(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
There were some brilliant conceits in Russell T Davies’ reinvention of Doctor Who, but the idea of “fixed points in time” wasn’t one of them. The whole concept of the programme depends upon being able to change the past (or the future) – regardless of what might once have been said in The Aztecs (“We oughtn’t to change events,” might have been a better maxim) – otherwise any number of alien invasions would never have even got off the ground, so to speak. It’s a real shame, because by revolving the events of The Waters of Mars around a Fixed Point in Time (and by including one other idea that’s so thunderously bad, I’ll have to leave it for now and come back to it later), Russell T Davies and Phil Ford (although largely Davies, I get the impression) have almost ruined what is otherwise one of the best stories of the last five years.
It all starts so well, too. Doctor David’s arrival on a beautifully-shot Mars is greeted with such delight, we at home can’t help feeling a little of what the Doctor does; the cliffhanger-into-the-titles is such a naff riff on a similar (and similarly naff) scene from The Sontaran Experiment, at once absurd and yet charmingly awful, you can’t help but smile. The real revelation is the Bowie Base on Mars, though: probably the most realistically realised “Space Base” in the series’ long history, both the sets and the crew instantly convince. There’s a palpable sense evoked of an actual working environment, and of the people who inhabit it. It’s the polar opposite of Planet of the Dead in that sense. Phil Ford’s script (and director Graeme Harper’s casting) anchor The Waters of Mars in such a convincing world you can’t help getting swept up in it all. Even Gadget – the rather crap Wall-E resembling robot help – enchants rather more than it annoys. The scene of the Doctor’s “interrogation” upon entering Bowie Base One is one of the finest meet-and-greets in many a year; such a shame it then devolves back into the Fixed Point theme.
In a sense, this is the first (and only) story of the Russell T Davies era not to include either a companion or substitute. Much was made at the time of Lindsay Duncan (as Adelaide Brooke)’s surrogate companion status (the Specials year was essentially advertised as a year of “one off” companions), but in truth she doesn’t fill this role any more than any number of previous base commanders in the programme’s long history. She’s an equal and, in effect, opposite to the presence of the Doctor, but there’s never a sense (unlike with Astrid in Voyage of the Damned or Christina in Planet of the Dead) that she’d make good TARDIS-travelling material. Duncan is a brilliant actress, though, and it’s her and her character’s strength in the face of spiralling events that provides a bedrock for the action.
The Mars setting led many fans to believe the Ice Warriors (the most proliferous of the classic series’ “classic” monsters yet to make a comeback) would be appearing, but as with much of the Davies era, Mars itself is used merely as a shorthand in the storytelling (this could be any planet, except perhaps for the premise of the water itself being the monster; recent developments in the real world lent the episode a topicality beyond even that which was intended), the Red Giant being a symbol of aggression and mystery that programmes like Doctor Who (as well as writers like H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury) find easy to tap into. But the Ice Warriors do get a mention, in one of those offhanded remarks that manages both to placate disappointed fans and correct the long-standing continuity issue of why the species are so named in just a few words. It’s a fine piece of writing (and wonderfully delivered by Tennant), and is just one moment among many in a great opening 45 minutes. The Flood – the monster-of-the-week – quickly become one of the scariest and most disturbing creations in the Doctor Who canon. Combining top-notch acting all around (Neighbours’ Peter O’Brien in particular a revelation), simple but highly effective water effects on the possessed, and a rising sense of the threat closing in on our protagonists, The Waters of Mars could easily have become one of the series’ all-time classic adventures (The Ark in Space meets Planet of Evil, maybe), were it not for the tension being undermined by the Fixed Pointedness that has so unnecessarily been included in the mix.
Then we arrive at that conclusion: the Doctor’s arrogance rages out of control faced with the prospect of allowing these people he’s come to know and respect being destroyed by his inaction, he declares himself the Time Lord Victorious and sends the Fixed Point to hell in a Disney-inspired handcart. It’s a conceit completely out of character both for the Doctor and for the series itself and, to accept it, we are forced to concede that Fixed Points in Time (as opposed to “Fluid” ones) are both mutable and immutable (oh, just like the “Fluid” ones then, after all), and not only are we faced with a horrible transformation in our hero’s personality, but subsequently a resolution in which the series (and its makers) seem to indicate that suicide sometimes is the best solution. It’s a very ugly scene, and one that’s entirely out of place in a show watched by a huge audience of children.
It’s an incredible shame that all of the good work that’s gone into creating an episode that otherwise would certainly rank amongst the very best that Doctor Who has produced, has been spoiled by an idea and a conclusion that The Waters of Mars could easily have gone without.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)