The Waters of Mars

Story No. 218 Water is patient.
Production Code Specials Three
Dates November 15 2009

With David Tennant, Catherine Tate
Written by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford Directed by Graeme Harper
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: The Doctor encounters the first human colony on Bowie Base One. But Mars has secrets that may change the universe.


"Waters" Wins by Matthew Kresal 22/3/10

Once in a while, your favorite TV series will surprise you. I remember liking but not being blown away by The Next Doctor and being utterly disappointed by Planet Of The Dead. So I wasn't sure what to make of the next special, Waters Of Mars, especially with it seemingly delayed to the point of being an afterthought to what promises to be an epic finale to the tenth Doctor era. So imagine my surprise upon finally seeing Waters Of Mars and discovering that not only was it a major improvement over the two previous specials but that here was a story featuring everything that makes Doctor Who great was in it: action, fine acting, horror and yet it being a personal tale at the same time.

David Tennant turns in his best performance since Human Nature/Family Of Blood. Here we see a tenth Doctor like we have never seen before on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. We first see a Doctor thrilled by adventure as he always has before realizing he's in the wrong place at the wrong time and trying futilely to not get involved. Then we see something unexpected during an incredible eleven or twelve minutes with a Doctor who throws caution to the wind and soon learns the price of doing so. Tennant's performance throughout all this is nothing short of one word: extraordinary. It's a performance that hits all the acting notes beautifully and may well be Tennant's best performance in the role.

There's also a fine supporting cast as well. Lindsay Duncan plays base commander Adelaide Brooke, who in a way becomes a one-off companion of sorts. Yet she is far more than just that though. In just an hour she becomes a full-fledged character with a backstory and a character arc as well. Brooke is a pioneer who finds herself caught up in a crisis with a man who knows what is about to happen and, in the end, will be utterly appalled by the actions he will take. Duncan plays the role well as she shares some fine scenes with Tennant during the back half of the special, especially during one of the most emotional scenes the New Series has yet served to its audience. Duncan was a perfect choice for the role and her presence helps to elevate the special's quality. There's also a good supporting cast as well in the form of base members including Peter O'Brien as Ed, Alan Ruscoe as Andy, Sharon Duncan Brewster as Maggie and Gemma Chan as Mia Bennett. Together they make a fine supporting cast.

There's also some fine work behind the camera as well. There is some fantastic make-up and effects work in regards to the villains of the special which make them, next to the stone angels from Blink, perhaps the scariest thing to have been used in the New Series, especially in the revealing of the first one which made he jump out of my seat (literally). The base is well realized both in the form of the set's interiors (including some fine location work) and the well-done CGI exterior as well. There's also a really-well-done version of the Martian surface as well which is almost convincing, especially with the Doctor walking on it. Then there's the robot Gadget as well, which is almost a character rather than a prop. Plus there's the music of Murray Gold that, especially in the last eleven or twelve minutes, shows once again the power of a Doctor Who score. To top it all off, there's the ever-fantastic direction of Graeme Harper who once again proves himself to be the best director on the New Series by walking the tightrope of action, emotion, horror and suspense without ever falling off. Fine work by all indeed.

Which brings us to the script. While Russell T. Davies' previous collaboration with Gareth Roberts turned out to be something of a dud, his collaboration with Phil Ford proves to be among the better scripts of the New Series. Waters Of Mars takes the classic Doctor Who formula of base under siege and feeds into that formula action sequences, horror, sacrifices and the question at the heart of any time travel series: if you knew what was to happen and could change it, should you? It is that last question that occupies the Doctor throughout the special and that ultimately leads to a powerful finale that answers that question all too painfully. The script does what any great Doctor Who story should do: be exciting, horrifying and yet personal.

Waters Of Mars qualifies as one of the finest stories of the New Series. It starts with fine performances from David Tennant, Lindsay Duncan and the supporting cast. It continues on into the production values including make-up, special effects, the CGI rendering of the base, the score and more of the fantastic direction of Graeme Harper. Then there's the script from Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford that hits all the right notes of action, horror, suspense and yet remaining a personal tale as well. Waters Of Mars ranks with Human Nature/Family Of Blood, Blink and Dalek as amongst the best stories to come out of the New Series and is a fine example of Doctor Who at its best.

Absolotely Spectacular! by Nathan Mullins 1/4/10

The Waters of Mars. What a title! It says it all really, doesn't it? We never did expect this to overshadow all else, did we? Does it really though? I mean, really? I think that The Waters of Mars is possibly one of the best Doctor Who episodes I have ever seen!'The best EVER!' Why? Because it's a masterpiece, it truly is!

