I am 28 years old. This means that the Doctor Who I grew up with was Sylvester McCoy. Some slightly older people might think of this as a terrible curse afflicted on people born in the early 1980s, but he was my Doctor and I feel the need to stand up for him. His adventures were often fun but there was a particularly sinister edge to many of his stories which meant that as a seven year old the programme was very scary indeed. Yes, he might have had the annoying, screeching Bonnie Langford as his assistant at first, but she was soon replaced with Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, my first childhood crush. And to my tiny child’s eyes, he was blatantly much better than Colin Baker, anyway.
But having said that, I’m a little jealous of the seven and eight year-olds of today who have been growing up with David Tennant as their Doctor. How amazing must that be? Easily one of the all-time best in the role, the last few years riding in the TARDIS with him have been sometimes scary, sometimes amusing, but always very exciting. But now his time in the role is coming to an end, with only two specials left after tonight’s Waters of Mars. Only read on if you haven’t watched yet, or else there be spoilers…
This was the second of this year’s special episodes, following on from April’s Planet of the Dead. These two episodes have shown the best and worst of Russell T Davies’ writing for the series. Planet of the Dead was Doctor Who at it’s most cheesy, clunky and infantile, like so many of Davies’ other episodes which tend to combine an interesting premise with ridiculously over-the-top dialogue. But tonight’s episode was bold, chilling and took one of sci-fi’s longest running characters to some challenging new places, reminding us that when he comes up with a good script, it’s very good indeed.
The episode began with the Doctor cheerfully arriving on the red planet in 2059, and finding himself on Earth’s first colony on Mars, named Bowie Base One. Life on Mars, you see..? Erm, yeah. The base is commanded by Adelaide Brooke, played by Lindsay Duncan who leads an international crew including, among others, ex-Neighbours star Peter O’Brien and the staggeringly beautiful Gemma Chan. Who I am now slightly infatuated with. Also on the base was a robot named GADGET, which at first appeared to be a typically ham-fisted Russell T Davies attempt at humour, but turned out to be a purposefully annoying parody of “quirky” sci-fi robots, which worked quite well, despite a zap of the sonic screwdriver allowing it to develop rocket-fuelled turbo boosters from literally nowhere. When the Doctor arrives in the base, their first contact with another person for years, they think he must be part of the anticipated rival Filipino mission to Mars, but soon discover that he’s something else entirely.
The Doctor realises that he is, once again, in the company of major historical figures. He also knows that the crew all die on this very day, and it is a point in time that must remain fixed, because commander Adelaide’s death in particular inspires important events of the future which must also happen. Her importance is emphasised in a flashback to the events of last year’s episode Journey’s End, where she was a young girl in 2008 and her life was spared by a Dalek. Soon the reason for the forthcoming tragedy becomes apparent, there’s something in the water and it’s infecting the crew one-by-one, turning them into monsters spouting water from their every pore. The creatures, which have been trapped in the glaciers under the surface of Mars for thousands of years, want to get to Earth where they can have all the water they want.
In a remarkable moment, the Doctor leaves the crew to their destiny, walking away while listening over the radio to their cries for help as they attempt to escape in their space shuttle while trying to avoid touching so much as a drop of the deadly water. It’s one of those rare occasions that the Doctor is completely powerless, no matter how much he would like to help, he knows he cannot without breaking the laws of time. It looks like we’re heading towards one of the most downbeat endings yet.
But then he comes to a realisation. He is the last of the Time Lords, there is nobody else left. He is the laws of time. He comes to the rescue of the survivors, using the TARDIS to bring back to Earth commander Adelaide, Mia and Yuri, the three remaining people who haven’t turned into wet dead-eyed beasts with weird mouths (you can make up your own jokes about watching Jordan on I’m a Celebrity by mistake). Suddenly we see a different side to the Doctor, with all the power gone to his head, showing an arrogance and superiority not seen before. It was up to Adelaide to take the future into her own hands, as she walked into her home and took her own life.
The Waters of Mars was the most chilling episode of Who since the memorable Blink, the one with the scary angel statues, written by next showrunner Steven Moffat. Like that story, which made every statue a potential monster, or Silence in the Library, which made shadows something to be terrified of, the use of water as a malevolent force was a wonderful idea. The episode went into really quite dark territory, at one point having the Doctor impotently having to leave people to die, later giving him the kind of megalomaniacal traits normally seen in the series’ villains. Tonight he was rarely the hero, paving the way for the epic conclusion to the tenth Doctor’s story this Christmas. While it will be sad to see Tennant leave the role, his closing episodes look like something to look forward to.