All heart, no brain

I started watching The Waters of Mars, the most recent Doctor Who special, a few days ago. Then I paused it after 12 minutes and didn't resume for a few days, because I had other stuff to do and it clearly wasn't going to be very good.

I know Doctor Who is really fantasy, not sci-fi, and I know it's now all about heart and emotions and not so much about coherent storylines. That's fine, if done with some imagination; I actually quite liked the episode Gridlock, for instance, which was a veritable lace doily of plot-holes if you looked at it critically.

And I know Doctor Who is primarily aimed at young viewers, and I also know that kids aren't very discriminating and will watch any old crap.

But none of that excuses this level of crapness.

(Spoilers, naturally, follow. But I'm spoiling the bad bits, not the good ones, so perhaps you'll come out ahead.)

The Waters of Mars reminded me of Robert L. Forward's excellent (if you like hard sci-fi) Dragon's Egg (the sequel's pretty decent, too!). The only purpose of the characters in the first couple of dozen pages of Dragon's Egg is to set up the story proper, so Forward obviously didn't see any need to spend more than a lazy half-drunk afternoon writing the first part. (Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote the first part last, just to give the audience a minimal on-ramp to the highway he'd already finished and was impatient to publish.)

So Forward, for instance, details exactly the garments which a young female astronomer puts on before racing off to advance the plot, but because he's not paying attention he gives her a skirt but forgets to mention any underwear. This is forgotten once you get into the real story, but it's somewhat startling at the time.

Likewise, in The Waters of Mars, the writers are clearly so eager to get to the, super-heavy-handed but still pretty neat, ending and teaser for the upcoming Christmas special, that they just didn't care about the preceding story.

Robert Forward's dodgy beginning bit was very small. In The Waters of Mars, the dodgy beginning bit takes up five-sixths of the show.

I could just about handle Mars gravity being the same as Earth gravity, when it ought to be less than 0.4G, because that's apparently still too expensive for live-action TV to do properly. And I could barely accept explosion debris cheerfully burning away in Mars' 95.8%-carbon-dioxide, 0.2%-oxygen, less-than-1%-of-Earth-pressure atmosphere, because, um, maybe this Mars-base was built out of bamboo packed with potassium nitrate.

But the monsters are creatures that can make water (and fusion power!) out of nothing. But they're desperate to get to Earth, because there's so much water here. (And they've got the same name as the principal villains of all of the Halo games.)

All the writers would have had to do was make the monsters express a great hunger for all of the people there are on Earth for them to infect, or specifically mention how pleased they are with Earth's ever-shrinking ice-caps that promise a gigantic habitable area for them in their liquid form. But no. One of 'em stands there, drooling a steady stream of water onto the floor, and just says that it's impressed by the quantity of water that Earth already has.

Cliched self-destruct

And there's not just one, but two, self-destruct mechanisms activated in this one episode.

I suppose it's not that surprising that the systems exist - nobody puts a "Blow Up This Vehicle" button on real-world dashboards, but if you live in the land of TV sci-fi you can expect super-virulent body-snatching alien and/or supernatural monsters to pop up about every other week. The only surprising thing is how slow people always seem to be to figure out what's going on and press that deadly button that'll save the rest of the world.

(We should probably count ourselves lucky that only one of the self-destructs has a Red Digital Readout. And to be fair, it still isn't your typical Acme Mechanically-Assisted Plot-Tensioner, a device which has the mystical ability to make the last 60 seconds of the countdown take up five minutes of screen time.)

As regular readers know, I am actively delighted by stupid Doctor Who monsters. But they're meant to be stupid-looking, not just by-the-numbers Central Casting zombies plodding through a script that exists only to give the Doctor a reason to emote.

I'm quite happy with fatally-plot-holed sci-fi as long as it's imaginative. When I finish watching some oddball anime and say "what the fuck was that all about?!", I'm always smiling. And Doctor Who is supposed to be among the most imaginative live-action shows, because it's got the fewest restraints. It's not stuck on a particular starship or even a particular planet, it doesn't take itself very seriously, and after some decades, the audience is accustomed to the fact that the TARDIS seems to independently seek out deadly peril, especially when the Doctor intended to have a little holiday.

