Tag Archives: specials

Rules (fictional), rules (personal) and The Waters of Mars (2009)


If action packed, edge-of-your-seat thrills is what you want from Doctor Who, then The Waters of Mars is satisfying stuff. It tells the story of Earth’s first colonists on Mars, systematically picked off by a sentient micro-organism which transforms its victims into water exuding monsters. History says that the colonists are doomed and the Doctor (David Tennant, nearing the end of his Doctordom) is torn between saving these legendary astronauts and allowing established events to play out as recorded. Directed by the show’s great galvaniser Graeme Harper, it’s fast, frightening and foreboding. It’s as good an example of that particular genre of Doctor Who as we’ve ever got and given that particular strain gives us The Seeds of Doom, Earthshock and The Caves of Androzani, that’s impressive.

So, as I’ve mulled over this one, I’ve been surprised to find myself returning to something much more contemplative about this noisy, nervy tale: about what it says about the Doctor and his inherent contradictions.

Let me take a step back: I’ve been debating the merits of The Waters of Mars with Nathan Bottomley of the Flight Through Entirety podcast. He’s got a problem with its central premise, which hangs on one of Doctor Who’s long established rules: that you can’t rewrite history, not one line. But that rule has no basis in the real world; it’s just a made-up piece of sci-fi flim flam. So we have a Doctor Who story seeking to create drama out of a fictional conceit and that weakens the whole story, making it less compelling for the audience.

He has a point, I think. Who can blame an audience for not caring about the transgression of some obscure Whovian law. But for me, the drama of The Waters of Mars feels more important than that. As the Doctor’s curiosity about solving the mystery of what happened on Bowie Base One gives way to anguish about whether or not he should save these brave, compassionate humans, this becomes more than an argument about the console room’s state of temporal grace or the favourite colours of the Prydonian chapter. It feels like there’s more at stake than that. I think the reason why, is that the made up sci-fi laws are not as insubstantial as all that: they’re a stand in for the Doctor’s moral code.

Which brings us around to asking, “what exactly is the Doctor’s moral code?” And to answer that, we need to know who he is. And that’s difficult to answer because who he is changes. Initially, he was a scientist, an engineer and a researcher, as well as a fugitive from his people. Later, he becomes a hero and a renegade. Sometimes it’s more straightforward than that, when he’s positioned as “simply a traveller.” None of these suggest someone who sticks to too many rules. But he definitely has an authoritarian streak: he can’t abide people mucking about with time.

It’s a contradiction which has grown to mythic status; in the New Adventures range, he was called “time’s champion” but it’s more accurate, at least in the classic series view, to call him “time’s policeman”. He’s not a defender, but an enforcer. In The Time Warrior, he characterises his own people as “galactic ticket inspectors” and that’s basically the role he takes.  One of his earliest recurring enemies was specifically a time meddler, whose meddling the Doctor was intent on stamping out.

Of course, his stance on the sanctity of history is not without its own contradictions. He meddles in future history and the history of other planets all the time. The basic rule is if it was taught on the history syllabus of one the show’s writers, it was inviolable. And he himself frequently brags about his influence on history – dropping apples on Isaac Newton’s head, for instance – and he loves starting famous historical fires, be they in Rome or London.

These hypocrisies aside, I think the weight of evidence tells us that the sanctity of history is part of the Doctor’s moral code. From The Aztecs all the way through to The Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor hangs on to his lost civilisation’s rule about history, as if it were a lifeline to his own. For a universally famous rule breaker, this is the one rule clings to. It’s as important to him as treating all life with respect or that blue people have the same rights as purple people.

And he believes it like a dogma, something so ingrained into him that he struggles to explain it. Like when he says to Adelaide Brook (Lindsay Duncan), this mission’s steely commander, “Your death is fixed in time forever. And that’s right.” It’s the sort of thing you say when you can’t quite describe a complex operating principle, but you know that it’s true. It’s the sort of thing a religion might preach. Don’t question it, because I fundamentally believe it to be true, the Doctor is saying.

