Just when the silliness of the 2010 Dr. Who specials was starting to overwhelm, Davies delivered what I consider to be his finest Dr. Who story as a writer. This was the one special that I said should receive a nomination, and it is really good.
This serial does two things that Dr. Who doesn’t do often: 1) it takes place in the near future and deals with early efforts at space colonization (Mars, in this case), and 2) it explores the nature of time travel.
The basic story is that the Doctor stops off on Mars in the twenty-first century, takes a walk in his spacesuit, and runs across the first human colony on Mars. The humans are understandably confused by his arrival, but they’re soon caught up in an attack by some strange water-sucking entity. It’s a great change of pace for the series over the usual trips to a few millions of years in the future, and allows for some decent hard-sf moments (in Classic Who, Mars is home to rubber-suit aliens called Ice Warriors and pyramids dedicated to evil Egyptian deities). The colony looks great (though maybe too roomy), the monsters are effectively creepy, the guest actors are fantastic (especially Lindsay Duncan as Captain Adelaide Brooke), and there’s only one embarrassing moment of camp from Russell T. Davies (it involves a rocket-powered robot).
So, it’s a very good horror tale set in a Martian colony. What pushes it into the realm of greatness is that it does take on some of the central themes of the show. In the classic series, the Doctor often mentioned that you couldn’t change history and then proceeded to do so every week. In the new series, they came up with the compromise that only some moments must remain unchanged and only certain situations create paradoxes. This special focuses on one of those unchangeable moments and then asks if the Doctor can stand by and watch people die. The central conflict is not some crazy monster-of-the-week, it’s with the Doctor’s own ego. There’s a device that Davies used so often that it grew tiresome: everything looks bleaker than bleak, many people have died, the odds are overwhelming, there no way the Doctor can win, and yet, he still manages to turn everything around at the last second. This special has that exact moment – one of the best-realized versions, in fact – and yet manages to subvert it completely. It’s wonderfully dark and challenging, and by far the best of the 2009 specials.