Doctor Who #839: The Waters of Mars

"Water is patient, Adelaide. Water just waits. It wears down the clifftops, the mountains, the whole of the world. Water always wins."
TECHNICAL SPECS: The story is available on DVD. First aired Nov.15 2009.

IN THIS ONE... Water-drenched zombies on Mars, and the Doctor unfixes a fixed point.

REVIEW: I find myself even more irritated with this story than I was when it first aired. Part of the frustration is that several elements are quite good. Lindsay Duncan is an impressive guest-star. The Mars-scape is beautiful. The water zombies are creepy as all get-out. There are some great lines here and there, like the Doctor answering Adelaide's questions in order, and the Doctor's chilling conclusion that he's not the Time War's survivor but its winner. And had the story ended on the Doctor's walk out of the Bowie Base One, hearing its crew meet its fate on the coms, powerless to change history, it would have been the show's darkest episode ever without having to force characters to act illogically. A powerful moment aborted by something RTD poorly follows up on anyway (as we'll see in a couple days).

The main problem with The Waters of Mars is, I think, its poor understanding of what a "fixed point" in time might be, and what the Doctor might do about it. I am completely on board about having Doc10 crack under the pressure and break the Laws of Time, going too far and earning his death. But this is a poorly thought-through way to go about it. I hate to review by rewriting, but it perhaps makes my point. Imagine a story in which he doesn't go back to the base to rescue three people, but rather goes back in TIME to save them after he's seen them die. Then either he screws up continuity in a noticeable way (a universe overrun with Daleks because humanity wasn't there, something he might even had to prevent by recreating the events he undid), or the saved are killed some other way because history tries to set itself back on course (which is a better way to treat fixed points anyway). As is, his "breaking the rules" is entirely reliant on his contention that this is a fixed point when everything about the story tells us it isn't. A fixed point is something he/we know to be HISTORY. In a future event's context, that's already nebulous, but even he admits the reason the base was destroyed is a mystery. If there's a mystery, then WHO KNOWS what happened? Changing things (and participating in the events, as he does) is possible because you're not contradicting history as you know it to have happened. His solution is ridiculous, because 1) there was so much splashing of water in the climax, there's no real way to know if he isn't infecting Earth after all; 2) he could have brought the survivors to another time/place, still saved them and not created a paradox; and 3) it's not even clear why Adelaide's DEATH is so important, and why she couldn't be just as inspiring as a survivor (UNIT should be able to provide a cover story). In fact, her dying on Earth, a completely different mystery, still sends her granddaughter to the stars, etc. If the Doctor's solution is dumb, Adelaide's is completely irrational. Either she takes the Doctor's words as givens or she doesn't. Here she believes his story about the future she spawns, but then doesn't trust him when he says he's found a way to circumvent the potential paradox. She shoots herself in the head to set right what he made wrong when she could, I don't know, disappeared , changed her identity, stayed out of history's way! Somehow, being found dead in her house on Earth seemed like a way to salvage history? To my mind, it would just have spawned rumors of there never having been a Mars mission (like the faked moon landing bollocks) and could much more easily have destroyed the time line. The other two survivors do live and tell the story of how they saved Earth from viral water, so her suicide must seem even more inexplicable. It just looks like she does it to teach the Doctor a lesson about using his power responsibly, and that's when she ceases to be a proper character.

The story doesn't work on a fundamental level, but it also annoys in the details. I wanted to throw stuff at the screen every time the stupid computer screen infodumps flashed on screen, always the same way, with always the same music beats. I understand their use as a tool to show how history was set and how it would later change (a tiny bit), but it is way overdone, repetitive and, to stay with the tool metaphor, rather blunt. And there's the funny robot spouting "Gadget Gadget" in this kind of story. The Waters of Mars is way too dark and disturbing to throw in something for the kiddies like this. Children should have been warned away with a high Fear rating, and accepting this one was for older kids and adults, Gadget binned. And while I did compliment the dialog, there are still mouthfuls like "The Time Lord Victorious is wrong" that are plainly impossible to deliver convincingly. Who would even talk like that?

VERSIONS: The End of Time DVD includes a deleted scene where the Doctor figures out two of the crew are a couple, against regulations; another in which the Flood explains who they are; a trimmed reference to the Ice Warriors; different dialog in Ed's death scene that implies he had feelings for Adelaide; and the umpteenth joke about fake snow in the series.

SECOND OPINION: My original review, Fixed Point: The Waters of Mars, led to more discussion on fixed points and funny robots.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - The plot is definitely not water-tight. An absurd conclusion to what might have been a strong, dark horror episode.

4 comments:

CiB said...

I think this one gets some stuff right. Only enough to be on the high end of "average" though. Largely agree about the holes you can drive articulated lorries through. Still, I think this is probably the best of the "year of specials", but then again the next story in my view is the single worst story in the whole show.

Anonymous said...

I think the greatest failing of this is RTD trying to make a big thing of "The Time Lord Triumphant" but then be undone by his hubris -- not a bad idea in and of itself, but when you start there and work backwards, you have people making choices they'd never make in a forward-constructed story.

As for fixed points, I have a theory (which, for science fiction, means I'm pulling something out of my ass). A fixed point means that it CAN'T be changed, it honestly can't; and whatever changes you make won't undo the thing that is fixed, no matter what you think you're accomplishing. Adelaide dying seems to be the thing that is fixed, and who knows why. Maybe she needed to die before confessing to her granddaughter that she'd cheated on her husband, which would have caused the granddaughter to join the Amish community. Or something.

As to why a point is fixed, my theory (ow, my ass) is that a point is fixed only if it leads to a condition that is necessary to prevent a time paradox. But if there's more than one way to get to that condition, it's possible to ruin some of those ways, but at least one will always remain. The Doctor could theoretically keep going back and preventing Adelaide from killing herself, but sooner or later the TARDIS's flux capacitor would give out, or something, such that he couldn't.

LiamKav said...

I quite liked the idea of a future fixed point in time. It was always easy to have past-Earth events being fixed (World War 2, etc). Actually picking a future event (albeit still Earth-focussed) was a nice change.

(It's interesting how much you are apparently itching for RTD to leave. While I have enjoyed the last few seasons of Who, there have been several moments where I have genuinely thought "RTD" would do that better.)

Siskoid said...

I have no doubt I'll be "itching" for Moffat to leave too ;)

Because the last two years have been Doctor Who-heavy, I haven't reacted to the last contemporary seasons, but I've been openly critical of them elsewhere.

 

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