Bleak – with a leak.



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.


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.


9 Responses to “Bleak – with a leak.”

  1. Paul Scoones Says:

    Isn’t there a contradiction here?

    You suggest that that the first half could be skipped, but then praise the story for the ‘clever bit’ when the Doctor recognises where and when he is and says he has to go. That moment occurs within the first ten minutes, so well within the apparently dispensable first half.

  2. Peter A Says:

    Hi Paul!

    No, there’s not. The ‘clever bit’ (i.e. clever aspect) is that it has an in-built spanner. I then went on to say:

    “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 should leave’ could have been a scene from Pompeii, really. Not THAT new, but essential to the Doctor’s road to Hell bit hence, I’d say, the inclusion.

    As for skipping the first half I say again: it’s well shot, well made, but it’s an extended set-up with a pay-off that doesn’t rely on the setting, the monsters or even the characters. The Doctor’s ‘turn’ is the crux, and I think that at that point almost anything could have led to it, certainly not specifically the events at Bowie Base One.

  3. the_other_dave Says:

    I’m afraid I have to disagree.

    I didn’t mind the run around and the zombies siegeing the Mall… er, Mars station. I suspect the younger target audience wouldn’t know a zombie apocalypse if it shambled mindlessly over them. It was all very pretty, looked nice to start with, and was bags of style over substance. It was the Time Lord Victorious bits that let me down, as soon as the Doctor left the base it became a box ticking exercise of picking the crewmen off one by one.

    I have no problem with the concept, hey in many ways it’s simply the angsty Time’s Champion shtick writ large on screen. I just thought it was so badly done. I’ve always maintained that RTDs scripts all revolve around the last five minutes and a lot of the stuff before that can be regarded as window dressing to the main event (as Peter notes here – it feels there are two parts), but the Doctor’s change doesn’t feel like a decent into madness, but more the flicking of a switch. They just didn’t sell it to me. If you look at it there has been lots of opportunity to build up to this point, little hints (you could argue much of the moral argument is just a retread of Fires of Pompeii).

    The concept of the Doctor going bad would’ve been a great one to give a slow burn build, but instead he seems to flip unbelievably fast (compare it with his darker moments in Runaway Bride, there we’ve been sold his feelings of loss and sadness with Rose over the entire episode, you can buy into his darker side). And thinking about it, this great idea, this wonderful dramatic opportunity, was flicked through solely as a dramatic device for setting up a broken and dejected Doctor, desperate and doomed by fate to die in time for Christmas. Rather than being a good thing in itself it’s become shorthand to set up the sequel (and when you think about it – Doctor gone bad would be a much more gripping season closer than some of the ones we’ve had).

    And the other galling thing was that it was so rushed it got rather lazy and transparently emotionally manipulative. Doctor goes manic, queue swelling loud music (Muurrraaayyyy Goooolllddddd), people dying over comms, insert space for audience to cry.

    Even Adelaide’s death to me sfelt forced, as Jamas notes on his blog – it seems completely out of character to that point. And we know from other adventures it would be theoretically easy bypass history – they could be saved and live new lives elsewhere (history still recording they were dead). The logic, the dramatic and character development building could’ve all been done so much be and created a far better story. You could argue there is little wrong with it, but there could’ve been so much more right.

  4. Peter A Says:

    The picking off one by one thing is a defining aspect of the zombie movie trope though, isn’t it? Frankly I was surprised two survivors got back to Earth to run away from the Doctor when they had the chance. Good on them! Though did nobody think of the wet robot sitting in the street…?

    I would agree with the rush aspect there Dave – it’s Utopia all over again, though that was helped by the impact of Human Nature beforehand – a story which has been referenced in a few WoM reviews so far, in fact.

    Perhaps Planet of the Dead should have had more foreshadowing than the bus psychic? Would it have helped if the flies were Ood? I dunno. Looking at the specials for this year I do wonder if the earlier story is more of a missed opportunity and jars with its tone. And in saying that, the first part of the CiN trailer for End of Time doesn’t fill me with hope either. But perhaps that’s for another blog post?

  5. the_other_dave Says:

    Yes… now you mention it Robot escaping through the flood, parked nicely on a London Street, does put paid to the “not one drop” thing doesn’t it.

    You could probably write it off with some comment about Tardis biofilters but really you shouldn’t have to. Sloppy.

  6. Peter A Says:

    There’s so much that could be clarified. Did Adelaide top herself, or just trip over in the dark? Was Tom there with his scarf laid out a la Eldrad, dutifully attending to the timelines’ integrity?

    And those poor poor birds…

  7. Timb Says:

    Did anyone else feel cheated by the way the origin of the flood was not tied up. Reminds me of how they dealt with the Makara at the end of Gridlock.

  8. the_other_dave Says:

    @ Peter – After poor Myfanwy, I suspect RTD likes roast chook.

    @ Tim – Yeah, I did think it was a little cheeky, given that they probably didn’t actually need a physical thing to be locked in the ice, to have something not to show was a lead up the garden path.

  9. Peter A Says:

    Alden’s handy synopsis (with puddles)

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