Sunday, 15 November 2009

TV review: Dr Who - 'The Waters of Mars'

The Doctor arrives in the midst of a small, isolated band of human beings who are being infiltrated by an outside alien force which slowly transforms them into something monstrous which has its own designs on Humanity. The survivors of the group rush to an escape capsule but it, too, has been compromised by the alien force and the pilot has no choice but to self-destruct it to save the rest of the crew and, possibily, all Mankind... But enough about the 1975 Tom Baker story 'The Ark In Space', tonight we're looking at 'The Waters of Mars', the latest of David Tennant's final four hurrahs in the role he'smade his own since December 2005, a story which, if not the first episode of a three-part 'goodbye' is very much a story which leads deftly in to what looks like some pretty cataclysmic stuff come Christmas/the New Year.

The purpose of 'The Waters of Mars' is very clearly to add an extra moral dimension to the outoging Time Lord. Since the show was resurrected back in 2005 we've seen the Doctor wracked by survivor guilt, becoming increasingly touched by human emotions in ways he never was before his people were wiped out in the Time War and, in his latest (and greatest?) incarnation, becoming increasingly - and worryingly - omniscient and God-like. Russell T Davies has touched on the theme of Doctor-as-Messiah more than once, most famously in the eye-opening 'floating angel' sequence from 'Last of the Time Lords' where an aged Doctor is returned to youthful vigour by the simultaneous chanting of everyone left alive on earth after its decimation by the Master/Toclafane alliance. Elsewhere throughout the series we've seen the Doctor toying with the temporal power at his disposal, sometimes mercilessly dispatching his enemies to the alarm of his companions, most of whom have been wary of the darkness he seems capable of displaying in moments of crisis and sometimes just issuing threats of the wrath that he, as the last of his kind, can visit upon those who cross him. Not unnaturally, as he draws the Doctor towards the end of his tenth life-cycle, Russell T Davies (and, here co-writer Phil Ford) takes the Doctor not only to the edge of his own dubious morality but, at last, right over the line, to the point of no return and, in the end, right beyond it. By the time 'The Waters of Mars' ends the Doctor realises he's gone too far and the audience suddenly feels as if they really don't know this character they've spent so much time with these last few years as well as they thought - and it's quite an uneasy feeling in a series so keen to be family-friendly and warm and reassuringly comforting.

The narrative peg upon which the Doctor's latest personal crisis hangs is your fairly bog-standard base-under-seige yarn. Taking its cues from some of Davies' own favourite classic Dr Who serials - the aforementioned 'Ark In Space' (giant insects invade a space station aboard which sleep the survivors of Mankind after solar flares have left the Earth uninhabitable) and 'Fury from The Deep' (its images of alien-possessed humans, mouths agape, emitting poison gas evoked by the water-spewing Flood-zombies here) 'Waters of Mars' puts a small group of human pioneers (another favourite Davies motif) on Bowie Base One on Mars in 2059. In textboot 'Dr Who' tradition, the Doctor is captured by the suspicious colonists and, inevitably, things start to go wrong almost immediately (and after a slightly clunky bit of exposition which enables the Doctor to introduce the characters and give them all a bit of a potted bio). Bowie Base One has a place in history, it seems; the Doctor is uncomfortably aware of the fate it and its occupants face the very day he arrives and, recognising the events about to take place as a "fixed point in Time" which will lead to landmark strides in the development of the human pioneering spirit. The Doctor has long been aware - demonstrated most recently in 'The Fires of Pompeii' from the 2008 series - that there are some fixed moments in history which just can't be tampered with whilst, it seems, many others are just fair game, in a state of "flux" as he puts it here. The nature of which ones are which throw a fascinating new dramatic dynamic into the series, one which has rarely been explored before and, in all honesty, now it's been touched upon it can't really be ignored in the future. Meanwhile, back on Bowie Base One, a terrible water-based infection has seeped into the Base and one by one the crew are turned into cracked-skin, black-mouthed zombies using water as a weapon. The Doctor and the survivors - including the Base's chief Adelaide Brooks (a star turn by guest Lindsay Duncan) - look on in horror as the complex is slowly, fatally compromised. The Doctor, knowing that the base and all its crew must die for the sake of future history, walks away and heads back to the TARDIS, the sounds of mounting carnage ringing in his ears. Our hero is agonised, of course; wherever he's gone he's done all he can to prevent death and destruction but here, he knows, there's nothing he can do because he really can't do it. He mustn't do it. But when the shuttle ship expldoes and the Doctor is flung to the red soil, fire and debris raining down around him, something inside him flips. History and the consequences of meddling with Time mean nothing; his over-riding imperative is, as it always has been, to save the day and to Hell with all the rest. It's a scintillating and pulse-pounding ten minutes as the Doctor changes the flow of Time and saves the day for at least a few of the crew of Bowie Base One.

