2009 Special 2, ‘The Waters of Mars’
By Phil Ford and Russell T Davies
With The Waters of Mars raking in 9.1 million viewers, 88% of the total viewing figures on a Sunday night it would seem that this episode was a roaring success. For those living in the US, the special will premiere on BBC America (hopefully unedited) on 18 December. As such, if you are American and wish to remain in the dark on this one (and have avoided any spoilers up until now), read no further.
This could be the first time that a Doctor Who script bears recognition of head series writer Russell T Davies (RTD) as a contributer to a script. As head writer RTD has treated authors of the new series badly, in my opinion, demanding that they meet his demands as you would treat a flatmate filling a shopping list such as ‘Queen Victoria, Werewolf, and kung-fu monks.’ If the script left out any of his odd ideas it was either scrapped or rewritten. I believe this may be why Stephen Fry (rumored to contribute a script from series 1) has been noticeably absent and despite news that star David Tennant refused to work with her, the real reason why Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has not submitted a script for consideration. If I were either Rowling or Fry and there was the possibility that my script would be rewritten by RTD… I’d rather not participate.
Former Coronation Street and Bad Girls scribe Phil Ford also acted as head writer for the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures during its second season, so he and RTD have a bit of a history. The reason that I bring any of this up is that it’s unclear to me what parts of the script were submitted by Ford and what was written or rewritten by RTD… not that it really matters in the end.
What Ford brought to the screen I’m not sure as so many of RTD’s old ideas rear their ugly heads from the Doctor as a miraculous figure, a supporting cast of models and monsters without a backstory.
The story is in many ways an homage to the classic series as it involves a base under siege (something that the classic program presented ad nauseum) and an adventure set on another planet. It is very unclear to me what RTD’s relationship is to the classic series as he has openly attacked fans in interviews as being thick and unable to appreciate his stories yet he has also forced several classic monsters (such as the obscure Macra) and ideas (including U.N.I.T.) into the new program that it would seem he is struggling to attract an audience that he has already shunned. In any case, the special effects are passable but noticeably cheap.
The opening shot of the Mars base (named Bowie Base One) looked like a process shot right out of the 1960′s… and not in a good way. The monsters were a noble attempt in some ways to present what I have often applauded the new series for, introducing new ideas, but they are very goofy and make very little sense. Many classic monsters are also goofy and nonsensical, but their shortcomings are usually not stressed by the script that they first appear in. Much like emotional Cybermen in Earthshock, we are presented with ‘patient’ monsters who are presented as eager runners in one scene and casual strollers in another. Their main threat also seems to be their ability to spray water everywhere and overcome the atmospheric integrity of the base. Was this a thinly veiled message to the space program that ‘air tight does not equal water tight’? And does it? I’m still not sure.
A monster that multiplies its threat via infection is already a very dated concept and will most likely be viewed in the future as we view the ‘red menace’ plot ideas from the 1950′s are today. Additionally, the script is full of flowery prose that attempts to make something as pedestrian as water terrifying, with Tennant delivering the icey line ‘water can wait’ as if I should shudder the next time I visit the tap. The monsters themselves seem to be able to sprint quite well when we first see them yet the script reminds us moodily that ‘water is patient.’ Presumably water is also inconsistent and far from patient, it just cooperates with the demands of the script.
The name-drop of the Ice Warriors was intended, I am sure, to sate viewers of the classic series who had heard rumblings of the Martians returning for over two years now, but it was a hollow reference. The fact that the classic villains had unearthed something that they didn’t understand is only worth presenting if the writer understands what it was. The monster ends up being yet another mysterious threat that the Doctor dispatches (see Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, The Idiot’s Lantern, Midnight and more) and that is a sign of very bad writing. It transforms imaginative and intelligent science fiction into sub-standard children’s fantasy.
The super soaker... of death!
