Fixed Point: The Waters of Mars

(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!


snell said...

Questions, I've got questions--

A)If the saving of Pete Tyler was enough to summon the time-eater thingies in Father's Day, where are they here? Inconsistent cosmology...

B)We're presented with a false choice. Since eveyone on the base was presumed dead at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, it's quite likely all of the remains were never found. So the Doctor could have dropped Adelaide et al anyplace in time and space to live out a normal lifespan without queering history, as far as Earth people knew. Everyone would believe they're dead, granddaughter is inspired, and they survive on Metabelis 3 or wherever. Saving them wouldn't necessarily alter the time line, unless you drop them on Earth in their contemporary time...

C) The John Connor fallacy. In the Terminator movies we're told again and again that JC--and only JC--can lead the resistance, which is awfully arrogant, and a completely unsupported assertion. Same thing here. If Adelaide's granddaughter isn't inspired, the entire Earth space exploration program doesn't go on? Really? Nobody else ever wanted to be an astronaut? Given everything the Doctor has said about the irrepressibly inquisitive human race, that seems pretty damn unlikely.

D) That being said, Gadget didn't bug me nearly as much as he bugged you. And although you're right about the miracles the Doctor can do with the sonic screwdriver, it's four seasons to late to be complaining about that, as we're apparently stuck with that ridiculous get-out-of-jail-free storytelling cheat forever...

Siskoid said...

A) Disagree. The Reapers weren't attracted to a change in history per se, they were attracted to the paradox created by Rose changing her own past, after spacetime was weakened from there being 2 versions of the Doc and Rose in the same point in time. This is a whole other animal.

B) Completely. However, I don't think the Doctor's goal was to save them and still preserve history. At that point, he was consciously CHOOSING to change history.

C) On this, we agree. Even if presented as a "historical figure", Adelaide had already accomplished everything she was destined to (except dying). It's not like taking Julius Ceasar or Shakespeare out of the equation or anything. Not extremely convincing as a fixed point.

D) I have no trouble with Gadget or his retro rockets in any given romp. I have a tonal problem in THIS story specifically.

Matthew Turnage said...

I understand your problems with Gadget and agree to a certain extent, but I'm willing to overlook it given that Gadget serves an important part in the climax, and the silliness involved with Gadget is pretty limited. We don't actually see him that much, really.

I too was a little bothered by the seeming disconnect between the state of mind we leave the Doctor in at the end of this story and where we find him at the start of the next. However, as I've thought about it more it makes sense. We've seen that the Doctor is particularly pleased with this incarnation and is in no hurry to leave it behind - see Journey's End. Therefore, his most likely reaction to knowledge of his impending doom is to run away. He's really doing throughout this whole story anyway, and even knowing he might deserve what's coming doesn't change his desire to avoid it.

Therefore, his arrival on the Oodsphere in the End of Time is part of his continuing battle against his own fate, which he continues right up until the moment he steps into the chamber to free Wilf. He's going over the top in order to express his defiance of his supposed fate.

Jeff R. said...

Did you do posts on the first two specials that I missed somewhere? Pity; I'd been holding onto a comment about the new Cybermen and alchemy waiting for the Next Doctor post here...

Anyhow, I'm more-or-less with snell on the reapers issue. At the very least, the impression I got from Father's Day was that the cloister bells ringing is something that is both exceedingly bad and with imminent consequence, not just a vague foreshadowing a fairly mild form of doom that gives you plenty of time for dozens more adventures...

LiamKav said...

The misunderstanding of the reapers in Father's Day is becoming one of my biggest "hnng" things with Doctor Who fandom. As Siskoid says, the problem wasn't (as half the internet seems to think) that Rose saved Pete. The problem was:

1/ Rose and the Doctor crossed over their own timeline, something the Doctor is VERY consistent about not doing.
2/ Rose saving Pete created two paradoxes. If Pete wasn't dead, then she would have no reason to go back in time to save him, therefore she wouldn't be there to save him, therefore she'd go back in time and save him etc etc. In addition, if he wasn't dead there'd have been no reason for them to cross their own timelines after watching him die once.
3/ Rose touched a younger version of herself, which in the Doctor Who universe is BAD NEWS.
4/ A general point is that the Time Lords would normally fix things like this, but can't any more due to being dead.

That's the argument. The internet has lept on the Doctor's admitedly confusing line of "there's a man alive in the world that isn't supposed to be", but the problem was the paradoxes created by ROSE being the one that saved him. Even if the Doctor had done so, it would still have been a paradox because without Rose there he wouldn't have been around in the first place.

End of rant. Sorry, Snell.

Siskoid said...

What Liam said.

I talked about each special very close to when they aired. Here are the links:

The Next Doctor

Planet of the Dead

snell said...

It seems to me that you're defying Ockham's razor when you disregard actual lines of the Doctor's dialogue ("admittedly confusing" or not) to come up with a 4-step explanation of the Reapers, none of which is mentioned in the episode. But maybe that's just me :-p

Jeff R. said...

Alright, but I still think that the episode gave the impression that the Cloister Bells were either intimately connected with the Reapers or at least at least as bad as the Reapers themselves, whereas here it means nothing.

