The RTD era of Doctor Who reaches its penultimate adventure with “The Waters Of Mars”, and perhaps it says something about my taste in television, but I stand by what I’ve said several times before on this blog: a lot of Russell T. Davies’ best episodes were the really morbid and depressing ones, because when the man wanted to write some really bleak Doctor Who, he could do it really well. “The Waters Of Mars” (a story Russell co-wrote with Phil Ford) is a pretty significant episode in the series. Arguably, the Tenth Doctor’s entire character arc, ever since he made his debut in “The Christmas Invasion“, has been building up to him having a horribly traumatic and humbling experience like the one that sets the stage for his finale in “The End Of Time“, and to this day, “The Waters Of Mars” is remembered fondly for the direction it takes the Tenth Doctor’s character in.
You’ll notice that all of the Series 4 specials so far have followed a pretty familiar pattern for the series – “The Next Doctor” was a story set in the past, “Planet Of The Dead” was set in the present (albeit on an alien planet, halfway across the galaxy), and for “The Waters Of Mars”, we take a trip into the not so different future, when humanity has just started to make progress with exploring outer space beyond the moon. The plot and the setting of this episode feels very reminiscent of previous Tenth Doctor adventures like “The Satan Pit“, “42“, “The Fires Of Pompeii” and “Midnight“, but it doesn’t feel like an outright rethread of those horror-based episodes, instead it feels more like the spiritual successor of them. You have the unnerving feeling of total isolation from “The Satan Pit”, the old school slasher movie vibes from “42”, the enigmatic villain from “Midnight”, and the mediation on fixed points in time (and the consequences that come from breaking them) in “The Fires Of Pompeii”.
Fixed points in time were officially established in “The Fires Of Pompeii” to give the Doctor limitations, to keep him from becoming too overpowered or invincible as the series’ protagonist. The way time travel typically works in Doctor Who, foreknowledge is utterly damning. The Doctor and his friends almost always go into an adventure blind: they don’t know what’s going to happen, therefore anything can happen and they don’t have to worry about accidentally causing a paradox by removing their whole reason for being there in the first place (which is what Rose did when she saved Pete’s life in “Father’s Day“). They especially try to avoid major events in human history where they can change the development of the entire human race for the worse. Whenever they do encounter a fixed point, they always have to tread lightly, because trying to change history’s outcome will at best, be totally futile, and at worst, cause them to become a part of the events and make the disaster happen anyway (like “The Fires Of Pompeii’s” incredibly dark ending).
In “The Waters Of Mars”, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) is quite rightly alarmed when he takes an unsuspecting trip to a space base on Mars, only to realize all the astronauts there are doomed to die in a horrible cataclysm later that day. Much like his previous approach to Mount Vesuvius (a day before the volcano was due to erupt), the Doctor has no desire to stick around and watch them all meet their gruesome deaths, and he’s forbidden to interfere in the day’s events because of the consequences that might ensue, so he immediately tries to get out of Dodge, but the humans keep preventing him from leaving. From there, the Doctor winds up getting involved with the unfolding catastrophe anyway, because he never could resist a good mystery nor his innate desire to help other people.
Throughout the bulk of this special – as he learns more about Adelaide and her crew, about the Flood and they danger they pose to every single human living on the Earth – Ten’s better judgment as a time lord is fighting against his core nature as a person, and it’s losing. As a result, the Doctor feels very guilt-ridden about the position he’s stuck in, burdened by this terrible knowledge. One of the most depressing scenes in the entire show has to be the Doctor watching Adelaide and her crew running around the base, getting their hopes up about escaping back to Earth as they pack their bags to leave. He has a blank, dead-eyed stare on his face the whole time, knowing full-well that everything they’re doing is doomed to fail, and he can already see the signs of their imminent demise on the horizon.
