Base under siege? Check. Creepy monsters? Check. Something normal and everyday made frightening? Check. Cute robot? Check. As Doctor Who fans these are some of the things we love most, so it goes without saying that this is a very enjoyable episode. But I’m not going to swim against the tide here. Just like everyone else, I’m going to have to focus on what happens in the last few minutes of The Waters of Mars.
The whole premise of Doctor Who had an inherent problem built into it. The Doctor could travel into the past and the future, but almost immediately ran up against the inability to change historical events, and it’s not even just the big moments that have to stay the same. In the very first series of Doctor Who there was an encounter with the Aztecs that was all about the impossibility of stopping the practice of human sacrifice. Anything that we know happened, must happen. This raises a further question that has almost entirely been ignored. If our future is the Doctor’s past from his point of view, surely he faces the same kinds of problems in the future? So when he arrives on the Moonbase in 2070, for example, how can he prevent the Cybermen from killing everyone there if that is what history says happened? Or is it a case of something happening that is sending history off the rails and has to be put right, such as the presence of the Monk in The Time Meddler? But that can surely only work as an excuse for the Doctor’s interference in stories that feature other time travellers.
So yes, basically it was a big mess and something had to be done about it. Russell T Davies introduced the idea of “fixed points in time”, which was basically a way of saying some things can be changed and some can’t. The reason for that? Er…. just because.
Now, a story set in the past might require that kind of handwaving, or even the first future story from the point of view of a new companion, but other than that it’s not really necessary. So we have something quite odd here: an episode set in the future that the Doctor says is a fixed point. It is something that has to happen, because the Doctor says so.
The reason for this of course is to get the Doctor to a point we have been building to since 2005. The Doctor is now the last Time Lord, and that has consequences. There used to be a whole race of people making the rules by which time travel could take place, but now there’s just the Doctor. As much as he is clearly the best man for that job, it is an extraordinary amount of power and responsibility for one person. Travelling on his own for a long time, he loses perspective.
But there are important shades of grey here. Would a companion have persuaded the Doctor to walk away and leave everyone to their deaths? Quite the opposite in fact. In The Fires of Pompeii we had a very similar situation, and Donna persuaded the Doctor to just save somebody. And that’s exactly what he does here. The events basically take place as they would have done, but three people get to live. Within minutes one of them has taken her own life, but presumably the other two carry on with their lives, and despite all the talk of “fixed points” we can only assume that works without a problem and history carries on in much the same way.
ADELAIDE: But Susie, my granddaughter. The person she’s supposed to become might never exist now.
DOCTOR: Nah! Captain Adelaide can inspire her face to face. Different details, but the story’s the same.
… and the Doctor’s right, surely? Why shouldn’t he have saved those three people? Why can’t Adelaide inspire her granddaughter and keep history on track that way. Note the enormous significance of that name: Susie. The Doctor once abandoned his own granddaughter to fend for herself and with a speech that I tore to shreds when I wrote about The Dalek Invasion of Earth because the sentiment behind it was rotten: keep living your life trying to meet my approval, although I’m not going to be there. He can’t stand by and see another Susie robbed of her grandparent, because he is doing what superficially seems to be the right thing.
So why does Adelaide commit suicide? Because it’s not what the Doctor does, it’s how he does it. This is a far cry from the Doctor “saving someone”. He has decided he is in charge of history and it will bend to his well. In that moment, he appears to be a monster, although the actual deed is not monstrous. He describes himself as the Time Lord Victorious. Apart from sounding completely ridiculous, it indicates that he is still suffering from the grieving process as a result of what he did to end the Time War, and is trying to rationalise himself as the “winner”, as if that means something positive to the last soldier standing on the battlefield that has become a graveyard.
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 realise the Laws of Time are mine, and they will obey me!
I am the Master, and you will obey me. I am the Doctor and you will obey me. It’s perilously close, and it’s not who the Doctor is. Sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. RP
I think those haircuts illustrate the lyrics admirably.
The view from across the pond:
When we’re kids, we love a good Halloween special. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is the big one I remember but there were others in cartoon form that I have vague memories of. And when I was old enough to understand it, Star Trek’s Catspaw was originally intended as a Halloween Special too. It’s not a great episode, but it certainly had all the right trappings. While The Waters of Mars may not have been strictly a Halloween Special, with only 5 episodes created for 2009, and being released in November, it sure felt like a late Halloween gift. As we’ve discussed many times, Doctor Who may claim a standard residence in the land of Science Fiction, but it makes its holiday home right between fantasy and horror. For something coming in near Halloween, one could hope for a good horror story. Horror Science Fiction, a branch of science fiction specializing in horror, like the movie Alien, is one of my absolute favorite genres. Sadly, it’s rarely done well. Most of the time, it ends up being some sophomoric rendition of Friday the 13th in space. When it’s done well, we rejoice. To win a Hugo award, as this episode did, I think that speaks for itself.