So, what do I like about this 'master piece'? Well, at the very begining, when the Doctor first arrives on Mars, he's cheery, excited, full of charm and charisma, his lively attitude is wonderful to watch, taking into account that we, the audiance, know his song is ending, apparently very soon. Sure, the Doctor's has been warned of his death on previous occasions, but he doesn't let his fear of dying overcome the rest of his adventures. He merely takes his constant warnings as a pinch of salt, and strides on, through time and space, intent on having adventure after adventure, which leads him to Bowie Base One.

But having encountered the small robot, whose catch phrase 'Gadget gadget' aggravates the Doctor, truly adds some humor to what later turns into a horribly dark tale, is, before the titles roll, quite a letdown thinking that what's prodded the Doctor in his back is mean and scary, actually turns out to be smaller than the man himself, and quite friendly looking.

But then the titles roll, and we're introduced to the crew of the base itself. The supporting cast are excellent, each and every one of them. They each have their own characteristics, background and emotional backstories. As the tale unfolds, water being the ultimate threat doesn't overshadow the rest of the characters. And what I an by overshadowing was that this episode is considerably darker than any other Who story. I mean, of the tenth Doctor's adventures, there have been few that actually rank in my eyes as some of the best. These are Fear Her, School Reunion, Human Nature/Family of Blood, and of course the last two episodes of David Tennant's, The End of Time.

I like the darker tales than those less so. I find that David Tennant excells in giving a fantastic performance when placed in harsh surroundings otherwise pitted against real threats, such as the Weeping Angels, and the Devil from the Impossible Planet/Satan Pit. I find David Tennant is an amazing actor, an awesome Doctor, and I do hope he some day returns for a reunion of the 'living Doctors'. Oh, that sounds like quite a good title for a Who episode. But I like the Waters of Mars! I mean, the effects are fantastic, the incidental music intense and atmospheric, the fact that the Doctor leaves the cew behind, whilst they're dying is quite unlike 'the Doctor', yet he returns to the rescue, scrapping the so-called rule that he cannot get involved, then later pays the consequences of his actions, as the episode draws to an end.

I like the fact that, like the creature in Midnight, we aren't given a total explanation for what it is about the water, that has such grusome effects on those who drink from it, or even touch it. I mean, we aren't given a proper explanation for what is perhaps, in the water. We do not actually see a monster or a villan, a much as we never saw what the Vashta Nerada really looked like, nor the Midnight monster.

The Tenth Doctor is embarking on an emotional roller coaster though, in this dark, mysterious tale. That's one reason why I enjoyed it so. It has action, humor, real emotion shed between each and every character. The ending is desturbing, the appearence of an Ood informing the Doctor that his end is approaching, almost like the Watcher from Logopolis. I love the Tenth Doctor, and how his adventures stretched massively, in terms of the love affair he had with Rose, the seperation between him and Martha, the close-knit friendship between him and Donna, the loss of all his companions having defeated Davros in Journey's End, and then the bonding of those he met when confronted with the Cybermen, again. All of his adventures have taken us, the audiance, on an emotional ride.

I applaud Russell T Davies for taking on David Tennant as one of the best Time Lords since the classic era of the show. I applaud him for his efforts in giving the tenth Doctor some wonderful adventures, his last two episodes prooving to be some of the most emotional episodes of any Who episode I've ever laid my eyes on.

The Waters of Mars is terrific. It has all the ingredients of quintessential Who, with added special effects, and some wonderful acting! I love Doctor Who. This episode has been described as a taster for what to expect in the finale, but no. I disagree with those who share that opinion. This episode stands on its own two feet, when up against The End of Time. It has a wonderful surporting cast, and the themes therein are moody and wonderfully convincing.

For me, this is a 10!

"Missed your stop" by Thomas Cookson 15/9/14

So, the specials.

The Next Doctor started strongly, but then degenerated into action-flick visual junk food.

Planet of the Dead was downright forgettable (a small mercy). Its predicament could've been resolved in 10 minutes, but was padded to death. The prolonged goodbyes were the worst thing about it (a shame given its decent action climax). It was the least special of the specials. Time-Flight with a budget, basically. Sadly, it could have been genuinely special if they'd only brought the Brigadier back to finally meet the new Doctor. Another tragically missed opportunity. Yeah, the specials turned out to be something of a non-event.

