Writer Sarah Dollard’s first contribution to Doctor Who was last season’s “Face the Raven.” I was lukewarm on that episode, though that had little to do with Dollard’s script; she was tasked with killing off Clara, yet not really. It was a tough sell — it happened so fast and without fanfare, at an odd time of the season — so it was difficult to buy into, at a point when believability was necessary. That story and the season would have been better served by dropping the near-universally panned “Sleep No More” altogether and giving Dollard an extra episode to flesh out her inventive trap-street universe with a two-part cliffhanger in which Clara realizes her impending death. That could have worked much better.
Given free rein to play in the Whoniverse, largely edict-free, Dollard delivers a brilliantly cracking yarn in “Thin Ice” with a proper beginning, middle, and end. It’s got no narrative gimmicks to weigh down her ideas, and it’s all effortlessly accomplished in 45 minutes. Despite being set in 1814, the script has a social conscience about numerous issues that ricochet off the past into the future, reflecting the here and now. This is something that I often crow the new Doctor Who does not do nearly enough of, and Dollard’s hand is so sure and steady that never once does the material come across as preachy.
The Doctor: “I told you, you don’t steer the TARDIS — you reason with it. Unsuccessfully, most of the time. She’s a bad girl this one; always looking for trouble.”
As with the trap-street concept, Dollard has a knack for taking an obscure historical tidbit and wrapping an entirely new concept around it. Perhaps the history of frost fairs on the Thames is common knowledge in the U.K., but that slice of London history is unfamiliar in the U.S. However, not only were they a real thing, but Dollard’s got her dates right as well: The final frost fair did indeed occur in 1814, and the ice broke up in early February. The gorgeous attention to detail matches the historical records, all the way down to the incongruous elephant. The one thing the BBC can always be counted on to get right is a period piece, and as far as Doctor Who goes, they’ve perhaps outdone themselves with this episode.
Enlightening viewers regarding the existence of frost fairs and the fact that one has not happened in over 200 years shines an unobtrusive light on something else: climate change. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It could be coincidence that the Thames ceased to freeze over right around the same time the industrial revolution happened … but probably not. That’s the beauty of an episode like “Thin Ice”: It gets us talking and researching and thinking. Far less understated is Bill’s innate concern that it may be a dubious proposition to be black during a time when people still accept slavery. That understanding of historical injustice draws her to Kitty (Asiatu Koroma), a young girl of color living on the streets and doing whatever it takes to survive.
Bill Potts: “Interesting. Regency England: bit more black than they show in the movies.”
The Doctor: “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.”
Meanwhile, there’s something down under the ice. The shots from beneath, with the shadows and muffled voices of the people above, are deeply unsettling; little green lights can be seen flitting back and forth under the ice. Another visual masterstroke: the way characters disappear into and emerge from the dense winter fog. There’s a whole world with its own rules created on this frozen river, and it’s marvelous. In over 50 years of Doctor Who, has there ever been anything quite like this? (To some degree, perhaps, in “The Curse of Fenric”?) It’s simultaneously fantastical and disturbing, a triumph of idea and execution coming together flawlessly.
Street urchins Kitty and Spider (Austin Taylor) collude to steal the sonic screwdriver, and a chase ensues. When Spider is sucked under the ice, the Doctor can do little except watch the boy die … and save his flashy toy. Bill is mortified and enraged at the Doctor, who is inspecting the sonic to make sure it isn’t damaged. This is a side of him she has not yet seen, and his compassion appears to be at a shocking low. She grills him about how much blood he’s seen shed in his long lifetime. He calmly explains that if he doesn’t move on, there’s liable to be even more death. This is closer in tone to the Twelfth Doctor of season eight, the post-regeneration version that Clara had a difficult time wrapping her brain around. It’s an important moment for their friendship and for this Doctor — a reminder of how complex and dispassionate he can be when the occasion calls for it. He hasn’t softened as much as it had seemed.
But immediately afterward, back at the ramshackle camp shared by the urchins, Bill sees another new side of him: He reads the children stories and hands out an absurd number of meat pies from inside his stovepipe hat (it almost seems bigger on the inside). He’s got a St. Nicholas quality about him, a charm that makes everything right again — which is a good thing, because there’s no other way Bill would’ve followed the Doctor on his next mad journey … to the bottom of the river.
Decked out in classic Jules Verne–era diving suits, the duo follow the lights until the ice opens up and swallows them. In the depths, they’re confronted by the sight of the mind-bogglingly enormous creature chained to the Thames riverbed. At perhaps a mile long, its eye dwarfs them both. It belches out several boots and the hat that belonged to Spider. It’s a magnificent sequence in an episode that’s already had more than its share of them.
