Cast your mind back to 2009. It was an uncertain time, and the only relief we got was in the form of the Specials which punctuated David Tennant’s last full year as the Tenth Doctor. But on the whole, they were less than extraordinary.
Ah well, except for The Waters of Mars: Russell T Davies and Phil Ford’s Hugo Award-winning, Mars-set chiller.
But the fact that the other specials that year haven’t exactly gone down as classics shouldn’t make us blasé about the merits of what is a very effective modern spin on the base-under-siege storyline, one with a proper Time Lord’s moral dilemma at its heart.
Apparently, The Waters of Mars was originally planned as a festive special titled Red Christmas, and it’s fun to imagine a parallel timeline where viewers sat down by the fire with their Eggnog expecting to be entertained by a bit of sci-fi fun, only to be confronted by Lindsay Duncan shooting herself in one of the programme’s darkest conclusions ever. Happy Christmas! But Adelaide Brooke, commander of the pioneering mission to establish the first human outpost on Mars, knows that this is how events have to play out, even if a hubristic Doctor thinks he can change the course of history.
It was actually November that saw the episode’s original transmission and I’m not sure we ever had a more date-specific story in Doctor Who, that fixed point of November 21st 2059 being hammered home a number of times (the production team must have been cursing the scheduler who decided to put it out on BBC1 on the 15th of the month…). It’s a future that’s within reach and is set up effectively, teasing just enough information in that way Doctor Who often does to make us wonder how things could turn out as depicted, with the crew speculating that the Doctor may be part of a Philippine or Spanish mission or, worst of all, the ‘Branson Inheritance lot’.
No time is wasted in getting the plot moving. Five minutes in and the first crew member has started to transform, and the Doctor quickly gets us up to speed on just why the crew of Bowie Base One are so important, aided by some explanatory web pages. But as any good time traveller knows, some points in time are fixed and have to stay that way. The Doctor knows that Adelaide and her crew must die so that future generations will be inspired to further feats of space exploration, so he decides he has to clear off.
It makes for uncomfortable viewing to see him behaving so uncharacteristically and even well after the point at which it’s clear that something very disturbing indeed is infecting the crew, the Doctor is still convinced that he must let history take its course.
Younger viewers may well have been more troubled by the unsettling transformation effect as crew members twitch and shiver before becoming water-gushing, cracked-mouthed zombies that can sprint fast enough to give the undead in 28 Days Later a run for their money.
The story isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much running and chasing, Gadget quickly becomes tiresome, and the notion, voiced by the Doctor, that a Dalek spared the young Adelaide because it somehow knew how influential she would go on to be in galactic history doesn’t really make much sense. But these are minor quibbles and don’t detract from an episode that gives us much of what was great about the RTD era: plenty of action; minor kisses to the past (acknowledging the Ice Warriors, for instance); a relatively simple, well-told story that moves at a rattling pace; and a big moral quandary for the Doctor to wrestle with.
The Waters of Mars is a story that explores the limits of the Doctor’s capacity to influence events. With the Time Lords gone, who is going to stop him changing the course of history? He’s taught a harsh lesson in the end as Adelaide, wonderfully played by Lindsay Duncan, takes matters into her own hands. Water always wins, but the same can’t be said for the Doctor.
But what do you think? Was The Waters of Mars the best story in the 2009 serials? What made it work so well? Let us know in the comments below!
(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in 2016.)