But despite every fiber of his gut insisting that he do something, that he step in and make some kind of difference as the humans are steadily overwhelmed by the Flood, he forces himself to walk away, to be cold and uncaring – and it tears him up inside. The Tenth Doctor has always felt conflicted about how much he should meddle with the natural order of things: he felt tempted to change the past and do away with all his past regrets about the time war in “School Reunion“, he raged about how unfair it was that he couldn’t save Astrid from her brutal death in “Voyage Of The Damned“, not being able to save Pompeii is one of his greatest failures, and the horrors of the time war that he couldn’t prevent have been weighing on him heavily throughout the RTD era. As Ten is forced to listen to the astronauts die cruelly and helplessly, one by one, something in him snaps.
As the last time lord in the universe, he officially decides to tear down the rules of time and space and matter and do whatever he likes. There’s no one else around to stop him, and he’s already done it before anyway, when he dispatched Harriet Jones. She was supposed to usher in Britain’s golden age, but when the Doctor decided she was unfit for office, he changed the future on a whim: he created a brand new timeline without a thought as to what the consequences might be (and the consequences of that decision did come back to haunt him eventually, when the Master took up her old position). Normally, one of his friends would protest his actions in this episode and express their concerns about how far he’s going, but he’s been traveling alone for quite some time now, and he’s got no one to answer to but himself.
The final ten minutes reveal an uglier side to his personality. Before now, it’s seemed somewhat odd that the Doctor and the Master used to be friends, since they’re so different from each other. But this episode’s final act makes it very apparent that, deep down, the Doctor has the same time lord arrogance and hubris that the Master does, to the point where Ten’s dialogue actually starts to echo his, and that makes him very corruptible. Eventually, Adelaide can see the warning signs of Ten becoming drunk with power if he goes around changing history carelessly, leaving devastation in his wake, especially since his motives are not entirely altruistic. According to Carmen, Ten’s story is ending soon, and as the Moffat era will state multiple times, the Doctor doesn’t like endings. In the final scene, Ten unwittingly drives someone to suicide out of fear of him and what he could do, and “The Waters Of Mars” becomes a Greek tragedy about a fool who thought he could cheat fate and lost. And if the Doctor couldn’t change time for Adelaide’s sake, he quickly realizes his own chances of avoiding the Grim Reaper aren’t looking so good right now.
In a refreshing step up from “Planet Of The Dead”, Russell once again crafts a likable and charismatic supporting cast with the astronauts in “The Waters Of Mars”, which makes it all the more sad when almost all of them are killed off by the Flood. You’ve got Yuri, the gabby, practical jokester; Roman, the snarky, robot-loving nerd; Steffi, the one who keeps order; and Ed, the stern second-in-command who seems to have some unresolved issues with Captain Adelaide, from a past falling out that’s curiously always left up to our imaginations. Naturally, the crew member of Bowie Base One who’s given the most screen-time and character development is Captain Adelaide Brooke, who runs a tight ship.
The captain is very distrusting of the Doctor, since he’s an intruder who arrives on her base on the same day at the same time everything goes wrong. She’s also no fool: she can tell the Doctor’s holding out on her about everything he knows – so they alternate between being at odds with each other and helping each other out throughout this special. Adelaide became a pioneer of space travel for the greater good of humanity, but also out of curiosity and wanderlust. She was changed by an encounter she had with the Daleks in her childhood – and it’s implied that even the Daleks, as terrible as they are, fear the wrath of time to the point where they wouldn’t dare alter a fixed point by killing her. That’s a spooky thought that adds some real weight to the stakes of this story, and under ordinary circumstances, it would make a lot of sense. The Daleks may be evil, but they have a strong sense of self-preservation. However, it feels a bit at odds with “Journey’s End“, the episode that flashback is set in. In that story, the Daleks had gone completely insane and were trying to nuke everyone and everything in the multiverse: so what they did have to lose by breaking the laws of time at that point?
