When it was first announced that “Doctor Who” was taking a break from normal seasons in 2009, I thought, “I can handle that – not a big deal.” After all, aside from the Fox TV movie with Paul McGann in 1996, I’d lived without new televised “Who” for 16 years before the show came back in ’05. Each new season since then has been like a little gift. Surely one year with “only” four specials would be a breeze? As 2009 droned on, however, it seemed an interminably long wait for new outings of the series, and it didn’t help matters that the one outing we did get – “Planet of the Dead” – was a subpar piece of storytelling at best. The other three specials are all finally being unveiled on BBC America in the last weeks of the year (actually, the big finale will play on the second day of 2010!). Anyway, this was my roundabout way of illustrating how much I’ve come to take the new series for granted, and thankfully “The Waters of Mars” is as strong a slice of “Who” as just about anything the series has done up to this point. It is, in fact, everything “Planet of the Dead” wasn’t, which may very well have been the point.
The Doctor (David Tennant), still traveling alone, lands on Mars in the year 2059. He trudges across the desolate, red landscape and bumps into a robot, called Gadget, that takes him to its leader on Bowie Base One, which is a clever enough joke – although one that’s a bit old hat for anyone who’s basked in the wonder that is “Life on Mars,” which coincidentally (or not) starred John Simm, who we’ll be seeing more of next week. Inside the base, the Time Lord meets the crew, led by Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan), and quickly realizes who they are, and is as awestruck as any fanboy we’ve ever seen. Bowie Base One holds humanity’s first group of colonists on Mars, only the Doctor knows they all mysteriously died on the 21st of November, 2059. Guess what the date is? He quickly realizes that he should go, as this is an instance where he shouldn’t meddle with time. He sees it as a fixed point in the universe, and, as he explains later in the episode, “What happens here must always happen.” But events conspire to prevent his exit, and before long the crew begins succumbing to what ends up being a virus – it transforms them into hideous, zombie-type creatures, with cracked faces and the ability to use water as a deadly weapon. Only “Doctor Who” can find an inventive, frightening way to use water as a killer, and its ideas such as this that make the show the unique concept it is.