Monday, November 16, 2009

Review of the 2009 Thanksgiving Special: "The Waters of Mars"

Now that was more like it!

“The Waters of Mars” is the first genuinely good episode of Doctor Who that has been broadcast since, well, since “The Stolen Earth” in June of 2008. Last December’s Christmas Special, “The Next Doctor”, was alright – fun but forgettable – and then Easter’s “Planet of the Dead” was just terminally stupid with its random psychic ladies, its flying manta rays, and that god-awful, babbling Malcolm idiot. I had almost forgotten what it felt like to enjoy an episode of this show!

As we’ve been shown repeatedly (most obviously in the 2006 Christmas Special, “The Runaway Bride”), the Doctor needs a companion to reign in his not-so-benevolent impulses. This episode, which picks up with the Doctor having traveled alone for an unspecified period of time (possibly many years), takes that idea to its ultimate – and surprisingly dark – end. This is not the Tenth Doctor we first got to know, jaunting around the universe with Rose and having a grand old time. This is a much older, much more world-weary Doctor more akin to Christopher Eccleston’s battle-hardened Ninth Doctor. One almost gets the feeling that the oncoming regeneration could be a blessing to this wounded character, granting him a new lease on life and a new pair of eyes through which to rediscover the universe.

David Tennant does a marvelous job with this more somber version of the Tenth Doctor. I like his Doctor so much better when he only occasionally gives in to his more manic impulses. He was serious when he needed to be and fun when he could be. And at the end, when he went on his “Time Lord victorious” power trip, he was downright scary. Tennant would make a much more frightening Master than the version given to us by John Simm in “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords.”

But Tennant’s performance would have meant very little if he hadn’t been matched up with someone of equal talent. Thankfully, that happened in the person of Lindsay Duncan who played AdelaideBrooke, head of the Mars colony. Duncan – who, as Servilia of the Junii, was one of the best things about the TV series Rome – matches Tennant note for note. She portrays Adelaide as an extremely competent leader who commands respect and has sacrificed much in pursuit of her goals. She is an equal to the Doctor, not a subservient, love-struck child. Her decision at the end of the episode, to preserve history even at the cost of her own life and in defiance of the Doctor, is a fantastic moment. This is the kind of companion with whom the Doctor should be paired – someone who can force the Doctor to make the hard decisions, or make them for him if he fails. She reminded me of Dr. Lazarus from the movie Outland, but that could be because of her age and gender paired with the extraterrestrial outpost setting.

Even the monsters in the episode worked for me. I found them creepy and effective. Yes, they were obviously influenced by the most recent spate of “zombie” movies, but they were really just window dressing to set up the themes of the episode anyway. As window dressing, they did a good job! Having said that, though, the scene where a single drop of liquid fell onto a character’s face from above, infecting him, was lifted almost shot for shot from 28 Days Later. Theft or homage? You be the judge! Too bad the character that was infected in this episode wasn’t half as likable as Brendan Gleeson’s father-figure from that movie.

All of the creepy goings-on at the Mars base build up to one terrific ending in which the Doctor learns that, even if he is the last Time Lord, he cannot control time. What he calls “time,” he discovers, is really made up of an endless number of personal choices by an endless number of individuals; no matter how powerful he thinks he is, he cannot control those individual choices. In the end, Adelaide makes a choice, a shocking, violent choice to preserve the timeline despite the Doctor’s wishes. The painful lesson hits the Doctor full-on, leading to his emotional breakdown outside the TARDIS. In the midst of this breakdown, he has a vision of Ood Sigma. The last time the Doctor saw Ood Sigma in “Planet of the Ood,” the creature prophesized that the Doctor’s “song” would soon end. As the Doctor questions Ood Sigma, the spectral visitor fades away, recalling the mysterious appearance of the Watcher from “Logopolis,” which also signaled an oncoming regeneration.

Clearly, the Doctor’s defiance of time is going to have further ramifications. Even though Adelaide offed herself, two other crewmembers survived who shouldn’t have. Could their survival have an impact on the timeline? An impact that the Doctor will have to die undoing? And how did the two surviving crewmembers explain their escape from the Mars colony, anyway? And how will Adelaide’s suicide be explained? That she was overcome by guilt because she was unable to save all of her crew?

The teaser trailer shown at the end of the episode didn’t provide many clues. The Master is returning, for sure, which begs the question, what about Mrs. Saxon? Will she return as well? Was it Mrs. Saxon who took the Master’s ring? We also see a glimpse of Donna and her grandfather Wilfred. I must admit, I’ll be glad to see them both again. Overall, the teaser looked promising. It’s not all rainbows and puppy dogs, though! Davies has shown in the past that he knows how to build suspense toward the big season-ending events (“Utopia,” “Turn Left”), but he hasn’t actually shown that he knows how to wrap them up in a satisfying manner (“Last of the Time Lords,” “Journey’s End”). Still, if he can avoid any magical cell phone prayers or TARDIS-dragging-the-Earth moments, we could get a pair of excellent final episodes yet! “The Waters of Mars” gives me hope, at least.