RTD and Ford present the viewer with a moral dilemma in that the Doctor has arrived at what he defines as a ‘fixed point’ in time, meaning that whatever happens has cemented in place as a necessary event. It also seems to imply lots of death. The fact that the previous ‘fixed point’ was the destruction of Pompeii (name-dropped in this story) and that the Doctor openly interfered with that event is very puzzling. I’m guessing that the rules are clear to the Doctor but not to the writers. Again, this is a very interesting idea and cements into a place a kind of ‘prime directive’ that the Doctor must abide by… in addition to a very compelling turn of events… but I’ll get to that in a moment.
The cast is made up of the usual bizarre mix of skilled TV actors and plank-like pretty faces. Honestly, what is the deal with the robot controller guy and renowned model-who-thinks-she-can-act Gemma Chan? However we do have Peter O’Brien and Lindsay Duncan who attempt (along with Tennant’s help) to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of the episode. They are so good that it almost works. However, the familiar gremlins of poor writing and an atrocious score team up with the aforementioned lousy supporting cast to undo what could be a stand -out episode.
Guys, it's just a light rain.
One of the other major culprits to this episode’s success is the insistence on presenting online news feeds to convey events. Not only does this show zero belief in Tennant’s acting ability and the audience’s intelligence but it also breaks up any kind of suspense that the story is attempting to present. After the Doctor’s face whitens as he realizes when and where he is I can figure out that something bads is going to happen. The inclusion of the first ‘news flash’ moment is unwanted… several additional such moments are positively obnoxious and belabor the point. Director Grahame Harper has given Whovians several stand-out episodes both in the new and classic series but faced with an inferior script and an apparent lack of budget (we saw lots of black empty hallways and the same gasworks from Voyage of the Damned), the end result is very uneven. The inclusion of ‘funny robot’ Gadget was not only stupid but entirely unnecessary as it added nothing to the plot. I have nothing against quirky characters but they need to be given space to develop. Gadget was a one-off joke, and a poor one at that.
I will say that having the Doctor suddenly realize that he need not obey the laws of time as he is the only surviving Timelord was a very provocative idea. I had often explained to friends that the ‘laws of time’ are more like laws of traffic than observed laws of science… but apparently I was wrong. Despite the Doctor’s burst of egotism and downright hubris he cannot change what has occurred in the timeline. Unfortunately, the Doctor’s ‘realization’ is accompanied by an embarrassing performance from Tennant and over the top music, even by Murray Gold’s usual obnoxious standard. It was a valiant attempt at introducing something new to the program as well as furthering Doctor No. 10′s journey but in the end it got lost in translation due to the low expectations that the program has on the audience’s ability to comprehend basic ideas.
The plot-thread of preserving Adelaide Brooke’s influence over space travel could have been an interesting one if the script did not hammer it home every chance that it got. In itself it’s a great idea but the execution treats the viewer as if s/he has some kind of short-term memory disorder. To prove my point, the program re-enacts a flash-back rather than relying on the acting ability of Tennant and Duncan. The short sequence of the child actress seeing a Dalek is completely unnecessary unless it used the murderous pepper pots in some way. Having the Doctor not only cite her as significant to the whole if creation including a chance encounter with a Dalek, but profess love to Adelaide Brooke was entirely over-the-top. The only real pay-off to this plot is that Adelaide kills herself in the end to ‘preserve the timeline’ however that makes no sense as she was regaled as a hero for making a noble sacrifice in space. Putting a ray gun to her head in her home on Earth is not exactly going to inspire anyone to do much of anything useful… and exactly how did the populace react to three people spontaneously travelling from Mars to Earth?
Instead of Adelaide, why not instead have space exploration start due to Ed Gold’s noble sacrifice made while exploding the escape craft while he was still on board? That would also fit in with Adelaide’s argument that the Doctor doesn’t get to decide who ‘the little people’ are. It would also justify Gold’s begrudging statements of envy during the episode, giving a reason behind his statement that his boss never let him live up to his full potential.
So in the end, this was an improvement on the previous special ‘Planet of the Dead’ but that doesn’t make it a stunner. There are several great ideas in this one but they fail to live up to their potential, making this yet another adventure that misses the mark..