It’s been a while since my last “Fieldwork and the Movies” post (original two are here and here). A recent dose of the flu (combined with a need to code some data) has led to me watching a fair bit of the more recent series with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor.
The Doctor is an interesting take on a fieldworker character. He is the archetypical outsider, and one with a huge amount of power over the humans he helps. He has a vastly superior toolkit, medicine, and weapons to the earthlings he meets. (And let’s face it, every fieldworker needs a sonic screwdriver.) He’s also teased about his accent.
Most Doctor Who episodes of the current set are pretty formulaic. Group of earthlings meet alien life form that tries to kill them, couple of tense moments, brilliant display of strong female co-lead and nifty use of sonic screwdriver, a bit of screaming, and most of the parties live to fight another day.
The Waters of Mars, however, is different. It’s one of the specials from the more recent series. It’s November 21st, 2059, and the first human colony on Mars is about suffer a direct hit from an asteroid. Should the Doctor warn the people on the base so that they can evacuate, thereby changing the course of history? If the leader of the base dies, her granddaughter goes on – inspired by her grandmother – to lead earth’s missions to other planets. The loss of the first Mars base, we are led to believe, has something of the role that the Challenger disaster had. It’s a global tragedy, or, as the Doctor puts it, one of Those moments that can’t be changed. The base leader is one of those people whose death is unalterable.
After a few complications involving parasitic water-generating Martians, the Doctor does end up saving three of the crew, including their leader, and brings them back to Earth. But the doctor was right; instead of dying a hero, the leader commits suicide. Her death was indeed, it seems, one of those points that are fixed in time.
For the most part, the inventions of the Doctor lead to positive outcomes, like the salvation of the world. But there are times when they have terrible consequences for individuals, when those interventions lead to unwelcome self-knowledge or irrevocable changes. Fieldworkers seldom face such calamitous outcomes these days, but they do have some measure of power over their consultants, and they shouldn’t forget it.