Then came a huge gap before Waters of Mars. There was the superlative Children of Earth, the heartbreaking The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (best story of the series), but they were sporadic spurious splinters from the main, taking up the slack of the flagship show they were never really designed to.

Waters of Mars had to build up a sudden, belated sense of urgency. But after The End of Time, it all seemed for naught.

I've often asked myself when Russell should have left. Most days it's Parting of the Ways. Sometimes I think I'd be happy with Journey's End as his swansong on a nice, pleasant note. At latest though, he should have left here. This would be a fantastic way for Tennant to go out.

I've said that the specials marked a death knell for the new series and its popularity, and this was probably the biggest, most glaringly obvious escape route that they missed.

I'm going to assume that everything great about this episode is entirely down to Phil Ford and Graeme Harper. The concept alone is far too imaginative, inspired and robust for Russell to have possibly managed it alone. All the bad elements must belong to RTD. But then comes the question of whether the good stuff elevates the bad, or the bad spoils the good.

I will give Russell some faint praise. Like Midnight, RTD's philistine conceit that human drama is where it's at, and that aliens are too unrelateable, cold and don't register an emotional response, actually becomes a virtue here, as the aliens here feel genuinely, chillingly heartless, whilst possessing and stripping away their human host's emotions.

However, there are points where RTD's sledgehammer tactics spoil things. That Adelaide doesn't shoot her possessed crewmate is supposed to make her wonderful and is stated as the reason the Doctor 'loved' her for it. This is frustratingly typical of Russell to not let admirable characterisation show through actions or let the audience make up their own minds. RTD doesn't trust his audience; he still thinks this show could fail or be mocked again, and he thinks he has to tell the viewer constantly to see the show and its character in a hyperbolically awesome way. It's annoying and patronising. It betrays the TV and cinema rule of how trust is a two-way street. If the show can relax about what it's about, then so can the audience. But that won't happen under Russell.

Furthermore, failing to vanquish a threat to her crew that will later kill them all doesn't make Adelaide a better person. And that's the problem. There's little or no suspense when the characters have the option of using their weapons against the threat, but are refusing to, on principle. It's impossible to relate to their struggle for survival, or take a threat seriously that's so dependent on their prey letting themselves be killed. I don't know whether shooting the water zombies would have any effect or not, because we didn't see anyone try. The story never establishes how invincible or otherwise they are. These are things we need to know.

Then the water breaks through and one woman is cornered off by a curtain of pouring deadly water. It's tragic, but RTD thinks it's not enough unless we're told to care. So he has her switch on an earlier video message from her daughter just to make herself weep in her final moments. It's so contrived, and ridiculous in its talking down to the audience. We don't need reminding that the character has a daughter because we saw that same video earlier on, and had that been all we saw of it, her death would be no less poignant. I'm almost offended that RTD thinks the viewer needs to be told to care. I'm not so heartless that I didn't care. It got to me emotionally in the immediacy of the moment. But I'll never think back on it as a moving scene, I'll only remember it as a laughably silly, badly written scene.

Where the story arguably is elevated however is in Graeme Harper's direction. He makes the base environment feel solid and encloses the viewer in it. And this episode looks and feels absolutely haunting thanks to him. I don't know if it's a shadow effect or the look in these actor's eyes, but it really does feel like everyone here almost is ghostly. That the Doctor honestly is among the walking dead and damned. These people are marked to die, they're dead already and don't know it, and it's that aspect which makes the character interactions so unnerving.

The Gadget robot is of course an RTD addition, just to give the kids something cute. Because what this story of zombies, distressing death, drowning and suicide needs is something for the kids. But again partly because of Graeme Harper's presentation, even Gadget feels somehow wrong and at a barriered distance, unreachably robotic. The thing doesn't sound cute, it sounds emotionless and strange, even in spite of it ultimately saving the day.

Speaking of cuteness, there's what's often been referred to as 'the Disney Dalek' that visits Adelaide as a child through her window and kindly spares her life. This is a classic case of RTD throwing his own continuity consistency in the trash on a whim. It doesn't make sense, given that the Daleks in Journey's End were plotting to destroy the entire universe there and then, why they should bother to spare any important future historical human figures before their time. However, Graeme really goes for the eeriness of the moment. The Dalek remains silent and unknowable, unreachable. Its motives are ambiguous. But the fact that it behaves contrary to its nature actually if anything complements this story's chilling sense of something being profoundly wrong with the natural order of things.

