Reviewed by John Hussey
Continuing the theme of starting the adventure directly from the conclusion of the previous episode “Thin Ice” is quick to establish its setting and narrative. The Twelfth Doctor and Bill have accidentally landed in Victorian London during the 1814 great frost fair. I really do like the Victorian era as it has so much character and darkness, usually resulting in some of the better Doctor Who tales set within the past, such as “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”.
Plus it’s interesting to finally see The Doctor visit this infamous point in time considering it was heavily mentioned by River Song that he went there with her in “A Good Man Goes to War” (though sadly she isn’t featured, nor mentioned specifically). Director Bill Anderson immediately sets-up this beautiful environment which gives this Victorian tale a unique look, almost granting it an unearthly vibe, making it stand-out above other stories set within the past. It serves as a great piece in establishing Bill’s progression as a companion.
Sarah Dollard returns to pen this tale after winning fan’s hearts in her debut episode, “Face the Raven”, where she wrote the demise of Clara Oswald. This time she takes a stab at writing Bill’s first journey into the past, adding in her fantastical vision and great character moments. It’s fair to say that she really has a handle on bringing out the best out of Peter Capaldi and his infamous incarnation. Dollard was also particularly good at bringing a new side to Pearl Mackie‘s performance as Bill, bringing forth the idea that The Doctor isn’t purely a hero and that his adventures aren’t all fun and games.
Despite needing to get back to the university (in order to continue guarding the mysterious Vault resided beneath) The Twelfth Doctor decides to continue his rebellious scheme of sneaking away from his duties, thus granting Bill a further adventure in the TARDIS. It’s obviously the formatted structure of the modern companions that their first two journeys in the time-space capsule consist of one adventure in the past and one in the future just so we (the audience) can see them react to both extremes of the TARDIS’ capabilities.
A bit like with Martha Jones, Bill’s second journey is a bit of an extension and wasn’t originally intended. But this doesn’t stop The Twelfth Doctor from allowing her to have a good time, treating the experience like a mini-break. We even have a scene similar to Rose Tyler’s first trip to the Victorian era within “The Unquiet Dead” (where The Ninth Doctor gave her complicated directions to find the Wardrobe) to which The Twelfth Doctor actually joins Bill in blending into the foreign nature of the past.
It’s also a nice change seeing The Doctor soak in the past by becoming part of it (even though it’s part of his character to be the simple wonderer in space and time, blending into the background despite his strange attire that never matches his current location). Of course Bill becomes even more curious about the laws of The Doctor’s travels now that she was standing within the past, spouting the typical statement about “stepping on a butterfly”. Like with her journey into the future she is very much excited and dazzled by the new world around her and is eager to dive in and enjoy herself.
“Thin Ice” certainly feels different and throughout the episode I felt that Dollard’s writing (accompanied with Anderson’s direction) granted this tale a clear identification that made it stand out above most Doctor Who stories. This is one of the episode’s greatest qualities, helping Series 10 regain some of the show’s mystery and identity back. What was nice to see was The Twelfth Doctor simply enjoying himself, delving into the life and soul of the frost fair, even at the surprise of Bill.
However, the fun and games quickly fade away and the actual adventure begins. The episode is fast to establish it’s hidden meaning, unfolding a nice bit of mystery revolving around the idea of a giant sea creature living beneath the frozen Thames. The creature seeks out those that stray away from the crowd and pulls them underneath the ice. One poor victim is in fact a little homeless boy named Spider. This moment is actually quite shocking for Doctor Who as it’s rare to see a child character come into danger and actually succumb to the peril without some sort of re-write to events, or a last minute rescue.
This moment is so shocking that even Bill goes into complete shock, resulting in a fantastic outburst that makes her question The Doctor to his very core. I guess what also made the moment more shocking was The Twelfth Doctor’s typical alien nature resurfacing, showing him going to reach for the boy (before the last of his arm is dragged under) only to take back his Sonic Screwdriver (to which Spider had stolen) and the kid is left to be eaten. Fuck me that was cold, even for The Twelfth Doctor!
Bill confronts The Twelfth Doctor with the idea of death, and how much of it he has seen and dealt. Given that she’s talking to The Twelfth Doctor we know that his answers are going to be very alien, and somewhat uncaring, which would be more new to Bill given that she’s new to this incarnation of the Time Lord. Perhaps if this was a previous incarnation he’d be a bit more sympathetic, or harsh on himself for the blood he has seen and spilt, but The Twelfth Doctor’s attitude (continuing on from The Eleventh Doctor’s means of moving on from his dark past) is less light and more straight-up blunt.
He’s not ashamed to admit his crimes, indicating that he has to simply live with it because there is no time for wallowing on the past. I suppose sometimes you do forget that The Doctor hasn’t always been the hero and has strayed away from what his title suggests, particularly when you consider his earliest days, his darker incarnations, and of course the ramifications of The Last Great Time War and what he had to become in order to insure that the universe had a future.
It’s rather intriguing seeing Bill introduced to this side of The Doctor and observing as his layers are pulled back, making Bill see her tutor in a completely new light, almost like hearing a friend/or relative indicate that in their line of duty they had to kill someone (it’s hard to digest because it’s a side to someone you can’t imagine seeing). Full credit to Mackie because she really conveys her emotions perfectly and helps Bill to feel even more grown-up as a character as she goes through the stages of understanding The Doctor’s inner world and how it truly operates.
