Now, I like Doctor Who. That should be no surprise to anyone. After all, it would be a very strange man or woman who would dedicate their free time to writing about a show they disliked, much less swanning off to their local con in their AbbyShot coat and other assorted costuming to tell people, “Meh. Doctor Who. Don’t really care for it myself.” But even the most die hard fan knows that it’s not without the odd bum episode. Some will even tell you how much they adore Doctor Who “except for [insert entire decade here].” So the remarkable thing about Thin Ice isn’t that it’s a great episode (and it is) but that it’s the third great episode in a row. Traditionally once you’re at the third episode of the season, the brilliance of one or two of the episodes has been offset by one that feels like a hurried, unfocused, last minute effort. Series Five gave us the utter perfection of “The Eleventh Hour”, on which heels “The Beast Below” and “Victory of the Daleks” rapidly followed to lower the mood. “The Impossible Astronaut” two-parter was startling stuff… and then “The Curse of the Black Spot” happened. The thrilling and wonderful “Bells of St. John” led into “The Rings of Akhaten” – an episode that was jaw dropping for all the wrong reasons.
So our new friend Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) has had an uncommonly strong introduction and Season Ten so far is showing off a show that’s at the top of its game, artistically, dramatically and performance wise. It’s an exciting time to be a fan!
In Thin Ice she and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) are taken by the TARDIS to the last Frost Fair. It’s 1814 and a tradition dating back to 1608 is coming to an end, though only the Doctor realizes that yet. The entire Thames, running straight through the heart of Regency London, is frozen solid enough for markets and parties and entertainers to ply their trade on. It’s a dramatic image and a compelling idea, so it’s no wonder it’s appeared in Doctor Who before. According to “A Good Man Goes to War”, somewhere upriver from this episode’s events the Eleventh Doctor is having Stevie Wonder entertain River Song for her birthday, and a number of tie-in books and stories claim the whole area is abuzz with Doctors just missing each other but this our first proper visit there as viewers. The Doctor immediately senses something must be up as the TARDIS wouldn’t bring them off course unless there was trouble to be had, and soon he and Bill are investigating while dressed to the early 19th century nines from the wardrobe room. “The TARDIS has dresses and likes a bit of trouble? I think I’m low key in love with her,” Bill smiles.
The Doctor and Bill, suited and booted Regency style
Bill continues to be a great addition to the series, one which uplifts and re-invigorates the character of the Doctor and the series generally. She’s probably the keenest to challenge the Doctor on his lifestyle and beliefs since Donna while also being the most wide eyed and optimistic about the possibilities of making the world a better place. Interestingly, her feelings and interrogations about the Doctor’s past mark her out as the first truly post-Day of the Doctor companion. While once upon a time the Doctor would practically introduce himself to new companions with “I’m the Doctor and I once killed billions of my own people,” here Bill has to lever the information that he’s ever killed anyone out of him and judges him harshly for it.
The Doctor gets that sinking feeling
For the Doctor’s part, Bill somehow reflects his Twelfth incarnation’s unusual cold and pragmatic style in a more humane and less brusque way. It’s possibly the way he engages, rather than shuts down, her criticisms and, even if he’s charmingly befuddled by her point of view, tries to learn from it. This goes both ways, of course, with Bill at one point telling the Doctor to stop telling her what to think, while he points out that he’s her teacher – it’s his job to tell her things.
And it does feel like this season is giving us the perfected version of the Twelfth Doctor. His occasional flashes of a brutal lack of sympathy is still there, but his acts of kindness come much more often and he’s presented as a moral force in the universe, who actually cares very deeply. And more often than not, the two collide for comic effect, whether that be the Doctor shoplifting a whole D’Orsay hat of meat pies just to prove he can (and then giving them away to starving street children) or comforting those same children over a death by reading them children’s books from (their) future by the fireside – but selecting Shockheaded Peter, a series of horrific cautionary tales where unwary children meet terrible fates.
