When the previous Doctor Who special, "Planet of the Dead," aired, this reviewer suggested that it was a perfectly fine episode of Doctor Who, but that it wasn't particularly special, and that with so much build-up for so long heading into these specials, we really needed something more from them. I am pleased to say that the latest Who entry, "The Waters of Mars," which airs this weekend on BBC America more than delivers — it goes somewhere beyond special and into the realm of utterly fantastic.
One of the great things about Doctor Who is the series' ability to be anything on any given week – it all depends on where and when the Doctor (David Tennant) finds himself. The show can go from being light comedy to philosophical to pure science fiction to horror from one week to the next. "The Waters of Mars" starts out in the well worn space horror genre (remember, in space, no one can hear you scream). The Doctor finds himself on Mars in the mid-21st century just as Earth's first permanent colony there, Bowie Base One, is about to suffer a catastrophic issue. An alien entity living in the water (hence the title) takes over one scientist early on in the episode and, as evil alien entities do, slowly tries to pick off the crew one by one.
This time out, the Doctor actually knows exactly what is going to happen. The events at Bowie Base One, he tells us and the Captain, Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan), are famous in the future and that the events on Mars are wholly unchangeable. And at that point the episode turns into more than sci-fi horror. It becomes a fascinating look at moral and philosophical issues, a pondering of greater questions.
For those not versed in current Doctor Who lore, this question of a changeable versus an unchangeable event is an important one. Some events are "time locked" (though it is not clear if all unchangeable events are time locked or if time locked is a special designation for certain unchangeable events). The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords (sort of, but that's neither here nor there for this special, but it will be for the next one). The rest of his race was wiped out in a massive battle with the Daleks, a battle that occurred sometime between the end of the original Doctor Who series and the start of this new one. It is a lonely place for the Doctor to be and when he has been asked why, if he can travel in time, hasn't he gone back to those events and saved his people, he has explained that the Time War (as it is known) is time locked – the events are unalterable. Except, of course, that they're not because they have on occasion been altered, but not by the Doctor. The Doctor has steadfastly insisted that some events happen, that no matter what, they happen. To try to stop them is either wholly impossible in general or will cause a paradox and quite possibly the destruction of the universe – that's not a good thing.
Stepping back from Whoniverse lore, and back to this episode, here the audience gets to see what happens when the Doctor comes face to face with an unchangeable event. It is an interesting question and explored here in great fashion (though telling you how would significantly hurt your enjoyment of the episode).
"The Waters of Mars" features a good performance by Lindsay Duncan as the gruff Brooke, as well as solid outings by the actors whose characters comprise the Bowie Base One crew. Tennant delivers another outstanding performance which makes one both incredibly excited at the prospect of the next two Doctor Who specials ("The End of Time" parts one and two) airing, and incredibly sad as they will be Tennant's last trips in the TARDIS.
For now though, with "The Waters of Mars," we have been given exactly what a Doctor Who special should be. It functions beautifully as a sci-fi horror genre piece and manages to expand beyond those confines into loftier issues without ever losing the core thread.
Doctor Who – "The Waters of Mars" airs at 9:00pm on BBC America, December 19.