And since I did miss the Next Doctor post I'll just mention here that I really like the fact that the NewWho Cybermen essentially kept the same weakness, but instead of literal gold it's now alchemical gold (which is to say the better parts of human nature) that beats them. Well, that or Daleks. And I'd like the see a quasihistorical some day with them and Issac Newton that goes to that point directly, possibly bringing some Oldschool Cybermen into the story for the contrast...

LiamKav said...

I think that the Doctor was just simplifying things for Rose. He does also mention how they have to avoid being seen by their earlier selves, otherwise they will create a paradox. And the touching your younger self thing is the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, albiet unnamed. So it's not an explanation COMPLETELY pulled out of thin air.

Siskoid said...

I for one am not ignoring any part of canon on this. Who has shown paradoxes and changes to history more than once, and the Reapers never appeared. What has never happened before is the Doctor crossing his own timeline without Time Lord assistance/permission, even less a Companion changing her own history.

(If anything, the Reapers themselves are what contradicts canon, but let's say they are creatures living in the vortex. Just because they are attracted to a wound in time - which changing history does not solely count as - does not mean they actually find that wound, just as blood in the water does not necessarily attract sharks).

Note that the cloister bells do not sound in Father's Day. The TARDIS is kaput during that episode.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Just found your blog, and I've been greatly enjoying it- hitting all of the Who stuff before jumping onto other articles of interest (a review of the Double Time comic? Awesome!)

Still, I have to dissagree with you here. I feel like the websites- while a triffle overused- are designed to set up the drmatic irony of the ending. The whole concept of Water of Mars, to me, was that, as you point out, the future hasn't really changed- the Ood are still there, the timeline preceeds as normal (though I do agree that there's no way it would with Dead Grandma)- and when the dust settles, the timeline is intact, Adelade is still dead, and as that website flash alters from 'Mars' to 'Earth', it suggests that for all of the Doctor's raging against time itself, for all of his declarations of Time Lord triumphantness, for all of his determination to derail a fixed point... all he can do is change a single word of history. He doesn't even manage the 'one single line' that Hartnell forbids changing. (Now, dramatically, it works- but realisitcally, two other people are alive that shouldn't have been, a change presumeably twice as drastic as the world-ending alteration in 'Fathers Day'. But as a dramatic beat, I think it works.)

Likewise, I dissagree about the ending not working. It was a heck of a cliffhanger, and, while I admit that it does not reach the full potency of having The End of Time begin right where this one started, I feel like it works themeatically- the idea that Tennant's determined expression, his "No!" at the end, is a determination to defy fate, defy death, one more time- to refuse to accept his fate. And the End of Time opens showing he's been doing just that (to his detrement, it turns out)- not relaxing and having further fun adventures, but running, fleeing his fate, breaking rules- probably never relaxing, only putting on an auro of forced cheerfullness to mask his fear, his unease, his cagey need to keep moving, to stay running, to keep one step ahead of death. Making the End of Time about finally stopping, taking the responsibility that he should have here. So, i think it works.

But then, I'm also the kinda guy that think he brought every bad thing that ever happened to his tenth incarnation- from the loss of Rose to the return of the Daleks, Cybermen, and Master- onto himself by ousting Harriet Jones. So what do I know?

Completely agree with the rest of the critiques, though- Gadget was tonally inappropriate, and too many elements just didn't work.

Really loving the blog, and this review series!

Siskoid said...

Welcome aboard! You're entitled to your point of view, of course, and I still stand by mine even on repeat viewings.

The website stuff could have been done with only one or two screenshots. That many and it becomes almost a parody of the stylistic flourish.

The aborted cliffhanger just doesn't play fair with the audience, not unlike a lot of classic Who where a cliffhanger was followed by a total cheat (that would make a great article, if I can do the research).

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Fair enough.

First example that comes to mind is the Age of Steel opener... but you're right, with a viewing history only up through Troughton, I can see plenty of them! :-)

Toby'c said...

"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."

I was thinking pretty much the same here, and I think what would have helped is if she'd walked back into the TARDIS before killing herself, intending for the Doctor to take her back to the scene of the explosion. Of course, this still isn't better than the whole "Captain Adelaide can inspire her face to face!" idea.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Funny thing... I just re-read this article I'd had saved in a word document somewhere, and came to write this comment:

"Great article, and I strongly agree with every point- including the commentor's idea that saving the Bowie Base One personel was presented as a false choice. As Wedding of River Song seems to suggest, a fixed point is only key in that 'what appeared to happen must appear to have happened and history/the people there go on believing the same.' People don't have to die; everyone just has to think they're dead. The Doctor should've been able to whisk them away from the moment of their death to somewhere in the future after they're long dead with no damage- but the way 'time itself' seems to fight against their rescue, it seems to be insisting that they actually MUST DIE, which reinforces the false-binary, but doesn't seem consistent with other 'to maintain the illusion of your death, I'll just take you elsewhere' stories.

For the webpages, I agree that they failed in their intent- but I *think* they were meant to lend authenticity to the future-historicity of the events, and the ending crossfade to show that for all of this hullabaloo, all the time Lord victorious and every sacrifice and rebellion, all he could manage to do was change 'one word' of history. Again, I think that was the intent... the final result was less than stellar."

I had completely forgotten I'd posted here before... but time has also brought me around to your POV, especially on the cliffhanger. :-)


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