Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Big Things Come in Small Blue Boxes: The Waters of Mars

I’ve just finished “The Complete Specials” in my morning elliptical machine viewing of the Doctor Who DVDs. These are the last David Tennant episodes before Matt Smith takes over in the title role. The doctor is traveling alone, so guilt-stricken after what happened to Donna Noble in “Journey’s End” that he even turns down a chance to take on Lady Christina de Souza played by Michelle Ryan as a companion at the end of “Planet of the Dead.”
She would have been a great companion.
(On a side note, I feel like the Bionic Woman reboot Ryan starred in never got a fair shake thanks to the writers’ strike that year. The show really could have found its feet if it only had a few more episodes.)
(On another side note, I like to imagine that somewhere deep inside Donna Noble’s subconscious, Doctor-Donna is working on the problem of restoring her memories without causing her brain to burst into flames. When she succeeds, she gets the Doctor to go with her to find 1960s companions Jamie and Zoe and restore their memories as well. It’s a cool idea, but as I’ve already noted, there ain’t no money in fanfic.)
(On one further side note, I’ve completely lost my place.)
Right. “The Waters of Mars.” It’s Doctor No. 10’s penultimate adventure, and it’s a dark one. The Doctor arrives on Mars at what turns out to be the first colony on Mars. It also turns out that the first colony on Mars is doomed and the Doctor can’t do anything to prevent the colony’s destruction without unraveling thousands of years of future history. Specifically, colony commander Captain Adelaide Brooke’s granddaughter will be the captain of humanity’s first interstellar mission to the stars, taking the inspiration from her grandmother and following her into space. As shown in a flashback, even a Dalek knows better than to screw with that level of future history and turns away from an opportunity to kill Brooke as a young girl.
So when the colonists start getting homicidally infected by something in their drinking water, the Doctor knows there is nothing he can do to save any of them. They will all die and the colony will self-destruct to prevent spread of the contagion. Their sacrifice saves the future.

Except, the Doctor has a change of hearts at the last minute. He’s already lost Donna and, damn it, he’s going to save the rest of these people. Why should Time Lord law apply to him when he’s the last Time Lord? He declares himself the Lord of Time and transports the last three survivors, including the commander, safely to Earth.
Brooke realizes the gravity of what the Doctor has done and what he’s becoming and, instead of thanking him, goes home and shoots herself. The other two survivors are left to tell the story of her heroism and, somehow, the future is preserved. Meanwhile, the Doctor realizes that he’s gone too far and even his time is running out. He climbs into the TARDIS and heads off to face the music in “The End of Time.” 
Her death is a fixed point in history. As they used to say at the Academy, "If it's fixed, don't break it."
I have some problems with this episode despite any number of outstanding dramatic performances by the entire cast. I can accept that the first colony on Mars is British because Doctor Who. I can accept the colonists packing guns instead of, say, bicycles. I can even accept building the entire colony on top of a nuclear warhead, just in case. (I figure the latter two recommendations came from some classified UNIT or Torchwood document that essentially said, “Hey, there may be Ice Warriors or Sutekh, so take some guns and bombs. They never actually help, but at least it won’t look like we weren’t paying attention.”)
This is one of those episodes that could have been solved by piling everyone into the TARDIS and getting out of there. Of course, that’s what he wound up doing; but why take them to Earth? Where history’s concerned, “presumed dead” is as good as “dead.” Especially when the supposed cause of death is a nuclear explosion on another planet. He could have taken them anywhere. He could have taken Captain Brooke to Proxima Centauri to meet her granddaughter. By that point, history’s already happened, so no harm, no foul.

C'mon, they named the ship Titanic. I have zero sympathy.
I get where the episode was going thematically. It goes all the way back to the first episode of the season, “Voyage of the Damned,” wherein the Doctor finds himself a passenger on a sabotaged luxury space liner. The adventure goes particularly badly for a Doctor Who episode and a lot of sympathetic characters die before it’s all over, including would-be companion Astrid Peth, played by singer Kylie Minogue. One of the survivors turns out to be a greedy self-centered businessman who not only lives but gets even richer because he’d just sold his shares in the doomed luxury liner’s company. Someone comments to the Doctor at the end that he was probably not the person that the Doctor (or the viewers) would have chosen to survive. But then again, the same observer adds after thinking for a moment, if you got to choose who lives and who dies that might make you sort of a monster. That’s what’s at the core of the Doctor’s epiphany at the end of “The Waters of Mars” when he says that he’s gone too far. I would have rather had a callback to that realization instead of Captain Brooke’s pointless suicide.
So, instead of following her grandmother into space, she follows her to a self-inflicted laser shot in a London flat? Dunno how they dodged that bullet, but then again, if there's one thing science fiction television teaches us, it's that lasers are much easier to dodge than bullets.

1 comment:

  1. The Waters of Mars was probably the first Doctor Who reboot episode I saw, and though I was impressed with it (and duly scared by the water thing!), I'm glad it wasn't exactly typical. Having seen EVERY reboot episode by now (including the Ecclestons!), I guess "Mars" combines well the retro, rubbery monsters of the earlier years, with the moral quandaries and political emphases of the recent Doctors, especially the Tenth. Lindsay Duncan was wonderful as Adelaide, refusing to let the Doctor 'fix' things, and finally, I have to love any episode which has an Ood, even in a cameo. :)