Doctor Who: 10-03 “Thin Ice” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
After last week’s run-in with some initially not too friendly Emoji-Bots, The Doctor and Bill have arrived (directly after last week!) in Regency-era London, where the Thames has frozen over and the last of the great Frost Fairs is taking place in 1814 – with an elephant parading on the ice, fun and joy to be had all around, and a gigantic beast like the exact shape of the river stirring below. It’s these kind of location shifts that just make Doctor Who so great, isn’t it? After killing off Clara Oswald in last series’ Face the Raven (YAY! or BOO! depending on where you land on the Impossible Girl), Sarah Dollard is back for another adventure in Thin Ice, which is less about mysterious Trap Streets this time and more about the social injustices about the era in which our heroes land. Oh, and a bloody massive creature under the river.
One of the joys of last week’s episode was the fact that writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce allowed The Doctor and Bill to explore the world they had landed in at a leisurely pace, letting us enjoy the beautiful location. And while the plot kicks into gear much faster than last week, Thin Ice continues to blossom the burgeoning relationship that The Doctor and Bill have – as student and teacher, and as friends. And when so much painstaking effort has clearly gone into building the Frost Fair, that can only be a good thing. Bill’s curiosity and sci-fi know-how shines through once again in the early stages here, bringing up the classic “what happens when you step on a butterfly in the past” question, which The Doctor immediately tells her to stop worrying about, comically shrugging it off and pretending it maybe is a thing after all and Bill has lost a friend to this effect (RIP Pete).
I touched upon the matter last week in Smile, but it is a genuinely terrific positive that the writing for Bill thus far has managed to portray her lines of questioning as earnest and genuine, and not annoying. Little character moments like her determination to try “EVERYTHING” at the fair (of course this soon changes when she sees the food on offer!) are reactions we can see ourselves in – after all, who wouldn’t want to take it all in? Throughout the episode, Bill continues to learn more about The Doctor and his world, including learning of his age, and she doesn’t drop the subject, she brings it back up at a later stage. It’s consistent character work for those who may be picking up the show with this series.
After The Doc and Bill spend some time enjoying the fair, taking in sword swallowers and wrestling amongst other festivities, the Sonic Screwdriver is stolen by some young pickpockets, who are chased onto some thin ice (cough), where one of the pickpockets is abducted by strange lights beneath the ice. And from here is where the crux of the episode comes from – with Bill, and how she discovers about The Doctor and his world, much like last week. But this time, rather than the often-brutal circumstances of the universe The Doctor travels, it’s about the nature of The Doctor himself and his character. The way The Doctor snatches the screwdriver from the doomed child and moves past it as a matter of fact is an effective way of showing Bill that sometimes not everyone can be saved.
This is what the Twelfth Doctor and his belief system is. For someone who was thoroughly engrossed by the Series 8 “am I a good man?” arc, this is arguably the closest The Doctor has acted in comparison to his sombre Series 8 counterpart since the close of that series for me. The exchange that follows is gripping, and superbly written by Dollard, especially as this is the first time that Bill has seen a death. It’s an interesting moment that has never really been explored before – a companion seeing someone die before their eyes for the first time. Sure, Bill saw the skeletons of the colonists last time out, but this week she sees poor orphan boy Spider snatched before her eyes, and The Doctor can’t do a thing – and this doesn’t faze him, while it moves and disturbs Bill so deeply that it affects her for the rest of the episode.
It’s a tough lesson for Bill to learn, but in the end, she understands, and she too “moves on”. That initial confrontation is electric in every sense of the word, sparks flying as Bill locks eyes with The Doctor, demanding simple yes or no answers from him as she probes him, including whether he has killed anyone. As Bill learns these darker aspects of The Doctor’s character, there is a danger that the tonal shifts could be awkward, especially given there is plenty of humour in this episode (including The Doctor’s obsession with finding out how a coin trick is done from a local con man) but it’s major credit to the script that it balances the severity of proceedings with some levity.
As The Doctor and Bill eventually discover the evil face behind the beast below the ice who is feeding people to it, Lord Sutcliffe, The Doctor presses a point that sometimes diplomacy is most important in dealing with some problems- proceeding then to smack Sutcliffe square in the jaw after he racial abuses Bill. As satisfying as it is to see, it outlines The Doctor as a hypocrite, with one of his key lines in the initial confrontation between himself and Bill being that “in 2000 years I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage”. But in fact, it is hypocrisy of the best kind, because there is always time for outrage in The Doctor’s world, whether that be outrage against racial intolerance or outrage of a majestic creature kept trapped for personal gain and evil.
And believe me, Lord Sutcliffe is the purest of evil, happy to treat non-white people as beneath him and to feed people to the creature with no tinge of compassion. Not even a Capaldi speech can move him! Thin Ice is positively dripping in moral complexity, and the Capaldi speech is absolutely one of his greatest moments thus far – it’s not your Flatline, Zygon Inversion speech, a full-on Malcolm Tucker like fury volcano of righteousness, it’s quiet and understated, talking toward compassion and how the way you value a life is what judges what your own life is worth. It doesn’t move Sutcliffe of course, but it wasn’t meant for him – it was clearly meant for Bill. And it helps show her that even though there may be cruel things you can’t stop, having basic human compassion will always win out. This is especially important given that Thin Ice touches upon many prescient modern day topics, including errant capitalism and whitewashing, addressing topics of the period as well (which is something I’d love to see more of in Doctor Who) such as slavery, which The Doctor resigns is a fact of the time.
By the time Thin Ice wraps up, the orphans oversee Sutcliffe’s estate (the Lord himself eaten by the creature- lovely) and the creature is free. Bill has learned plenty about The Doctor, and that his world isn’t always easy – but with a kind heart, you can get through it. She ultimately is the one who makes the decision to set the creature free (echoing Kill the Moon and The Beast Below) and it’s her conscious that drives her to do the right thing. Bill and The Doctor’s relationship is only going to blossom more and more, and I’m fascinated to see it do so! Thin Ice is a very different beast to Sarah Dollard’s last script Face the Raven, but it’s an adventure that balances heavily complex morals (of both the period and The Doctor himself) with a general sense of fun that makes it a blast to watch. Sarah Dollard has easily marked herself as a standout writer from the Capaldi era!