Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars preview

"The 'water monsters' maintain the Doctor Who tradition of creating something simultaneously ridiculous and nightmarish"

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He’s visited the Moon at least four times and even been to Pluto, but amazingly the Time Lord has never properly set foot on the surface of Mars – until now.

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Tom Baker’s Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith almost became trapped inside the Pyramids of Mars (1975). And, of course, the Red Planet looms large in Doctor Who mythology. Former inhabitants the Ice Warriors – those “cruel Martian invaders” who plagued Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee in days of yore – receive a namecheck here, which will gratify fans.  

And there are echoes of other episodes. The Impossible Planet (2006) showed us a similar isolated base and crew. The settlers’ biodomes and rocket recall Colony in Space (1971), while the “Gadget Gadget” arguably pays homage to that story’s IMC robot. And the unquantifiable alien threat and its insidious effect remind me of the tenebrous creatures from Silence in the Library (2008).

While it’s fun to spot such connections, that is not to say The Waters of Mars isn’t innovative and tremendously exciting. The production is both gorgeous and flawless. The Taff’s Well quarry shots merge seamlessly with the Mill’s CGI to form stunning reddened vistas. The interiors – some are intricate sets, others were filmed at night in the National Botanic Garden of Wales – achieve a series best.

The “water monsters” maintain the Doctor Who tradition of creating something simultaneously ridiculous and nightmarish. The transformation scenes are disturbing because, although we see what’s happening, we don’t quite see what’s happening, which cleverly halves the CGI bill but doubles the shudders.

As is the norm with such fast-paced episodes, the supporting characters are lightly sketched, but each actor gets their moment to personalise. More important to us – and to the Doctor and the future of mankind – is Captain Adelaide Brooke, and of course Lindsay Duncan is luminous.

Every role she touches turns to platinum, but here she pulls off physically demanding action (58 at time of filming, she’s got plenty of puff) as well as grave philosophical duologues with David Tennant. We really do believe that if any person could take us to the stars it would be Lindsay Duncan.

Tennant starts out with his customary gabbling enthusiasm and gaping-gob, try-to-catch-a-fly shtick, but soon settles into something far more contemplative and sombre. Writers Russell T Davies and Phil Ford take the Doctor into uncharted waters: reluctance, desolation, arrogance and, ultimately, mortal fear – all of which Tennant conveys with consummate precision.

Right from day one in 1963, the Doctor has occupied his own moral universe. We’ve been challenged by what he will or will not do. How much can he change the past – or in this case, the future? In The Fires of Pompeii (2008), he established there were certain fixed points in time that must be respected. So how will the Lord of Time deal with his latest dilemma?

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That is the crux of The Waters of Mars – a long-awaited special that, far from treading water, opens the floodgates. Without giving too much away, it ends on a further portent of doom that chills Doctor Ten(nant) to his core. Whatever can he do to escape his fate? The trailer for The End of Time will have you salivating, while a final tribute brings a lump to the throat.