It’s a telling choice of book by the Doctor, as it also chimes with the themes of Thin Ice. One story features a boy who abuses animals only to be savaged by a beast he pushes too far. Another sees a passing traveller visiting justice upon three young racists he catches bullying a black child. It’s a nice touch that these echo Thin Ice’s villain. Though a grown man, Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) is a petulant pouting man-child and more to the point he’s a racist, animal abusing man-child as well. His chaining an elephant to have it dragged around sub zero temperatures for the amusement of gawpers would be enough to get him in the modern RSPCA’s bad books, but the fact he’s doing it to attract the peasantry on to the ice to be eaten by a giant sea serpent he’s also got chained up below is a whole other level. Add that this is all in pursuit of pure, naked greed (it turns out that giant sea serpent poo makes awesome fuel for the furnaces of his factories) and you start to get the idea Lord Sutcliffe may not be a very nice person. At all.
Lord Sutcliffe is a good, old fashioned, loathsome villain
He’s also quite magnificently racist, even for 1814. Eyes bulging out of his head at the horror of having Bill in his house he declares her to “this creature ,” berates her for not knowing her place under the heels of her “betters” and sneers at “the ignorance of all [her] kind.” For his trouble he gets a rather spectacular punch in the face from a Doctor fresh from lecturing Bill on the power of diplomacy and tact. Some have complained about this showing a ‘political’ point of view but I’d like to think that for most of us ‘racism is bad’ and is not a controversial stance to take. It also leads to one of the finest lines in the story as the Doctor and Bill both agree that Sutcliffe must be human, rather than an alien imposter, as no alien could fake that level of racism.
Asiatu Koroma plays Kitty, leader of a gang of street urchins under threat
The episode not only confronts racism head on, but also enfolds the arguments against it into its wider ideas about morality and the value of all life. The episode begins with a worried Bill pointing to herself, “Melanin. Slavery is still totally a thing,” but also soon noting that Regency England is “more black than they show in the movies.” The Doctor’s response is that “so was Jesus. History is a whitewash.” When Sutcliffe attempts to spin the death of a white, but homeless, child as justified by his new afterlife as sea serpent poo helping the march of industrialization, the Doctor responds ““Human progress isn’t measured by industry; it’s measured by the value you place on a life, an unimportant life, a life without privilege.” At the climax Bill is faced with a choice (or a rather high pressure test question set by her tutor, depending on how you look at it) as to whether to kill or save the potentially lethal sea serpent and the Doctor’s words come back to her.
It’s all a little more sophisticated than a simplistic “punch a racist” message (as satisfying as that may be) or even previous historicals, which largely chose to acknowledge the more diverse than advertised demographics of the past while sidestepping or totally ignoring the racism that often went hand in hand with it . Dealing with white supremacy, modern erasure of people of colour from European history and the way humans endlessly invent to grade some people as worth more than others (whether that be by race, monetary wealth or education) Thin Ice neatly points out how facile it all is while never distracting from being a thrilling tale where adventurers in diving suits confront monsters of the deep and our heroes must defuse a really big bomb against the clock.
Come the end, the Doctor has offhandedly elevated a random homeless street kid to the aristocracy and massive wealth – a suitable capstone for its themes of how artificial and meaningless the divisions created by accidents of birth are.
As if the quality of the script and performances weren’t enough, it’s a great looking episode. While last week made fantastic use of a unique location, this week’s recreation of the icy Thames, complete with bridge, promenade and townhouses, as a set in the studio is remarkably convincing and the quality of the winter sunlight makes this yet another beautifully photographed episode.
Nardole, meanwhile, makes what’s little more than a cameo appearance this week, though Matt Lucas retains his billing in the opening titles. He’s vexed by the Doctor’s remarkably weak denials at having gone travelling – sitting in Regency garb only seconds, from Nardole’s perspective, after being dressed in his usual hoodie/frockcoat combo and claiming they’re his “special tea-drinking clothes,” and frustrated by the Doctor “naughtiness.” He’s also, probably not without cause, concerned that The Thing in the Vault knows the Doctor is increasingly distracted by Bill’s presence and is readying itself for an opportunity. For it’s begun knocking to be let out.
[Five TARDISes Out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan