I’ve been really down on RTD, so it’s probably good for me to discuss how I liked “The Waters of Mars,” even if enjoying rather than bitching does leave me with a loss for words.
Of course, dear readers, this doesn’t mean I can’t find something to dislike, as you’ll see, but I honestly do think it’s not only the strongest chapter in the “End of the Tenth Doctor” saga but one of the better Davies regime episodes. It combines the best of classic “Who” – a bunch of people trapped in an enclosed space with the Doctor and an implacable monster – along with the new series’ greater focus on pathos and the Doctor’s fallibility. Also coming right off of “Planet of the Dead” it feels like all the good characterization mojo that should have been in that episode winds up being used here. The crew of the Mars station that the Doctor stumbles across are (almost) all obviously soon-to-be-cooling bodies, but they are given space to grow personalities. Their plight isn’t as much of a focus as the passengers in “Midnight,” but they’re not treated like parts of the background as in “Planet of the Dead” either.
Anyway, the Doctor, acting the part of the tourist (something we didn’t see enough of in David Tennant’s tenure, even though he could really play the Doctor as an obnoxious tourist), busts into the first human colony on Mars. His joy turns to horror when he remembers that the colony is supposed to be (or have been or would be) destroyed for mysterious reasons. Worse, the event is a “fixed point” in history, perhaps because the death of the colony’s commander, Colonel Brooke, would inspire a descendant of Brooke’s to become a pioneer in interstellar space travel and change the course of human history. When all hell breaks loose, however, the Doctor decides to stay…
That brings us to one of the most effective things about the episode: the monster. It’s described as a virus, sealed into water by the Ice Warriors (classic series reference for the win!), but practically it’s sentient water with a real hankering to leave behind the desert planet and come to Earth.
You could write them off as “zombies with water powers,” but the idea behind them is, like all good Doctor Who monsters, horrifying in its simplicity. After getting two encores from the Weeping Angels, I wouldn’t mind seeing them (it?) appear again.
But really the focus isn’t so much on the monster but on the Doctor’s dilemma and what it means for Colonel Brooke. While Brooke does occasionally come close to tipping over into the territory of the “military woman who has to act butch to cover a heart of gold” cliche, she still manages to come across as a genuinely compelling character whose gender is more or less incidental, in refreshing contrast to our Catwoman expy from last time. Also, without (for once) spoiling it for people who may not have actually seen the episode, her ultimate fate may be somewhat predictable but it still comes across as a genuinely powerful moment, in no small part because it does represent some of the most interesting exploration of the implications of time travel and the Doctor’s ethics of intervention the “new” series has done.
Okay, so I mentioned that I do take issue with one big chunk of this episode, and that comes down to the whole “Doctor declaring himself the Time Lord Victorious” thing. Especially in hindsight, it’s hard not to ask, “Where the hell did that come from?!” I think we’re supposed to see this as the end-result of his guilt over what happened to Donna (and what happened to Rose, like getting only 99.98% of what she always wanted is still Hell for her, but I digress), but even with that interpretation it honestly still doesn’t make much sense, especially since the last adventure gave us the Doctor in full happy-go-lucky mode, not blinking an eye at an entire heavily populated planet being completely wiped out. It’s especially confusing since the whole climax of “Journey’s End” was about the Doctor lecturing…well, himself on playing God.
It’s not that the “Time Lord Victorious” declaration isn’t a bad turn for the character. In fact, it makes a great deal of sense, and at the very least it’s another much needed angle on how the Doctor reacts to being the last of the Time Lords, different from and – dare I say – much more interesting and richer for storytelling than the Doctor as the guilt-ridden survivor. Frankly, this is what the entire “End of the Tenth Doctor” saga should have been about; individual stories all building to one large arc of the Doctor giving in to his hubris and rage and nearly becoming what his one-time Time Lord adversaries, The Rani and The Master, represented: the capability to play God with the universe married to the will. In that sense, “The Waters of Mars” should have been only a prelude, or at most the first act. Instead the whole issue is only suddenly introduced, and then just as abruptly for the most part resolved. So it’s not just that it’s wasted; it’s not even really earned.
It’s still not enough to bring down one of the best episodes of the Tenth Doctor era…but it comes close.