Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Waters of Mars

 Chapter The 26th, in which we find out that after something disastrous occurs, you can't just pop back in time and change it, alas.

Bowie Base One, Mars, 21st November 2059. On this day, history states, the base commander Adelaide Brooke gave the order to instigate Emergency Action 5, blowing up the base and killing herself and the rest of the pioneer crew, the first off-world colonists ever. No one has ever found why.

The Doctor turns up and discovers it was all down to a problem with the plumbing; an ancient lifeform has taken over the waters of Mars, and converts any human the water comes into contact with, making them dribble a lot. The Doctor decides to change history, because he's mad as hell as he's not going to take it anymore. But he only makes things worse, and Adelaide commits suicide. An Ood appears in the snow to tell him off, but he goes on the run rather than face his fate. Plus, comedy robot.

Watched with all the family on Blu-ray in the Sunday night ‘Songs of Praise’ slot. This required careful deliberation, as it is one of a handful of 21st century Doctor Who stories which previously the Better Half and I had reviewed and judged too scary to be shown to the kids. The boys (one aged 10, the other aged 7) are ready for it now, but their sister (aged 4) would be miffed if she wasn’t allowed to watch alongside them.
In the end, as she is more mature than her brothers were at her age, and perfectly capable of choosing to stop watching if she wasn’t happy, we decided to proceed, with hand hovering over the remote control all the while. But the pause button was never needed; there were some ‘behind the sofa’ bits, for sure, but mostly the children were excited rather than scared. The same cannot be said for their parents however, who were both creeped out. Some excellent choices really up the horror. For
example, the convulsions every victim goes through as they’re converted, and the great monster make-up: black mouths, pin-prick contact lenses, and the craggy lower jaws, as if all the water pouring out of their mouths has etched paths into their skin.

As it finished, every child agreed it was not too scary. Eldest child (boy of 9) was very proud that he'd recognised the sound of the cloister bell. And everyone who'd previously seen it (that's everyone except the 4 year old) lobbied to put the next story, The End of Time, on straight away.

First-time round:
Like me, my younger son, middle child, 6 years old, is a Summer baby, born between regular showings of Doctor Who, so he doesn’t properly have a ‘birth story’. As he was born in 2009 when there were longer than usual gaps between episodes this is not so surprising. The Waters of Mars was the first one shown after he was born, and he was only a few months old. I remember we put him down to sleep just before it started, and I kept everything crossed that he would stay abed for an hour so we could watch it uninterrupted. I didn’t get my wish, as I remember!

It was an apt story to be his first, as he was a very dribblesome child, with ropes of drool emanating from his mouth every minute of every day until he was a toddler. Sometimes, when learning to walk, he would stumble over, arms outstretched, zombie-like, to give one a saliva heavy smacker. So, he was known by the code name of ‘Waters of Mars’ for many a year in our house.

As has been noted before, Doctor Who fans don’t take too kindly to their show not being on the TV, even for a bit; protest songs have literally been written. Since the return of the show in 2005, there has been lots of monkeying about with scheduling, mid-season breaks, seasons splitting across years, and gaps with only the odd special shown. We’re more used to it these days, but when it was first done in 2009 it caused some worries in fandom. We’d had four full runs of 13 episodes plus Christmas specials, and they’d proved increasingly popular, year on year, culminating in the hoopla that surrounded the cliffhanger of Tennant seeming to regenerate, and much speculation about the next Doctor and The Next Doctor. For the first time ever, Doctor Who had been the number one rated show on television (for the finale of Tennant’s third series, Journey’s End), so of course they decided to take it off air.

It was spun and speculated on every which way, and it doesn’t matter why it happened now. But it did put pressure on the hour-long specials shown intermittently through that year to be, well, special. The preceding story, Planet of The Dead, was fun, but artificially disappointing as it was all the viewer was going to get for several months. I’ve wondered on rewatching it whether the opposite effect has happened with The Waters of Mars, and it is maybe overinflated in my esteem, just because of scarcity. But no, I’ve decided that’s bollocks – it’s good because it’s so bloody good.

This is a Doctor Who story mainly for adults, not because it’s scary but because it's too good for children! Adelaide Brooke's assertive confrontation with the Doctor, demanding to know her own future; her stoic acceptance of the same; the Doctor just watching as everything starts going to hell, then walking away. He just walks away! The ramifications of this superb drama may be lost on the children, but they still grasped it. "She has to die or the universe explodes" was how the eldest summarised it. And everyone enjoyed the flashes of future news articles; at the children's insistence, we replayed those bits and paused while they were on screen, so we could read what they said.

Tennant is astonishing in his penultimate regular Who gig. It's a truly star performance, but with lots of moments of subtlety too. From the point he goes rogue, and returns to the base, he has to sustain the mania for a very long time, a very big ask of any actor; Tennant pulls it off with aplomb.

Both stories take place on sparsely populated planets where most of the people on those planets finish up getting killed, and both end with the Doctor rescuing someone from this carnage against their will (alright, alright, maybe it’s only me reading that into the end of The Rescue…).

Deeper Thoughts:  
What is it that Ed can't be forgiven for? A bit of a generalisation, I know, but one borne out by years of experience: Doctor Who fans like facts. There are many Doctor Who historians and journalists who have researched every minute aspect of production, and have for almost as long as the show has been going; it must be in the running as one of the most examined things ever, not just one of the most examined television shows.

Though less focused on than the behind the scenes info, questions and theories about the fictional world of Who have also been thoroughly documented. This wasn't just a professional pursuit, either; when I was at school, I was often challenged by friends to explain plot inconsistencies in the Doctor Who stories of the day. I got quite adept at it, and it may have helped me develop a storywriting brain. Other fans took this a stage further: there is a cottage industry that started in the wilderness years after Doctor Who finished (for a while) in 1989, producing stories for novels and audios that tie all the loose bits of continuity up, sometimes in passing, and sometimes as their raison d'etre.

A brief web search backs up my doubt that there are any fan-fics out there explaining exactly what it is that Ed Gold and Adelaide did that upset each other so much. All through the story, the two characters have played (expertly and entertainingly, I might add) a spiky professional relationship, and with his dying breaths Ed says he hated the job because "You never gave me a chance; you never could forgive me." What can it mean? And it's not the only mystery either. What exactly happened after Adelaide's suicide in the altered timeline? How did anyone explain away the three crewmembers very rapid secret return to Earth? On freeze frame, we picked up some hints that reportage on the mysterious Doctor was given as an explanation for some of this.

Back to Ed. The problem between Adelaide and him still feels very raw, which suggests it is something that may have happened on the base; this leads to a possibly too obvious explanation. The way he phrases it, though, is all about the job not the colleague. It's intriguingly unknowable. Note: I didn't check the disc's special features, so perhaps RTD or Phil Ford are featured saying "Yeah, they were old lovers" or something equally prosaic, but I hope not: sometimes it's better not knowing everything. It's just another way Doctor Who provides exercise for the imagination.

In Summary:
Don't drink the water!

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