Review: Doctor Who: Waters of Mars (December 19th, Space/BBC America)

Doctor Who? My question exactly.

This is not to suggest I don’t know the basic premise of Doctor Who: he’s an omniscient figure who travels through time/space solving exotic problems with the help of assistants (wait, I think it’s companions). However, I’m fairly certain there’s a deeper mythology here than “he’s mortal enemies with those ugly robot dudes that I think are called Daleks,” which means that going into Doctor Who: Waters of Mars (which according to the press kit is the second of the four final “movies” that David Tennant is doing before running off to star in an NBC pilot) my knowledge of this universe is a cribbed together collection of tidbits gleamed from pop cultural exposure and a couple of random episode viewings during the Eccleston period.

But, as was the case earlier this year when Russell T. Davies created an enormously compelling, stand alone piece of entertainment with Torchwood: Children of Earth, Doctor Who: Waters of Mars (which airs tomorrow night, December 19th, at 9pm ET on SPACE in Canada and on BBC America in the U.S.) is capable of engaging just about any audience. While it doesn’t have Children of Earth’s real world commentary on government corruption or anything so complicated, it tells a tightly driven story that at its core speaks to the inherent dilemma of being a man who is capable of changing time but only to a certain extent, and the plight of humans out to save the planet but finding themselves at the precipice of placing that planet in even further danger.

The result is a very compelling piece of television in its own right, but one that feels like a turning point for this character as he David Tennant prepares to say goodbye to what is very clearly a career-making role.

There is no adjustment period at the start of Waters of Mars, to the point where you might wonder if you missed the first twenty minutes. While it’s clear from their interactions that the crew of Bowie Base One, the first off-Earth colony that has been operating without a hitch for eighteen months. When you first meet the crew, led by the stern-faced Captain Adelaide Brooke, you find a group of people eager to start the next stage of their journey: they’ve been living off protein packs, but with Christmas coming and the eco-dome offering up fresh vegetables they’re hopeful for a real feast, a chance for a taste of what they left behind to be part of this mission.

There is an entire series to be mined from this material, humans who abandoned their children, their grandchildren, their siblings in order to be on this mission. However, we are quite literally just dropping by, as the Doctor arrives on the fateful day of November 21st, 2059 all too aware of what is about to happen. The “what” is ingrained in his memory, an important event in the history of humanity and the universe as a whole, but the question that the film fills in is why. The result is the usual blend of horror and suspense that the show loves to unearth, but don’t expect there to be any sort of elaborate answer to the question. Waters of Mars is stylistic in a way which refers to a bigger picture that it never has any interest in discussing further, both because it expects the audience to be able to fill some of it in and, more importantly, because it ultimately doesn’t matter.

There’s a lot to like here, including a great turn by Lindsay Duncan as the complicated Captain Burke and some subtle but enormously creepy effects work that manages to turn water into a legitimate threat in a way that doesn’t seem plausible, but the focus is ultimately on David Tennant. For most of the movie, I was sort of perplexed at the level to which the Doctor was taking a back seat to the scenario being presented. I understood that Duncan’s character is officially labeled his companion, meaning she’s integral to the series, but circumstances have the Doctor holding back and resisting an urge to get move involved. Davies has smartly constructed a simple but engaging group of characters so that this isn’t a fundamental problem, but considering that this is Tennant’s last hurrah in the role I was expecting something punchier.

But the end of Waters of Mars, which very clearly sets up what’s on the way in The End of Time (which debuts later this month on both sides of the pond), is a tour de force for Tennant, the sort of emotion that demonstrated why people became attached to the actor’s run on the series. What felt like a story where the Doctor is as much an observer as we are, both dropped onto a strange planet with almost no context (except for that which the Doctor has stored in his mind and eventually shares with us), slowly develops into a story in which the Doctor plays an intricate part, and in which Tennant captures both the inherent tragedy and frustration in his position as Time Lord. It’s a really great piece of buildup and anticipation from Davies, and Tennant delivers the big moments with every bit of gusto he has left in him.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Waters of Mars is that it convinced me to watch the first of the four Tennant films (Planet of the Dead, co-starring Michelle Ryan, which is repeating on SPACE tonight), and has led me to actively anticipate The End of the Time when it comes later this month. I don’t know if I’m quite jumping on the bandwagon yet (I’ll likely be ignoring the fourth Torchwood season, for example, now that it has abandoned its miniseries conceit), but I’d say that Doctor Who is much more on my radar now than it was before, which is definitely a reason to tune in tomorrow night.