It also affords Graeme Harper a chance to hint at a darker, more adult and harrowing version of The Stolen Earth than we saw, and he goes for it. Even griping about the fact that her father would leave his daughter in an attic with a window through which she could be seen by any flying Daleks, feels somehow rude to me when the moment gets so much right.

One of the big reasons why I think this would be a great swansong for Tennant is that - through Adelaide and her future legacy and what her granddaughter and future generations will do in following her examples - it does an effective job of conveying the theme of the torch being passed and that each end is also a new beginning. What better way to reassure the new viewers that the show doesn't have to be over just because the current Doctor is gone. Maybe it's even a subtle message from Russell himself that he believes the show will do fine without him and go on to greater expansive new territories when he leaves.

Simultaneously, I think this backstory about the Ice Warriors having to tame and freeze the malevolent water is interesting and bears revisitation. It might indeed be the one reason I might have welcomed RTD staying on after all.

But then there's the controversial aspect. The characterization of the Doctor. And this is where I think RTD spoils things rather. To the point where it veers on Warriors of the Deep territory. It's clearly going for a sense of downbeat tragedy on the Doctor's part of being about those who he couldn't save. And, much like Warriors of the Deep, it goes off the case into making the Doctor just seem snidey, creepy and unsafe. The situation calls for the Doctor to do one of two things. To leave immediately, or - despite knowing these people are going to die - to at least help them survive to their last moments. The latter is a basic moral truth. If someone's due to die of a terminal disease or a coming apocalypse and I chose to kill them beforehand, I'd be no less guilty of murder just because they were going to die anyway. Likewise, if the Doctor is in this situation, then even as a Time Lord who knows what's going to happen, he still has a responsibility to help these people any way he can.

But he can't do either of these things if the story is to play out the way Russell needs. So instead we get a rather sinister middle ground of him hanging about and being morbidly voyeuristic about their coming fate. The worst offender on this score is when only he sees the sonar alert of the two intruders on the ceiling. Surely his Time Lord responsibilities don't forbid him from saying something and warning them. But instead in his watching silence he becomes complicit in what happens next; there was no need to go there, and it doesn't fit the tragic aspect of the Doctor here at all.

The only way around the uneasy feeling this story generates is to ensure that everyone dies. To have the Doctor eventually try to save them, but fail. That way we are reassured that it would make no difference what the Doctor did or not, because fate was utterly against him here. The fact that he successfully saves some lives but not others actually incriminates him for those that he could have saved but didn't out of wilful negligence. I know this is poles apart from what I think makes Warriors of the Deep irredeemable and unforgivable, but given this predestination paradox, it's the right option here. Have the Doctor die with them and that can be his regeneration, doing what always defined him in his love of brilliant humans and not wanting to lose anyone else.

However, I must give credit to the scene where Adelaide is told that she's doomed, and in that she has every right and reason to trap the Doctor in with them and make him share their fate if he won't save them. But nobility compels her to let him go and slip through her fingers, even whilst verbally damning him. That's what I mean about characterisation through actions.

But he saves them. Graeme Harper makes it the most exhilarating moment of the specials as the Doctor fights against impossible odds. Cutting away from the explosion to modern Earth is a masterstroke, conveying an unnerving sense that this isn't how it should have ended. Russell's writing of a power-tripped Doctor who's gone from acting out of compassion to suddenly being a megalomaniac, who childishly tells Adelaide she can suck it up, is terrible. RTD's dealing in absurdly melodramatic leaps just for the fannish high of seeing the Doctor turned so wrong. But Harper makes the scene work, drawing the viewer into the thrill of seeing the Doctor so horribly changed with each rapid changing character beat, and it leaves the stomach in knots. Adelaide's sudden death wish and concern about the web of time comes from nowhere, and she almost chokes on RTD's out-of-context, pretentious dialogue. But it's still visually haunting. Her suicide's a genuine shot in the dark that leaves the Doctor - and us - shattered.

Here's our missed opportunity to make the Eleventh Doctor's arrival welcome. Having our current Doctor fail badly or turn so malevolent that regeneration becomes his only redemption and the universe's only future hope. Viewers would champion Eleven by default.

The laws of time are mine, and they will obey me! by Evan Weston 30/10/16

Whoa. Really, though, whoa. I can't remember a more drastic turnaround from one episode to the next in terms of quality. To go from the utter horror that is Planet of the Dead to this gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted morality drama is really jarring, but in the best way possible. The Waters of Mars is a fantastic story, providing the best self-contained character arc for the Doctor since at least Midnight, along with a legitimately scary monster assaulting a terrific supporting cast. Coming where it does in the Davies era, it's nothing short of miraculous.

