It’s been a long while since Doctor Who has done a historical. The last historical (an episode set in Earth’s past) was 2015’s The Woman Who Lived which took us to 1651 England. And now two years later, the historicals are back (and according to reports this will be the only one in Series 10). Sitting in the writer’s chair is Sarah Dollard; writer of the critically acclaimed and universally loved Face the Raven (Series 9 Episode 10) which is remembered most for ending in the apparent “death” of former companion Clara Oswald. So to say the bar was high for Dollard’s second entry is saying something.
Thin Ice takes the Doctor and Bill to 1814 London, to the last of the great frost fairs only to find there’s something under the ice eating people. Unlike most historicals, where the setting takes a backseat to the story, Thin Ice took the time to indulge in the Frost Fairs showing the Doctor and Bill having some fun while exploring. This is something I hope the show continues, it’s nice to see the Doctor and his companion having fun in the past before taking on the threat of the week. In fact, it was probably the episode’s plot that was its weakest aspect; it was overly familiar and a story Doctor Who has done before. A giant monster deep below, kept prisoner in a barbaric way and fed a regular diet of humans before the Doctor and his companion free the creature in an act of compassion. Thin Ice or 2010’s The Beast Below? But tackling a familiar story allowed the episode to focus on other aspects such as character development and the racial tensions found in our past.
As the Doctor says early in the episode; “history is a whitewash”. This perhaps speaks true of the show’s treatment of the past has always strayed away from dealing with the social and racial tensions of the time. Apart from a jab made from a snobby schoolboy to Martha in 2007’s Human Nature, the show hasn’t really touched it at all. So it comes as a great surprise to see it dealt with here. As we see in the episode, Bill fears how the people of the past will treat her. But, as the Doctor points out, history is a bit more colourful than you’d think. The Doctor points to Jesus as an example; commonly portrayed as white but was almost certainly not. But there are a few people who don’t look at Bill the same way as everyone else. And, tying into the strong character work of the episode, the Doctor is not quite as ready to let it slide as he says. For instance, despite saying he is more handled to talking to Sutcliffe than Bill due to him having a cooler temper, the Doctor at once punches Sutcliffe without warning as soon as Sutcliffe refers to Bill as a “creature” due to her skin colour. This tackling of racial issues would have been the episode’s highlight had there not been some excellent character work as well.
The episode really delved into the Doctor and Bill’s relationship, providing us a quite different look at the 12th Doctor. The Doctor, at first, doesn’t seem to care about the lives of those at the Frost Fair. Indeed, in one of the darker moments of the episode, the Doctor dives for the hand of Spider as he is sucked into the ice only for us to see the Doctor is only attempting to retrieve his Sonic Screwdriver and not save the life of the young boy; the Doctor having already dismissed him as beyond saving. At first this seems like an incredibly callous act (expect the BBC to receive complaints) but, once thrown into context, makes a lot more sense. As the Doctor explains to Bill, he’s seen countless death and moves on quickly but yet, in his speech to Sutcliffe, he places great pride on the value of a single life and angrily uses Spider’s death as a way to appeal to Sutcliffe’s humanity. It throws the Doctor’s earlier actions into a new light. While to us and Bill, it appeared the Doctor could have saved the boy but perhaps to the Doctor, who has more experience in these matters, it’s probable Spider was already dead. Considering how frozen the boy’s hand was it’s likely this was the case. The Doctor’s later attempts to improve the lives of Spider’s friends also indicates the death was weighing heavily on his mind; from giving them food to reading them a bedtime story to finally altering Sutcliffe’s will to allow the children to inherit his house, title and money. These same thoughts were also clearly running through Bill’s mind in the episode. At first she reacts with horror at the Doctor’s apparently callous attitude, she later comes to understand why the Doctor acts like he does and, while she may not always agree with it, she can come to accept it. This begins to rub off on Bill as, when the Doctor asks her what is to be done with the creature, Bill asks him to set it free regardless of what may happen. Indeed, this episode felt like the Doctor was testing Bill’s morality. It’s likely, if she had wanted the creature to die or be left to rot, her travelling with the Doctor would have ended then and there. But Bill’s decision seemed to spark some pride from the Doctor, perhaps implying he has a great plan for her in mind.
All of this was done brilliantly with some wonderful performances from Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie. The two show real spark and work together brilliantly. The show continually makes me want to spend more time with them, with the two having the same kind of chemistry that made previous TARDIS teams so engaging. The 12th Doctor, Bill and Nardole could be well on their way to rivalling the 11th Doctor, Amy, Rory and River Song as the quintessential TARDIS team. Special mention must also go to guest star Nicholas Burns as Sutcliffe who, despite limited screen time, managed to make a truly despicable Doctor Who villain.
Despite all this however, the episode had its issues. The pacing was a little off at times leading the episode to feel slightly rushed when the story had to come into focus. It was when the episode slowed down and focused on the characters that it truly shined. Thin Ice isn’t the first Doctor Who episode to suffer from this issue. Perhaps BBC should consider bumping up the length of the average Doctor Who episode from 45 to 50 minutes? An extra 5 minutes spread throughout episodes such as Thin Ice could greatly improve the pacing.
So was Thin Ice perfect? No. It has issues. It’s a little rushed and could have done with a little less dashing about and a little more focus on the excellent character work. But that said, it was also a lot of fun. Sarah Dollard has proven herself to be an excellent asset to Doctor Who, having delivered two quality episodes featuring some of the best character work in the show. BBC would be mad to not secure her ASAP for the next series. Thin Ice may not have surpassed Face the Raven, but it provides more of what made it such a modern classic in the first place.
Trivia: With Spider’s death, this episode is the first Doctor Who episode to feature the death of a child since 2008’s The Stolen Earth – not counting any off-screen deaths during invasions.
Being set in 1814, the episode is a little too early for the Paternoster Gang (Vastra, Jenny and Strax) explaining their absence.
Lingering questions: So, it’s not less a what than a who that is trapped in the vault. Is it the Master? Or is that perhaps too obvious? Whoever it is, they seem to terrify Nardole perhaps implying they may not be a friendly face.
Quote of the week: “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. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age, that’s… what defines a species.” – The Doctor