So that’s why it’s such a lurch when he then rejects his own rule and turns around to rescue what’s left of the crew. It’s not dramatic because he’s breaking the fictional laws of time, it’s dramatic because our hero is breaking his own moral code. That’s a conflict as old as the hills, and it’s a good one. Because it signals two things: 1. That the Doctor’s in conflict with himself and you can tell that in Tennant’s hair quivering performance. He’s forcing himself to do things which he knows are against his own personal beliefs. 2. That if the Doctor’s prepared to throw this part of this moral compass aside, then – blimey (as he himself might say) – what’s next? The sanctity of life? The commitment to peaceful co-existence?.

When the Doctor abandons his moral code, bad things happen. When ground down by acts of violence and injustice all around him, or when isolated from his human companions, he’s prone to going too far. It happens here but also in The Girl Who Died, where he makes a rash decision to create an immortal teenager and in Hell Bent, where he steals, shoots and bullies his way into rescuing his friend who should be dead. And of course, the foundation of the new series was that he destroyed his own people in a moment of war-inflicted desperation, an act so incompatible with his morals that it caused him untold anguish.

The Waters of Mars asks the question, how can these various aspects of the Doctor’s personality be squared away? In the choice between being a hero and being a rule enforcer, the Doctor has chosen enforcer time and time again, from the streets of Paris to the streets of Pompeii. Here for the first time, he chooses to be a hero, but in doing so he unleashes his inner monster. It’s that internal conflict which provides the real drama here, and we care about it because we care about the Doctor. What he stands for matters to us.

(At least until The Day of the Doctor when he decides to change history, rescue everyone and everything stays fine. And in the next story, there’s a whole plot based on Whovian lore on the regeneration limit of 12. But hey – Vive la contradiction.)

SACRIFICIAL BLAM: Poor hapless Ed, played by Australia’s own Peter O’Brien.

LINK TO Kerblam!: written by Australia’s own Pete McTighe.

NEXT TIME: So this is the great journey of life! We’re stuck on The Horns of Nimon, you meddlesome hussy!

Locations, complications and Planet of the Dead (2009)


Two of three regenerations ago, I worked as a location scout for film and TV productions. It was an interesting job, which involved a lot of driving to unusual places, clambering over fences, peering at maps, negotiating with security guards and taking lots and lots of photos.

Sometimes you were looking for windswept clifftops, tropical beaches and rainforest groves, but often it was more mundane fare – a particularly bendy piece of road for a car ad, an empty factory for a fashion shoot or a suburban house with a driveway and a tree in the front yard, but no fence and a view of the… well, you get the idea.

Even if you found the right looking location, there were other practical concerns to keep in mind. How would the production trucks get here? Where would they park? Was it quiet enough to shoot? Were there neighbours who might get annoyed? Does it get dark early here? Where’s the nearest pub (very important)? Many’s the location which is just right, except it’s right next to a highway (noise) or gets busy at 8:30am and 3pm because it’s near a school (crowds) or the person who owns it’s a jerk (permission). And so it goes.

But when you find the right location, with the right combination of factors, and the producer and the director and the DOP all like it… Hooray. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle. If it’s a really good location, you’ll hear a familiar phrase at the first onsite recce for all the heads of department, as they look around the place. “It could be anywhere,” they’ll say, which means the location’s versatile enough to work for all manner of shoots. Which is deeply ironic considering that as a location scout, you started off with a list of highly specific requirements; the very opposite of “anywhere”.

What all this means is I have an eye for locations. (Poor Mrs Spandrell. How many TV viewings interrupted by me wondering out loud, “where’d they shoot that then? oh, that’s at the old Whatsit place at Thingotown. That’s where we shot…”) So I notice the difference they make to a production.

Planet of the Dead has some brilliant locations, most notably the beautiful desert plains of Dubai, UAE. That first crane shot, after the bus arrives on sunny San Helios, that starts down low and then soars upwards so we can see the vast expanse of sand dunes all around – that orange sand and that deep blue sky – is stunning and heroic. The message is clear: we’re not in Cardiff any more.

