5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE WATERS OF MARS
We don't think we've mentioned before that while we know there are Confidentials and podcasts and stuff in which Russell T Davies (presumably) explains his evil plan for the episode, we don't have no truck with them. We find that our collective imagination is usually vastly more entertaining than reality. (Also, there are more kittens.)
So we can't guarantee what Russell T Davies had in mind for The Waters Of Mars, but we think it's pretty obvious. Take the standard base under siege story Doctor Who has done a million times before, and turn it on its head. Instead of leaping into the fray, the Doctor can't do anything but stand by and wring his hands. Until he leaps after all, and it's over a cliff.
It's a nice idea, a clever idea, and a fresh idea. We like that. After almost exactly forty-six years of Doctor Who it's not simple to come up with something new. And anything that sets out to stretch the format we're going to like just on principle. Does it work, though?
Well, yes. Ish. It's a very accomplished episode, without a doubt. It does, however, have three major flaws, and one of them is critical.
Let's not start there, though. Instead, let's talk about some of what Waters Of Mars does well.
Our biggest, twinkliest gold star has to go to David Tennant's performance. True, he rarely disappoints, but he is absolutely astonishing here. He takes a script that for once relies on reined-back non-verbal reactions for its power rather than ranting and gallops away with it. The pain of the knowledge that he can't save these people and his compassion for them; his steely determination to snap the laws of time and use them for kindling; his horror when he understands what he's done: over and over again, his face speaks worlds. It doesn't matter now what happens in the finale: this performance alone is a more than worthy jewel crowning Tennant's tenure as the Doctor.
Lindsay Duncan, too, is predictably excellent. Again, it's not about a massive argument with the Doctor about the nuclear detonation or about his decision to save her: it's about the tragic resolution on her face as she goes about detonating the bomb, and about her appalled disbelief at the Doctor's "little people" speech and her face as she pauses on her doorstep to draw her gun. We've said it so many times we're sick of hearing ourselves (and we're sure you are too): tragedy's a lot more intense when you don't draw arrows all over the screen pointing to it and underline it all with a marker. And for once, this is a script that gets that, with actors who can deliver it.
So the lead performances are great. So, too, is the sheer look of the thing. Quite apart from the reliably inspired direction of Graeme Harper, who always manages to extract the maximum from a script, the whole thing looks seriously slick. Expensive, even. The models are lovely, the sets are impressive, the location shooting fits the story perfectly. Nice.
And the monsters are phenomenal. It's a simple idea, but unbelievably effective and wonderfully creepy.
So. Lots of good stuff. Also, however, some not so good stuff. And here comes Major Flaw The First: if you want to subvert something, first you have to set up the bog-standard version ready for the subversion. And risk boring your audience into the ground in the process.
That's a big problem with The Waters Of Mars. Not only is the scenario other than the interesting monsters beyond-belief generic, it's also uncomfortably close to the relatively recent Impossible Planet setup, which frankly kicks the Mars moistness definitively to the kerb. Sure, it's presumably meant to be that way: the crew is almost absurdly gender and ethnicity balanced - there's even a Chekov, for God's sake - and utterly clichéd, down to picking 'em off one by one and Steffi watching her children as she dies. And in case we didn't get that they were poking fun at the compulsory corridor-running, they made the joke about the bikes three times.
What's more, all of that takes up a lot of the running time. It makes the first three-quarters of the episode, despite the danger, curiously lifeless. The crew, other than Adelaide, are so cookie-cutter that we don’t really care about them personally, so most of the tension comes from the Doctor's anguish that he can't step in to save them. Which is very nice anguish and all, but it's the same anguish at minute ten as it is at minute forty-seven. Of course, from minute forty-eight onwards, the episode's in a whole other stratosphere, but that's only fifteen minutes. It's a long time to leave an audience, if not bored exactly, at least not as engaged as they might be.
