Doctor Who: Waters of Mars

It is a classic repeated formula in science fiction, and especially Doctor Who, to isolate the characters in a story.

The Waters of Mars continues this tradition and highlights the difference between how isolating the protagonists in science fiction and, another genre where this technique is used a lot, horror. The isolation allows a stage to be set whereby the protagonists are contained and are forced to do battle with the ‘other’. Both genres isolate to define boundaries and increasing the tension within the story. However, in science fiction the stakes are often increased because the alien threat is to humanity as a whole and the isolation allows this battle to be contained until it is concluded. But the fact that we find human protagonists isolated within a hostile alien environment in so many science fiction texts also suggests a greater metaphorical content.

It is a recurring theme within science fiction often exemplified by the BBC‘s Doctor Who series. The Doctor has regularly stumbled into small isolated human communities that include space stations, off world bases, colonies and archaeological expeditions. In isolating the protagonists, science fiction effectively represented humanity’s existence, within the vast hostile universe, as a metaphor of the struggle for long term survival in a post Darwin evolutionary battlefield.

The interesting thing about this story is that we learn early on that the humans on the base are fated to die. “Waters of Mars” shares many of the characteristics with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). In fact the scene where Andy Stone infects Tarak Ital with the mysterious lifeform could be a direct homage to one of the final scenes from “The Thing.”

In both stories the source of the threat is some form of alien virus. The imperative becomes preventing this infection reaching the rest of humanity. And so we come to another characteristic of the science fiction isolation text, self-sacrifice. The humans in ‘Bowie Base One’ are to make an act of self-sacrifice to defend humanities boundaries against the horrors of the void.

In making “The Thing” John Carpenter wanted to avoid simply remaking Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World so he returned to John W. Campbell’s original novella that had inspired it Who Goes There? (1938). As a result he produced a more faithful retelling of Campbell’s text as the basis of his film. Consequently many of John W. Campbell’s themes are therefore transferred to Carpenter’s film. Again a small isolated outpost within the hostile Antarctic environment represents humanity within the hostile universe. At the same time they also become a defensive picket line defending humanity from the threat emerging from the unknown. To this end all the humans on the Antarctic base accept the fact that they must die in order to prevent “The Thing” reaching and infecting civilisation.

“Waters of Mars” is, in fact, a highly optimistic episode of Doctor Who. Its message is that the disasters and tragedies that humanity faces should been seen as a sacrificial payment of our growth and development. Perhaps the most significant thing about the “Waters of Mars” is that it highlights the Doctor’s weakness of character in not being able to accept this and his hubris in thinking he has the ability to alter any key events. It is the ‘human’ Adelaide Brooke, played by Lindsay Duncan, who has to teach him humility once more. David Tennant’s superb acting makes this all the more believable. I’ll be very sorry to see him leave the role.

written by Peter Grehan



    November 18, 2009

    Hi. The homage to John W. Campbell’s work is a bit of a stretch, I think. Campbell believed in a society run by scientists, which would rely on technological advances to ease our collective drudgery. However, Dr Who is only superficially about science: in fact, the doctor uses ‘magic’ to get himself out of trouble, for example, his sonic screwdriver. It may as well be Harry Potter’s magic wand!
    Best, Brian

    Peter Grehan

    November 18, 2009

    It’s a fair point, but I was referring to one scene being a homage to Carpenter’s “The Thing”.
    The sonic screwdriver has become something of a magic wand because it is a time saving device for stories that have to be told in one or at most two episodes, as opposed to serial stories that used to be shown over several weeks. That said, I think the writers have tended to be fans of fantasy (RTD is a big fan of Buffy for example, and it shows in his stories).

    It was Director Pennant Roberts (Doctor Who – The Face of Evil) who described the series as Science Fantasy, although it started off being intended to educate about science and history.
    It wouldn’t take a great deal to put interesting science into the stories, but then I’m biased.


    November 18, 2009

    Whilst the Doctors screw driver does seem like magic. It is perhaps worth remembering Arthur C Clarkes Third Law

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    • Profiles of the Future (revised edition, 1973)

    Peter Grehan

    November 18, 2009

    True Ben, but it is a bit of a “get out of jail free card”


    November 18, 2009

    I suppose one could argue the type of films you mention are also typical of the American frontier genre – the Seventh Cavalry in a beleagured fort in the wilderness, acting as sentries at the gates of civilization. Certainly the 1950s version of The Thing is an allegory for the threat of communism, which champions miitary action (i.e. the reasonable scientist who wants to negotiate with the monster gets killed by it – the naive fool!) whereas the 1982 version of the film may reflect the start of the Aids scares (blood transfusions, anyone could have it etc).

    Regarding the particular genre Dr Who now inhabits, if I had to pick one it would be horror rather than SF or fantasy. It’s certainly has a lot more “threat” than earlier versions of the series, and it often ramps up the panic levels far too high for my (nostalgic) liking. Still, I used to hide behind the sofa when the Sea Devils appeared, so maybe things haven’t changed that much after all.

    Frank S

    November 18, 2009

    That wretched sonic screwdriver was making it so easy for writers of Doctor Who to get the Doctor out of almost any situation that producer John Nathan-Turner ordered writer Eric Saward to write it out of existence in his story ‘The Visitation’ in 1982. One of the best things JNT ever did (that and getting rid of K-9 as a regular character). But it was never as promiscuously used as it is now. Magic wand just about describes it perfectly!

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