The Waters of Mars isn't without minor flaws, and if there's one semi-major complaint I can levy, it's that the first 15 minutes or so are on the slow side, to the episode's detriment. The plot isn't - Andy gets turned by the Flood in his very first appearance, and we learn about the tragedy confronting the crew - but nothing feels urgent. The design of the base has something to do with this, as the corridors make the episode feel a bit lethargic in tone. There's also a lot of exposition to get through, and it tends to weigh down the proceedings. However, I'd be seriously picking nits if I called out anything else. The cast is great from the start, and the concept - the Doctor faces something he can't stop - is presented nicely without us being beaten over the head with it.

The story really gets rolling when Maggie (played by a sublimely creepy Sharon Duncan-Brewster) reveals her Flood state in the medical bay. The moment is hinted at throughout her conversation with Yuri, but the reveal is still a jaw-dropper, and the script does not let up from there. Andy gets Tarak and things go from bad to worse, as the crew is beaten back by the deadly water. The Flood make for very frightening monsters, thanks to both wonderful design (the cracked mouths are creepy as hell) and a simple concept done very well. Just one drop. Every one of their conversions in the episode's second half is genuinely moving, particularly Steffi's horrifying death scene.

Of course, the main villain of The Waters of Mars ends up being the Doctor himself, played in what can only be described as a pure tour de force by David Tennant. In a welcome reversal from Planet of the Dead, Tennant never lets the situation his character faces escape him, as the Time Lord gets more and more tortured throughout the story. His re-telling of Adelaide Brooke's story is normally something Tennant would play up, but here he delivers it almost in monotone, unable to tell her how it ends. The Doctor's development also makes perfect sense, especially when you consider Ten's particular fondness for acting as savior. I completely buy his inability to let the crew die, even though it's the right thing to do.

Once the Doctor returns to the ship, the production plays things up like you're supposed to root for him. But something seems off the entire time. When Adelaide threatens to engage Action 5, the Doctor growls, "If I have to fight you as well, I will." The realization that you're meant to root against the Doctor is utterly chilling, and Tennant makes for one of the scariest bad guys in his own era. I hesitated to include the Doctor as an out-and-out villain until his scene on Earth, in which he responds to Adelaide's protestations with a vicious "tough" and officially becomes the Time Lord Victorious. The Waters of Mars doesn't back away from its central question - what would happen if the Doctor embraced his power? The idea of "Time Lord Victorious" is incredibly scary, once you see what he's truly capable of, and a more adult show would likely have run with the idea for a bit longer. Doctor Who's circumstances being what they are, he was never going to leave the episode a villain, but you come away feeling very angry towards the Doctor, and that's quite the impression to make in his penultimate story.

That feeling also comes thanks to the suicide of Adelaide Brooke, which feels necessary but somehow still breaks me anyways. Perhaps that's due to a marvelous performance from Lindsay Duncan, who makes up for Michelle Ryan's turd in Planet of the Dead and then some. She's the strongest member of the cast outside of Tennant, and her steely gaze and cool under pressure occasionally give way to the sad, vulnerable child spared by the Daleks 50 years ago. Her end is tragic, but Adelaide is one of the bravest heroes in Doctor Who lore, standing up to and subduing the Time Lord Victorious, who was about to wreak lord-knows-what kind of havoc. While I'm generally happy with Who's companions, we could use a few more like Adelaide in the mix.

The other supporting players are, for the most part, terrific. This is the best ensemble Who has hosted since The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, and while Duncan is the strongest in the bunch, we have others who pass with flying colors. Peter O'Brien is underused but still excellent as the first mate, Ed, who is slighted by the captain for a past misdeed but makes up for it with what manages to be the episode's second-most tragic sacrifice by the end. I complimented Duncan-Brewster already, and she's matched by Alan Ruscoe and Chook Sibtain as the creepy Flood. Aleksander Mikic charms as Yuri the nurse, and Cosima Shaw nails Steffi's big scene. The only slackers are Gemma Chan, there just to be a pretty face as Mia Bennett, and Michael Goldsmith as the vaguely annoying Roman.

