(Spoilers for The Waters of Mars below. You have been warned.)I've delayed talking about the two last Doctor Who specials, I think in part because I found them lacking, If Planet of the Dead was replete with missed opportunities, then these specials break the bank. It's like they're ALMOST great, but then a funny robot rolls in and it drops to just ok.
Well, I've gone and mentioned it already - Gadget, the funny robot. There's nothing inherently wrong with a wonky, even cutesy robot on the show. I mean, K-9 is a wonky cutesy robot. The problem with Gadget is that he doesn't tonally fit into this story. Waters of Mars is one of the bleakest stories in the Doctor Who canon, if not THE bleakest. We've had base under siege stories where no one, or almost no one, made it out alive before, but none where a person who was saved immediately commits suicide! And yet, there it is, along with a potentially disturbing body horror monster. And in the middle of it all - Gadget, the funny robot.
As an exploratory drone, he's acceptable. The "Gadget Gadget!" cute-speak makes him borderline. How the Doctor apparently adds rocket boosters to him with his sonic screwdriver sends it way over the top to the point where the story is no longer believable. Comic relief that goes too far and destroys any tension the story had, or at least jars with the atmosphere of the story. If the point was to give something to the kiddies (and it often is), then we must accept that the kiddies were meant to watch it, and Waters is much too dark for children who might enjoy Gadget. Monsters, people not making it out alive, standard Doctor Who fare. But the suicide of a nominal companion? Really?
Is Gadget enough to ruin Waters of Mars? Not alone, no. Lindsay Duncan is excellent in the role of Adelaide Brooke (no surprise there), and the Doctor has some fun dialogue, such as when he is asked what his name is, what he does, and what he wants ("The Doctor. Doctor. Fun."). The sets and monsters are effective, and I like how Brooke is basically the future equivalent of a historical character (we just don't know the history yet), with the same historical sanctity afforded Shakespeare or Richard the Lionhearted. In fact, the matter of fixed points in time, and actually UNFIXING them was potentially the best thing about the episode. And this is where Gadget is not alone in undermining the story after all.
Fixed points. These are events that, if changed, will result in massive changes in History. You can save a marble merchant from Pompeii, but you can't save the city. You can't let Shakespeare or Agatha Christie die before their time. And when I say "can't", I don't mean that it's not possible. Time in the Whoniverse is flexible, which is why the Doctor must intervene to keep History on track, but it's at least resilient. He makes mention of time tending to smooth out small ripples so that they have little or no effect in the long run, and it's why he can save "the little people". So it's no small thing when he decides to make a big ripple in the pond, as the Time Lord Victorious.
Tennant is electric in the last 15 minutes of the episode. He sees Bowie Base One in flames (is that an oblique reference to the Master? David Bowie - Life on Mars - John Simm...) and recalls Gallifrey at the end of the Time War. It makes him flip out. There is no Donna to stop him. He rages against time itself and the laws that no one protects anymore. Isn't time his to lord over and manipulate? Not since the darkest days of his 7th incarnation has he been so brazen about playing with time (and yet, Doc7 was always the champion of time, not its abuser). Doc10 destroys a fixed point by saving Adelaide and two others, but she rejects him and kills herself to keep the timeline intact. At which point, he realizes he's gone too far, the Cloister Bell starts to sound and he knows his death approaches. It's a powerful sequence, all told, except...
The sequence doesn't really bear scrutiny. We're forced to ask: How is Adelaide's decision motivated? One the one hand, she takes the Doctor's word for it when he tells her about the future. There's no mention that he's a time traveler at that point, and he keeps saying "Suppose this happened..." Sure he knows more than he should, and his prophecy seems to come true, but would you commit suicide based on that flimsy evidence? And if you do trust him about one thing, why not a second thing, such as when he says the future'll sort itself out and a living Adelaide can inspire as much as a dead one? And frankly, Adelaide's solution isn't a great one. The fixed point has still be changed, and I'd think that, web pages aside, a grandmother's suicide would do less to inspire me to go to the stars than her well-remembered sacrifice on Mars. And has the future now changed completely? It doesn't seem so (the Ood are still in the picture, and surely, there would have been changes to the timeline in which Planet of the Ood occurred), so what was the big deal anyway?
But that's what happens when you analyze everything. So let's not do that. Let the paradox business slide. The sequence STILL doesn't work. Why? Because of The End of Time, that's why. If the next special had taken place back to back with this one, with the Doctor doomed and frazzled, I wouldn't be complaining. But they leave us on this moment where Ten has lost himself and knows he's heading for his final destiny, bells ringing, the TARDIS having a fit, it's all gone wrong and now he DESERVES what's coming. Opening of The End of Time, the Doctor's been having further adventures, and fun ones too! From urgency and malaise, we jump to relaxation and Hawaiian shirts. It's ridiculous and completely destroys what Waters of Mars has set up. It's not like there wasn't time for every possible untold tale in between Planet of the Dead and Waters.
And a few random comments...
-Can the Daleks detect fixed points in time too? Is that really why the Dalek didn't kill little Adelaide during the Stolen Earth scenario? Has Davros programmed them with such information (and it has to be pretty detailed for a Dalek to recognize a little girl as the woman she would one day become)? While a poetic idea, it was probably just the Dalek not finding relevance in the death of this harmless child.
-Moment I could have done without: Those awful, over-used web page flashes. After the first three or four, it just becomes this terrible joke, a parody of itself, which helps deflate the last moments as well. Maybe it's just the way they are all the same (angles and sounds), but it goes from clever to stupid reaaaal fast. And they're not even that interesting on freeze frame. (Ed Gold went to Adelaide University and then worked with a woman called Adelaide? Sparkling.)
-So Ice Warriors... Where are they? We know from the extra-canonical stuff that they live underground and hibernate, none of which Waters of Mars contradicts. The real question is: Has their presence been seeded for use in the next series? I'd love to see revamped Ice Warriors. Certainly, I like them more than I do the Sontarans...
Next up: The End!