It’s 2059, on the day that the first ever human colony on Mars will mysteriously explode, taking all hands and explanations with it. This “autumn special” gets back to basics, providing a solid, scary, self-contained story of survival. One small group of humans, isolated and helpless; one alien virus spreading through the water supply and turning the crew into hideous monsters; and one rogue Time Lord, unbound by the rules of his people and determined to change a fixed point in history, whatever the cost.
In its quest to make everyday things scary, Doctor Who now turns to water, as precious a resource as any on the surface of Mars. One drop will turn you into one of the freakiest creatures I’ve seen on this show, brought to life by a combination of excellent make-up, zombie-like performances and great camera direction, with the transformations often happening out of focus in the background. As a horror story, The Waters of Mars is fairly typical, as its cast of international astronauts are offed one by one. They are a likable bunch this time, and the Doctor has an infectious enthusiasm for their mission – before realising that he needs to leave, quickly.
This is another example of seemingly arbitrary rules governing what the Doctor can and can’t change. In The Fires of Pompeii, he simply says that some points are fixed and some are in flux, but doesn’t say why. Here, it’s strongly implied that the rules are laid down by the Time Lords, presumably because they can scan the effects of every action in spacetime and determine which ones are favourable. Earth’s future of space exploration would fall under “very important”. It’s not that the Doctor physically cannot help, it’s that he isn’t allowed to. When he finally decides he’s going to save some of the colonists anyway, he oversteps his authority. For a moment, the power he has over time corrupts him and he nearly becomes a monster. It’s a good bit of development for the character, and it reinforces his need for a travelling companion, someone to keep him grounded. There will be consequences.
All of that makes some lovely drama but there’s a problem. The captain, Brooke, is too willing to go along with the rules, too quick to judge the Doctor on something that she shouldn’t even understand. It’s not believable that she would choose to take her own life because someone has told her what her fate is. It’s not a human response to accept the inevitability of fate – we prefer the future to be unwritten. It almost seemed like her decision to take her own life was being controlled by time itself, as a (admittedly nonsensical) course correction process, but I don’t like that idea.
Still, otherwise, The Waters of Mars is pretty good. Had this been the year’s Christmas special, as originally conceived (see the snow at the end), it would be comfortably the best Christmas special so far. Mars is a good setting, significantly nicer looking than the last time it was shown in Doctor Who, and the habitat interiors have a pleasing aesthetic, futuristic but believable. The short time the characters appear is long enough to like them. The rocket-propelled robot racer was silly and there’s still too much sonic screwdrivering, but on the whole this was enjoyable, creepy and dramatic. The Doctor even name-drops the Ice Warriors at one point – now there’s a blast from the past!