I also have to credit the funny robot, Gadget, who's one amongst many production marvels in The Waters of Mars. The base looks great, though you can tell the BBC got a lot of mileage out of those corridors. The size and scope of it all convinces immediately, and this is a rare Davies story that lives within its means. We've also got great little nooks and crannies like the shuttle or the ice room (with the moving explanation scene and a clever reference to the Ice Warriors thrown in for good measure). It's directed solidly by series mainstay Graeme Harper, and Murray Gold's score is top-notch, particularly after the Doctor turns nasty.

I think the lion's share of the praise here has to go to co-writer Phil Ford, though, for presumably keeping Davies on the straight-and-narrow throughout. The concept and story are pure Russell, to be sure, but Ford helps keep the talking at the audience to a minimum, and The Waters of Mars is one of the more intelligent episodes of Doctor Who you'll find. Ford is no slouch - he has the second-most writing credits on The Sarah Jane Adventures and has been a showrunner - and he proves his mettle on the main show splendidly. This is among the gutsiest Doctor Who stories ever, right there with Midnight and Human Nature/The Family of Blood, and Ford's script helps us root against the Doctor just enough to make the climax exhilarating.

The Waters of Mars is an absolutely essential episode of Doctor Who, not just because it's great on its own merits - and it certainly is that - but because of where it fits into the series' chronology. Had The Waters of Mars been poor, there'd be little reason to expect anything out of The End of Time or keep up with the show following David Tennant's exit. But here, in this wonderful adventure, hope for the future of Doctor Who was restored. The show's darkest period is officially over, and that's a splendid thing to say.


"Your death is fixed in time forever. And that is right." by Hugh Sturgess 8/10/17

There are really two stories in The Waters of Mars. The first forty-five minutes are a well-produced if unremarkable base-under-siege story. The last fifteen minutes abruptly change tack to reverse the polarity of the series' moral flow and turn the Doctor monstrous, canonising hubris as the tenth Doctor's fatal flaw. At the time, this felt like a very exciting, important story. It was grim, it was dark, it was scary, and it made the Doctor an object of legitimate criticism - far from the vacant pop and celebrity culture of Planet of the Dead. Russell T Davies was once again offering us something spiky and cynical. Interestingly, it seemed to find the greatest support from those fans who traditionally sledge neo-Who for being insufficiently like Doctor Who in the 1970s. "Interestingly", because really it confirms the worst tendencies of the RTD era, and in a way far more bleakly and destructively than Journey's End or Planet of the Dead ever could.

According to The Writer's Tale, the "Time Lord Victorious" ending was not in the original outline. Initially, the unnerving ending was pinned entirely on Ood Sigma's enigmatic appearance. This is wild, because it's clearly the lynchpin of the entire story. Without it, one can only imagine it would have been another The Next Doctor or Planet of the Dead, a flatly executed piece of generic 21st century Doctor Who. The BBC and Davies himself sold the 2009 Specials as a year of Doctor Who as a handful of blockbusters. You cannot do that and produce what amounts to extended versions of regular episodes (Planet of the Dead as the fun and frothy opener, Waters of Mars as the darker, more adult late-season two-parterÉ).

It goes without saying that the episode is well made. With only a few exceptions, neo-Who has always been of astonishing technical standard. The water-monsters are an effectively cheap piece of design, and pose an unnerving yet simple threat. The "one drop" rule is both frightening, echoing any number of infection-based horrors like John Carpenter's The Thing, and mirrors children's games of tag for easy imitation by young viewers. But I'm not much of a fan of bases under siege, because we all know the story. For mine, Horror of Fang Rock is the best base-under-siege story and is unlikely to be bettered. It ratchets up suspense through an utterly elegant process of serial murder, meticulously planning the death of its characters to have the menace draw closer and closer to the heart of the action. The Waters of Mars, by contrast, feels half-hearted, squandering its cast in two widely spaced massacres that at best mistake quantity for quality and at worst simply satisfy a death quota. Bases under siege kill their casts, so The Waters of Mars kills its.

If The Waters of Mars had just been Invasion of the Flood, I'm sure it would have pushed the same trad-fan buttons, but could it really justify its status as one of the four bits of Doctor Who this year? I'm left with little to say about the first forty-five minutes of this story, beyond that I don't find them very exciting and that they're filled with little Tennant-era conventions of dialogue and script that are now extremely grating (cringe at the "quirky" decision to name a Martian base after David Bowie). The thing that makes this episode "special" beyond its production designation is the ending. It's big, it's bold, it's bravely attempting to turn Britain's most beloved hero into a monster - and I don't like it at all.

