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Thoughts: Doctor Who "Waters of Mars"

Time and Tide
It took a while, but I finally tidied up the inside of my head enough to put some thoughts down relating to "Waters of Mars." Not a review, actually; more a riff and a contemplation. But yes, to cut from my own febrile blatherings to the chase, I liked it, a great deal. And perhaps I'll have other thoughts on it before The End, of a less floridly purple nature. **************
     Water runs downhill. Time moves forward.
     There’s nothing surprising about either statement. Physics: it’s the law – just ask Newton, or Einstein. Don’t ask Heisenberg, Schrodinger or Planck, though, because they might ask you this: What happens when it isn’t, necessarily?
     That’s the thing that struck me about “Waters of Mars,” and that I can’t seem to get out of my head – the similarity between water and time, and how much of a brilliant connection Russell T. Davies made when he put both at the center of this story, the beginning of the end for the Tenth Doctor.
     Think about what happens when you try to stop water; think about what the Doctor told Adelaide and everyone else on Bowie Base more than once.
     You can’t stop water.
     You can reroute it for a little while, through irrigation ditches or pipes, behind dams and levee walls. But eventually, it will escape the ditches, punch through the pipes, breach the dams and surmount the levees. Eventually it will find a way to run downhill, to find the level it – not you, nor me, nor an entire Army Corps of Engineers – wants.  
     Well, there is one way to stop water, but only by turning it into something else. You can boil it away, you can freeze it, you can let the sun steam and dry it into nonexistence – and even then, it’s still water in waiting. 
     Somewhere, that steam will condense into droplets. Somewhere what moisture the sun chased into the soil will meet up with an aquifer and return to the surface. Somewhere, even if it’s at the pole or floating in the black of space, a chunk of ice holds the promise of water, if only summer comes or it enters the orbit of a star, the pull of a planet. Then it’s back, and it becomes fog, and rain, freshets, rivers, oceans. And it is so, so much larger than we are, and it can win every fight we pick with it if we’re not careful. Ask sailors on the sea.
     Now think about time. You can’t stop it, either. Like water, it runs downhill. It runs in one direction – yes it does, eventually. Even in a universe that welcomes the Doctor, and pretends to run by an entirely different set of rules, a set which allows time to swirl and eddy like water round rocks, to be routed into ditches, imprisoned in pipes or held back from its proper course behind a levee or a dam. Time runs in one direction, and nothing out of Gallifrey can change that.
     Time Lords called themselves that, but they weren’t, not really. They could manage time, certainly, but they could never really master it, and they knew that, because they knew time so well. They knew the rules they lived by weren’t their rules. They were time’s rules; the universe’s rules, even in a fairy tale universe.
     The last Time Lord’s no different. The Doctor may jump from day to year to century at a whim, as a child jumps from stone to stone in the river, but he’s ruled by time and ushered forward by its pull as surely as that child’s motion is ultimately ruled by what the river allows her to do.
     The Doctor was born. He has aged. He has died and returned, nine times he’s done it, and each time he’s returned he has been one step older. He cannot grow younger, no matter that he has dark hair now where he once had white. Ultimately, he is as linear as any human, as linear as the rest of any universe – his or ours. He still runs downhill, because that is the only direction time ultimately allows any of us to take.
     We live in time. We are born into it, carried along in it, die in it. And he’s known that forever, even if he played a little more with time, in his time, than his more sedate brethren. He always lived by those rules, even if he bent them a little.
     But time came to Mars, water rose on Mars, and the Doctor forgot.
     It’s a forgivable sin – no need for anyone to say “I’m sorry.” Who could blame him for wanting to run uphill? Who could blame him for wanting to bend that rule until the rust flaked off it, until it screamed and broke under the continued pressure?
     It’s not surprising, not for the Doctor, who has, after all, lived centuries of a life that could trick one into thinking one can bargain with time. It’s not surprising for someone who’s lost so much, over and over again, who’s destroyed so much and saved so many at such personal cost. After enough time passes, after enough pressure from the implacable currents, even the strongest, the most steely of souls suffers metal fatigue, creaks, screams and crumples. Someone can become desperate to break the rules, or forget them.
     That kind of forgetting, though? It’s sin; forgivable, but mortal.
     All the mortal sins are about defying the laws of physics, you know. You can survive other sins, but you can’t survive breaking the laws of physics, whether they’re Newtonian, Einsteinian or Heisenberg’s and Planck’s.
     And when you sin against the natural order, unnatural things happen. Water will run in rivulets from the pores of your skin, from under the cuff of your jacket. You will vomit water, it will erupt and geyser, it will come from someplace inside of you from where there's no room for it to be, and it will be wrong.
     When you try to turn time uphill, you will ignore the knowledge that sits not only in your head, but your gut, and pretend you can change the laws. You will pretend that Gallifrey made those laws when, really, you know in your bones that Gallifrey simply bowed to them. And you will still do it, and it will be wrong.
     You have sinned. Because - to go back to the beginning - I lied about what Heisenberg and the others might say.
     Water runs downhill. When you try to thwart water, it will drown you. Time moves forward. When you try to thwart time, you will sink beneath its waves like a stone.


( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 12th, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)
Guh. That's freaking gorgeous. And very, very true . . .

Thinking about the Time Lords and their technology and the kinds of things they used to do with Time always reminds me of these lines from Kipling's "The Secret of Machines" -- even more so after seeing WoM:

"But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die . . ."

Although the gears and cogs the Time Lords work with are the physical laws themselves, the thought still holds.

Edited at 2009-12-12 08:52 pm (UTC)
Dec. 12th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC)
Oh, I like that! It is so absolutely apropos!
Dec. 12th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC)
Wow, I really love this lyrical meditation on the implacability of water and time! You draw your parallels very well.
Dec. 12th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks. It took a while to percolate (ahem) but I started thinking about the parallels about 15 minutes after I saw the episode.
Dec. 12th, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC)
This is beautiful.
Dec. 12th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you, my dear.
Dec. 13th, 2009 11:01 am (UTC)
Here via link from selenak - this is quite amazing. Beautiful, insightful and so very true.
Dec. 13th, 2009 12:50 pm (UTC)
Followed the same link - that feels exactly right, many thanks for posting
Dec. 13th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome; and it is nice to see you again! (It's been a long time since RASFF for me.)
Dec. 13th, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for your words. I'd hoped that I had accurately perceived at least one facet of the story, and I think perhaps I have. Glad you enjoyed it.
Dec. 13th, 2009 12:39 pm (UTC)
Here from who_daily - thanks for this, the most original insight into The Waters of Mars which I have read.
Dec. 13th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Whoah; that's high praise indeed, and I thank you for it.
Dec. 13th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
This is absolutely gorgeous - lyrical, even. Thank you.
Dec. 13th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!
Dec. 13th, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
Oh I like this. Very poetic, very apt.
Dec. 13th, 2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it!
Dec. 14th, 2009 01:27 am (UTC)
Really absorbing meta. It's the most original piece of writing on TWoM I've seen. You did a great job describing the parallels between the flow of water and the flow of time.
Dec. 14th, 2009 02:22 am (UTC)
I appreciate your comment so very much! I have been looking through other folks' really good writing about the episode, but thought I might add this idea to the overall conversation, since I hadn't noticed anyone taking a look in this fashion. I suspect it's out there, though, and probably done beautifully by someone else.
Dec. 14th, 2009 05:45 am (UTC)
Well done, kaffyr. Captures the essence of the episode and the Doctor's ... flow so very well.

-twop's cutecouple
Dec. 14th, 2009 06:56 am (UTC)
Re: Brilliant!
Hey there! Thanks for the high praise!
Jan. 4th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC)
Is truth. Is poetry. (bows to you)
Jan. 4th, 2010 04:11 am (UTC)
Wow. Thanks!
Jan. 4th, 2010 04:14 am (UTC)
It made me love the episode all over again.
Jan. 4th, 2010 04:17 am (UTC)
Aha. My work here is done. :)
Mar. 3rd, 2010 08:43 am (UTC)
Here very late on a rec from kalypso_v; what an elegant, and powerful, extrapolation from the water metaphor. It works particularly beautifully in the light of what we now know came next ;-) Thank you for that!
Mar. 3rd, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for your comments; I am glad that what I wrote holds up after time!
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 3rd, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC)
I don't mind in the least! (I said this elsewhere, but managed to put it in the wrong place. Sigh.) Welcome!
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 1st, 2010 12:03 am (UTC)
Oh, goodness, it's more than alright. It's a bit of an honor, actually; thanks!
Mar. 28th, 2010 12:56 am (UTC)
Sooooo, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle for quantum physics isn't going to cut it in this case. The force of gravity on that water -- not just a good idea, but the law. Well and truly reasoned. It is to be hoped, that Heisenberg, wherever he may be, could take note, unlikely thought that be.
Mar. 28th, 2010 01:19 am (UTC)
Sooooo, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle for quantum physics isn't going to cut it in this case.

