“The Laws of Time are mine. And they will obey me!”
Now that was good. I was rather disappointed with the previous two specials; The Next Doctor, once one got past the striking images of Cybermen in Victorian London, had a flimsy and predictable plot, and Planet of the Dead seemed an empty, overambitious romp with some gaping plot holes.
Waters of Mars, conversely, may be one of Russell T Davies’ best scripts ever. Shorn of his desire to play to the crowds by having Cybermen fight Daleks, or having a reunion of every companion since 2005, he turned out an economical, chilling script that worked on several different levels.
First, and most obviously, it was an effective little horror story, playing on some of Who’s staple strengths. A relentless, thoroughly alien adversary that takes over and changes your very body is straight out of Philip Hinchcliffe’s darker stories – The Ark in Space being the prime example. And the ‘base under siege’ scenario is a formula that’s worked in any number of Who stories – not to mention classic horror films like Night of the Living Dead and most of the work of John Carpenter. Indeed, there were scenes reminiscent of a number of horror films. The basic premise is not dissimilar to Carpenter’s far inferior Ghosts of Mars, and the bit when Roman was infected by a single drop of water recalled nothing so much as Brendan Gleeson’s infection with a single drop of blood in 28 Days Later. Ratcheting up the tension with his customary expertise was the reliably superb Graeme Harper, who could show John Carpenter a thing or two about direction these days.
The possessing aliens were genuinely imaginative and unnerving. The possibility of running water on the surface of Mars has a plausible scientific background, and the possessed humans, bodies shedding a horrifying amount of water, were just scary enough for a show on at 7 in the evening. Like Russell’s other horror classic Midnight, their nature and motivations were left deliberately unclear, and were more disturbing for it. All we got were disquietingly ominous hints, with the viewer’s imagination left to fill in the rest.
At the other end of the scale from ‘scary’, I was a little dubious about the inclusion of an intentionally ‘cute’ robot. Not that I have anything against cute robots per se – as a Star Wars fan that would make me something of a hypocrite. But it did seem that Russell was trying to have his cake and eat it by both including a cute robot and having the Doctor make contemptuous remarks about cute robots. Still, younger kids will probably love it, as will the merchandise manufacturers. For me, I found the robot’s operator, young Roman, far more cute.
So, on one level, Waters of Mars was very much a thrilling, family friendly slice of horror in the style of old school Who. If it had had a decent budget and more convincing effects. But what definitely wasn’t old school – and will, I suspect, be the part that excites and divides the fans – was the parallel thread exploring how the Doctor squares his increasingly omnipotent power with a sense of morality.
This is what made the episode truly dark, and made it one of the most audacious scripts Russell has written. The Doctor’s a difficult character to deconstruct, as ultimately he’s the hero of the show and necessarily its moral compass. To show him as both fallible morally and arrogant to boot is nearly unprecedented.
I say ‘nearly’, because the show has touched on the idea before. In the very first story, William Hartnell seemed prepared to bash in a caveman’s head to help himself escape. Patrick Troughton’s deliberate misdirection of the archaeological team in Tomb of the Cybermen always struck me as a bit suspect, too. He plainly knew what was down there; if he wanted to avoid bloodshed why not just tell people? Then we saw Jon Pertwee confronting his own ingrained prejudice towards the Ice Warriors in The Curse of Peladon. And most famously, Tom Baker agonised over the decision of whether or not to commit genocide against his deadliest enemies in Genesis of the Daleks – a moral debate slightly undercut in light of the knowledge that Sylvester McCoy will later blithely blow up the Daleks’ entire planet.
But this is undoubtedly the most overt use of the idea as a central plot thread. We’ve known about ‘fixed points in history’ almost since the beginning, of course – witness the First Doctor telling Barbara “you can’t rewrite history; not one line!” in 1964’s The Aztecs. And last year we had the point underlined in The Fires of Pompeii, which also clarified that,as a Time Lord, the Doctor did have the power to do so. It’s an interesting, and consistent approach to show that there are points in our subjective future that are just as fixed.
Simply by having the ability to travel in time and alter such fixed points, the Doctor has power not far removed from that of a god. And the only check on that power – his own people – is long since gone.
It is, of course, with the best of intentions that the Doctor chooses to exercise that power – you know what they say about the road to hell and its construction methods. That point is neatly underlined as we see him grimly walking away from the base listening to its crew members die one by one. When he finally snaps and decides to act from the heart rather than the head, it’s a neat reversal of the ruthless morality often displayed by the Seventh Doctor – this is a man who wants to save individuals even at the expense of the bigger picture.
And, of course, he’s wrong. More wrong than he’s ever been before, in a dark turn that could only really be pulled off with a character so strongly established. As he piles transgression on transgression, at best he seems arrogant and hubristic; at worst he seems simply mad.
David Tennant perhaps chose to overplay the ‘close to madness’ feel of the dialogue in the scenes set at the base, but the later scene outside the TARDIS on Earth was played to perfection. The Doctor is all haughty arrogance, convinced of his moral superiority in his actions.
And as in The Runaway Bride, it takes a mere human to show him he’s wrong. Lindsay Duncan’s quiet, dignified performance in that scene with the Doctor was masterful, and the way Tennant just crumpled when he realised she had shouldered the responsibility that should have been his by ending her own life was heartbreaking.
This moral complexity and fallibility makes Waters of Mars the most interesting look at the Doctor yet, and undoubtedly one of Russell T Davies’ finest scripts. There were many other excellent aspects in an all-round excellent production, but this was the core of it for me.
“The Time Lord victorious… is wrong.”