OBSERVATIONS: Doctor Who: “The Waters of Mars” (Season 31, Episode 3)

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Republibot 2.0 has already reviewed this episode (Read it here: http://www.republibot.com/content/reviews-doctor-who-waters-mars ), and I have little to add to that, so I’m not going to bother with a synopsis or a formal review. I did just now manage to watch it on Youtube (Link below the jump), however, and as we’ve got no other real content today, I thought I’d offer my own observations.

I’m in a weird place at the moment regarding Doctor Who, or, more properly, I should say I’m in a weird place regarding the Russell T. Davies iteration of Doctor Who. On the one hand, I’m forever indebted to the man for bringing back one of my all-time favorite shows, and re-inventing it in a way that is appropriate for the times, adding new, darker elements to the mythos, both in ways that are entirely consistent with the nature of the series. On the other hand, that was five years ago, and there’s the whole “What have you done for me lately” thing cropping up. While I adored the show in its first resurrected season, I’ve felt a steady decline in quality the longer its dragged on, not in the direction or the acting - which consistently gets better and better - but in the stories themselves.

Case in point: Christopher Eccleston, in his one season, quickly managed to become my favorite doctor, usurping Tom Baker, my perennial favorite. He was a good actor, and his hopeful-yet-spastically-angry version of the character resonated with me. He was walking wounded, which gave him a layer of resonance that the previous happy hobo doctors didn’t have. (Though the seventh Doctor did have some darker elements.) David Tennant quickly surpassed Eccleston as my favorite, with his self-deprecating manner (Most of the time) and his obvious - and occasionally crippling - manic depression. But as great as Tennant is - and he really is the best one ever to wear the role - we have to face the fact that none of Davie’s big season finales ever made a lick of sense, his standalone plots themselves were frequently rather nonsensical as well, and that the best, instant-classic episodes of the revived show were all written by Stephen Moffat.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m indebted to the guy, and I’m not dissing him because he’s less talented than some of the other folks who write for the show. I’m dissing him because his batting average has been declining, and also because he’s seemed - to me - to be increasingly distracted by his other Whoniverse shows. Torchwood demands a lot of his time, as does the Sarah Jane Adventures, and I just get the feeling that he’s spread himself too thin. As we learned from the last season of Babylon 5, even a great writer/showrunner can overextend himself by writing two series and three movies all at the same time, and *all* the things he’s working on suffer. And Russell T. Davies was *never* a great writer. A good writer, an interesting writer, a flashy writer, a loving writer, occasionally an above-average one, but not a great one. I’m sorry, that’s just how he stacks up for me.

OBSERVATIONS

Right off the bat, this episode suffers from the “Davies Christmas Special Syndrome” in which we’re introduced to a bunch of people who’ll die off ten-little-Indians style in effort to ramp up the tension; but of course this won’t really work effectively because we don’t know these people enough to really care about them. The introduction scene seems about three times longer than it needs to be, and it’s just the first of several padded out scenes that tend to drag the energy of the episode down. On the one hand, I *like* using a Wiki page (or it’s Whoniverse equivalent) to give us a sense of the Doctor’s future knowledge, on the other hand, it’s kind of blandly overdone. After the first two or three characters we get it, we don’t need to see any more. But of course we do.

We get lots of Davies running scenes which serve no purpose aside from that Davies likes running scenes. I think they’re supposed to ramp up the energy level as well, but really, when four or five minutes of your story is just people running while expositing, it becomes rather dull. As a result of these and other scenes - the Doctor’s explanation of the fixed moments in time is very emotional and soul-searching and dramatic, but it goes on waaaaaaaay too long - the whole story begins to feel padded out. This is basically a 45 minute standalone episode with fifteen minutes of filler.
The zombie-alien makeup - and by the way, haven’t we seen entirely too many zombies on this show? I never thought I’d say that, but there it is - looks fake and not particularly frightening, and many of the spewing-water scenes are just silly looking.

The plot is essentially a variation on the “Tomorrow is Yesterday” plot from Star Trek:TOS, which was itself a fairly crappy episode with a mostly-illogical conclusion. In essence: person from the future isn’t *amazingly* important in and of themselves, but they inspire a descendant to do stuff that’s of amazing importance in the future. In “Tomorrow,” it’s the dude’s son, in this one, it’s a granddaughter, but the hook is the same: You’re not important, but your descendants are. They do tart this up quite a bit by introducing death into the mix, and I really like the growing realization in the captain that she’s more important dead than alive. Really, though, none of this episode is stuff we haven’t seen before. The Pompey episode is openly homage as well.