No indeed. Certainty postponed is still certainty. Thanks for commenting!
Jul. 20th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
Hey! elisi pointed me over here while we were debating some of the current season, and I'm very glad she did. Such a linchpin episode and you do a brilliant, not to mention lyrical, job of describing why it's so important.

Will definitely be bookmarking this for future reference.
Jul. 20th, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your kind words - I'm a little croggled that this thing is still getting comments after all this time. I'm honored that you think it's worth bookmarking; I've certainly enjoyed many of your comments!
Jul. 24th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
Linked here by elisi. I really like how you've drawn the parallels between water and time - we talk about how time is a river, don't we? We talk about how things in the past are 'water under the bridge'. The Doctor should have listened to himself: water is patient, water can wait. This is why water always wins. And this is why time always wins. This was such an important episode for the Tenth Doctor and I really like how you expressed this.
Jul. 24th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you - I'm glad you liked it. You've very accurately noted that thematic connection between water and time is already familiar to humans. This episode explored, I think, the other part of that idea; that both are defined by rules, because they are creatures of physics, and that terrible things happen when you try to ignore the rules. (Which is actually a recurring theme in a lot of tragedies and not a few of those Grade Z late night horror flicks, come to think of it.)
Aug. 27th, 2010 05:06 am (UTC)
All the mortal sins are about defying the laws of physics, you know.

In what way? I think this is an interesting idea, I'm just not sure how you're using the term "mortal sins." Are you referring to the Catholic concept of mortal vs. venial sins?

I've been linked to this meta more than once, and it's a really interesting and lovely analysis. I didn't enjoy Waters of Mars, but I think you dig out the important ideas that were buried in it, and that's redeemed the episode for me at least a little.
Aug. 27th, 2010 06:45 am (UTC)
Thanks for the question. I like it when people ask that I revisit what I write; it's what keeps me intellectually honest, and reminds me not to be flip.

In this case, I was referring back, at least in part, to the Roman Catholic concept of mortal and venial sin, although I employed it in two opposing manners.

A mortal sin is one into which you knowingly enter, one that leaves you at severe risk of killing your own soul. It is, even more than a venial sin, a choice and, in that, I used the example to mirror the Doctor's knowing sin - of choosing to ignore what he knew he could and couldn't do.

Breaking the laws of physics - trying to negate gravity, to reverse time, to breathe without oxygen, to never die - simply can't be done. If you try to walk on air, you fall to your death. It's not a matter of choice.

So, if one chooses to break a law which one know leaves one no choice, that is a remarkably twisted decision - a knowing choice to do wrong. It's a mortal sin, and it will kill you.

And ultimately, the Doctor made that kind of choice, and suffered the consequence.

As I said, I played "compare and contrast" in my head with three concepts: physics, sin, and choice, and that sentence wrote itself.

Aug. 27th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. I see what you're saying, but I still don't get how trying to break the laws of physics is sinful. I suppose you could say it's a kind of fatal pride, but even then I don't think all the mortal sins are about defying the laws of physics.
Aug. 31st, 2010 01:52 am (UTC)
I think that, like all writers, I employed simile and metaphor; past a certain point, I am using imagery, and this may be that point. Because, when we get right down to it, "sin" is an ethical and/or moral concept, and moral or ethical concepts can be hard to apply to the inescapable facts of physics. With the Doctor, an imaginary character who can do things that are impossible in our world (physics tells us that, so far as we know, travel in time a la Gallifreyan conveyance, just isn't going to happen) we can play at it.

And ultimately, it is a writerly conceit that I chose to use to express my belief that, while we can survive sins that we arbitrarily create for ourselves in terms of faith, the universe itself has total power over us by virtue of gravity, time, and all the other real things that govern every breath we take, if we try to go against those, we die.

Aug. 31st, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)
Oh, when you explain it like that, it makes a lot more sense. I think what you're saying is something along the lines of what it means to talk about "laws" of physics? As in, they aren't laws in the sense that if you break one, you will be sent to jail--they're laws in the sense that you can't break them, that they are simply descriptions of what always happens.
Aug. 31st, 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
Yes, that's a fairly accurate way to put it. And thanks for your questions!
Aug. 31st, 2010 02:10 am (UTC)
Thanks for taking the time to explain it to me! :)
( 43 comments — Leave a comment )

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