Written by Phil Ford.
Read by Maureen O’Brien.
The Waters of Mars is one of the best complete stories in the history of “New” Doctor Who. One of the special stories on the road to David Tennant’s (first) handover of the Tardis, it introduced us to one of the scariest monster designs in the whole of New Who, The Flood. And the water monsters also delivered one of the creepiest horror concepts in the Tennant era too – the idea not only that you could die of thirst on a planet covered in water, for fear of what the water would do to you, but also that the water would come after you, relentlessly, until it could get a single drop of itself on your skin – which is enough to turn you into itself.
Added to that, there’s a clever sub-plot at work in The Waters of Mars – it takes the idea of a celebrity historical, such as when the Doctor meets Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie, and projects it into a future we haven’t seen. So when the Doctor arrives on Bowie Base 1 (and be honest, you love that name), he’s meeting future-historical famous people.
But it’s better than that – Phil Ford and Russell T Davies created a tragedy of foregone conclusion. Famous people who all die in mysterious circumstances on a particular day.
The day the Doctor arrives.
So the things against which the Doctor fights throughout the episode are not only the Flood-creatures, but also his own instinct to help, the laws of time that say he can’t save these people, and the overall web of history. Those were stakes like we’d rarely seen on screen in Doctor Who, and they played out in one of the most shocking twists in the whole history of Doctor Who – the Time Lord Victorious, when you feel the universe wobble, and realise, for instance, how someone like the Master could come into being. The Doctor stops obeying the rules, takes them into his own hands, and tries to change the universe for what he believes is “the better.”
And he has to be proven wrong, in stark and devastating terms, before heading off to face his once-friend and now mortal enemy, the Master, one last time.
The Waters of Mars then is a phenomenal battle, full of sturm, drang and what-the-hell. It has a couple of potholes in its plot – nothing big enough to derail you, but enough to make you grind your teeth. But when they hit, the story as it unfolded on screen ran right over them at full tilt, and gave you plenty to panic about en route to the dark, bleak, horrifying final five minutes.
Filling At Least Some Of The Gaps
The thing about which is that it leaves you some good silent space to fill in some blanks or almost-blanks when you come to novelize the story.
Phil Ford does… some of that. He gives us a little history of the Flood. He gives us a little extra on the families of the Bowie Base crew, and in particular when it comes to Captain Adelaide Brooke (played on screen by Lindsay Duncan).
But if we’re honest, the additions in this novelization feel a touch too slight compared to the world-building growth in the likes of the Kerblam! novelization by Pete McTighe or the Planet of the Ood novelization by Keith Temple.
The additions are there, but, for instance, the likes of a handful of details about the young Adelaide being with her friends on a girl guide outing when the Daleks arrived on Earth and some vague and grandiose words from the consciousness of the Flood don’t really scratch the world-expansion itch you hoped they would.
Where you get more value for your audiobook money with this novelization is in the mindset of the Time Lord Victorious, which is shown here in quite a lot more detail than the conceited words of the Doctor allowed for in the on-screen version.
But that in itself comes with a price – because you’re rather more inside the Doctor’s head, and he’s at his most conceited and puffed up, thinking of his new freedom, and power, and (in a word) mastery of the laws of time, Adelaide’s determination to stop him is rather less visible here than it was on screen.
And where, in fairness to him, David Tennant gave us a brief but cataclysmic fall at the end of The Waters of Mars, here, the written words barely scrape their way up to the magnitude of the shock he has when Adelaide puts time back on the right track. So the ending, which, while seeming pushed for time on screen, still delivered a monstrous rise and a horrifying fall of the Time Lord Victorious, here feels more like a tantrum than anything else, and lacks just a little of the necessary punch which made it succeed so brilliantly in the TV version.
As a novelization then, Phil Ford delivers perhaps the most “Terrance Dicks on a deadline” of the new series adaptations – it more or less prints the legend of The Waters of Mars, with a little flourish or two here and there to gild the experience, without particularly broadening the story out onto a wider canvas.
Let’s be clear, though – the legend of The Waters of Mars is already a pretty hefty thing to render, and Ford renders it as itself extremely well.
The Voices of Mars
If there’s one curious decision that could be said to detract from that, it’s the choice of reader.
And this is one of those moments in a reviewer’s life when they fully understand they’re going to hate themselves for what they have a duty to say.
The Waters of Mars is read by Maureen O’Brien.
Maureen O’Brien is a fantastic actress with decades of experience, and her Who connections are impeccable, in that she played Vicki against the First Doctor – the first “new” companion in the history of the 60-year-old show after Carole Ann Ford left. I will under no circumstances have anything bad said about Maureen O’Brien.
But it’s a real struggle to equate her tone with the pace and terror inherent in The Waters of Mars.
The Surface of Mars
It’s by no means a bad reading – Maureen O’Brien would be incapable of giving you a bad reading of anything. It’s just difficult to connect her voice to the story, so what you end up with is a reading that’s… just a reading. It rarely becomes an immersive experience, which when you combine it with the “print the legend” nature of the TV story means that as you listen, you’re almost constantly striving to feel more than the combined product has been designed to give you.
As we say, the quality of The Waters of Mars and the quality of a Maureen O’Brien reading are both high enough to leave you satisfied with what you get, but you might well still be hankering for the version in your head at the end – a version where the nature of the Bowie Base 1 mission has a broader cultural significance, as shown on TV. A version where perhaps you’d be taken a little further into the consciousness of the Flood. A version where the ending had a couple of extra beats of anticipation before the fall of the Time Lord Victorious. And perhaps a version read by David Tennant or Lindsay Duncan, to give an authenticity to the action and the pace, as well as tying into the broadcast version of the story.
Not in any sense a bad audiobook experience, then – you’ll get absolutely what you paid for here. But at the end of it, you might still find yourself dreaming of the “Director’s Cut” version – as, for instance, you get in the cases of Kerblam! and Planet of the Ood. Tony Fyler