This all makes it particularly disappointing when you get a story like this, that's no better than the 62nd time the holodeck tried to kill everyone on the Enterprise.

17 Responses to “All heart, no brain”

  1. RichVR Says:

    So I spent an hour or two at TV Tropes. Then I hit the back button 9 or 10 times.

    And I thought to myself, "Dan's Data? Doctor Who? Where did this come from?"

  2. namsupo Says:

    Unfortunately Doctor Who these days is mainly a vehicle to further Russell T. Davies' gay agenda. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but he's already got Torchwood to do that. I've really got my fingers crossed that Steven Moffat will make a big difference when he takes over.

  3. JsD Says:

    "I could barely accept explosion debris cheerfully burning away in Mars’ 95.8%-carbon-dioxide, 0.2%-oxygen, less-than-1%-of-Earth-pressure atmosphere, because, um, maybe this Mars-base was built out of bamboo packed with potassium nitrate."

    Given that it was because of an exploding rocket, I can buy that - bits of Hydrazine-plus-oxidiser (or something other mix intended to work on Mars) booster probably won't stop burning because of little details like lack of Oxygen. In fact, I'd expect something a bit more dramatic than shown; even with lower local gravity, anything that's going to reach orbit needs tacnuke-level potential energy locked up in it somewhere.

    But, yeah, there were some annoying details to this one.

  4. AdamW Says:

    "Not that there's anything wrong with that"

    ooh! he said it! he really said it!

    made my day.

  5. hwk Says:

    "Unfortunately Doctor Who these days is mainly a vehicle to further Russell T. Davies' gay agenda."

    Eh? Did I miss a memo or something?
    If you believe the statistics I just googled, gay people account for 3-4% of the population. So to have a gay agenda, Russell would surely have to have a gay character more than 3-4% of the time. Now, he might be doing that, but my gaydar skills don't seem to work on Daleks or Cybermen as well as yours obviously do.
    Yes, I know about Captain Jack. But isn't he Bi?

  6. Stuart Says:

    This was a bad episode, there's no way around that. The nature of the character is that he behaves ethically regardless of the personal cost - and then he's shown throwing it all away over people who mean nothing to him (and more importantly, we the viewers). If they wanted to show this complete 360° change then it would have been better to do it over the course of an entire season, and with a companion (ie. why would the Doctor screw everything up over this instead of going back and being with Rose, or 'fixing' Donna?).

    To be fair to the old self destruct mechanism, they do actually exist in the real world ( - read the bit about the space shuttle. I'd be a little bothered about getting into a shuttle knowing that you can be blown up by remote control).

    [I'd be more bothered about getting into one that has a "blow up this perfectly functional vehicle" button ON THE DASHBOARD, though. And to complete the analogy, the button at Kennedy Space Center wouldn't be for blowing up an out-of-control Shuttle, but for blowing up Kennedy Space Center! :-) -Dan]

    As for the Gay Agenda comment - the single reference to a gay character (who wasn't even part of the story) isn't what made this episode crap. The racial mix of the show tends to be diverse also, why aren't you complaining about that too? Or how about the fact that women are portrayed as being as competent and important as the men? It's a damn shame that time travel isn't real, if it were we could send you and *your agenda* back to the 1950's where they belong.

  7. corinoco Says:

    To be fair, any Dr.Who is better than no Dr.Who.

    I found Dragon's Egg and it's sequel in a 2nd book store. Dragon's Egg was rather good, but I didn't get very far into the sequel; it lost something, somewhere.

    Dodgy beginnings are part of the BBC reportoire; Blake's 7 took about five or six episodes to get going. Actually, the entire first season; as that's how long it took to find Orac!

    As for annoying sci-fi, I just re-read Peter Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" trilogy. I found I couldn't remember the third book from my first reading; my second reson made me remember why I couldn't remember it the first time.

    I've just started his "Commonwealth Saga/The Void" series for the second time (I just bought 'The Temporal Void' so I'm re-reading the first ones to reaquaint myself) and so far it reads better than "Night's Dawn". There's a little less sex too, which is always welcome. I can never work out why seemingly sane writers suddenly descend into 'Penthouse Forum' style for a page or two. I blame the publishers. Or society.


  8. omgror Says:

    I saw this episode last week as well, and to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised.