In any case, Adelaide spent years dreaming about what might lie out there in the universe, and like a lot of astronauts, she put in the hard work to satisfy her curiosity. In “The Waters Of Mars”, she discovers that everything she’s been striving towards, her destiny, her entire purpose in life, all along, has been to die – so the rest of humanity can fly. Imagine how much of a horrible, depressing revelation that would be. Like basically anyone would, Adelaide’s first reaction is to reject it, to rebel against it – she refuses to believe the Doctor’s assertion that they’re all slaves to time. But at her core, Adelaide is a pragmatic woman who won’t deny the truth of an ugly situation when it’s right in front of her eyes – that’s presumably the reason why she was appointed captain of her crew in the first place.
As their situation grows more and more hopeless, and the humans’ chances of survival dwindle down to none, Adelaide accepts her fate and makes peace with it. And in a shocking change from the norm, it’s the Doctor who tries to rage against it, almost breaking time to try to prove something to himself. Going off of what the Doctor told her, Adelaide can already foresee all the possible ways that the Doctor’s attempts to help could backfire, and totally screw over humanity’s future, but he refuses to hear any of it in a rather creepy conversation where we get a glimpse at the kind of person the Doctor could become if he completely tossed aside his inhibitions (we’ll get an even longer glimpse of it in “Hell Bent”, several seasons down the line). Adelaide’s solution to defy the Doctor and fix everything gives us one last bit of unexpected darkness. When the Doctor turns his back to her, Adelaide slowly pulls out her gun, and for a moment, you think she’s going to shoot the Doctor – but then she goes inside her house, and you realize, it’s intended for her. It’s one more morbid example of characters in the RTD era putting history back in place, by committing suicide.
The villains of this episode, the Flood, are utterly chilling. Like the Beast, the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada and the creature from “Midnight”, they embody a fear of the unknown, since we only ever learn the bare minimum about them. The Flood are parasites, a primal force imprisoned by the Ice Warriors, that spent thousands of years sleeping underneath the ice on Mars until they encountered humanity. The Flood are a plague, an infestation, that travels through water: they only need to touch someone with one drop to consume them and claim their body for their own (though they usually like to attack people with a full geyser, just to make sure they get the job done). The Flood primarily want human vessels so they can have hands and feet to advance their goals: after being isolated on a dead world for centuries, they want to make the Earth their new home, a planet that’s covered in water for them to swim in and repopulate.
There’s an ironic parallel drawn between the Flood and the astronauts on Bowie Base One: they both want to same thing, to travel off-world and create a new colony that’s perfect for their species, except humanity won’t survive the Flood’s infestation. The Flood’s zombies are implacable and unrelenting, and the scary thing is just how efficient they are. Water is very versatile: it can slip under doors and seep through cracks, and as the Doctor astutely points out, if you give it enough time, it can get in anywhere. It’s made abundantly clear that the best thing the astronauts can do is slow them down, but they can’t stop them, and the Flood will take them all, one-by-one. The sequence where they fall, like a line of dominoes, is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the RTD era – Roman’s death, and Ed’s death are especially tragic because of just how sudden they are.
“The Waters Of Mars” is the last episode Grahame Harper directed for the series (which really cements that this era of Doctor Who is coming to an end), and he certainly goes out with a bang during his last stint in the director’s chair. The exterior shots of Mars’s surface were filmed in Taff’s Well Quarry in Cardiff, with the help of some CGI work from the Mill, we get some beautiful vistas of the lonely red planet in space throughout the episode. Inside Bowie Base One, a lot of filming was done inside the National Botanic Garden of Wales, to give the greenhouse scenes the space they required. Grahame Harper does his usual thing and gets creative with the perspective shots he uses to tell this story (including some of his signature extreme close-ups during moments of emotional intensity).