You can also see through Capaldi’s performance how he’s blunt, and yet gentle, with his answers, sometimes trying to skim over the information by means of justification. But Bill isn’t after justification but rather the cold-harsh truth, to which the Time Lord is too old to comprehend anymore, thus becoming a huge blur within his long past. The Doctor isn’t always the hero, and he doesn’t always save the day, with The War Doctor being a prime example of his darkest days (to which he no longer held the title of “Doctor” anymore because he was no longer the man of healing).
Despite this dark, and explorative character moment, The Twelfth Doctor takes it upon himself to move forward and save the other homeless children. There was a moment of pause when the other homeless children asked about Spider’s whereabouts but The Twelfth Doctor brushed over these questions in order to distract them with happiness via stolen pies and stories. Their leader, Kitty, aids them in understanding why they lure people onto the ice, followed by a dangerous trip into the Thames in order to learn more about the giant creature.
“Thin Ice” then turns into a less brutal version of the Torchwood episode “Meat”, in which we see the worst of humanity exploit an innocent alien creature for profit. Instead of torturing the creature senselessly, this time round the evil culprits simply have the creature chained-up and it is their actions towards the visitors of the frost fair that makes them fowl, despicable specimens. Using the people that the creature eats they use the creature’s shit (quite literally) in order to produce a better source of materials to fuel to British Empire. Either-way you look at it these people are fucking arseholes of the lowest spectrum.
I suppose what makes this episode unique is the exploitation of the trope “humanity is the real monster of the universe” because it gives “Thin Ice” more depth and meaning. I think it would’ve been dull, and pointless, to have an alien behind this diabolical scheme. We needed to have a human enemy that lacked a grander vision, and was callous towards his own kind, in order to have an enemy that The Twelfth Doctor could just utterly despise. No redeeming factors. No true depth. Just a pure sick-fucker out to make money by any means necessary, no matter the cost.
Also, “Thin Ice” does well at taking advantage of Bill’s ethnic background in order to demonstrate her vulnerability within the past. At the beginning of this adventure she questions her safety within the Victorian era due to slavery still being an establishment of the British Empire. We even have the villain, Lord Sutcliffe, take a jab at Bill as he lashes out at her because of her presence and apparent disrespect to her “so-called” betters. So it’s fair to say that The Twelfth Doctor’s reaction to his statements was extremely satisfying.
Sutcliffe isn’t an outstanding villain by any means but he serves this tale perfectly, detailing the worst of humanity (particularly the pompousness of a rich white male of the Victorian era who thinks he’s better than everybody below him just because he has a title to his name, despite never earning it). He’s the kind of villain, like Max Capricorn from “Voyage of the Damned”, that cares only for himself and his wealth, uncaring towards how many people have to die in order to get what he wants. I suppose Sutcliffe is made slightly worse by believing his actions are justified through actually making a contribution to his nation.
We then have Bill really come to understand The Twelfth Doctor more closely as she maturely moves past her outburst and looks at things from the Time Lord’s point of view, particularly after seeing how far he was willing to go to cheer up the homeless kids, protect the innocent from the creature’s hunger, and defending her from the bullying of racism, added by Capaldi’s softening speech about values (to which held no value in the face of Sutcliffe because he’s nothing more than a colossal dick).
“Thin Ice” has the interesting moment of re-treading The Twelfth Doctor’s choice system (to which he harshly gave to Clara during the events of “Kill the Moon”). Bill was offered a choice to make in order to determine the future, something he was unwilling to choose himself because he believed (like before) it wasn’t his choice to make. Unlike with Clara, Bill approached this moment more confidently, and despite a moment of hesitation (due to the huge implications involved) she swiftly makes a just decision based on her morals.
Due to Bill’s choice to save the creature The Twelfth Doctor ultimately saves the day with the best possible outcome. The people are protected from Sutcliffe’s evil schemes of being eaten for the purposes of making alien fuel, Sutcliffe himself is killed by his own pet, and the homeless children are given Sutcliffe’s home after the Time Lord re-writes Sutcliffe’s family tree so that the kids can inherit the dickhead’s wealth.
Though Bill is shocked to learn (upon her return to the present) about humanities’ ignorance towards the truth (though this time round it was more to do with poor witnesses, due to the frost fair promoting heavy drinking) she is at least delighted to know that she, and The Twelfth Doctor, made a difference to Kitty and the gang, and the creature was allowed to live a life free from captivity.
Of course “Thin Ice” ends on a intriguing note after Nardole (played by Matt Lucas) becomes angered at The Twelfth Doctor for abandoning his post, almost trying to be the adult in the situation (despite his comedic character) by reporting the importance of their mission and the gravity of his neglect.
We then begin to get an idea as to what, or who, could be inside the Vault after something starts knocking from within, startling Nardole as she tries to remain strong by declaring the doors would never open whilst he was around. This reflects the idea that The Twelfth Doctor’s distractions could prove to be his downfall if it means the thing within uses Bill’s presence to its advantage.