|Drip with me.
It’s November 15th, 2009. The charts have changed, but little else has. The Black Eyed Peas are at number one now with “Meet Me Halfway,” with Cheryl Cole, Ke$ha, and Britney Spears also charting. In the meager two days of news, New Zealand qualified for the 2010 World Cup, Belle de Jour, writer of The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, upon which the Billie Piper vehicle Secret Diary of a Call Girl was based, revealed her real life identity as Dr. Brooke Magnanti, largely in order to scoop journalists from the Daily Mail who were working to out her, and Barack Obama met with the government of Burma/Myanmar, becoming the first US President to do so.
While on television, The Waters of Mars. If there is one thing about The Waters of Mars that remains curiously unfocused on, it is, of course, the ending. I do not, of course, mean the Time Lord Victorious stuff and Adelaide’s suicide, a sequence that has practically blotted out the remainder of the episode, but rather the final title card, dedicating the episode to the recently deceased Barry Letts, producer of Doctor Who during the Jon Pertwee era.
Letts is easy to overlook in the list of great Doctor Who visionaries, which is odd given that he presided over one of the program’s populist high points. It’s true that in many ways the program he made is the least like any other era of Doctor Who, but for a program defined by an aesthetic of strangeness it seems as though being the odd era out should be a badge of honor. And yet Letts and the Pertwee era retain their “problem era” status in spite of their historical and for that matter continual popularity.
Much of this, as the several months and book dedicated to the Pertwee era will demonstrate, is a consequence of the fact that Letts’s version of the show was consciously good at doing a couple of things, and rarely was inclined to stray outside of its comfort zone. That these things were unique to the era doesn’t get around a sense that there is a certain lack of adventurousness in the era. Which, to be honest, is a criticism that it’s fairly easy to level at the Davies era as well, with its relatively formulaic season structure that meant that even the adventurous stories slotted into pre-ordained positions in the running order clearly marked out as “here things get a bit weird.” That Davies was doing things that nobody had done with Doctor Who before masked this to an extent, but ultimately no more than UNIT masked the repetitiveness of the Letts era.
Central to Davies’s approach is what we noticed back when we started the Davies era all those months ago, with Rose: a mode of storytelling that is about the act of switching among differing narrative codes. A Davies story is often a shell game – a case of moving rapidly among different types of stories, trying to get the reader to forget a key component just in time for Davies to reintroduce it and interrupt an expected progression.
The Waters of Mars is not a story that is usually thought of in these terms. Indeed, it’s usually seen as the height of traditionalism – a good old fashioned base under siege in which characters are picked off one by one. It’s even actually set on a base! That it won the Hugo award for its year is an interesting feat, but one based on an almost blinding inertia. The Waters of Mars and the two preceding specials were nominated, along with an episode of FlashForward and the unaired episode of Dollhouse, neither of which were going to win (Dollhouse having been, by consensus, anointed as the project where Whedon would be deemed to have gone wrong). So it had to be an episode of Doctor Who, and of course it was going to be The Waters of Mars, because obviously The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead weren’t going to win among the couple thousand people to attend Aussiecon Four. The Waters of Mars was almost perfectly tailored to finally actually win one for Davies – Moffat wasn’t eligible, and Davies wrote something that looked like traditional science fiction, complete with an overwrought epic ending.
And it’s true that those looking for a traditional base under siege will find it. It’s just that they’re only going to find it in a couple of narrow strata within the episode. It’s worth looking at precisely when all of the deaths take place. In the course of an episode with a 1:02:21 runtime, characters die at (roughly speaking, since with a possession moment of death is ambiguous) 5:25, 6:05, 16:06, 44:45, 45:54, 46:34, and 58:48, with that last one rather pointedly not being a base under siege death. In other words, you’ve got deaths in essentially two bands – three over the course of about ten minutes at the start, and three in under two minutes at the end. This isn’t a slow picking off of characters who are trapped – it’s two massacres separated by half an hour of screen time. It’s using the abstract form of the base under siege and its iconography, but completely abandoning its structure, much as Davies did with the disaster movie in Voyage of the Damned, where he got all of the character deaths out of the way in the course of seven minutes and a single scene.
Nor does the common suggestion that the Doctor spends most of the episode not involving himself quite wash. Care is taken to prevent him from having any ability to leave until twenty-seven minutes in, and he spends those twenty-seven minutes doing what you’d expect the Doctor-as-prisoner to do. At that point he makes the decision to investigate the ice field with Adelaide instead of fleeing, and proceeds to be Doctorish again for another ten minutes. It’s only at about thirty-eight minutes in that he makes the decision to walk away instead of helping, a decision that lasts until the forty-eight minute mark, at which point he’s firmly back being the Doctor (for better or for worse). So yes, it’s true that the Doctor spends a significant portion of the story not acting like the Doctor, but once again we’re talking about one substantial beat in a larger story, not the status quo.
