THE LAST WAVE
I am not a complicated person. Among my favourite television programmes are America’s Funniest Home Videos and Wipeout. I like the natural humour of calamity (which says a lot for a person who broke his back on a trampoline) and I know I’m not alone in enjoying a little schadenfreude. Petards a-hoisting? I’m there. But my tastes are not low-brow either, and I think I know a rote storyline or phoned-in performance when I see one – that’s where I was earlier this year for Planet of the Dead. As far as rote storylines go that’s where I was for the first half of Waters of Mars, as, I suspect, many viewers were. Planet, alien threat, a base, some ‘failproof’ protection on a limited warranty. Stoic humans. Human interest. Robot. The Doctor. Speeches. Allons-y. You can skip the first half of the story, really – it’s a nicely directed, functional pastiche of much of what we’ve seen before.
But Waters of Mars is different, because it knows we know. So it has an in-built spanner, and this is the clever bit. When the Doctor recognises his location in time and space he realises he is, quite plainly, in a dead end. He says “I really should go”, knowing that with his current whereabouts a Fixed Point in Time, any resistance directed towards the inevitable, or what “must happen, will happen” is reliably futile. His eventual decision to meddle, informed perhaps by the sounds of the dying pioneers in his head mic but more strongly by his resolve to act as The Last of the Time Lords, is Russell T Davies’ spanner, and it’s a good one.
I’ve made no secret of my dislike for the Tenth Doctor. It hasn’t always been there; sometimes I think he’s great and most of the time I think David Tennant deserves the accolades he receives. But sometimes I despise this smug, gurning hyperactive incarnation and crave someone calmer, more measured, more calculating. Someone without a sonic screwdriver and four knees. Waters of Mars gave me that Doctor in Tennant by playing on those traits I dislike and, for me at least, confirming their limited appeal by turning them up to maximum. Tennant’s Time Lord Victorious is a frightening spectacle for his casual overuse of the screwdriver – literally forcing a woman into her locked home, manipulating a robot to race across the surface of Mars and pilot the TARDIS (sansisomorphic controls) to rescue everyone in the base, congratulating himself (“I. Am. Good.”) in just as detached a manner, and witheringly observing the paucity of gratitude from those around him. He moves too fast for the ‘little people’ whose lives he has saved to even register, all except Adelaide. In their exchanges, the core of the story, she gets the Doctor and sees right through him. The wanderer in time, on Mars for “fun”, but also the stranger for whom being ‘human’ is a very dangerous thing. Their conversations are the best thing of the story – RTD gets to the heart of the Time Lord’s dilemma, and that of the Last of the Time Lords especially.
There are nods to the new series past of course – Pompeii, The Stolen Earth, and some have pointed out Voyage of the Damned and The Runaway Bride in particular, addressing Donna’s belief that the Doctor needs a companion about him not to drive him forward a la Rose but to provide his moral compass, to make him “stop”. I do wonder about that argument. In every companion permutation bar, perhaps, the second Romana, the Doctor has always been the stronger party. Armed with knowledge, expertise, inspiration, daring and foresight his picture is the larger than any of his charges can conceive, including the moral one. It was Sarah Jane after all who told him to destroy the Daleks on Skaro and rewrite history, and he ignored her, seeing a universe made better for their threat to civilisation. Furthermore, a different motivation is behind his travels than the need for companionship. Barring accidents, incarceration and the threat of extermination the Doctor’s greatest threat and that which he has evaded since leaving Gallifrey, is his own people. They summon him, abduct him, tractor beam his TARDIS, rip him out of his timeline with a time scoop – on almost every occasion he works for them under duress because despite their stuffiness and staid approach to time, he acknowledges their authority and power. The laws of time are more than a matter of quantum physics, they are the statutes under which he is obliged to live – to attempt to ‘master’ them, to ‘meddle’ in time, or behave as though he should be a god, are all crimes which carry severe consequences. In the absence of the Time Lords then the Doctor’s decision as the last of their kind to take the reins and bend them to his will has less to do with what is morally ‘right’ or humane, and more to do with him asserting that same authority and sweeping away all aspects of governance. As we see, time will sort itself out and realign around a fixed point despite any meddling (perhaps that’s what turned Adelaide’s Dalek back?), but I presume it isn’t the time line that strikes the TARDIS Cloister Bell. There are consequences to follow, and in the closing moments it’s the Doctor’s knowledge of what he has done and what transgressions he has committed that spell the doom of Christmas to come.
THE TIDES OF TIME
As this is in part a Russell T Davies story there is an existential aspect, the domain of the human onlooker. If the Time Lords are the gods of time, then in their absence the Doctor is in charge. In his absence (or the absence of his self control) no good can exist, as Torchwood‘s Children of Earthsuggests. Torchwood’s answer to this however was not to bring the Doctor in at the last merciful minute as some viewers (my missus included) expected. It didn’t even elevate Jack to that role, and in fact made him a party to the crime. Rather than pulling away it fixed its gaze on the consequences, brutally cutting down the hero figure; RTD does a similar thing with the Doctor here by reducing him, making him less than a Time Lord but with a Time Lord’s abilities. What ‘turns’ him is not the acquisition of new or greater powers, but the realisation of his potential – he simply doesn’t hold himself back. Or isn’t held back, if you buy into the Donna argument (I don’t entirely). Children of Earthprovided an answer of sorts by making its heroes the humans – Gwen and Andy, police officers but ultimately just trained people, Rhys and Jake, Bridget Spears and Lois Habib – the Doctor’s “little people”. In Waters of Marsthere is no hero, only Adelaide, who resists the Doctor’s tampering with destiny in the only effective way she knows, denying herself the promised life after death offered by him. She doesn’t run away from her obligations (oddly the Doctor does by running ‘back’ to the Bowie Base) but seizes them and, outraged, takes control of them. The Doctor’s refusal to take responsibility for what he knows he has to do (i.e. walk away) and eventual understanding damns him. Fall. Suicide. Ood. History reasserts itself but leaves him dangling to meet his end, possibly at the hands of the last Time Lord to pretend to the throne. How fitting that he should be joined by the other last survivor, the demon of his own consequences.
Of course we’ve been here before, and your results may vary on the pride-before-a-fall motif. Doomsday or Last of the Time Lords? We shall see.