Monday, November 16, 2009

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars review.

'Why are you telling me all this?'
'As consolation.'

Doctor Who is the best science fiction series on television. The renegade Time Lord and his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) have been travelling through the vortex for over 46 years now, and the series has accumulated hundreds of episodes worth of amazing adventures through time and space. Flat out it is my absolute favorite science fiction program, one I recommend wholeheartedly and without reservation. Yes, the older episodes do feature wobbly sets and aliens that look cobbled together from cardboard and aluminum foil, but there was such an insane fury to the show, a zest and bounce and sense of fun that helped it through the cheesiest of cheesy episodes during it's original tenure of 1963-1989. Put 'on hiatus'(a nice way of saying cancelled) in '89, the show would not return to the airwaves (with the exception of a Fox television movie in '98) until 2005.

Trying to explain the continuity of a show that's damn near 50 years old would be an exercise in pointless futility, so let's break it down to the essentials. The Doctor (the only name he's ever given, apart from the occasional alias of Dr. John Smith) is a Time Lord, the last of his race who fought a war throughout time and space from which he emerged as the sole survivor. He's an alien being with twin hearts, a phenomenal constitution (two hearts and the ability to undergo a regenerative process that makes him a completely new man. . .which has allowed the series to have had a total of ten--soon to be eleven--actors inhabit the title role), and an intelligence that'd put a skyscraper full of geniuses to shame. He roams through time and space, a wanderer and a vagabond who often travels with people from Earth, his favorite planet. His mode of transportation is the aforementioned TARDIS, a space-time machine from his home planet of Gallifrey that the Doctor 'borrowed' centuries ago to escape the Utopian tedium of his home planet so very long ago. The TARDIS is dimensionally transcendental (leading many to note in awe that it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside) and--if in proper working order--would possess a chameleon circuit allowing it to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding countryside whenever it materialized from the depths of the space-time vortex. Unfortunately, the Doctor's ship isn't exactly in perfect working order, and after a time the circuit jammed and the TARDIS became stuck in the shape of a London police box from the 1950s(it's also a point of irony that for the most advanced piece of technology his enemies or companions will ever see, the Doctor's TARDIS is old and holding together with a combination of the Doctor's technical know-how, bailing wire, and liberal amounts of percussive maintenance). With this simple formula, what originally was intended as a children's program about history morphed into a science fiction saga that has enthralled millions.

David Tennant (perhaps best known to North American audiences for playing Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is nearing the end of his tenure as the 903 year-old protector of time and space, and they're bringing his era of Doctor Who to an end with four specials, The Waters of Mars being the second to last. The TARDIS lands on Mars in the year 2059, bringing the Doctor to Bowie Base One, the first human outpost on the red planet. Here he quickly finds himself entangled in a potential disaster. . .one that must become a certainty. You see, Bowie Base One was destroyed on November 21st, 2059. It's destruction a matter of historical fact. But as the body count rises and the clock counts down, can the Doctor stand idly by and let history take it's course, knowing that it means watching good people die?

The Waters of Mars is vintage Doctor Who, with the Doctor coming across an outpost or way station and becoming embroiled in the events there. The kicker is that this is one instance where his intervention is something that has to be avoided; this disaster must take place as it's a matter of recorded historical fact. How that fact endures with the Doctor's presence is one of many twists and turns through an enjoyable enough adventure, though to be fair I have to say it's not the series at it's absolute finest. The hidden enemy, the Flood, is effective enough in a scary sort of way, but it's not really developed all that well beyond a spooky method of vampiric transformation and some creepy visuals. The denouement leaves the viewer scratching his head as to whether a big explosion is really capable of taking out alien baddies comprised of water. . .I mean, it'd just be mutated alien water now, wouldn't it? It's effective enough in an Aliens sort of way, but Doctor Who villains work best if they offer a moral or intellectual challenge to the Doctor.

Now that said, the special was still a lot of fun, with Tennant turning in his usual enjoyable performance as the Doctor, albeit one laced with a bit of arrogant darkness that brings the viewer up short at the end. Lindsey Duncan plays Adelaide Brooke, commander of Bowie Base One and the Doctor's 'companion' for this adventure, and it's here that the importance of the companion as moral compass for the Doctor is illustrated nicely. Without someone to question him or provide some perspective, things could go very, very wrong. This episode gives us a nasty example of how even the best of intentions can lead down a very dark road.

Is it the best the series has ever produced? No, for that I'd have to offer Blink or Doomsday for the sheer creepiness or emotional devastation that comes with great Doctor Who episodes. This was good, very good indeed and while it's not the best Who I've ever seen it's certainly a lot more fun than some other shows out there where smiling is verboten and the concept of actually enjoying being in space, having adventures is considered a crime punishable by Angst. Recommended.


Ps. Sorry it's been so long but I'm neck deep in National Novel Writing Month. I'll post more regularly soon, promise.