Bill Potts: “That sound it made — I couldn’t hear you, but that noise. It’s like I felt it in my bones, you know? Sounded like, like …”
The Doctor: “Despair. Loneliness. A prisoner in chains.”
A few tips and clues lead them to a group of men called dredgers working on the estate of one Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns), a fat-cat industrialist. The Doctor comically manipulates the overseer into telling them about the harvest: The creature’s waste product burns a thousand times longer than coal and hotter than can be measured. There’s a masterful gag with Bill nearly saying, “No shit,” which is perhaps the only thing one could say after finding out that the material burns underwater as well. The Doctor guesses Sutcliffe is an alien, because such fuel would be suitable for interstellar travel.
Turns out Sutcliffe is an ass of man and hardly complex enough to be an alien. Upon seeing Bill, he flies into a racist frenzy, calls her a creature and demands she be thrown from the house. The Doctor unexpectedly decks Sutcliffe across the face — and hard, too. It’s a funny moment, and something the series saves up and does only once in a blue moon. Like all vain, shallow villains, instead of throwing the intruders out, Sutcliffe egotistically lays out his plans. He tells of how the creature has been there “as far back as records” go, and its secret has been passed down through the Sutcliffe family. He engineered the entire frost-fair scenario for his own purposes, as he intends to blow a hole in the ice — with waste product as explosive — sending countless Londoners to their doom in the belly of the beast and producing even more waste product to be used as fuel.
The Doctor: “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.”
Sutcliffe is such a cliché, he ties up the Doctor and Bill in the tent packed with the explosives. As in any such situation, the pair escape, upon which the Doctor insists it’s up to Bill what happens to “the lockless monster, the not-so-little mermaid.” It’s her planet, so he’ll do as she says, in a choice reminiscent of the one he gave Clara in “Kill the Moon.” Do they leave it there, or work to release it? Bill is torn over the destruction and death it could cause. She, of course, does the right thing. With the help of the kids, she wrangles the crowds off the ice while the Doctor (offscreen and admittedly unbelievably) hauls barrels full of explosives to the bottom of the river, attaching them to the creature’s chains so that when Sutcliffe sets them off, the beast is released from centuries of imprisonment. Sutcliffe drowns, and — in a glorious moment that feels like an apology for the duff Nessie in “Terror of the Zygons” — it crashes through the ice and swims away, presumably to live a life of solitude.
The children are brought to Sutcliffe’s estate for a massive feast of the likes they’ve never before dined upon, while the Doctor alters the man’s will, giving everything to the kids. Racism, climate change, income inequality, and redistribution of wealth: It’s rare enough for Doctor Who to tackle one such issue in an episode, let alone four hot-button topics of the day. Bravo, Sarah Dollard, bravo!
Back to the future: The TARDIS arrives in the Doctor’s study, precisely on time for an irritated Nardole’s tea. Meanwhile, something desperately wants out of the vault in the cellar …
Bill Potts: “Every choice I make in this moment, here and now, could change the whole future.”
The Doctor: “Exactly like every other day of your life. The only thing to do is to stop worrying about it.”
Odds and Ends
• Ace bits: the duo’s period garb is quite snazzy; the joke the Doctor cracks about “Pete”; that incredibly moving speech about the value of life the Doctor gives to Sutcliffe (transcribed above); tracking the falling shoe down through the ice and into the waiting mouth of a giant monster; when the Doctor says, “Only idiots know the answers!”
• Naff bits: Bill doesn’t look even remotely chilly when she steps from the TARDIS into an ice-cold winter that can freeze an enormous river.
• The origins of the creature go unexplained, as do the specifics of how the ice opens and closes. Is it an alien? Is it prehistoric? Is the episode better or worse for leaving such issues up in the air? Will we get answers in a later episode?
• In between this episode and the last, Peter Capaldi got a noticeable haircut. This happened a time or two during Peter Davison’s era as well.
• As an American deprived of such delights, this episode had me craving meat pies something fierce.
• I said back in “The Pilot” recap that I was unsure that this season felt like the series starting over. After watching the first three episodes, it feels as though Steven Moffat and company have done a marvelous job of accomplishing that mission by getting back to the basics. These three episodes even structurally mirror what Russell T. Davies did with his first three episodes (“Rose,” “The End of the World,” and “The Unquiet Dead”), back in season one of the new series.