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars airs tomorrow night, December 19th, at 9pm ET on SPACE in Canada and on BBC America in the United States.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Review: Doctor Who: Waters of Mars (December 19th, Space/BBC America)

  1. Annie

    I’d highly suggest watching from season one “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (a two-parter from the Eccleston year) and “Blink” from season three. “Midnight” from season four is also very interesting. All four of those, though, are the creepier ones of the show. I found “Planet of the Dead” was horribly disappointing, but that maybe be due to my extreme dislike of Michelle Ryan.

    • I have to agree with Annie. “Planet of the Dead”, while perhaps a bit more representative of a typical Doctor Who story, is also a bit dull. If they’re going to rerun “The Next Doctor” before the “The End of Time,” I did enjoy it (which is actually the first of the last four Tennant specials).

      Annie’s episode recommendations are also good (especially “Midnight” since you enjoyed Tennant’s acting in “Waters of Mars”, but I’m going to have to add “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” to round out Tennant’s tenure.

    • Tausif Khan

      I agree that “Blink” is critical episode to watch because it is written by Steven Moffat who will be the new show runner as Russell T. Davies goes off to concentrate on Torchwood. Davies’s style is more comic and light while Moffat’s style is very dark and scary.

      Christopher Eccleston’s Who is more silly (which does not mean bad) David Tenant’s Who can be silly but really hits the important dramatic parts. It is well worth your time to mainline the past four series (seasons for Americans) of Dr. Who.

      Moreover, I think the important question to ask is how bad would it be if Barty Crouch Jr. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Tennant) had a Tardis?

      • wizards dont need tardises because they have time turners

        ‘well they did have them’

        • Tausif Khan

          Well they did have them? Is Hermione the last one to have a time turner? I don’t remember does she destroy it or does it get destroyed?

          The other thing I would note that people of the wizarding world are known for creativity and do not all travel in the same ways (Floo powder, portkeys, aparition, broomstick, magic motorcycle…). I feel that the dark wizards like to separate themselves in terms of style (Snape originally fashioning himself as the Dark Prince).

          So I believe the question remains if Barty Crouch Jr. had a Tardis what havoc would he cause?

          • Tausif Khan

            I also realize that Snape eventually turns out not to be a dark wizard but I think the point is still relevant to the characterization of dark wizards.

          • Mimi

            All of the time-turners are destroyed in book five when Harry/DA breaks into the Dept. of Mysteries.

  2. Ana Debora

    I second the despise for “Planet of the Dead” and Michelle Ryan’s character in it.
    I think most of the Doctor Who fans would agree that any episode on that list is far greater than that especial.
    I would add the third season two parter “Human nature/Family of blood” but unlike the ones Annie listed this might need more attachment to the property for the full experience.

  3. bbc hd on january 1st will be showing

    planet of the dead——————14:35
    doctor who confidential for planet of the dead- 15:35
    waters of mars———————-16:35
    the end of time part 1 ————-17:40
    the end of time part 2————–18:40

    by the way check out the new blog from me
    http://tomsdoctorwhoblog.wordpress.com/

  4. Thomas

    My list will probably be slightly longer than the other lists posted here, but those episodes listed below I all consider to be quite good examples of the show. Not only that, they’re also pretty great to watch:

    Series 1:
    Dalek
    The Empty Child
    The Doctor Dances
    (Bad Wolf
    The Parting of the Ways)

    Series 2:
    The Girl in the Fireplace (forgotten often, but an amazing episode early in Tennant’s run)
    The Impossible Planet
    The Satan Pit
    Army of Ghosts
    Doomsday

    Series 3:
    Smith And Jones
    Human Nature
    The Family of Blood
    Blink
    Utopia/Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (if only because John Simm is so wonderful)

    Series 4:
    The Fires of Pompeii
    Silence in the Library
    Forest of the Dead
    Midnight
    Turn Left
    The Stolen Earth
    Journey’s End

    And for the specials (Christmas + this year’s):
    The Christmas Invasion (Tennant’s first episode, and he is, immediately, absolutely brilliant)
    Voyage of the Damned
    The Next Doctor

  5. Myles, if you’re planning on a Doctor Who bender at any point in the near future, do yourself a favour and avoid the horribly animated “Dreamland” episode. I’ve been a fan of the Doctor series since its re-invention in 2005 but couldn’t even stomach the “Reboot”-comparable CG long enough to get through the ep.

    – Scott

  6. dreamland was quite cool actually
    but the living version of the doctor is much better

  7. Tausif Khan

    For me the two best episodes of Dr. Who are Human Nature and Family of Blood. I feel it gives of that BBC prep school feeling.

    Also, after you finish going back and revisiting Dr. Who episodes let us know who your favorite companion is.

  8. Tausif Khan

    Thanks Mimi

  9. Pingback: Doctor Who – “A Christmas Carol” | Cultural Learnings

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