By now you have all seen Waters of Mars, the latest installment of Dr. Who and the third to last episode staring David Tennant. For me, despite the hype surrounding this episode, it is the most uneven episode of the season so far.
fan art for Waters of Mars/Lazy John
Dr. Who arrives on the first human run Mars base in history moments before a virus/alien race begins infecting the crew. While the Doctor makes a point of saying that he needs to leave the base because there is nothing he can do, he ultimately interferes with a time line both he and the Daleks have determined is fixed in time and must not change.
On the negative side, the “monsters” and the “companion” in this episode leave a lot to be desired. We are told Captain Adelaide Brooke inspires human exploration of space and her descendants even start a new race of people. Though the Doctor clearly idolizes her in some ways, Capt. Brooke comes across as a stand-offish woman who barks orders at her crew, is invested in a top down model of leadership, and is most of all, afraid to die. When it comes time to make critical decisions about the base, Capt. Adelaide has to be reminded about protocol from her second in command, a male officer who clearly thinks he knows better than she does. And when Dr. Who tells her she will eventually have to blow up the base in order to save the Earth, she initially refuses on the basis of not wanting to die. By the time Captain Adelaide begins to live up to the Doctor’s expectations she has already come across as dictatorial, unapproachable, and afraid. Her moments of heroism on the base, from her attempts to save the crew to her ultimate decision to blow up the base even as the Doctor is trying to work his magic, all ring a little hollow as a result.
The monsters are also a disappointment, partially because they seem like an after thought. Within moments of the Doctor’s arrival one of the botanists working to create sustainable food on Mars becomes infected with a virus that transforms him into a cracked-face, crazed-eyed, water producing creature that wants to infect the crew. He quickly infects his female counterpart and then the only physician on the crew. Visually, they just aren’t scary. The make up is something more akin to a bad SyFy Saturday Z rate movie than Dr. Who and their motivation, though frightening, never really rings true to the episode. It would have been much more effective to simply see the shifting of water to break through various barriers they remaining crew erect without close ups with the infected crew while Dr. Who’s explanation of the infection “water waits” “water always wins” “one drop will change you” played in the background. That, coupled with a slightly longer, slower shot of the ice, while Dr. Who explained that it may have been the Ice Warriors who trapped the aliens/virus on Mars and then the scene of the ice cracking would have been up to par with the terror and intensity we were supposed to feel.
As it was, I seldom cared about the threat nor connected with the fear that the crew was feeling.
However, I would argue that the virus was never the point of this episode. Instead, Waters of Mars asks us to consider what it means to be the last of the Time Lords. By this point in the new series, Dr. Who is a broken man in many ways. He has survived a great war that left him torn and shaken. Even though his companions have all helped him begin to heal from the loss of his people and his planet, they have also all torn a piece of his heart. From the loss of his great love, Rose to his shame about the dual failures to look out for the feelings of his equal Martha and the destruction of the empowered woman Donna had become, Dr. Who is a traveler unhinged from time and companionship. He is man accountable to no one and mourning everyone.
Into this profound sorrow comes a moment in time that cannot be changed and yet, we are told, is a great tragedy.
Much more than a companion, Captain Adeliade is a mirror. Like the Doctor, she wants to live even when she knows she is meant to die. And like him, faced with the facts, she fights again reason, time, and even the future to stay alive. But unlike the Doctor, Captain Adelaide ultimately realizes that there is more at stake than her fear of death. Where the Doctor stumbles, believing in his own unchecked power, she puts him and time back on track by making the ultimate sacrifice.
One could also argue that the virus/aliens in the water are an equal mirror to Dr. Who’s dilemma. They too want only to live in the face of a kind of death. Like Dr. Who, they have lived and died and have hope of living again. And also like the Doctor, they have decided that their survival is more important than the lives of others. This is why they are the monsters in the story. And while I have argued that the makeup on this episode is sub-par, one could easily argue that the infection of humans and the slight but disturbing alteration of their appearance is a metaphor for the ways that the Doctor we have come to love has been infected by fear of death and that slight alteration transforms him from hero to potential monster.
Ultimately, the Doctor is reminded of his role in time and the universe. Like a child who falters, he stands alone in the snow and asks “Does this mean it is my time?” And though he gets no answer, he knows that the end is around the corner.
While it is hard to see the Doctor this way, especially since what makes him so endearing after all this time is the bravado and the bravery that comes with knowing you are essentially immortal, it is a take that is both unexpected and ultimately poignant.
Other points of interest
- The base is named Bowie Base One a clear nod to David Bowie in the good old days 🙂 (I’m surprised there was no Major Tom)
- The crew is multicultural and includes both men and women in prominent roles – though the two highest ranking roles are both white
- There are no queer characters nor queer window-dressing which is always too bad b/c Davies does it so well
- There is an adorable reference to K-9 both verbally and visually
- Davies has seemingly gone back on his snipe about killing Ianto, when he responded to criticism about killing major characters by saying people die and that fans who didn’t like it could watch Supernatural instead, by bringing back The Master
- There is also some indication that characters from the past will make an appearance in the two part finale
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