This week the Doctor and Bill return to Earth to find themselves in London’s past. Sarah Dollard, who wrote last year’s ‘Face the Raven’, delivers another emotional story about a monster below the ice and disappearing children.
The time-travelling pair were on their way back home for tea when the TARDIS decides that a little detour to a Frost Fair in 1814 is necessary. It seems amongst the fun and festivities, people are disappearing below the ice to their death. A monster exists below the ice and he is hungry. After befriending a group of street urchins, Bill learns once again how dangerous the Doctor’s life is when one of the young boys, Spider, is dragged to his death.
Bill Shines Once Again
This episode highlights once again what a breath of fresh air Bill has been for the show. From the start, she has reservations. She doesn’t stumble out of the TARDIS blindly, gooey eyed and ‘Oh isn’t this all wonderful’. Aware how her skin colour might put her in danger in 1814, she is hesitant. She’s scared about what changes her actions might cause – a.k.a The Butterfly Theory. But as the Doctor says “It’s just time travel, don’t overthink it”. Similarly, the “history’s a whitewash” line is equally devilish. Once again The Doctor and Bill dominate the episode in terms of screen time with both revealing sides of themselves. They remain a partnership which is a joy to watch.
Death and Moving On
Bill’s confrontation with The Doctor about death is a simply stunning scene. Bill is heartbreakingly emotional whilst The Doctor is steely calm. Pearl Mackie acts her socks off and Capaldi matches her for every stride. Each line delivered by Capaldi is measured but laced with experience and knowledge of those imagined two thousand years. The Doctor himself is wonderfully varied in this episode. He’s serious when he needs to be but also playful with Bill. When the two meet Lord Sutcliffe, it is clear that the creature has been captured just to make a profit by a self-centred industrialist. The Doctor’s outrage of Sutcliffe’s racism and his speech about the importance of every life makes you want to cheer. Capaldi is wonderful. Plus his scenes with the kids further dispell any doubts that his incarnation connects with children.
What Lies Beneath
The success or failure of many Doctor Who stories is how well the villain or monster works on screen. Some are hits. Some miss. In this case, the creature is very well realised, and added to the drama. The murky depths of the Thames provided enough concealment to prevent it from appearing like a mere CGI creation but also supported the story’s atmosphere. ‘Thin Ice’ is gloriously atmospheric, misty and murky. The London of the past that we all imagine.
Sarah Dollard Delivers Again
Sarah Dollard’s plotting is superb, neatly subverting your expectations. In a refreshing twist, the monster beneath the ice is revealed immediately. This is not a story about the thing beneath the Thames. Instead, the mystery becomes the story behind the monster. Those approaching the story may have simply anticipated The Doctor needing to defeat a creature beneath the ice. What ultimately transpires is The Doctor needing to save a creature beneath the ice. Reminiscences of the star whale’s fate in ‘The Beast Below’ (2010) where an alien creature is abused for human greed and profit, merge effortlessly together in this glorious period drama. Racism and death are also skilfully interwoven throughout.
The Past Comes to Life
The episode looks fantastic. The misty atmosphere above and below the ice was superbly created, largely in the confines of a television studio. It’s often taken for granted how well BBC departments can deliver on historical drama. This has been true throughout Doctor Who’s history but continues in the modern era too. Both costume and set design deserve huge congratulations for their work generally but in particularly on this story.
The Teacher and the Student
As the episode approaches the conclusion, The Doctor demands that Bill decide the future of the creature below the ice. Once again he is the teacher reminding us all that we make a difference with our choices. The value of human life, every human life, is what defines our species. How we look after others is also indicative of progress. Lives are not a commodity to be traded for supposed progress. The Doctor’s message is deep and touchingly meaningful. In opposition, Sutcliffe symbolises the lack of humanity and compassion that can only be appropriated to a human being. History has seen plenty of those villainous creatures.