In the first place, I thought this story was really well conceived. It was an inspired idea to show the Doctor stumbling upon the history of the future, important events in human history that are yet to happen. In that respect, the idea that the mysterious and horrific death of the first human colonists on Mars in 2059, specifically the death of their leader, Captain Adelaide Brooke, acts as the catalyst for endless human expansion beyond the stars, was really excellent. It made the perfect setting to facilitate exploration of the Doctor’s Time Lord self-control, showing him struggling against his impulse to save people he knew must die. That was the compelling premise of this story, played out forcefully in this immaculately written, produced, directed and acted episode.
The Doctor’s struggle to contain his urge to help Brooke and her crew and deliver them from the terrible fate he knew was coming for them was really powerfully conveyed over the course of this episode. His first instinct, upon realising what was going to happen to them that day, was immediately to leave. Brooke refused him. Perhaps if Brooke had allowed him to leave when he first wanted to, the terrible events of later would not have occurred. As the Doctor becomes more involved in what’s going on, and becomes more acquainted with Brooke and her crew, we see him beginning to agonise and doubt himself over whether he’s doing the right thing. He’s obviously tormented over having to leave them to their horrible deaths. The internally pained look on the Doctor’s face as he watched the crew members making desperate, futile preparations to leave the base expressed volumes. Adelaide finally lets him leave, but it’s not clear if he wants to now. He insists to Adelaide that he can’t help her, but he’s not sure now whether he really believes that. The Doctor hears the sounds of the crew screaming and shouting and dying as he walks away from the base, and he’s clearly in moral turmoil. His every fibre militates against what he’s doing, but he shan’t look back. He can’t.
But he does. In a terrible lapse in judgment, he does. He goes back and saves the woman and the remaining crew members who were supposed to die. But there’s something wrong here. This is an all-too familiar scene: the Doctor running around, shouting and laughing as he tries to save good people’s lives. This isn’t supposed to be happening, though; this is the one time where we watch the Doctor doing what we love him for, yet stricken with misgiving, where it all seems so vain and just wrong. Moreover, the Doctor isn’t himself. He seems to have snapped. As he’s trying to save Brooke and the others, he seems unsettlingly unhinged, wild-eyed and manic. It’s not the Doctor’s normal, charming manic look, he seems genuinely deranged, and scary to watch. Something is very wrong here. He brings them back to Earth, while the base was destroyed.
Adelaide challenges him over what he did, over what he shouldn’t have done, and he delivers those arresting, unnerving, spine-chilling lines: “For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious.” “And there’s no one to stop you.” “No.” Those were some of the most memorable, powerful lines in this show’s history. It was perhaps the one time we truly questioned the Doctor, the one time the Doctor truly scared us. The one time the Doctor was the monster. And it was compelling and completely mesmerising. Is this who the Doctor is when he’s alone? When he doesn’t have a companion by his side to stop him, to rein him in and keep him sane? Unfortunately, it looks like it. The Doctor regretted taking companions with him in the last episode, regretted their deaths and their losses, and swore never to allow that to happen again, but this is the other side of that coin: the Doctor needs someone by his side to save him from himself, and to protect others from what he would become. Without a companion to make him better, who’s to say the Doctor won’t himself become the most terrible, fearful force in the universe? The potential is undoubtedly there. The man who’s saved the universe a thousand times over can equally just as easily burn it.
Most of this review was about the Doctor’s moral dilemma and Time Lord Victorious, but here are some final thoughts. I thought Adelaide Brooke was a wonderfully well-written character, and played superbly by Lindsay Duncan. She stands out as one of the best-written one-off companions of the revival, as suitable for such a heavy and monumental script. Adelaide’s recounting of her ethereal experience from her childhood during the events of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End was profoundly beautiful and chilling, as was the Doctor’s bittersweet eulogy to Adelaide and her legacy. As I said, Adelaide was a wonderful character, well-written and well-conceived. I also thought the water creature(s) were very frightening. Extremely, uncharacteristically frightening, in fact, for a family show. Doctor Who has done frightening before, but never like this. The Weeping Angels, the gasmask people in The Empty Child, the Vashta Nerada were in quite a different order of scary; these creatures, and what they do to the humans they take over, would have almost certainly given most children a sleepless night after watching. Well done, RTD, I didn’t think you had it in you. Finally, I don’t think it even needs saying, but David Tennant’s acting was absolutely sublime, powerful and frightening. Almost certainly one of his finest performances. I’m in awe of the man.