    Before this one, I hadn't watched any Doctor Who since the film with Paul McGann, which was terrible. I'd watched most of the Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker eras, and quite a bit of the earlier ones too, but none of the ones from the 2000s.

    As you said, Doctor Who is fantasy, and as such, I wasn't expecting any more realism than say, Lord of the Rings, or The X-Men.

    I thought the plot was interesting, if not entirely original, and the character interaction was good. The ending was good too, with an unexpected twist. (That is, I'd seen a twist coming, but didn't get the one I'd predicted)

    Although generally I prefer hard sci-fi, if something's not going to be hard sci-fi, then I'd rather it went all-out for fun and drama, than taking itself too seriously and failing at everything, like Star-Trek.

  9. TwoHedWlf Says:

    I'm just happy to have any sci fi that doesn't get cancelled after less than a season. And even bad sci fi is better than 99% of the unwatchable crap on TV.

  10. Spockie-Tech Says:

    You obviously haven't read too many of Mr Forwards Books.. Or, if you have, you have overlooked the recurring themes of casual sex and wild red-headed women :) I wouldn't be at surprised if the no-underwear slip wasn't a slip at all :)

  11. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Well, sure, if that character was going to have some further part to play in the story, presumably involving sex. But she's actually dead of old age a couple of pages later.

  12. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Now you made me dig up the exact passage from the book, which I of course did not remember quite correctly. It was the second paragraph that mentions the character, Jacqueline Carnot:

    Her skirt, blouse and clogs were her only items of clothing. It was not that she did not own stockings—and purses—and makeup—and rings—and perfume—and other "women's things;" [which we can only presume must include underwear...] it was just that she was in too much of a hurry in the morning to bother with them, for she had work to do. The French government had not given her a state fellowship to study at the International Space Institute so she could spend all morning getting dressed.

    So not only did she not wear undies on this occasion, she never wore panties or a bra at all, not because she's a Penthouse Letters kind of chick but purely in order to save time!

    Jaqueline actually hangs around for more than a dozen more pages, but one page after that it's 29 years later and she's the absent, elderly, maybe-still-going-commando mother of one of the protagonists of the remaining 85% of the story. So I suppose she must have had sex at some point, but for some reason her son doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about that.

  13. pittance Says:

    I found myself unreasonably offended that the characters made such a big play at one point about how expensive every kilo of mass was to get to Mars but failed to consider the seeming unlimited mass budget for huge, empty steel corridors.

    And I am aware that corridors are a staple Doctor Who plot element, that just made it worse...

    On a relatively unconnected subject (other than vague scifi link) I'm unaccountably enjoying 'Defying Gravity' (currently on terrestrial tv in the UK) and that's some of the most appalling rubbish that's ever failed to explain the lack of any lightspeed lag in communications...

  14. Daniel Rutter Says:

    huge, empty steel corridors

    Yeah, I noticed that too :-). Forget bicycles; 20 yards of one of their long, long, hangar-like corridors seemed to use enough metal for a whole Terex Titan.

    I think now that the BBC can make CGI sets, they feel compelled to kick against the old Doctor Who standard of shaky-walled claustrophobic corridors, unconvincing caves and That Quarry They Always Used. So now they always make the sets vast and grand, regardless of whether that makes any sense at all.

  15. ess Says:

    Just as the giant metal base would've been less troublesome without the deliberate mention of how expensive it was to get things there, so the merrily burning wreckage (including a girder last seen co-starring with Davros) would have been easier to take without a line about "losing oxygen" being intercut with it.

    At least the Doctor's spacesuit is there to remind us of another, scarier doomed-space-base story.

  16. Coderer Says:

    @hwk: RE: the gay thing, you must not have watched much Torchwood.

    Every. Single. Character. in Torchwood has at least 1 onscreen homosexual encounter, except Gwen (the "normal" one).

    Not, to coin a phrase, that there's anything wrong with that.

  17. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Indeed they do and indeed there isn't, but that has little to do with namsupo's original claim, that "Doctor Who these days is mainly a vehicle to further Russell T. Davies' gay agenda".

    The sum total of the gay content in The Waters of Mars was someone briefly referring to the fact that his brother back on Earth has a husband.

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