When Doctor Who is at its best it is exploring relevant modern concepts through the filter of foreign settings and contexts. ‘Thin Ice’ does exactly this, dealing with racism and the whitewashing of history within Regency era England. As well as tackling these larger issues at play, Sarah Dollard (our very own homegrown Australian screenwriter) starts to test the limits of the Doctor and Bill’s relationship.
As a standalone episode, it is successful in what it sets out to achieve–a straightforward, conventional plot with a clear line drawn between the good and bad guys. Despite this, it does play with our expectations a little and gives us enough to mull over before next week’s episode.
As we saw at the end of the previous episode, the Doctor and Bill have accidentally ended up in Regency era London, right on top of the River Thames. The year is 1814, and it is the last of the Frost Fairs that ever took place.
For a bit of context, the River Thames Frost Fairs were semi-regular events which were held whenever one of London’s Great Frosts hit. The River Thames would freeze over completely, and the Frost Fairs would make the most of this by setting up markets, shows, and a whole range of commercial events for locals and travellers.
Bill enters this foreign yet all too familiar world, and as usual, she rockets off a list of questions about the logic of time travel and the butterfly effect. She and the Doctor don era-appropriate outfits and blend right into the crowd, planning simply to make the most of the fair. But of course travelling with the Doctor is never this simple because people are being pulled underneath the ice, and it soon falls into the hands of the Doctor and Bill to find out what exactly is going on.
When Bill was cast as a non-white character, I personally hoped that the show would be able to use this to its advantage and demonstrate its versatility in tackling some difficult and controversial subject matter. ‘Thin Ice’ explores this and uses it as fuel for some playful, yet clever, dialogue:
Bill: Regency England. Bit more black than they show in the movies.
Doctor: So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.
Later on the Doctor gets his own moment to punch this week’s villain, Lord Sutcliffe, right in the face for a passing racist remark aimed at Bill.
Before meeting Lord Sutcliffe, all we know is that there is a giant snake living beneath the Thames eating people and turning them into extremely flammable fuel (i.e. poo). The assumption here made by the Doctor, as well as the audience, is that the person who is capitalising on this valuable product is some sort of egocentric alien. Unfortunately for the human race, Lord Sutcliffe is merely an egocentric human with a severe lack of compassion for the human lives that are sacrificed for his own profit.
Bill is also starting to question the Doctor’s own goodness, providing some beautiful character development for both characters. After the Doctor’s callous reaction to a child’s unfortunate death, Bill responds with complete disgust and disbelief at his carelessness, asking him:
Have you ever killed anyone?
The Doctor dodges her questions, not wishing to confront this part of himself that he has confronted many times before in the past. Instead he turns it back on her, hypocritically stating:
I am 2000 years old, and I have never had time for the luxury of outrage.
So far Bill’s role as a companion is a far cry from Clara, who increasingly became more of a desensitised thrill-seeker over the last two series. It is very satisfying to have a moral compass back in the show to keep the Doctor grounded and hold him accountable for his occasionally ruthless actions.
Conceptual explorations and character development aside though, the plot doesn’t get quite enough time to develop naturally and smoothly. Just as last week’s episode ‘Smile’ brushed over its climax, in ‘Thin Ice’ the villain’s final plan to blow up the ice is rushed and disappointing.
Ultimately, the Doctor and Bill thwart his schemes and set the underwater snake free into the ocean.
In a moment reminiscent of ‘Kill the Moon’, the Doctor leaves the fate of humanity up to the humans rather than forcing his own alien ideals onto them. This has been a key part of the Twelfth Doctor’s character, giving some great insight into how his own morality plays out even when he’s not empathising with individuals.
For this week’s contribution to the story arc, we realise we have been asking the wrong question all along; it shouldn’t be “What is behind the vault?”, but “Who is behind the vault?”. We hear a series of knocks coming from behind it as Nardole tells the unknown person/human/alien behind it that the Doctor won’t be letting it out any time soon. This slow build to what is expected to be an eventual reveal of who is being kept prisoner by the Doctor and Nardole is truly gripping, and makes this series all the more exciting.
This episode is a standard but fun adventure into the past. However, we are still waiting in anticipation for a Series 10 episode in the same ilk as ‘Listen’, ‘The Zygon Inversion’ and ‘Heaven Sent’ that will be memorable in years to come. To achieve this, character and plot need to be equally balanced, but so far this series each episode has leant towards the former. This is understandable as we are still getting to know Bill and the dynamic of her relationship with the Doctor, but hopefully now that the foundations have been laid we can see a step towards more complex, intricate stories.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!