A First-Timer Watches Doctor Who: “The Waters of Mars”

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Doctor Who does zombies—Martian zombies. After some lackluster filler in “Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars” amps up the adrenaline as the Tenth Doctor rides an out-of-character power trip toward his regeneration.

The Doctor takes the TARDIS to Mars. Stated purpose of visit: “Fun,” he tells Captain Adelaide Brooke, the no-nonsense leader of Bowie Base One, the first human colony on Mars. But fun is not in the stars. The Doctor has reached the Red Planet on a very important moment in time: the day Mars’ first human colonists die—under mysterious circumstances—prompting a chain reaction that eventually inspires humanity to travel throughout the universe. The Doctor thinks this is a fixed moment in time—meaning he can’t intervene on whatever is about to happen.

Which sucks, because what’s about to happen isn’t pretty. The waters of Mars are carrying a virus, and there’s a busted filter on Bowie Base One. Meaning unpurified Martian zombie water is getting into their base. When a human get even a little bit wet, they transform into a cracked-skinned, water gushing zombie. The zombies’ mission? To get to Earth. There’s lots of water there.

“The Waters of Mars” isn’t shy about its horror influences: these monsters are not played for laughs or camp. While most Doctor Who menaces have a slightly silly vibe—even the Daleks sometimes read more “cute” than “intimidating”—the infected members of Bowie Base One were nothing but awful. Their broken, dripping mouths do not look kissable.

I’ve noticed that the Doctor says he’s “so sorry” a lot. Any time something unfortunate is going to happen, he’s “so sorry.” Anytime he’s powerless to help, he’s “so sorry.” David Tennant has weighed in on his Doctor’s apologies, explaining, “He has to make the hard choices, and he’s riddled with remorse for what happened to his people.” Every time the Doctor says he’s sorry, I think how inadequate it seems—you can’t just says “aw, sorry!” to someone who is about to die! But that’s part of his guilt. Sorry is inadequate, and the Doctor probably knows it. But in the tricky life-or-death moments, sorry is all he’s got to offer.

Except when he decides to turn into the crazy, egotistical Time Lord Victorious. This episode, instead of just letting the colonist of Bowie Base One die—as time dictates he should—the Doctor saves them. Sounds nice, right? And it is. Except along with rescue comes a whole new vibe. The Doctor is big-time power-tripping. He decides that from now on, time follows his rules. This isn’t a modest, happy-go-lucky Doctor. His new sense of authority is explicitly narcissistic.

The Doctor’s new attitude was an interesting twist. This is a side of the Doctor we’ve never seen before, and it would have been cool to see a “bad Doctor” for a few episodes. But he’s put in his place pretty quickly: Captain Adelaide Brooke highly disapproves of his rescue, and promptly kills herself, setting history back on its course. So the Doctor can’t control time, after all. But his brief slip into megalomania reminds us just how quickly The Doctor could become The Master. Who, apparently, is returning next episode.