When Russell T. Davies' revamp of Doctor Who launched in 2005, we were promised that the Doctor's two hearts meant his heart could be broken twice as often. With last night's "Waters Of Mars," we finally see what that meant.
This recap contains maximum spoilers for last night's Doctor Who. If you're waiting to watch it on BBC America next month, you should stop reading now. Or a funny robot will come and tell you secrets of the future, which you're not supposed to know about.
"Waters Of Mars" was by no means perfect — the scenery-chewing was a bit ferocious for my taste — but it did feel like one of the better Doctor Who stories of recent years. More than that, it felt like a payoff, after all this time, on the promises that Russell T. Davies started making us back in 2005. The Doctor's loneliness, the burden of being the Last of the Time Lords, the boredom, horror and glory of it all... it finally feels like it was actually leading someplace interesting and moving, after a few years of going in circles. Like Davies actually did have a plan for the Doctor's development as a character all along.
Honestly, this is the kind of delving into the Doctor's hearts that I was hoping for all these years — not so much moping after Rose, but dealing with his feelings about the death of his people and his resulting lack of any external compass. You always knew the Rose storyline was never going to end up anywhere interesting, because it couldn't. These kinds of huge questions about the Doctor's place in the universe, though — there's so much potential in them.
There were really only a few episodes in series four that hold up on repeated viewings — "Fires Of Pompeii," "Midnight" and "Turn Left" — and this felt like a mash-up of all three. In a good way. The Doctor arrives at the scene of a huge historical event that he absolutely must not change, and feels torn about it. And he's alone in a tense, claustrophobic situation with no companion to help smoothe things over. And then we get a glimpse of how badly things go when the Doctor isn't around.
But "Waters Of Mars" was more than just a combination of "Pompeii," "Midnight" and "Turn Left" — it was a pretty great story in its own right, building on the themes of those three stories. In a nutshell, the Doctor arrives on Mars, and it turns out to be the day that the first colonists on Mars all die in a horrible incident involving terrifying water zombies. (And I really did like the water zombies — they were a great menace.) The Doctor knows he can't change what happens there because it's an important — until, finally, his compassion and egomania both combine to drive him to change it anyway. And we get a glimpse of how easy it is for the godlike Doctor to go off the rails.
It's interesting, because we're deliberately told that a lone Dalek almost killed the captain of the Mars expedition, Adelaide Brooke, when she was a little girl — but spared her life. Because even the Daleks understand, on some level, that certain things are fixed in time, like Adelaide's death in 2059. (Although presumably, if the Daleks' plan to wipe out the universe had succeeded, Adelaide would have died anyway?)
So "Waters Of Mars" gives us a Doctor who's changing an event that even the Daleks are too scrupulous to touch. I'm reminded of the bit in "Remembrance Of The Daleks" when he chides Ace that even the Daleks, "ruthless though they are, would think twice before making such a radical amendment to the timeline." (Ace almost accidentally leaves a super-advanced boombox behind in 1963.)
The thing that surprised me most about "Waters Of Mars" is that the Doctor actually makes a choice all on his own. I figured it would be the standard plotline, where he's trapped and cut off from his TARDIS, and finally, he's left with no choice but to intervene, just to save his own life. But instead, the Doctor actually makes a clean getaway. And then he stops and thinks about leaving those people to die, and wonders why he can't save them even with his immense power. And then he goes back.
Sadly, it turns out the Doctor really can't save Adelaide, or rather he does such a bad job of it that she winds up offing herself. Of course, you can't help wondering why the Doctor didn't just take Adelaide forward 100 years so she could see that things turn out fine in spite of the Doctor saving her life, and her granddaughter still goes on to be a great pilot. That final scene between the Doctor and Adelaide is frustratingly meta, with the Doctor spouting off about being the "Time Lord Victorious" and Adelaide giving off aphorisms about absolute power. The thing I was wondering that nobody brought up was, how would Adelaide and her crewmates explain the fact that they were back on Earth safe the same day their base blew up? Wouldn't Adelaide be painted as a deserter instead of a hero? We never explore those questions, which you'd think Adelaide would be wondering about. I kept expecting the Doctor to drop the three survivors off in the 19th century, or the 23rd., where they couldn't do any damage to the timelines.
Over the top as that final scene was, it was a fascinating glimpse at what happens to the Doctor when he stops playing by the rules. This is the Doctor we glimpsed back in season one, when he was totally fine with populating Victorian England with thousands, maybe millions, of reanimated corpses. Just because it didn't happen in Rose's timeline didn't mean it wasn't meant to happen.
Normally, you think it's the companions who rein the Doctor in and keep him anchored to humanity, but the reference back to the "Pompeii" episode reminds us that if Donna had been there, she would have been shrieking for the Doctor to save these people. On the other hand, can you imagine how Donna would have reacted if the Doctor had started talking about the "little people" in front of her?
No, the Doctor really needs his fellow Time Lords to keep him from going too bonkers. Otherwise, he starts feeling as though the rules really don't apply to him, and he starts playing God for real. It's really fascinating that just as the Doctor comes the closest he's ever gotten to being like the Master, the renegade Time Lord, he's about to have a reunion with the Master in Tennant's two-part final story, "The End Of Time."