....rhymes with "The Waters of Mars". But thankfully the producers went for the latter, rather than former, story title for the recently broadcast Dr Who special. Actually I'm not so sure the former would be so bad. They could always write a story in which the Dr is revisited by all his ex female assistants, all wearing bikinis and/or underwear - Tegan Jovanka in matching mauve bra and knickers (to compliment her air stewardess outfit of course); Jo Grant in flowery/hippy 1970s bra and panties; Victoria Waterfield in a lacy Victorian corset and pantaloons and Peri Brown in ... a bikini, which was pretty much what she really wore during the whole of her Dr Who tenure anyhow .... It would work, wouldn't it?
Maybe I'm going off on a slight tangent here.
The real point of this post is to offer my ruminations on the aforementioned DW Special "The Waters of Mars", shown last weekend. I watched it on the day of broadcast and again last night, accompanied by a few glasses of the old vino, on BBC iPlayer. First time round I thought it was good but not great, however the second time viewing convinced me that it was, in fact, VERY good indeed (and it wasn't just the wine that converted me).
Much, much, better than the somewhat corny "Planet of The Dead" (London bus gets transported to alien planet with Zoe Slater in a leather catsuit) or pedestrian, obvious kiddie-pleaser "The Next Doctor" (Cybermen, David Morrisey and Dervla Kirwan in Victorian-set tale). I was starting to get worried. A downward trend seemed to have occurred in the Wonderful World of Who.
However, "The Waters of Mars" was worlds apart in terms of story writing, style and overall quality. Unlike the previous DW specials, this one felt much more adult, whilst still possessing enough qualities to appeal to the younger viewers. AND it was proper sci-fi with a futuristic space base, just like Moonbase Alpha.
First off, the story, whilst not mind-blowingly complex, was still an interesting one. A group of pioneering humans have set up the first ever manned base on the solar system world of Mars, but then fall prey, one by one, to a nasty virus contained within the planet's water. The transformation of the humans into raving, craggy-faced loony monsters was not only a masterpiece of make-up, they also looked genuinely scary....and the spitting out water bits (or should I say spitting out waterfalls) has never made something so innocuous as H2O look so horrid. Not to mention deadly (one drop, like the one that fell on Roman, was all it took to cause a fatal transformation).
Once the Dr and the Mars crew had clocked that Mars wasn't the best place to hang out, the story did kind of reduce into a "let's all get off the planet before we die" type situation, reminiscent of "Alien" or any 1970s disaster movie. However there was still room for plenty of decent character interaction and dramatic moments. In terms of performances, Lindsay Duncan put in a sterling showing as Captain Adelaide Brooke and made for the best "companion" in a long time (well she wasn't really a companion was she?) Lindsay D brought a brittle realism to the role and unlike the previously stereotypical, upper class Lady Whats-her-face of "Planet of the Dead" and the black girl who didn't do very much at all in "The Next Doctor", Adelaide seemed much more credible and real; a hardened-by-experience commander on an alien world. (Much better than Cindy-in-space Michelle Collins in "42", too). The back story bit when Adelaide describes seeing the Dalek through her bedroom window, which then flies off was cool ... and as the Dr astutely mentions later on, the sparing of her life could have meant that the Dalek foresaw that she was doomed to die later on in life.
The revelation that Adelaide and the rest of her team were all going to die gave added weight to the drama, not to mention Adelaide's conviction that she had to accept her fate - for me, this was where things fell down a little though. Would she really have been so ready to accept the word of a total stranger that 21st November 2059 was the day she was going to die? What evidence did she have to go on, apart from the word of the Doc? This flaw aside, Linday D and David T sparked off one another very well and the penultimate scene in the snow back on Earth made for difficult, disturbing viewing: "The Time Lord Victorious is wrong!". More on that in a bit.
David Tennant gave, what was for me, one of his best ever performances. By turns humorous, witty, concerned, deciding to let history run its course, then realising that he couldn't after all, hell-bent on saving the remaining homo sapppy-ones, foolishly arrogant and finally remorseful and regretful, the Dr ran the whole gamut of emotions in this story. I might not be one of DT's biggest fans but he can do drama very well when he wants to. The scenes in the second half of the story when the Mars team were running around trying to escape from the base/planet, whilst the Dr stood outside in his spacesuit, listening to their frantic dialogue were very well done, mainly due to some great facial acting from DT looking haunted and troubled, constrained by his own inertia. And then the scene back on Earth with Adelaide, in which he starts to brag about how he could do anything, whilst having to deal with her scorn - followed by shock, disbelief and belief when Adelaide shoots herself and he's confronted by the vision of an Ood (reminded me of Banquo's ghost in Macbeth or the ghost of Hamlet's Dad in Hamlet) gave DT the opportunity to play it to the max. It's the eyes that do it - if you watch carefully in the bit when he's mouthing off to Adelaide about being the "Time Lord Victorious", whilst the Doc's words and manner seem to indicate confidence, his eyes say otherwise - there's an uncertainty undercutting all of that bravado. Thinking about it, you can't blame the Dr for snapping and refusing to obey the laws of time yet again. Especially if saving people's lives comes into the equation? But the arrogance that the Doc showed as a result of this was unnerving, and that's what made the whole thing so much more interesting - playing God comes at a price. The very final scene with the Dr in the TARDIS, listening to the sound of the cloister bell, and then defiantly declaring "No!" and setting the controls to take him somewhere else was a great cliffhanger. What will happen next?
Getting back to the rest of the story, the supporting characters were all decent enough, having enough personality without taking over the narrative. Peter "Neighbours" O'Brien was suitably grizzled as Ed Gold and the rest of the team were a (perhaps self-consciously tokenistic?) cross section of people from different races and cultures.
There was some great dialogue on display, another aspect that set "Waters of Mars" above the previous episodes. For instance:
Adelaide: State your name, rank and intention.
The Dr: The Dr. Dr. Fun.
(Think about it).
The Dr: I hate funny robots.
(Well "Gadget" was kind of annoying. Not exactly funny, though).
The episode also boasted some excellent and expansive sets - the base control room and the huge garden contained under the Dome for instance (actually the latter was apparently filmed in the National Botanic Gardens of Wales, so wasn't a set after all). Proper-looking sci-fi. Okay, so the Mars planetscape bits were a bit obviously CGI in places but still quite impressive and panoramic.
And that's about it - as said, the best DW in quite some time.
And we got an intriguing trailer for the Xmas 2-parter at the end!
But guess what? I'm going to be in Brazil when it's broadcast!! So I've just GOT to get someone to record it for me... Any takers, out there, my lovelies??