This review is spoiler-free. Come back after the episode’s broadcast for additional, spoilery viewing notes.
Earth girls are always messing about with history. Rose Tyler averted her dad’s death when the Ninth Doctor took her to see it, Donna Noble challenged the Tenth Doctor wouldn’t save anyone from the disaster he inadvertently caused in Pompeii, and Clara Oswald split herself into a thousand million clones throughout history to save the Eleventh Doctor from his corrupted timeline.
Frankly, it’s a relief that Bill Potts knows her sci-fi and is a little more conscientious about disrupting the space-time continuum on her first trip back in time, but as usual, she challenges the Doctor in other ways. Thin Ice picks up right after last week’s winsome cliffhanger, at London’s last great frost fair of 1814.
But there’s an elephant in the room, and not just the one that’s drawing delighted crowds of Londoners to the frozen Thames. As she and the Doctor look into a conspiracy involving the fiendish Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) and mysterious lights beneath the ice, she starts to question the kind of man her tutor really is.
We’ll keep mentioning it until they stop doing new things with her, but Bill’s perspective is fresher than ever here. In fact, she comes close to falling out with the Time Lord, when he briefly shows a more callous side that we haven’t seen since Season 8’s Kill The Moon. In retrospect, it makes you question how readily the Doctor’s previous companions have got on board with the less enjoyable aspects of his lifestyle (except Donna Noble, maybe), but as with her more superficial challenges to the new normal, these wind up strengthening their friendship.
But for the first time this series, on top of Pearl Mackie’s already reliable presence, this is more Peter Capaldi’s show. His incarnation may have brightened up considerably since the tensions of his first season, but here, it finally feels as if both he and the show itself have grown into the balance between his natural intensity and his bright side. There’s coldness and kindness and (hooray!) a really good speech, and the episode makes a formidable show of his range across its tonal shifts.
This is writer Sarah Dollard’s second episode, and it certainly lives up to the promise of her first. Season 9’s Face The Raven had a lot to do and Dollard rose to the occasion admirably, but while it seems conventional in a conceptual sense, her sensibility once again shines through. There’s no dazzlingly original premise like Trap Street here, but there are hardly any series arc strings attached either and she’s turned in another doozy.
Without going into detail about the plot, she’s given us the type of Doctor Who episode that we haven’t actually seen since before 2005, although both Dollard and director Bill Anderson toy with the early feeling that this is business as usual, by revelling in the carnival on the Thames. The eventual antagonist comes from an unexpected place, and while a thoroughly hissable Burns could stand to have a little more screen-time, he’s a big part of that.
Thin Ice brings enjoyable closure to an introductory trilogy of episodes for Bill, in which we’ve thoroughly examined the relationship between the Doctor and his new companion from all sides. More significantly, Dollard uses the setting to rediscover Doctor Who’s social conscience, and her address to the elephant in the room makes for a historical with real heft.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– There hasn’t been a pure historical Doctor Who story since 1982’s Black Orchid, and, although the Doctor and the TARDIS aren’t the only sci-fi elements in play here, the serpent beneath the Thames is strongly implied to be terrestrial, rather than alien. Lord Sutcliffe isn’t just a human face for an evil, but the product of entirely Earthbound privilege, and that marks this story apart.
– The use of adorable street urchins might have seemed a bit trite in another episode, but in this context, it provides a counterpoint to Sutcliffe that’s more useful and more keenly felt than the expected allegory of the monster he’s enslaved. There’s real weight to poor Spider (Austin Taylor) getting eaten, too – not transported or momentarily swallowed to be resurrected later on in the episode, but killed.
– That’s not the only bold move in this episode. Racism hasn’t come up in a meaningful way since 2007’s Human Nature, when Martha Jones worked as a maid in the 1910s, but it’s addressed head-on here, with Sutcliffe earning a wallop from the Doctor for belittling Bill. On top of that, “Jesus is black – history is a whitewash” is a fittingly direct riposte to prejudice that will nevertheless make Daily Mail readers twitch at their keyboards.
– The underwater scenes are well executed, as is the serpent itself, although it feels like there was a missed opportunity to do the EastEnders-style aerial view when it breaks through the ice at the episode’s end. The “fireworks display gone wrong” ending feels more token than anything else in the episode, but the Doctor’s overwriting of Sutcliffe’s inheritance, elevating Kitty (Asiatu Koroma) and company by re-housing them, is the real resolution for an episode that’s more about social inequality than anything else.
– Last week’s cliffhanger and this week’s book-end, with Nardole (Matt Lucas) making the tea, makes these episodes feel like a loose two-parter. The ending is the only concession to the season arc, as the Vault’s occupant learns from Nardole that the Doctor has a new friend. We have a couple of ideas about who might be inside, but either way, that kind of knocking has had ominous implications in seasons past…
– This review is dedicated to the memory of Pete. We would have liked him, if it wasn’t for that pesky butterfly.
Photo: BBC / Jon Hall