But wait, there's more. The plot of the first three-quarters of the story also commits the cardinal sin (watch out! Here comes Major Flaw Number Two!) of depending completely on people being dumb. So Andy's standing there, right? Clearly doing something very dodgy indeed to poor old Tarak, who's quivering like an electrified jelly? And they turn round and it's absolutely certain that Tarak's just as waterlogged beyond redemption as Andy? And they come after Adelaide and the Doctor with undeniably homicidal intentions? And Adelaide's right there with a gun in her hand? Well, why doesn't she shoot the bastards? The Doctor might say that he loved her for that, but we noticed that when it came to stopping Andy from knocking for the fourth time he was pretty speedy with the AC/DC, with no pausing for intraspecies bonding whatsoever. Given that Andy and Tarak represent a clear and present danger not only to Adelaide and the Doctor but to the rest of the crew and the entire mission, it's utterly insane that instead of Adelaide opening up plugholes in both of them she turns and bolts. Not only that, but it's a decision that arguably leads directly to a lot more deaths. Awesome.
That's not the only culpable dumbitude, either. This one drove us completely crazy: the records describe the crew as missing, so if the Doctor's so dead set on saving everybody, why doesn't he whisk them off to another planet? That way they get not to die and yet Adelaide's going missing stays intact. Why not? Why not? Grrr! Instead, we're asked to swallow the story that dear little Susie is just as inspired to take up space travel by her grandmother's mysterious death by her own hand in her own house when she was supposed to be multiple million miles away as she was by the original story. Yanno, somehow we don't think so. We think she was more likely to have turned out like those nutters who think the moon landings were really somebody prancing about on a soundstage.
So all of that plays out exactly as you'd expect, and they all end up dying right and left as the Doctor strides back to the TARDIS. David Tennant's reaction shots here are so superb we're even willing to forgive them overlooking the unfortunate fact that Mars's gravity is only a thirdish of Earth's and the other unfortunate fact that fires on Mars's surface would be quite a spectacular feat considering there's no oxygen in the atmosphere. (We're not going to forgive Murray, however: his predictable bombast and waily-woo is the only aspect of this episode that suffers from overkill.) Then the Doctor can't stand it any longer: several years' worth of post-Time War traumatic stress disorder get the better of him as he decides to have the laws of time for breakfast. With extra blueberries.
And that's where the episode gets very interesting indeed. It's played just like a normal Doctor-saves-everyone episode, with all the heroic music and all: the difference is in the mind of the viewer, who instead of cheering the Doctor on is completely appalled. It's a very clever piece of TV.
Then we're back on Earth, in a whoops-was-this-meant-to-be-the-Christmas-episode snow scene, and the Doctor explains to Adelaide exactly who he is and what he's capable of. And despite the fact that he's chillingly convincing, she's not buying what he's selling. Not that he notices. Until it's too late.
For the most part, this section of the episode is utterly electrifying. It's the Doctor as we haven't seen him, but it's a completely believable result of his experiences and especially of his experiences in watching people who he's inspired die. And being forced to stand back as the Mars crew perish one by one is precisely the kind of thing that would send the Doctor, who always wants to help, over the edge.
There's just one thing that's wrong, and yes, it's the critical error: the Doctor would never, under any circumstances, conceive of or describe anyone as "the little people". Yes, he's under major duress, and the magnitude of his power as a Time Lord has just dawned on him. But no matter how arrogant the incarnation (and the Tenth Doctor is a long way from being the most arrogant Doctor) this is way too far out of character.
The Doctor is not like us. He's a wanderer in the fourth dimension; he walks in eternity. But why does he want to do what he does with time? Why has he always wanted to?
Initially he ran away from the stultifying regulation of Gallifrey because he wanted to meddle in time without the Time Lords breathing down his neck. But he always knew that that was within unbreakable limits. In fact, at the beginning he was even more doctrinaire, with his "you can't change history, not one line!" stance. Since then, though, he's mellowed a bit, discovering along the way that sometimes changing things a little bit was OK, as long as you watched out for the fixed points. It's never been something he's launched into unthinkingly, however: he's juggled with the moral issues involved too, as his "Have I the right?" debate about wiping out the Daleks shows.
But what does he want to meddle for? To show time who's boss? To prove how powerful he is? Nope. It's always been to be on the side of right: "There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things that act against everything we believe in. They must be fought!".