When I reviewed the series Life on Mars, you may have noticed my references to the song of the same name by David Bowie. The fact that the Waters of Mars takes place at Mars’ Bowie Base One, I’m certain is no coincidence. What follows is an hour of “Doctor Who Done Right”. When Doctor Who turns the common into the terrifying, that’s a skill. We’ve seen that with all manner of things: shop window dummies, statues, shadows, mirrors and now… water. We have a better chance of avoiding shadows than we do water! Water is everywhere, falls from the sky, and makes up a large portion of our bodies. We can’t even live without water; ask Field Major Styre for his report if you want to know more about that! The Flood is a lifeform that is effectively living water from which there is no way to hide. It takes over whatever it touches. And as we all know, water finds a way. It’ll find that crack in the most well-built structure. And it’s all over Bowie Base One.
What goes further toward making it a great episode is that Russell T. Davies doesn’t forget continuity. As the series has established decades ago, Mars is where the Ice Warriors come from. So where are they now? Well, upon encountering the Flood, they left. Maintaining continuity during a horror story is not usually a priority, so it was nice to see it done here. It doesn’t need a huge amount of exposition; a line covers everything fans need, but it’s there.
On top of that, we get a much darker look at the Doctor. Alone for too long, he decides it’s time to be the Time Lord Victorious; the Time Lord without restrictions who can truly lord over time. He changes time because he can and there’s no one there to tell him not to. Sure, his reasons are noble, but flawed. The rules around changing time should be clear to him by now: this is never a good idea. We’ve seen over and over again what happens when history has been tampered with. Turn Left was just a few episodes ago, and we saw what that lead to. Why would he think altering history is a good idea just because he can? I’m often reminded of a quote from the president in Star Trek VI: “just because we can do a thing, does not mean we should do that thing”. A fact that the Doctor may want to observe in the future!
Which leads us to the down side of the episode. To be clear: it’s not a flaw of the episode. The episode is still incredibly well written. It’s a downside because we see what happens when someone abuses power and that someone is the Doctor! Fact check: Adelaide commits suicide to keep the timeline on track because she’s aware that what the Doctor did was wrong. She’s a pragmatic woman. But did she think she could rely on the rest of the crew to commit suicide too because her death alone isn’t what’s changed in the timeline. In fact, there are three changes now. And even if they did, would their deaths alone spark the timeline she had hoped for? My prediction: not one bit! Here’s why: when the news gets out that the remaining crew are all on earth, like the 1969 Moon Landing, people are going to call the whole thing a sham. Whether true or not, there would be a permanent shadow cast over it. Doubt would linger, as it does. And who could blame the general public? The question everyone would be asking is “how did they all get back to earth?” If they were on Mars, they had to get home somehow. They can’t reasonably expect people to buy the answer: “Oh, a man in a police box saved us!” UNIT and Torchwood might know the truth but the black mark on the Bowie Base crews’ reputations would be insurmountable. Not to mention the government would fall under scrutiny for perpetuating such a charade (even if it were not a charade. Think: the moon landing times ten.) Adelaide would come off as a woman who, unable to face the lies the world has been told about Bowie Base, commits suicide. When the remaining crew are found on Earth, that’ll verify the belief. Clearly a cover-up, the history of Bowie Base would fold back on itself and would not inspire her granddaughter because her granddaughter will live in the shadow of treasonous allegations and she would have no way to disprove. If anything, she’d seek a degree in law, not science. But at no point do I hold that against the episode with my typical “it doesn’t make sense” line. In fact, I’d argue, that’s the very point. It’s the Doctor’s abuse of power and neglecting his actual duties that leads to this. In other words, it’s a failing of the character in the fictional universe and not that of the real world writers of it.
So while the story is fantastic and keeps us glued to our silver screens, it has a far darker undertone than water monsters and even the ego of a Time Lord. Don’t get me wrong, I love this story; it’s superb. It deserved the Hugo. But it’s about as dark a story as you can get if you just spend a few minutes thinking through the ramifications of abuse of power. Especially when that abuse is by the hero of the show. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The End of Time