Series Ten, Episode Three
Ehh. This one’s pretty good, so why aren’t I jumping up and down about it?
On balance, probably because we’ve been here before. Even before you get into what the episode is about, Thin Ice is unavoidably stuck in that Learning The Ropes phase all new companions must go through. They’re trying their hardest to make it fresh, with Bill asking fun questions and even coaxing fun responses out of the Doctor – like her worrying about changing history and him taking the piss that they’ve already erased another companion on their travels. But I’d be a lot happier if the Doctor got all this “bigger on the inside, wow the future, wow the past, oh no people die” stuff on a memory stick and just sonicked it into the companion’s head on Week #1. It’s all good fodder for the new actor, and Pearl Mackie is great at it, but it’s variations on a bloody old theme. Which is sadly also a good way of describing the plot.
|I KNEW THERE WAS SOMETHING I FORGOT TO MENTION.|
But I’m getting ahead of myself: the TARDIS arrives in Regency London and the Doctor and Bill go to the “frost fair” on the Thames. There are strange lights under the ice and something is eating people. Sarah Dollard’s script handles this very nicely, with Bill noticing the lights and thinking the Doctor hasn’t, until he reveals that of course he spotted it, he just “assumed they’d get to work eventually” and was waiting for her to catch up. There’s plenty of time for them both to revel in history, making jokes about not stepping on butterflies, all while Peter Capaldi looks positively, ludicrously Dickensian. Then they get to work.
A young urchin named Spider is the next victim, and before you can say “Did they really kill a kid, like really properly kill him?”, the Doctor fails to rescue him, although he does rescue his screwdriver. Cue a bit of Rope-Learning 101: people die and the Doctor moves on. If he spent all his time moping then other people would die. Deal with it, Bill.
I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Yes, the Doctor has to move on or he’d be an inconsolable wreck. Valid point and all that. But the way it’s shot, the Doctor doesn’t seem all that bothered in the first place. Is he even reaching for Spider, or just his screwdriver? His “moving on” is immediate, cooing with relief over the sonic and showing zero interest in the dead kid. No wonder Bill calls him on it. More problematic, we later find out that just being sucked under the ice doesn’t mean instant death, as the fish might not eat you right away. Yes, Spider would have frozen or drowned pretty soon after, or else been gobbled up, but he isn’t automatically “gone” by any means. The Doctor could even sonic a hole in the ice if he really felt like it.
Ah well, his focus is apparently on saving everybody else, so it’s time to investigate, find out who’s using the gang of urchins to lure people to their deaths and why. The Doctor and Bill go underwater and they spy the big fish, noticing it’s in chains. So it’s a captive, and there are people mining its poo nearby (yep), because it handily doubles as OMG amazing factory fuel. And if you want fish poo you’ve got to feed the fish, hence the frost fair. (Presumably when the Thames isn’t frozen over they… host swimming competitions? Treasure hunts with the “prize” underwater? Push drunk people in when no one’s looking?) Their next step is finding out whodunit, and whether it’s an alien or a human, to say nothing of where the giant fish comes from and what to do with it. In another very Davies-era twist, it turns out Lord Sutcliffe is indeed human and just, well, a shit. He’s also a racist, in case you didn’t get the memo.
Yes, it’s unsubtle to make him a racist. But it’s also a bit novel to actually show some racism when you’ve got a non-white companion travelling through time. By comparison, it wasn’t exactly believable for the Doctor to tell Martha to “strut around like you own the place”. Easy for you to say, Handsome White Guy.
|"Doctor, is someone pumping air down here?"|
"Sorry, I thought they worked like spacesuits."
It also allows for the Doctor to lose his rag and sock Mr Racist in the jaw. Is it wrong to show the Doctor punching someone? Well, it’s mostly a punchline (!) to him telling Bill to keep her cool and let him do the talking. It’s also a bit of characterisation, i.e. when faced with a multiple-murdering capitalist who has zero regard for human or animal life and no remorse, he might betray that “I don’t have time for outrage” line and actually get a bit cross, especially when the guy spouts a racist threat to his friend. I don’t think impressionable young fans will start hitting people. I do think they’ll figure out that Lord Sutcliffe isn’t a role model, and that the Doctor really feels more than he says he does. For good measure, the Doctor tries reasoning with Sutcliffe afterwards, and accomplishes precisely nowt.
Pretty soon the Doctor and Bill are tied up next to some explosives, because this isn’t a think-piece. Except then it tries to be exactly that: what do we do about the fish? Let it go, and potentially let loads of people be eaten, or keep it here and let Sutcliffe continue his empire of poo? The Doctor leaves the choice in Bill’s hands, because it’s her planet, and he’s just a humble servant.
Except that’s bollocks. I mean, it is more Bill’s planet than his, but when has that stopped him wading in and acting on their behalf anyway? Okay, he did just that in Kill The Moon, but he later said (in the stupid one with the trees) that it was his planet after all. He’s always making life or death choices that decide the fate of Earth. The whole thing feels like a last minute copy and paste from The Beast Below, which barely had an IQ as it was, and this works even less well as a moral dilemma since there’s no reason to keep the fish here, and they’ve got no idea where it came from or where it should go. We never find out, incidentally: it’s just been around for generations, has magically never been spotted by anyone, and its poo fuel has presumably been part of Britain’s economy without anybody ever questioning Sutcliffe’s magic ingredient. We’ve no idea if the fish is sentient or anything like that either. Then off it goes to live somewhere – cue the obvious joke about humanity missing the obvious, and shrugs all round. We never find out if it’s an alien, though it clearly is, nor the little pilot fish that can magically cut and re-freeze ice. (The Doctor says this is “irrelevant”. Not if you want to take it home, you wazzock.) Much like Sarah Dollard’s Face The Raven, I suspect there’s a more coherent earlier draft somewhere on her hard drive.
There’s a cute epilogue with the urchins inheriting the bad guy’s wealth – take that, racism! – and then it’s back to the Doctor’s study for tea and disapproval from Nardole, curtailing the accidental journey through time and space I was hoping would stretch throughout Series 10. But oh well, the Doctor commits to travels with Bill anyway, so there’s more to come. Bless.
Ehhh. It’s fine, really, Thin Ice. The plot is creaky and heavily borrowed, but it’s more fun and less dim than Smile. Peter Capaldi is knocking it out of the park. Pearl Mackie has some lovely bits of outrage. The stuff Bill’s learning about the Doctor is obvious, but it’s more interesting than just pointing out he has “advice and assistance obtainable immediately” written on his police box. There are arguably problematic bits, like the Doctor right hooking a fool or extolling the wonderfulness of theft, but then again he isn’t perfect, and it’s sort of nice to remind us of that. Perhaps most important, Thin Ice gets the Doctor and Bill onto an even footing, so hopefully it’ll all become more interesting and less tried-and-tested from here on. Relax. It’s not like they’re about to change the cast or anything.