It's true that since the Time War, he has been a changed Time Lord. He's been on a short lead, being the only one left weighing heavily on him. And countless "I’m sorry"s later, he's pretty sick and tired of watching people die, especially people who've died because they've come into his orbit.
So his desire to kick time's arse on Mars is totally understandable, because it's about saving the crew. And his arrogance as Time Lord victorious, breaking the chains that have weighed him down ever since the Time War, is also totally understandable, especially as he knows he's running out of time for this incarnation. But despite the extreme situation, he's still the essential Doctor: a being whose raison d'etre is being a warrior for right, and a being with infinite compassion for his fellow denizens of the universe, no matter how insignificant. And that's why, no matter how traumatised he is, he would never talk about "the little people". It's just three words. But hey, it's the Doctor. It matters.
So. There's some powerful stuff in here, with some knockout performances. They didn't get everything right, but we love what they were trying to do.
MORAL: When it's time, it's time.
A whacking great base cluttering up the surface of Mars, and Ed is wittering on about a tiny little sign being pollution? If they're that worried about keeping it pristine, why did they go in the first place? And also, if one little solar panel is important not to waste (and they make a song and dance about keeping stuff to transport to a minimum), why did they build such enormous long corridors with high roofs?
THE ERROR IS REGRETTED
Nice to see that the standard of journalism in The Future is even worse than it is now. "…have left earth to set up first colony on Mars." "…the world waited to with bated breath" "…heralded as the first Martian pioneers have become celebrities in their own right". "Brooke was brought up by her grandmother, but from a very early age showed an interest in space exploration." "In the 2044 Olympics in Havanna, Cuba…" Ouch.
YOU SAY TOMAHTO, I SAY TOMAHTO
According to her bio, Mia is born and brought up in the US. So why does she have an English accent?
THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
The exterior shot of the base shows tons of exterior lighting everywhere. Who were they expecting? And in the corridor, despite the light only apparently being at floor level there are lovely flattering keylights on both the Captain and the Doctor's faces. How mysterious.
WE CAN'T GO ON TOGETHER WITH SUSPICIOUS MINDS
How come although the Captain takes the Doctor along with her to the biodome because she's suspicious of him, when something actually goes wrong there she doesn't suspect him at all?
"Water is patient, water just waits." Well, no it isn't, because it's not an evil criminal mastermind, it's some oxygen and a bit more hydrogen joined together. Annoying.
See, this is the problem with trying to do an uberstandard setup. The archetypal annoying robot is, guess what, annoying. Also, if it goes at two miles an hour, how come it was keeping pace with the humans down the corridor? What's more, it must have a phenomenal braking system considering the speed it's going just before it reaches the TARDIS. Bit overengineered for a robot that does two miles an hour, isn't it? Or maybe the sonic screwdriver built a brake system at the same time it was revving up the propulsion. We really must get ourselves one of those.
MY POSTILION HAS BEEN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
Why does the Doctor start spouting Martian? With the TARDIS translation circuits Maggie would have understood him anyway.
Why in God's name would you take a nuke with you on a colony mission? What for?
An ice field, eh? Looks awfully smooth, doesn't it? Since we have several of everything possible scenery-wise in New Zealand, we've seen plenty of glaciers, and they're nothing like that. We think it was actually the Ice Warriors' skating rink.
LOOK DEEP INTO MY EYESTALK
There's a bit too much stuff in here about things being either prescient or sentient that aren't. As well as the water we've already mentioned, what was that Dalek scene all about? Daleks aren't privy to the web of time, are they? Or did little Adelaide have a Best Not Killed Before 2059 sticker on her forehead we overlooked?
So we're not convinced that Susie's going to be all fired up by her grandmother's suicide to go exploring, but come to think of it we're not too sold on the original plan either. The Mars base is blown up for reasons unknown, killing the entire crew. Since mission control would presumably have records showing it was Adelaide who detonated the bomb, it's going to look like at best a puzzling and tragic mystery and at worst the interplanetary equivalent of a school shooting. Not very inspiring, surely?