With the Doctor's reference to Pompeii, the script is unambiguously asking us to read The Waters of Mars in light of The Fires of Pompeii. (And ponder the thematically identical titlesÉ) Just how should we take this clear instruction to compare the two? The new series made it textually explicit back in The Runaway Bride that the Doctor needs companions to hold his darker instincts in check, like he's Batman or something. In The Writer's Tale, Davies informs his correspondent Ben Cook that the Doctor snaps and rescues Adelaide in The Waters of Mars because he has travelled alone for too long since Journey's End. Without a companion, the story implies, there is no one to remind the Doctor that he should leave innocent people to die in fear and agony if it means protecting history.

Wait, what? Despite the absurdity of this conceit, the theme of the Specials, that the Doctor without company loses track of what really matters, collapses without it. Can anyone seriously imagine any companion not urging the Doctor to do exactly what he does here, break the rules to save a few innocents? Only Turlough and Compassion have the sufficient misanthropy and indifference to even suggest otherwise.

We don't have to imagine what Donna would do, because we saw it in The Fires of Pompeii. This is where the explicit reference to the earlier episode becomes really perverse. The Doctor's description of the episode - he tried to stop Vesuvius but inadvertently made it happen - is highly idiosyncratic and misses the much more obvious parallel. With the disaster unfolding around them, the Doctor insists he cannot save the people of Pompeii. Donna begs him to save someone, anyone, just one person, and so he returns to rescue Caecilius and his family. He appears ringed in a halo of light and pulls them to safety. The Doctor's re-entry into the dome at the climax of The Waters of Mars is so similar it is unthinkable that it isn't a deliberate visual quote.

Yet The Fires of Pompeii, which was broadcast scarcely eighteen months earlier, leaves us in no doubt that the Doctor was right to save Caecilius's family. It was part of the story outline from the beginning, largely because killing off the entire guest cast in the season's second episode was too grim for Davies' liking. The Waters of Mars presents the exactly same plot beat, but as a sin so dark it justifies the Doctor's death. What are we to make of this?

The thing that dooms the Doctor, apparently, is that he saved Adelaide while being a total jerk about it. He doesn't wave away the humans' gushy thanks with a sheepish grin as he sneaks off back to the TARDIS. He rubs their good fortune in their faces, scolds them for their ingratitude, calls them "little people" and flaunts his power over them. Instead of a triumph, his rescue is shown as something wild, even dangerous. The tenth Doctor's standard gabbling and arm-waving is made to look not just manic but unhinged. Mika's horrified delivery of "it's bigger on the inside" attempts to turn one of the series' foundational premises into a source of monstrosity. Yet this is all aesthetics. The Doctor was a smug bastard when he saved Adelaide, Mika and Yuri, so they are justified in not thanking him. The show is confirming a cultural preference - that heroes be humble rather than arrogant - and treating it as a moral point

Just as hubris is the tenth Doctor's canonical flaw, which dooms him on his first day, this is the original sin of the Davies era. Davies has always been populist. His meticulous planning of the show to maximise public attention, ordering episodes to draw in viewers at the beginning, beat mid-season slumps and leave audiences feeling upbeat and positive at the end, are legendary. Occasionally, but importantly, populism ascends to the level of the text as well. The climaxes of all his finales apart from Doomsday hinge, metaphorically speaking, on populism. The show is threatened by some overwhelming catastrophe, the death of the Earth or the destruction of the universe, but survives on because he is loved. Rose, Martha, the human race and the universe itself are stand-ins for the audience. The Doctor is loved, therefore the Doctor lives. The tenth Doctor dies because he has been a prick to everyone.

To test the moral point The Waters of Mars claims to be making, imagine switching the ending of this episode with Pompeii. Is the text really saying that, had the Doctor called Caecilius a little person, Caecilius should have thrown himself into Mt Vesuvius in protest? Or had he kept his mouth shut about the Time Lord Victorious, Adelaide need not have blown her brains out? If so, it reveals a vast moral vacuum at the heart of Doctor Who. This is Debord's Spectacle without irony: what appears is good, what is good appears.

