honestly, i think you could probably get him for false advertising with that opening line. the first, say, 5-10 minutes of waters of mars are, indeed, faintly punch-drunk fun as we’ve come to expect from the last 3 seasons of david tennant’s work as the doctor. i would have said that he’s a little tired but whether it’s just outright exhaustion — consider his last two years, really! — or he’s ready to be done with dw, i can’t say. if he is tired of the part, he’s doing a better job hiding it than, say, tom baker, whose last few episodes were almost totally ruined by his absolutely self-evident bad attitude.
as i say, the first minutes of the episode are fairly typical of doctor who as it has been — and then things start to go odd. the “aliens” — in this case, an infection transmitted via water which takes over human hosts — are great; i really liked their look, their sound, their otherness was nice in a series which tends very much to depend upon aliens that are basically humans with funny heads. okay, yes, these were still humans with funny mouths, but i liked them, all right?
i should note, too, that whoever directed and/or decided on the photography/cinematography for this episode loves danny boyle. i tried to find youtube clips to illustrate my point but youtube failed me. if i feel technically ept after getting some work done later, i may attempt to upload my own cut scenes. we’ll see. anyway, the opening is pure sunshine and the infection of roman is 100% 28 days later. not that either of these are bad things; it was just funny. there’s a lot of homage going on in this episode, to other genre films (the above-mentioned danny boyle, not to mention 30 days of night, and, though i hate to admit even having seen it, possible shades of john carpenter’s absolutely egregious ghosts of mars?) and to old episodes in the series right up to the penultimate dedication to the episode to veteran doctor who producer and writer, barry letts, who died in 2009.
i don’t think letts would ever have written an episode like mars, though; maybe he wanted to, i don’t know. but mars quickly changes from being a fairly straightforward “locked room murder mystery” to being something rather darker. david tennant, as one of my friends commented, does some quality scenery-chewing in the last third, but caps it off with some terrifying moments as the doctor decides that, instead of being the final survivor of the time wars, he is the winner. as he says himself, the laws of time are now his to adminster and the final decision is his.
this is not a good thing.
in fact, this is deeply fucking disturbing. watching the doctor go off the deep end is — awful. i’ve been a doctor who fan for almost as long as i can remember; my first episode was the robots of death — a classic tom baker — and, if i could have gotten behind the couch to watch it, i would have adopted that venerable position for the younger dw fan set. as it was, i was too terrified to move, but couldn’t wait for the next episode. doctor who was my introduction to recreational adrenalin spikes.
lord only knows, the dw universe has been subject to more circular logic, chronic hystereses (full points if you recognize what episode that’s from), internal contradictions, outright lies, and ‘well, yeah, it worked that way last week but this week—‘s than most shows. despite all this, there have been some constants: the companion will always ignore the doctor’s instructions to “stay right here”; the tardis door can only be opened by the doctor or a companion (this wasn’t always the case; early seasons were slightly different); the daleks always say “exterminate!”; cyberman are awkward to the point of foolishness; the sonic screwdriver solves all problems; and so forth.
one of these constants has, oddly for a character who changes so damn much and can (see colin baker’s regeneration) be totally unpredictable bordering on the outright psychotic, been the doctor. there are rules; time travel and responsibilities as a time lord (last thereof or not) require certain responsibilities; he insists on them. watching him break them is, therefore, really worrying! watching him glory in breaking them is worse. this is what the master does; this is what he’s there for; this is not what the doctor does because the doctor has to be, to some extent, reliable. one way or another, he is the rules. his insistence over the last 4 seasons that the proper chronology of events not be disturbed in even the smallest way is pushed aside in two or three scenes at the end of mars and, god bless david tennant, he makes it work. i can’t say i didn’t want to grab the doctor and shake him hard, but it worked. (and lindsay duncan did a fantastic job of standing up to his scenery-chewing. her last scenes are wonderful. she tells him off in a way donna would be proud of.)
and, i have to say, david tennant has done a marvellous job at putting the doctor through some of the cruellest things he has ever done (and i say this as someone who cried at the end of earthshock — which is watchable on netflix insty for those of you who have that and haven’t seen the episode) and not making it either cringe-makingly melodramatic or turning the doctor into an outright villain. donna’s return to earth in “journey’s end” and the death of captain brooke in mars are two of the nastiest things the doctor has done. i’ll put them up against adric and sara kingdom any day of the week. the darkness is welcome, but we’re verging into some truly nasty territory at the end of mars and i kind of hate to think what the wake-up call is going to be.
but i’ll be able to comment on that later in the week — or possibly early next week — because the pbs stations around me are all pledge-breaking like little fundraising bunnies and, with no masterpiece theatre to watch or tape, i’m going to ignore the oscars tonight and watch hunger and the end of time. we’ll see how that goes.