That said, despite its many failings, there’s a lot to like here:

I’ve long theorized that the Doctor is a bit unhinged, and every bit as dangerous as the folks back on Galifrey used to say he was. I’ve felt that the Doctor *needs* his companions to keep him in check, to ramp him down so he can think on a human level. We saw inklings of this with Donna, we saw some of it with the Seventh Doctor, we caught a hint of it with the Vailiard - perhaps - but in this episode we see it full-on: The Doctor’s own compassion makes him snap and loose all compassion. This Doctor’s manic tendencies go way beyond any point we’ve ever seen them before; he strides into the control room like a Greek god, effortlessly taking charge, barking orders, usurping authority more than he usually does, and ultimately usurping the authority of Time itself. “I’m not a survivor, I’m a victor” he says, evidently so manic that he doesn’t even realize what he’s said, or doesn’t care because he actually believes it. He openly refers to the folks from previous episodes as “little people,” a shock to those of us used to his normal egalitarianism. He seems to believe he’s on the edge of an apotheosis, before it comes crushingly back to him that he’s not God after all, and no matter how powerful and semi-immortal he is, there are things even a lower-case-g divinity like The Doctor can’t control.

This *IS* interesting stuff, and I kind of like the notion that without companions, without someone to love, the Doctor is gradually growing mad and becoming destructive. It makes me wonder if the bad guy in the next episode will be doing the universe a favor by taking the Doctor down. Again, an interesting idea when a Hero goes Bad, I wonder how it’ll pay out.

Nice to see The Doctor in a space suit, walking over the surface of Mars, rather than just zapping in with the Tardis for a change.

The Marsbase was named “Bowie 1” - an obvious reference to Bowies “Life on Mars” song, get it? Likewise, the ultimately-disappointing British series, “Life on Mars” took the name of it’s protagonist (Sam Tyler) from one of the Doctor’s companions.

As cool as the Marsbase looks from the outside, the inside is mostly CGI tunnels and machinery-filled industrial warehouses. That’s a bit disappointing. The Marsbase itself looks like an interesting hybrid of the S.H.A.D.O. Moonbase from UFO, and Moonbase Alpha from Space: 1999, and indeed the medical center set inside the Marsbase actually *looks* like a Space: 1999 set, though the wall panels aren’t illuminated. (Though they clearly could be).

Once again, the airlock design is a disaster waiting to happen. It bothers me that the only SF movie I’ve ever seen with a reasonable, safe Airlock is a goony movie like Space Truckers ( http://www.republibot.com/content/saturday-b-movie-crapfest-%E2%80%9Cspa... )

The politics of the time are curious - There’s evidently no UN anymore but we’re told there’s a “World State,” and evidently the US, UK, Germany, Australia, and Turkey are members, but Spain and The Philippines are not. The Philippines are reputed to have technology that might be capable of putting a person on Mars, and Spain apparently has or had a secret space program of some sort. We’re told that humanity has conquered the environmental, political, and economic problems of our day, and also Homophobia. This is depressingly Trek-like, since Utopia is an instant drama-killer, but, eh, whatever. I doubt we’ll hear about it again.

There’s no attempt to show realistic low-gravity motion on Mars, obviously beyond the budget. The Marsbase is set in Gusev crater in the southern Martian hemisphere, though it’s depicted as much, much smaller than it is in reality (Unless, of course, Marsbae Bowie 1 is several hundred miles across). I suppose it’s possible the Marsbase is set in a crater inside the larger Gusev crater, but that’s never made clear, and I really don’t seen any reason we should believe that. I think they just didn’t realize how big Gusev is. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gusev_crater

The Mars Shuttle is pretty cool looking, and I’m pretty sure it would work, given the low atmospheric pressure and gravity there, but I don’t see any way the thing could have made it back to earth - as a ground-to-orbit shuttle, fine, it’s ducky. As a planet-to-planet spaceship, no, there’s too many design problems for that. I love the scene where they fired up the engines, though, and the explosion was nicely done. (Though I wondered exactly how those fires on the surface of Mars were burning when there’s no oxygen in the atmosphere. Maybe burning oxidant from the ship’s fuel? Ok, I’ll give ‘em that one.)

We get several in-jokes and nods to previous episodes of Doctor Who: the Ice Warriors of Mars, the Season 4 finale, and of course K9.

Though The Doctor has always had a tenuous relationship with himselves, the idea of equating regeneration with death has never been made clear prior to the Davies years, and it’s intriguing. The 9th Doctor clearly regretted regeneration, the 10th doctor actively fears it.

Ultimately, I enjoyed it. It’s always fun to see The Doctor wrestle with his conscience, particularly when he looses the match, as he did here. There’s good stuff to be found in here, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. I feel that’s a problem I have with the Davies years - most of the episodes don’t have much rewatchability for me. Frankly, as indebted to the man as I am, I’ll be happy to see him go and hand the reins over to Moffat. It’ll be a shame to see Tennant go, however. I think that’s a mistake. I’d like to see what he could do with someone else driving.

LAST WORDS

This demiseason (I just made that word up) of Doctor Who is a perfect example: It’s become grueling to anticipate a new Doctor Who episode, where it used to be exciting. Where it used to be a show that we all looked forward to, it’s become a random assemblage of “Specials” that only occasionally deign to honor us with their presence. Yeah, yeah, I get that he’s exploring aspects of the Doctor that we’ve never seen before, and yeah, that is interesting, but wouldn’t that be more interesting if it were a whole season? And if Davies can’t muster up the interest in telling a season’s worth of those kinds of stories, then why would we have any interest in watching them?

The episode is online, if you’d like to watch it here:

Or if that doesn’t work, go here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USjfTpZW9d4

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