choked up as the cloister bell sounded in those closing moments. Quite brilliant.

Surely the most plausible explanation is that she she went stir-crazy and blew everyone up in a suicidal rage. How inspirational is that?

The only reason why The Waters of Mars doesn't quite steal Midnight's crown as Tennant's greatest adventure is that it doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. For example, surely the reason why the Dalek didn't exterminate little Adelaide was simply because the Daleks weren't out killing humans willy-nilly during the events of Journey's End? They were about to explode a reality bomb if I remember correctly, so what would have been the point? And if the Dalek really, really believed in the fixed point in time theory then surely it would therefore know that Davros' plans would go tits up - how else would she survive? And if it didn't really matter, it could have exterminated her anyway, assuming the Daleks were out doing that in the first place. Which they weren't. So, in summary, what started out as a surprising scene - quite beautiful in a perverse way - now feels like a contrived contractual obligation.

I don't buy the whole "Adelaide inspires humanity to go to the stars" mantra either. It's far too pat for my taste but the entire story hinges on it. If the Doctor hadn't got involved in this event the official story would have been that Adelaide detonated a nuclear device on Mars for no adequately explained reason. It's a complete mystery, according to the Doctor and Futurepedia. So it must be true. Surely the most plausible explanation is that she she simply went stir-crazy and blew everyone up in a suicidal rage. How inspirational is that? How did they manages to spin that into an act of heroism? In this perverted time line she's killed herself after abandoning her crew instead. Hardly inspirational. Surely the web of time could have just chosen someone else? Did it really hang on her grand daughter being inspired by her, no matter how she happened to kill herself, to take us to our ultimate destiny? It's hard to swallow. And believe me, I've tried.

Mars4 But who cares! I didn't really buy the spaceship in Utopia either and the last 10 minutes of that story restored my faith in this show too. And yes, we all know what happened there, and yes, I know that John Simm has threatened to ramp up his performance to eleven this time, which boggles the mind quite frankly, and yes, they are probably going to irritate the hell out of me whilst simultaneously making me cry. But for a few precious moments there, Doctor Who was the most surprising thing on television again.

What a way to go...

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