“The Waters Of Mars” is filmed a lot like an old school slasher flick, with several eerie, out-of-focus shots where the astronauts keel over abruptly and silently transform into zombies in the background, while their crewmates are completely unaware of the danger they’re in – and the episode holds on these kind of shots just long enough to make the viewers feel deeply uncomfortable. The lighting department, and the crew members in charge of the episode’s coloring grading, also deserve a mention: the biodome scenes have a very grey and washed-out look to them, reminiscent of several episodes from Series 1, that really helps to enhance the uneasy mood of this episode. Since “The Waters Of Mars” is a story with two main thorough-lines running through it in regards to its tone, Murray Gold’s score (blending together a traditional orchestra, a choir and several synthesizers) frequently walks a line between being tensely horrific, and quietly stirring. “The Fate Of Little Adelaide“, “Altering Lives“, and “Vale” are the standout tracks of new material in the episode, with the last one in particular becoming the official theme for the Tenth Doctor’s swansong and implied to be composed by the Ood in-universe.
As the set-up for the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration story, and its own standalone horror episode, “The Waters Of Mars” is a rousing success at everything it sets out to do: giving the Tenth Doctor some proper character development, while also telling a tragedy about the cruel nature of time. And to be truthful, I actually like it quite a bit more than the two-parter that follows it.
* Believe it or not, “The Waters Of Mars” was originally concieved as a Christmas special, and signs of that can still be found in the finished episode (Adelaide mentions that it’s almost Christmastime on the base, and it’s snowing later back on Earth). This was already a pretty grim episode to air around Thanksgiving, and it would have made for a very morbid Christmas special.
* “If we could cut the chat, everyone” “Actually, chat’s second on my list, the first being gun pointed at my head. Which then puts my head second and chat third, I think. Gun, head, chat, yeah. I hate lists”.
* “I hate robots. Did I say?” “Yeah, and he’s not too fond of you”.
* “Are you the Doctor or the janitor?” “I don’t know. Sounds like me. The maintenance man of the universe”.
* Guys, why the hell would you decide to split up in the creepy, dark greenhouse when you suspect something bad has happened to the rest of the crew?
* “Earth is so much water” “Yeah. Just look at her. Forty million miles away” “It has so much beauty. We should like that world“.
* Poor Roman is practically given a seizure when the Doctor decides to hijack his funny robot for quite escape, and Roman is still plugged into it.
* “We’re safe. It’s hermetically sealed. They can’t get in!” “Water is patient, Adelaide. Water just waits. It wears down the clifftops, the mountains, the whole of the world. Water always wins“.
* “The problem is, this thing is clever. It didn’t infect the birds or the insects in the biodome, it chose the humans. You were chosen. And I told you, Adelaide, water can wait. Tarak changed straight away, but when Maggie was infected it stayed hidden inside her, no doubt so it could infiltrate the Central Dome. Which means-” “Any one of us could already be infected. We’ve all been drinking the same water” “And if you take that back to Earth, one drop. Just one drop“.
* “Now, Doctor, get to your ship. I’m saving my people, you save yourself. I know what this moment is. It’s the moment we escape. Now get out” Oh honey…
* “Imagine, imagine you knew something. Imagine you found yourself somewhere. I don’t know, Pompeii. Imagine you were in Pompeii. And you tried to save them, but in doing so, you make it happen. Anything I do just makes it happen”.
* “I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t, Adelaide. Sometimes I can, sometimes I do. Most times I can save someone, or anyone. But not you. You wondered all your life why that Dalek spared you. I think it knew. Your death is fixed in time forever. And that’s right”
* “I hated it, Adelaide, this bloody job! You never gave me a chance, you never could forgive me. See you later“.
* “But you said we die. For the future, for the human race” “Yes, because there are laws. There are laws of time. Once upon a time, there were people in charge of those laws, but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine, and they will obey me!“
* “Not beaten! Not beaten! You’ve got spacesuits in the next section! We’re not just fighting the Flood, we’re fighting time itself. And I’m going to win!“
* “Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people, but never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good. For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious”.