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1 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 790: The Waters of Mars

Dear diary

Oh, this felt more like it. After my disappointment in Planet of the Dead, I’d sort of drifted out of Doctor Who during the middle months of 2009. Oh, I never packed it in completely, but I rather avoided keeping all that up-to-date with the latest news and trailers. A lot of that had to do with avoiding spoilers for the upcoming Eleventh Doctor era, which began filming in the middle of the year (I failed spectacularly at this, as I’m sure I’ll discuss in a few days). It meant that I didn’t see a trailer for this one until a few days before the broadcast, and if I’m honest, I wasn’t really all that bothered by the prospect of incoming Who. By this point, I sort of just wanted the new Doctor to start already - knowing that Tennant would be leaving and Smith replacing him so far in advance, and without having many episodes to bridge the gap just made it feel like an incredibly long and drawn-out process!

When I did get to see a trailer for The Waters of Mars, though… oh, it looked interesting. It completely piqued my interest and got me excited for broadcast - everything a trailer was supposed to do. And then the episode aired, and I thought it was good. It was very good. I even recall being a bit annoyed with the friend I’d watched it with, because they fell asleep about three minutes int (it had been a long day), but all was forgiven when he caught up with the episode a few days later and text to say how much he’d enjoyed it.

The thing that really gets me - above and beyond the design, or the casting, writing, direction, which I’ll come to in a moment - is the idea at the heart of this one. We’re so used to there being moments in history that the Doctor can’t touch because they’re part of established events - we had one last season in The Fires of Pompeii, for example - but I don’t think we’ve ever had a story quite like this one, where we’re visiting the future, and the Doctor’s unable to do anything because it’s just as fixed as any of those things from our history that we know so well. Something about that idea really chimed with me, and I loved the way that they chose to demonstrate the situation, with the flashing up of news reports. It’s simple, but it’s very effective.

And on top of that, the Doctor goes and flaunts the rules anyway, by making changes to the events! Oh, that’s when The Waters of Mars kicks into gear. Oh sure, there’s lots to really enjoy before then, but once time itself stars fighting back against the Doctor and he simply rages his way through it… that really struck me, and it’s what made the episode for me. I mused a few weeks ago during Utopia that there’s something great about David Tennant’s darker side as the Doctor, and we get to see it properly unleashed here. After which, we get the perfect example of that ‘hubris before the fall’ that I was so keen on finding during Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. The Doctor goes too far. He breaks all the rules. That’s not what does it, though. What makes it all the worse is that he then gloats about it. Look at me! Look how clever I am! And right then, when he’s king of the universe, and teetering dangerously on the brink of tipping over into total darkness… Ood in the snow. What an image. Came as a total surprise to me, and I love it. Such a great way to end it. 

I risk here simply pouring all the praise on those last ten-to-fifteen minutes of the episode because they’re the bits that really make it for me, but I can’t let today’s entry go by without at least touching on the rest of the story. I rather like the Flood - they’re the scariest monsters that the Russell T Davies era creates (take that, Weeping Angels), and probably about as far as you’d dare push it for the programme at that point. These days, with a slightly later time slot and seemingly a different intention at where the show is pitched, perhaps they’d go further, but I look at some of the scenes with these ‘Water Zombies’ (for want of a better phrase), and I’m genuinely surprised they made it through into the show as it was in 2009. And these are the toned down version!

What makes them all the more scarier has to be the direction of the episode. Those first two transformations we see, where the focus is on a character in the front while we don’t quite get to see what’s happening to the other person in the background is ten times more effective than simply showing it happening. We get a great impact when that does happen with the Doctor discovering a ‘conversion’ in progress, but that’s been shot in its own way, and the horror is simply ramped up by the confirmation of what we thought we saw on the two occasions before.

So, on the whole, I think The Waters of Mars is largely made by that last quarter, but there’s plenty of merit to be found in the rest of the story, too. One of the highlights of the Tenth Doctor era for sure - and the perfect way to gear up for the big finale ahead…

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