Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars (2009) [DVD]

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For no particular reason, this week I had the urge to revisit a four-year-old feature episode of Doctor Who from the end of the David Tennant era – perhaps it’s spurred by the idea that we will be seeing the actor back in the role in just a few day’s time .

I haven’t rewatched “The Waters of Mars” since its original transmission in November 2009. It was one of a number of hour-long episodes broadcast that year to bridge the gap caused by the programme’s regular production taking a long hiatus before Matt Smith took over the role. Whereas the other specials had all been tied to special occasions (Christmas, New Year, Easter) “The Waters of Mars” found itself rather awkwardly dropped into a random weekend in November (charitably you could speculate that they wanted to mark the 46th anniversary of the show with something new, but really it seems they just ran out of scheduling options.) Even more oddly it clearly has several of the trappings of a Christmas outing – more than “The End of Time” did, which finally filled the December 25 spot a few weeks later – indicating how fluid and messy the whole behind-the-scenes production of the specials ended up being in 2009.

As a result it was easy at the time to overlook “The Waters of Mars” as just a warm-up act for the much-anticipated final story and regeneration which captured all the attention coming just a few weeks later, followed by the massive hype and expectation surrounding the arrival of a new lead actor in the role in the spring. All of which may explain why I never got around to rewatching “The Waters of Mars” since it aired, despite the fact that even at the time it had been “the best of the 2009 specials” – not that this was frankly a ringing endorsement, the specials proving rather a disappointing finish to Tennant’s time in the role and only proving that the ongoing serial nature of the show and a regular companion are vital ingredients to the mix without which things can easily drift.

Coming back and viewing it again, I still totally hold that “The Waters of Mars” is the best of the specials. But I’ll add another long overdue evaluation as well: it happens to be one of the best overall stories of Tennant’s entire time in the Tardis. But does that make it the exception to the rule proving that stand-alone specials can work after all?

The story simply put is that the Doctor – worried by warnings that his time is up – is larking about on a galactic sightseeing jaunt that brings him to the red planet of Mars in 2059 where he happens across Earth’s first long-term manned settlement on another planet and meets the base commander Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan). The Doctor knows her from the history books – and also knows that she, the base and its crew are doomed, lost with all hands on this very day in history. Moreover it’s one of those fixed points that the Laws of Time forbid him to interfere with, and so he’s forced to walk away as the crew starts dying after an alien parasite in the water starts infecting the base.

With the usual impressive direction from long-time Who contributor Graeme Harper, the story looks very good (a few weak CGI establishing shots in the front half of the episode excepted) and impressively expensive. It’s a shame it couldn’t have an extra 10 minutes of airtime to allow a slower, creepier atmosphere to build up at the start before the running and explosions kick in, but even with the somewhat rushed set-up there are more chills and scares here than usual and the makeup used for the infected victims of the alien parasite wouldn’t be out of place on The Walking Dead and is really rather frightening for kids of all ages.

Considering how rushed things are, it’s also impressive how well most of the guest cast are established before they inevitably start dying off one-by-one in time-honoured disaster movie fashion, each of them getting enough material (even in just a very few lines in some cases) to make an impression and ensure that their fates resonate effectively. Part of the reason they work so well is because they’re given space to work in by the way in which the Doctor pulls back, walks out and leaves them to it – something we’ve never seen the character do before now, and it proves gripping and gives Tennant a chance to explore new parts of the character agonising over the decision, and in the process he hits a home run with one of his best performances in the role. Even the annoying service robot Gadget ends up being effective – partly because the Doctor himself points out all the criticisms of it before the fans can pile on, but also because it provides one stand-out moment midway through (a turbocharged escape from the running zombies) and is also a necessary and convincing plot device at the very end.

It all comes to a head when the Doctor realises that when push comes to shove, he can’t simply abandon these people: it’s not what he does or who he is. But acting on that realisation pushes him beyond a crucial tipping point, and what emerges on the other side is something even darker and more chilling than anything that the infested crew members have to offer thanks to the insanity that blazes right behind Tennant’s eyes as be swings into action despite knowing how wrong it is. Perhaps for the first time you realise how thin the line is between the Doctor and his old adversary the Master, how little actually separates them in practice, and just what a terrible danger a Doctor-turned-bad could really be. After seeing this, you know this Doctor’s time is up and regeneration is not only inevitable but necessary.

That’s what sets this special apart from the others: it’s no standalone time-filler but rather a pivotal moment for the character of the tenth Doctor, the direct and irrevocable inciting incident for what’s to follow. In Lindsay Duncan he even gets an impressive companion along the same lines of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, an older and wiser character who has the maturity and power to shake the Doctor out of his hubris and make him see the truth of what he’s doing and what he’s becoming, much as Donna had done in “The Fires of Pompeii” which is explicitly referenced in this story. If nothing else, we’re left in no doubt that a Doctor without a companion or two is not a healthy situation.

So all in all we get a base-under-siege/alien zombies story that would have worked a treat as an episode in a normal season; a one-off companion who would have been quite wonderful to have had around for a full year; and a sense of series continuity as strong as any Bad Wolf/Harold Saxon season arcs of the past. It doesn’t have to carry the burden of being an over-the-top, all-guns-blazing season finale, but in many ways that enables “The Waters of Mars” to be the ‘normal’ episode containing a distillation of much of that made the Russell T Davies/David Tennant so great when it was firing on all cylinders at its very best.

Make no mistake: this is the RTD era on top form and it’s a sight to see. All in all something of a triumph and I’m rather sorry for not appreciating it more in the interim.

Available in a Complete Specials Boxset on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as individually on-demand.

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