Note: This review contains spoilers.
Take a moment and watch this clip of David Tennant announcing his retirement from Doctor Who.
Notice that from the moment that he says it, several fans in crowd scream in shock and disappointment. Yes, Tennant just announced his retirement from the iconic role in the middle of an awards ceremony, and yes, it was a pretty devastating blow to millions of fans.
Since Russell T. Davies revived the longest-running science fiction program of all time back in 2005, he’s had a brilliant eye for casting, starting with already-established film star Christopher Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the world’s favorite Time Lord before moving on to Tennant as the tenth. Since he was introducing a whole new generation to a program that started its run back in 1963, things were given a brand-new kind of professional sheen, allowing Davies and his team to tell a whole new batch of stories without the notable budget constraints of the show’s earlier multi-decade run.
Yet Tennant did something much more with his incarnation of the Doctor. He gave it a wild-eyed vitality that had rarely been seen before, picking up where Eccleston’s revisionary turn left off and upping both the heart and the humor in equal measure (the fact that he was given some positively daring scripts by the likes of Steven Moffat certainly didn’t hurt either). Soon embraced by both casual and hardcore Whovians alike, all eyes were turned on to how Tennant’s run was going to end …
… and with The Waters of Mars, things are finally getting back on track.
The two previous Tennant specials — The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, both penned by Davies — were immensely clichéd and slightly overwrought, introducing both unrealistic conclusions (see: giant robot somehow not making it into the history books in The Next Doctor) and simply boring side-characters (the bland Michelle Ryan and a woefully underutilized Lee Evans in Planet), only further diluting the hackneyed plots that we’ve seen time and time again. Add this to the bloated three-part finale of Series Four, and it was suddenly fair to speculate on whether or not Davies had truly lost his touch.
So it is with great joy to report that The Waters of Mars more closely resembles the Doctor Who special we all wanted to see. After being warned that his death is coming (and a mysterious “he” will knock four times), the Doctor winds up traveling to Mars on a whim, walking haphazardly onto Bowie Base 1 in the year 2059. This is the quasi-settlement that is being set up by scientists so that preparation can be made for eventual human colonization. Upon meeting the crew being lead by Adelaide Brooke (a stern yet charming Lindsay Duncan), the Doctor soon realizes that he’s inadvertently walked into a “fixed point in history”, wherein the events that happen this day must happen forever, as the rest of what happens in the universe is based solely on what transpires here.
So what’s supposed to happen? The entire base is rigged to self-destruct, killing everyone on board. The Doctor, of course, can’t tell anyone this.
What’s key in this episode is not the “water zombies” that wind up taking over the base or the funny little robot named Gadget who plays a significant role during the climax, no. What’s key is what happens at the end. As the water zombies begin turning each crew member into one of their own, the Doctor begins walking away from the base, sad and troubled by the fact that because this is a “fixed point in history”, there is absolutely nothing he can do to save the lives of the noble people on board. Again.
Much as how he lost his trusted companions, his love interests, and some truly transformative figures he’s met over the years, the Doctor need to simply let the events play out like they always will in the course of history. That is, until he decides otherwise.
As is mentioned in the suitable-but-not-spectacular Doctor Who: Confidential featurette that dovetails this DVD, there are only so many places you can go with a character that has existed for decades on end. Knowing full-well that he’s the last Time Lord in existence, the Doctor, in a rare show of both heart and hubris, decides that it is up to him to determine how history will unfold. After years of obeying the laws of time, he has determined that it’s now the laws of time that must obey him. Although, yes, the death of Adelaide Brooke inspires her granddaughter to become the first light-speed traveler from Earth to seek out new places to live (forever altering human destiny), so what? The Doctor thinks Adelaide is a wonderful person, and therefore should live, rescuing both her and two other crew members at the very last second before detonation.
Back on Earth only moments later, the Doctor asks the bewildered and troubled crew members if anyone’s going to thank him. Brooke inquires about the story the Doctor told her about her granddaughter being inspired by her death to go travel the stars, and the Doctor shrugs it off, suggesting history will just rewrite itself. He even calls her crew members “little people” in the grand scheme of things. It’s all pomp and ego.
Yet, what’s more, it’s a justified character choice, as after years of playing by the rules and being “the good guy”, it’s about time that the Doctor finally indulge and save someone he wants to save. As Brooke later points out, no one should have that much power… and then commits an act so heinous that the Doctor — after lifting himself up by his own sense of greatness — realizes just how foolish he was, and is immediately humbled.
All of this winds up setting the stage the final two chapters of the tenth Doctor’s song, The End of Time, but that’s neither here no there. For fans both young and old, seeing the Doctor suddenly decide that it is he who is going to decide the fate of history is a remarkable but warranted character choice. In fact, after seeing such space monsters turn every crew member of Bowie Base 1 into a mindless killing machine, we only see near the end that the true monster is in the Doctor’s own planet-sized ego. Say what you will about what comes before and after this, but The Waters of Mars is some potent, powerful, and surprisingly deep sci-fi viewing fun.