And any other attempt to define The Waters of Mars runs similarly aground. This is a story that moves around a lot, covering as much ground as any other Davies-era story. And this gets at a key feature of Davies-era stories that I’m not sure we’ve talked about, which is the nature of what constitutes drama in them. Any given component of a Davies story is, after all, relatively straightforward. Indeed, they’re often somewhat excessively straightforward. When David Tennant re-enters Bowie Base One backlit by a tremendous halo of light as the music kicks into the hero theme there is nothing whatsoever left in the realm of ambiguity. There is only one set of responses the shot allows, just as there can be no uncertainty as to what’s about to happen as the camera slowly pulls up on Andy’s back as unsettling music plays early on.
A major factor in all of this is, of course, Murray Gold’s music. Gold gets a lot of stick for the degree to which his music holds the viewer hostage, dictating in no uncertain terms precisely what the viewer is going to feel at any given moment. This is true, and yet it’s fair to ask what else we might reasonably expect the music to do. The point of Davies-era Doctor Who is, after all, a sense of tremendous certainty regarding the nature of things at any point. Gold’s music is an integral part of this – a shorthand that allows Davies tremendous control over any given moment in his progression of moods and narratives.
A Davies-era story is not about the components, in other words, but about their intersections. What matters is not specifically what happens at any given moment, but what moments transition into. So what matters is not the sequence fairly early on when the horror of discovering that Tarak has been possessed, nor the chase sequence, nor the comedy bit involving the funny robot, but rather that these three things come in sequence, with horror turning to corridor run turning to comedy. What matters are the juxtapositions and transitions – a fact that Graham Harper is aware of, structuring his cuts and transitions with carefully laden juxtapositions. (There’s a lovely one around the halfway point, for instance, where a shot of Andy and Tarak from above cuts to a floor-level shot of the Doctor and Adelaide)
And in most regards The Waters of Mars is a calm and unambitious execution of these stylistic inclinations – a story that switches narrative codes with precision, building to its climax, in which the Doctor’s heroic intervention is played against the repeated narrative of “this is a fixed point in time” to show the Doctor becoming monstrous. Except that this doesn’t tell the whole story; a key aspect of the story is based on the nature of Bowie Base One and how it’s presented to us.
I do not just mean, or really at all mean the “fixed point in time” thing that’s hammered home throughout the episode. Rather, I mean the relationship between Bowie Base One and the present day. The fact that The Waters of Mars is set precisely fifty years in the future is telling. This is a shot at the near future done with a precision not seen since The Enemy of the World, which went out of its way to be set more or less exactly fifty years after transmission. And as we converge on 2017, the ways in which The Enemy of the World looks more like 1967 than the present day are, on the whole, all quite obvious.
But what’s perhaps more remarkable is that The Enemy of the World is an outlier – the only previous time that Doctor Who attempted to augur a near-future at this distance. The Tenth Planet tried, but the twenty year horizon got away with a closer fealty to the present day. Even still, there’s something funny about watching it in a world where the Mondas encounter never happened, just as there is in watching The Enemy of the World, and just as, in fifty years, there will be in watching The Waters of Mars.
But what’s really important to note here is that the time in which this sort of near-future story was plausible coincides with the time at which the base under siege format that The Waters of Mars invokes was the default mode. A deadly menace stalking a Mars base is a very 1960s story, just as near-future space sci-fi is a very 1960s concept. The degree to which this story is a throwback, in other words, is tremendous.
And yet The Waters of Mars is absolutely drenched (sorry) in the present day. Its first image is self-consciously present day, with some at times ludicrous contrivances. It’s not just that home decor has apparently not changed in fifty years – it’s the little details like the presence of a paper newspaper or the fact that an LP is still a sensible wall decoration that take odd care to root the episode in a future that is too present-day to ever come true. This is taken even further when we see the obituaries of all of the Bowie Base staff, displayed on a present-day version of what is fairly obviously the BBC website, with things like the “Printable Version” icons and the general graphic design unchanged. As we zoom in on the death dates we even get the pixelation of a 2009-era computer monitor. This goes beyond the sort of periodness of The Tenth Planet or The Enemy of the World, where the stories are clearly rooted in their own time’s sense of what the future would look like, and even beyond the periodness of the UNIT era and its resultant screwing with dating the stories. This is a conscious decision to make 2059 look like 2009.
All of this is setup for the unexpected move of giving Adelaide Brooks an origin story based in the events of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. The moment is oddly jarring, rooting the future in the present day in a way that we don’t usually see. The fact that 2059 is conceivably within the lifespan of a fair portion of the audience (I’d only be 76, personally) is always a factor in the story, but it’s one that’s been carefully nestled between things other than a discussion of what happens to Bowie Base One. When Adelaide gives her little speech about how the last forty years of Earth history have been hell (“The climate, the ozone, the oil apocalypse. We almost reached extinction.”), it’s nestled between some jokes about Gadget and the discovery of Maggie, far from the contemporary-looking screenshots. We don’t realize the way in which The Waters of Mars is being positioned as a causal next step – as the reason we’re not killed by eggs or beef or global warming. We don’t realize that until we see Adelaide get “caused” by a Dalek from the end of Season Four.
