Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars

As the tenth Doctor's tale winds down to its end, The Waters of Mars show that the greatest horror of all exists in the Time Lord himself.

Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: David Tennant, Lindsay Duncan
Network: BBC
US Release Date: 2010-02-02
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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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