No doubt a technical differentiation could be made between Pompeii and Mars. The script is unambiguous that history doesn't care about Caecilius but does require Adelaide to die. Even if this was a coherent argument, and it isn't, it would be even more morally bankrupt than the aesthetic judgement. The Doctor's argument that Adelaide doesn't need to die to inspire her granddaughter to become an astronaut is perfectly sound. "Fixed points" aren't a reason, they're a non-explanation thought up by a production team confronted by the problem of a time-travelling hero who saves the day except when he doesn't. David Whitaker said that history couldn't be changed because doing so would destroy "the purpose of life itself" (by which I assume he means teleological progress), yet Davies is firm that there is no purpose to life, no gods to answer to and no progress to achieve. We all remain consumerist Britons circa 2009 till the year 100 trillion. Thus the fixed point becomes an unanswerable object of evil. This arbitrary horror, that says that some things can never be changed just because, is treated as justified, yet what could be more Doctorish than what the Doctor does here? Rebelling against the arbitrary tyranny of history, the cruelty of fate, is arguably the most archetypal act of rebellion in the show's history. If the Laws of Time were the laws of a repressive regime, the Doctor would not hesitate to shatter them.

Thus the Davies era ends, as it always had to, by elevating populism to the level of a moral code. The Doctor should not leave Caecilius and his family to die in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius because Donna wants to assuage her guilt at abandoning tens of thousands of others. The Doctor should not save Adelaide, so long as he intends to be an arrogant prick about it. Because of his demeanour, rather than his actions or a coherent moral code, the tenth Doctor deserves to die.

But the show doesn't even try to make the charge stick. This is the central problem with all the attempts to make the Doctor a problematic figure. Can anyone think of a Doctor Who story that questions his actions in a serious way? Kill the Moon certainly qualifies, as does The Massacre, in which Steven is rightly furious at the Doctor for leaving Anne to quite possibly die in the horrors of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Apart from that, the other examples rely on obvious criticisms to which the Doctor never makes obvious retorts.

Davros in Journey's End, Jenny in The Doctor's Daughter and River in A Good Man Goes to War all offer variations on the theme that the Doctor is as bad as his enemies, and it is never once a good argument. This isn't just a New Series problem though. The first eight episodes of Trial of a Time Lord accuse the Doctor of interfering where he shouldn't and getting his companion killed. Not once does he offer counterarguments like "you realise that if I didn't go to Ravalox we'd probably all be dead?" and "but you wanted me to stop Crozier!". The series betrays its fundamental disagreement with the criticism it is offering. The series' creators are convinced that the Doctor is a good guy, so they make the argument half-heartedly.

It is entirely for effect, to portray the Doctor as tragic, haunted by his flaws. Yet the flaws are always in the direction of making him more sympathetic rather than less. The very fact that he is deeply affected and guilt-ridden by these obviously lame criticisms shows him to be a fundamentally good and pure person. The tenth Doctor brings himself down because of his own arrogance, riding roughshod over Harriet Jones, Donna (wiping her mind when she clearly would rather die than revert to the shallow and cynical person she was before she met him) and ultimately history itself, yet the show never seriously asks us to side against him.

The worst thing about this is that Adelaide is the one who has to die to make the point. Until late in the day, the script had Adelaide deliver her lecture and leave, surviving. Davies decided it lacked sufficient punch and so had her shoot herself. There are two things to say about this. Firstly, the lack of punch Davies detected was because the moral point it is trying to make is a hollow one that needs spurious tragedy to lend it weight. Secondly, there is something very ugly about killing a female character simply to make the male hero more angst-ridden. There is a cliche in comic books called "women in refrigerators", describing the conceit of killing off a female character to leave a male character more angsty, angry or driven to vengeance. There are obviously problems with this from a feminist perspective, but also it's simply lazy writing.

Adelaide is fridged. The writer killed her explicitly because it gave the Doctor more of a reason to feel sorry for himself. The tragedy isn't Adelaide's, but the Doctor's. The man who drove her to suicide is the one we're supposed to feel sorry for. This is not as mishandled as Donna's mind-wipe, which amounts to a sci-fi rape (if a villain did it to her, it would be unambiguously evil) and a kind of death and yet the story sympathises with the perpetrator, but it speaks again to an appalling hypocrisy at the heart of Russell T Davies' vaunted character-driven drama. Only some characters matter, clearly.

The 2009 Specials are by no means the heights of neo-Who, but they are inadvertently perfect exemplars of the era they bring to a close. However, they mostly showcase that era's greatest flaws. The greatest sin of The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead is that they do only what is expected of them, in the belief (justified, if the ratings and AI have it) that the formula is sufficient. The Waters of Mars and (arguably) The End of Time show the other great flaw of RTD: false character drama full of sound and fury signifying little. In a way, by amplifying those flaws, turning them into the biggest, most oversold Doctor Who ever, they serve to make a sharp correction to the show's course inevitable and to make themselves examples of the flaw that dooms the main character: hubris.