And yet this origin sets up the strange problem of the end as well. We’ve discussed several times before the way that “you can’t change history” is an empty ethical dilemma. But never has it been so empty as The Waters of Mars. Go back to The Aztecs or The Fires of Pompeii and you at least get stories where it would be difficult to get away with drastically changing history, in that you’d effectively move the series to a drastically altered history. Look at Father’s Day and you have a story where the change in history is so rooted in character moments that its tragic reversion becomes inevitable. But here we have some people on a fictional Mars base. The only reason this is fixed history is that the story tells us it is.
And this is key. We know that when we get to 2059, there will not be a Bowie Base One captained by Adelaide Brooke that is destroyed in a tragic and mysterious nuclear explosion. This is not actually going to happen any more than the encounter with Mondas happened in 1986 or the rise of Salamander is going to happen in three years. The reality is that this “fixed history” is not only mutable, it is necessary to change it. This is not a fixed point in time in the same way that Pompeii is, and it cannot possibly be. And even as the story tries to suture it inexorably into the present day by having everything be a consequence of events of 2008, it can’t. Because, of course, the events of 2008 it turns to are the Dalek invasion on the day the Earth was dragged across the universe. Which are also events that didn’t actually happen. (And this is all before Victory of the Daleks presumably retcons The Waters of Mars out of existence entirely by having the crack eat the 2008 Dalek attack).
There is, in other words, a bizarre stacking of the deck that goes on here for anyone who isn’t so blinded by the explosion of stereotypical sci-fi tropes that they just go along with it. The story goes to considerable lengths to unground events. A fixed event in the fifty-first century, fine. That’s past the point where “aging poorly” is even a meaningful idea. But in 2059? The false nature of the “fixed point in time” is always going to stick out like a sore thumb, especially when such an obviously symbolic relationship with the present day is put into place.
Which means that the moral failing that augurs the Doctor’s death is completely and utterly artificial. At least in a purely ethical sense, the Doctor didn’t do anything wrong. Indeed, for all that the idea here is in part “the Doctor needs companions to stop him,” it’s worth conducting the thought experiment of asking what would happen if Donna were present in The Waters of Mars. Surely nobody would seriously suggest that Donna would let the Doctor walk away from Bowie Base One without saving people. Or that Martha would, or that Rose would, or that Ace would. It is only the absence of the companions that allows the Doctor to make the supposedly “right” choice here. And for all that Adelaide reacts with horror to the idea that the Doctor might rewrite human destiny, the fact that this destiny is a fictional one blunts even the vaguest sense of impropriety here. As the Doctor points out, it’s hardly like Adelaide can’t inspire her granddaughter in person. (A telling and interesting parallel here – observe the granddaughter’s name.)
Indeed, if you look at the start of the episode, it’s the Doctor who causes the crew to realize that something is up by asking about Maggie and Andy, causing Ed to call them and learn that something’s gone wrong. This moves the moment at which the crew can start reacting to the crisis up substantially, and could surely have plausibly changed history. So does every bit of warning and advice the Doctor gives. Nothing substantive changes in his actions at the start of the story to the end. And so what moral failing can the Doctor reasonably be accused of? Why has he gone too far? Why must he die?
The answer is, of course, the one that is pre-ordained at the start of Tennant’s time as the Doctor: his arrogance. The Doctor has to die because he’s become mad with his own power. The music even makes it clear, taking a decisive turn in the wake of the Doctor’s key line: “tough,” and crescendoing again as he declares himself the Time Lord Victorious. Because to declare that he could ever be the “winner” of something like the Time War is obscene. Because he declares himself the ultimate law of the universe, unbound by narrative constraints and conventions. It is in many ways an astonishing sequence, as all the quasi-religious iconography of the Davies era is subverted and twisted into something unsettling and fundamentally wrong. So when the survivors step into the London street, it’s treated as uncanny and genuinely horrific – so much so that Mia’s recitation of standard premises of the series (“it’s bigger on the inside”) become terrifying, awful facts.
And it is in this context that Ood Sigma makes his mysterious, silent visitation. This too is worth asking “why” about. The logic of the Ood is at least somewhat obvious – their debut in a base under siege story with strong traditionalist leanings (note even the space suit) makes them at least partially appropriate here. But they are an odd fit for the narrative, and, indeed, for any sense of causality. What is happening here seems an entirely symbolic act. Nothing in The End of Time is going to require The Waters of Mars as a cause. There is no sequence here. Merely a symbolic function. The Waters of Mars opts to resolve its story with an invocation of the Doctor’s arrogance. Given this, the only possible thing that Tennant’s Doctor can do from this point is die.