But back on Earth any sense of euphoria is short-lived. The few survivors - including the cute/annoying robot Gadget - bury their gratitude under confusion and fear - "Who the Hell are you?" screams crew-member Mia Bennet as she rushes off hysterically into the snowy night. If the audience has been chilled by the water-gushing zombies and the thrills and spills so far, it's now that the show takes a serious turn for the dark and the spines start to tingle. For now, when challenged by Adelaide who knows she should have died back up on Mars because history records that she did, we see how the Doctor has changed. He's no longer the benificent, wise-cracking adventurer who comes and then goes, having saved the day. Now he's the "Time Lord victorious", the man who has conquered Time and destiny, the man who thanks that it will now forevermore bend to his will because his will is all that counts. There's a new coldness about the Doctor at the end of this episode, a superiority and arrogance we've never seen before and it's as uncomfortable and unsettling as any of the horrors he's faced in his long, long lives. He's a man who has gone too far. As the Doctor wanders back to the TARDIS, triumphant yet again, having defeated Time itself as well as adversity, Adelaide takes it upon herself to put right the Doctor's interference and, to the Doctor's horror, does it the only way she can. A vision from his recent past materialises in the snow and - just for a second or two - the Doctor thinks his moment of death has arrived. But not yet. Back in the TARDIS a defiant Doctor steels himself against his fate and with a resolute cry of "No!" sets off for pastures new...

This is a genuinely outstanding piece of 'Dr Who'. The usual cadre of old series die-hards may complain about 'sentimentality' (it's called characterisation and humanity) and, their old favourite, the 'deus ex machina' ending and anything else they can lay their hands on. But really the point of the story isn't so much the story - it really is your basic runaround - but what the story means and where it takes us and the Doctor. That's not to say that the production itself was second-rate or just a means of getting the Doctor in the right frame of mind for his regeneration. Much has been made of this being the 'scariest' 'Dr Who' episode ever and whilst I can't make any real comment on that as I don't find anything much scary these days, there were certainly moments here which were edgy and creepy and may well have caused some nightmares and gibbering amongst the very young. Some sensitive adults may have been a bit freaked out by the drooling, black-mouthed zombies and their relentless pursuit of the Doctor and Adelaide and their remorseless invasion of the Base. But as Russell T Davies has pointed out again and again, these are healthy scares; non-gratuitous, bloodless, the sorts of scares which get the heart pumping and get the viewer right on the edge of their seat. Everyone here is at the top of their game as far as this show is concerned. Veteran director Graeme Harper gave the episode the pace and energy he always delivers, the Mill's CGI Martian landscapes and computer-modelling are pretty much faultless and the Flood zombies themselves are spectacularly realised by Neill Gorton and his Millennium FX team. Good to see David Tennant, in his final hours in the series, being given yet more meaty material to work with as the Doctor starts to unravel and although the supporting cast isn't exactly a starry crowd (save Duncan and former 'Neighbours' stalwart Peter O'Brien in a fairly thankless supporting role) everyone throws themslves into their role with absolute relish - and only the coldest of hearts could have failed to be moved as Steffi Ehrlich (Cosima Shaw) faced her final moments trapped in a room slowly filling with infected water by taking one last look at a video recording of her young daughter, safe and far away on Earth. Moments later Steffi's body shudders and quivers as her terrible transformation begins... Terrific stuff.

In fact, I'd say that 'terrific stuff' pretty much sums this one up. Though his style may not sit well with some traditionalists, Davies knows how to tell a rattling good yarn which can appeal to a wide modern sensibility and he knows just how to tug at the emotional heartstrings when he needs to and to maximum effect. Who could have been expecting Adelaide's story to be tied so closely to the Dalek invasion in 'Journey's End' from the 2008 series and who could have been expecting that beautiful, majestic Dalek cameo as we flashback to the young Adelaide in 2008? Sometimes the very best of modern 'Dr Who' hasn't been about the spectacle, the special effects, the gun battles and the noise and bluster; sometimes it's been about quiet moments, emotional moments, human moments - the very things the classic series didn't touch upon because they just weren't its remit. So despite all its zombies and its spacesuits and its robots (and having sad that, how I loved the FX scene of the souped-up Gadget racing across the Martian landscape towards the TARDIS, waiting patiently for the return of its owner) it's the stuff about the people - including the Doctor - that matters the most, maybe never more so than in 'The Waters of Mars'. It's a superb episode, worlds away from the fun and froth of 'The Next Doctor' and 'Planet of the Dead' and just about the best possible way of setting up the explosive events of Tennant's swan-song.

Why isn't it Christmas yet, dammit???


Karen Funk Blocher said...

Excellent review. I suspect you liked it overall more than I did, but I agree with every point you made. Thanks.

Sunshine Superman said...

Birth pangs of The Valeyard in the final minutes of the episode? A surer sign that he should have taken Lady Christina with him back at Easter and not be on his own again in my opinion. Great story anyhow... could only have been improved by seeing it on HUGE widescreen at a drive-in somewhere.