“Conjecture – there’s something frozen under the Thames and it’s eating people. Proposal – we need to get a closer look at it. Plan – let’s get eaten.”
As with Martha Jones before her, and Rose Tyler before her, Bill Potts’ second trip in the TARDIS took her to the past of her own planet – and what a marvellously unusual area of the past it was. February 1814, the last of the great London Frost Fairs. These were a fairly regular thing from the 17th to the 19th century, in a period known as the Little Ice Age, when Europe’s winter temperatures were much lower, and the Thames was regularly frozen over with ice up to a foot thick. The Doctor’s even been here before, though we didn’t see it; no sign of River Song being serenaded by Stevie Wonder this week though!
Doctor Who has always done well with 19th century settings, and Thin Ice made the most of it with some sumptuous direction from Bill Anderson. Sarah Dollard, returning as a writer after the enjoyable Face the Raven a couple of years ago, juxtaposed the unusual setting with many ruminations on morality – both humanity’s and the Doctor’s. Plotwise, at heart this was a very trad Doctor Who story; so much so that it was, in essence, the same plot as Steven Moffat’s own The Beast Below, way back in 2010. What enlivened it was the colourful depiction of that distinctive setting; and the frequent moral discussions between the Doctor and Bill, which further showcased the chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie.
It was in keeping with the relationship they’ve already established that, wise though he may be, the Doctor doesn’t have all the answers, and even at 2000 years of age, he can still learn from his human companions. He also restated the mantra from the otherwise execrable Kill the Moon that he “serves at the pleasure of the human race”, which at that point meant Bill; and it was to her that the decision was left. It was a crucial point in their relationship. Allowing Bill to make the decision whether to kill “Tiny” or set it free wasn’t abdicating responsibility; it was sharing it.
The nature of the vast leviathan under the Thames wasn’t really explored, though I don’t think it needed to be. So, it’s a mile long carnivorous marine creature that excretes energy-intensive biofuel; there was also some implication that it was responsible for the periodic freezes that enabled the Frost Fairs; a neat explanation for this being the last one. More to the point, it was an intelligent creature that was imprisoned and suffering, and its habit of eating people was simply because it was hungry – a neat restatement of the Doctor’s equation between ‘evil’ and ‘hunger’ a couple of weeks ago (“or do you think your bacon sandwich loves you back?”).
If it was true evil you wanted, that was left to the humans, in the person of Nicholas Burns’ genuinely nasty Lord Sutcliffe. The show is rarely actively political (with odd exceptions like The Green Death and The Happiness Patrol), but it was telling that the villain of an episode written in the current political climate was a cold-hearted businessman who put profit before people.
In that context, the Doctor’s rousing speech was a welcome restatement of the sort of principles the show’s always had, principles that seem increasingly sparse in the real world – “human progress isn’t defined by industry. It’s defined by the value you put on a human life”. In a world dominated by politicians who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”, that felt like a defiant protest.
Of course, Sutcliffe was very much a product of his time; the expanding British Empire was built on trade and exploitation. It was also built on slavery, as Bill noted at the beginning. As with Martha in The Shakespeare Code, Bill was nervous being a black person in a racist period of history; but the script made much of the possibility that history was in fact a “whitewash”, and certainly not as homogenously white as you might have been led to believe. The show’s been criticised in the past for its attitude to diversity, and I’m glad it took the opportunity to directly address that; it was sledgehammer unsubtle though, and could possibly have been achieved less directly and more artfully. Points for including it, still.
As a result, we got quite a balanced diversity in the ep’s principal guest characters, the gang of urchins making the most of the Frost Fair for some rich pickpocketing opportunities. I’ll admit, when a story uses a group of kids among its protagonists, there’s always a risk that it’ll come off as a stage school outing; but this bunch, spearheaded by Asiatu Kotoma as Kitty, came across well enough.
Besides, street urchins have been a trope of 19th century stories since at least Charles Dickens; and if you’re a kid-hating curmudgeon, you had the consolation of seeing one of them eaten only a third of the way through. Given that Doctor Who is basically a family show, that’s fairly rare. Capaldi’s Doctor initially lacked the easy relationship with children of his predecessor; so it was nice here to see him reading them fairytales by the fire. It was a pretty nasty one mind – Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher from 1845 German storybook StruwwelPeter.
Once again, this year’s ‘arc’ was thankfully barely touched on. But that final scene, with Nardole cowering in terror at the purposeful knocks from inside the Vault, was certainly chilling. So, now we know there’s someone – or something – in the Vault. But who, or what? It was enough to keep your interest piqued while not distracting from the episode as a whole. Steven Moffat’s tenure on the show has been characterised by very complex plot arcs, which often detracted from otherwise good stories; it seems rather ironic that he’s probably achieved a balance in that regard that will please most fans in his very final season.
I thoroughly enjoyed Thin Ice. The direction made the most of a colourful and unusual setting, the plot was direct and straightforward, it had a hissable but believable villain, and it had an excellent script that directly stated much of the show’s moral code in a way that feels needed with the world the way it is. I was impressed with Sarah Dollard’s work on Face the Raven, even while hamstrung by the demands of that season’s larger plot; here, with no such constraints, she delivered a passionate script that was delivered by a superb cast, particularly a Doctor at the top of his game.