Set in 2059, ‘The Waters of Mars’ tells the story of the downfall of the world’s first off-planet settlement. The Doctor appears on Bowie Station One (named, presumably, after that notable glam rock space pioneer) at exactly the moment that the combination of a faulty water filter and a very angry Martian virus cause the unlucky members of the expedition to begin turning into extremely unattractive mobile water features.
What the virus wants, of course (don’t they all?), is to get back onto Earth and kill all of mankind, and it’s up to the Doctor, helped by plucky Captain Adelaide Brooks (Lindsay Duncan), to stop it.
The monsters are very much the work of Russell T. Davies, a man who has always placed an inexplicable amount of trust in the BBC’s special effects department. While the idea of deadly water is, as ideas go, a frightening one, the sight of people with white contacts and crusty faces shooting water out of their mouths like hosepipes is more embarrassing than anything else. Similarly awkward is Gadget, a robot whose controller must, for some reason, put on a pair of metal claw hands and wave them about, and who has to be one of the most annoying deus ex machinas in TV history.
However, if you strip the episode of its hosepipe people and squealing, flaming robot slaves, what you end up with is surprisingly heartbreaking. The Doctor has seen (apparently because he just happened to be browsing the remarkably unchanged BBC news website on the 21st of November, 2059) articles about the deaths of the entire expedition team, and he knows that one death in particular, that of Captain Brooks, will eventually lead to the widespread expansion of the human race onto other planets. These are people, then, who must not be saved – the Doctor has stumbled into a piece of history which he should not, and apparently cannot, change. Struggling with his own issues of inevitability after his own death was recently predicted, his inner turmoil causes him to spend most of the episode looking increasingly tormented. It’s not the bouncing, decisive Doctor we’re used to, and even his inevitable Christlike moment at the end of the episode leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Doctor Who’s greatest moments are always in its character exchanges, not its explosions, and on that level ‘The Waters of Mars’ makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing.