THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC
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.


Reviews

"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.