Not being in Cardiff was important in 2009, and has got increasingly important since. Doctor Who‘s now been in production in Wales for over a decade, over 100 episodes made, lord know how many locations… You just couldn’t find them all within 2 hours’ drive of Cardiff. A beautiful and varied place it no doubt is, but you couldn’t find them all 2 hours’ drive from anywhere.

That’s why we keep seeing the same locations redressed. How many places has the Temple of Peace and Health been? What about those big wide passageways in Millennium Stadium? Caerphilly Castle must feel like a (cold uncomfortable) second home to the Doctor Who crew. And overuse of locations can make a show look a bit tired.

(That’s why I always sigh a little when I come across criticism of the Old Who’s occasional cut price international location shoots. The Two Doctors gets picked on in particular, for heading to Spain although there was no particular reason why the story had to be set there. Sure, so don’t bother going to Spain, and set it in some big old country manor house again, just like so many other Doctor Who stories. Frankly, yawn. The Two Doctors mightn’t have needed new, exciting locations but Doctor Who certainly did.)

And although The Return of Doctor Mysterio did a neat job of making Cardiff look like New York, there are are some locations you’re just not going to find in Wales. New Who’s previous overseas location shoot (Cinecitta Studios in Rome for The Fires of Pompeii) had been a choice of expedience; there was a ready made Roman city waiting to be used on set. At a pinch, you could have made that at home (and indeed, lots of it is shot in our old friend the Temple of Peace and Health). But going to Dubai for the Planet of the Dead is an aesthetic choice; a deliberate attempt to literally broaden the show’s horizons. Which is to say that writers Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts deliberately wrote a story knowing it would need an overseas shoot. Deserts being hard to come by in Wales. Jungles and sunny beaches too, I’ve noticed. Forests, no problem.

Director James Strong and DOP Rory Taylor did a great job in Dubai, showcasing the size of those dunes and giving us some great sweeping perspectives, which match well with the CG elements. Well, with the Swarm anyway. The CGI bus has not aged well (I wonder if drones had been available in 2009, would we have got some more aerial shots across the plains, a Swarm’s eye view as it were?)

But judging by Doctor Who Confidential and the DWM set reports, it must have been a difficult shoot. Hot, remote and sand getting every-sodding-where. Doctor Who has travelled abroad lots since Dubai – Spain, Croatia, US, Lanzarote – and each time with impressive results. But I can’t help but wonder if the Dubai shoot, full of complications including a damaged bus, has meant that subsequent overseas locations have been chosen for their logistical convenience as much as their scenic charms.

Inevitably though, the complications of that exotic shoot sneak into the fictional world. Commuters Carmen (Ellen Thomas) and Lou (Reginald Tsiboe) clearly didn’t get a trip to Dubai, as they refuse to get out of the bus when it stops at San Helios (a whole other planet and they stay on the bus! Even if you were freaked out by psychic call outs from the long dead, you’d at least poke your head outside the door, right?). When the Doctor (a cool David Tennant) and Christina (a hot Michelle Ryan) are taken inside the flyboy Tritovores’ ship, there has to be a line inserted, in the grand tradition of ‘freak weather conditions’, to explain why their breath is steaming from the cold (the effect of photofine steel apparently, not that the actors are back in chilly Wales). And there’s a considerable effort to cut around the bus when it returns to Earth at the end of the story (shutting down a highway tunnel for filming! More location nightmares) to avoid showing that it’s not the mangled version from Dubai.

Still, anything to avoid the infamous quarries that Doctor Who‘s so known for. In fact in the very next story, The Waters of Mars, we’re back to one pretending to be Martian surface. It’s another old favourite, the Cemex quarry. Over the years it’s also been Mount Vesuvius, the Oodsphere, House and Skaro. That Cemex quarry, I bet someone has said during a long forgotten location recce, it could be anywhere.

With thanks to this glorious site: http://www.doctorwholocations.net/

LINK TO Heaven Sent: the Doctor’s without a regular companion.

NEXT TIME: Oh look! There’s the sweat on your brow. It’s the hit of the blitz in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.