It’s been several weeks, and this has been lurking around for a while – partly because I forgot, but also because this is the most ambivalent I’ve felt about New Who for a while. Some rather rambly thoughts follow, and – as usual – fear the spoilers…
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again at some point in the next couple of months – I’m looking forward to RTD moving on. Yes, I’m really looking forward to see what The Grand Moff does with the show, but more than anything else, it’s time for Who to get a new voice.
I haven’t actually been this ambivalent about a New Who episode for a very long time – usually I’m very clear as to whether I love them (The Stolen Earth) or hate them (The Unicorn and the Wasp), and yet The Waters of Mars rode the rollercoaster, and I’m still not sure whether or not I actually liked it. On the face of it, this has got a ton of good stuff – Graeme Harper directing in full ‘edgy SF’ mode is always a good thing, the production design was really quite impressive, managing to blend the real locations with the sets in a way that wasn’t intrusive, and it’s one of the most well-realised Who stories yet. Tennant is, for the most part, on really good form, and Lindsay Duncan is as brilliant as she usually is, and the moments of traditional dark horror when they come along are extremely good – the standout being the chase through the biodome. I guess it doesn’t help that this is a dark story that also has to play the blockbuster card (unlike the previous dark RTD episode ‘Midnight’), meaning that the atmosphere of bleak tragedy has to be occasionally interrupted with kooky one-liners and a deliberately cute robot (showing that yes, RTD may have watched WALL-E, but he didn’t actually get it) to keep the ‘little ones’ entertained, and you end up with a tone that’s veering all over the place like a drunken cab driver. It’s much easier to forget that sort of thing in an episode like ‘Planet of the Dead’, which really isn’t aiming to be anything more than a bit of widescreen, hi-def knockabout fun for Easter, and the main problem I have with The Waters of Mars is simply that it’s reaching way too high. I admire Davies’ ambition for trying to push the Doctor in some very dark directions – and, in certain respects, this mini-season of specials seems to be setting out to show that the Doctor really does need a companion in order to prevent him going completely off the rails – but the moral dilemma here just felt too heavily weighted from the start.
The whole story basically acts as nothing but an engine to get you to the point where the Doctor does the right thing but for the wrong reasons, starting to believe his own hype and react against the whole ‘Last of the Time Lords’ aspect – but it’s a very, very slender setup for an hour of story, especially when there’s no real mystery. As soon as the Doctor finds out where he is, the Wikipedia Pages of Doom are telling us virtually everything we need to know, so the story really only has one question to ask – is the Doctor going to let everyone die and history take its course, or is he going to save them? Yes, there’s the threat of the Flood, but as with so many of RTD’s generic threats, they’re not actually that interesting – they’re simply shambling beasts there to drive the story forward. All it comes down to is “Will the Doctor help or leave?”, and while again I salute the bravery of leaving it until almost 50 minutes in before the Doctor turns around and goes back, you also end up with a story where the Doctor isn’t just falliable, he’s stunningly passive. If they’d set it up so that he was completely seperated from the TARDIS, it would have given it a bit more dramatic impetus, but from about the twenty minute mark, the Doctor could leave but doesn’t – and the story just ends up feeling terribly lopsided, rather like the last half-hour of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the hero is reduced to watching setpieces.
I guess it also doesn’t help that aside from the dark moral question at the end of the story, there’s very little here that we haven’t seen before. It’s The Satan Pit and 42 again (even down to the tough female superior officer – who, as in 42, ends up committing suicide), doing the base-under-siege schtick (admittedly doing it very well), and it’s also The Fires of Pompeii – except that Pompeii managed to take the ‘interfering with history’ concept and actually make it feel affecting. At heart, the story just didn’t succeed in making me feel that much – it was stylish and pacey and full of some effective horror storytelling, but it didn’t really succeed in making me care and – above everything else – I just didn’t buy the ending. By the time we’ve got past the endless, ENDLESS slow-motion shots, and that sequence where Tennant appeared to stand there looking pained for about ten years, and the lengthy, lengthy walk off the base, and the Doctor is in full “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and DESPAIR!” mode, I was unfortunately reminded of Voyage of the Damned, as the episode seemed to become nothing but running around and shouting and noise. And then the detonation happens, and the TARDIS materialises on a snowy street… and the episode really gets odd. There have been points where New Who has pushed the Doctor in very dark directions (most notably at the end of the Human Nature/Family of Blood two parter), and it’s kind of odd to see a sequence where the Tenth Doctor once again behaves in an insufferably arrogant way (a fashion which, to be honest, he has at several points during his reign), only this time he does actually get called on it. But all I could end up thinking at this point of the episode was “Why didn’t you just drop them off somewhere quiet and out of the way, so that nobody would ever know and time wouldn’t be affected?” After all, it’s not as if bodies were found. This is the trouble – there’s a selection of ways in which the Doctor could have changed things without behaving like a complete idiot – and the only reason that he doesn’t is that the Doctor’s arrogance at the end is the only real point of the story. And I didn’t buy it. If the Doctor was going to be arrogant, surely he’d be a little smarter about it? And neither did I completely buy Adelaide’s abrupt decision to comit suicide. It’s manipulative melodrama that isn’t even particularly well set-up. It’s so busy trying to be dark and emo, that it forgets to actually tell a good story at the same time.
It’s always possible that this is all feeding into the Christmas/New Year specials… but I have to admit that I’m disappointed. I had relatively high hopes for Waters of Mars (more fool me – it’s probably best to maintain the zero expectations of Planet of the Dead, which I enjoyed (on its own terms) a lot more), and I can’t help feeling that the last time the show devoted so much attention to a cast member leaving, it was Billie Piper and the deeply overblown Army of Ghosts/Doomsday two-parter. Added to which, we’ve got the return of the Master, the one ‘revived’ aspect of the Classic Show that I really disliked (although I do at least like Simm’s new hoodie and dye-job, which makes him look a lot more menacing than the gurning Geography teacher we had to put up with in Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords). I guess it’s also the simple fact that after four years of New Who – (or, more precisely, two years that I was unsure of (S1-S2) and two years that, on the whole, I enjoyed (S3-S4) – we’ve only got a very small amount of Who coming our way right now, and it’s all either written by RTD, or by RTD alongside writers whose work I haven’t always enjoyed (Phil Ford, co-writer of Waters of Mars, is one of the main contributors on the intermittently fun Sarah Jane Adventures – and one of the least reliable). I’m certainly going into the Christmas specials a little more tentatively, but I’m still simply sitting back and waiting. Some of what’s coming up in The End of Time does sound potentially interesting or exciting, and it’s the first time that a Doctor’s regeneration has been treated as a full-on TV event, but I’m still just waiting to get through to the last minutes of The End of Time, and the point where the new version of New Who is really going to begin.