Synopsis 10×3: A jaunt back to Merry Olde London is more sinister than Bill could have imagined. A creature feature with some social justice to boot, “Thin Ice” recaptures the highs and lows of what makes a great Doctor Who episode.
Bill seems to do the Doctor good. He snuggles into his role as a tutor as neatly as he does his velveteen Victorian waistcoat. Truly, Bill and her never-ending stream of constant, thoughtful human questions never ceases to make me love her. Clara wanted so much to outsmart the Doctor, or even to be the Doctor. Bill just wants to learn and absorb everything he has to offer.
And absorb she does. She even gets a view of history that we’re never taught, according to the Doctor. Bill doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable. “Melanin? Slavery is still very much a thing.” To which he tells her, “History is white-washed.” And in fact, some of the named and background cast are people of color. Also, Bill doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions. More on that later.
The premise is that the Doctor and Bill start seeing lights under the ice of the Thames. The lights are generated by killer bioluminescent fish that are getting prey for a giant fish-beast that lives beneath the water.
They even see the fish at work. The fish lure a young peasant boy, Spider, and away he goes into the deep. Bill, in true human form, takes this senseless act of cold-blooded murder hard. The Doctor doesn’t. He “moves on,” and advises her to do the same. This is a concept I hope gets revisited throughout the series. How often has the Doctor moved on, and how often should he reflect back? We the audience have an idea, but implying that Bill should move on from her atrocities at the Doctor’s advice is its own theme.
The Doctor figures out that the children are being paid off to entice more and more visitors to come to the Festival. Even to the Doctor’s knowledge, 1814 holds one of the largest attendance records for a Thames festival. There’s spectacle everywhere: dancers, acrobats, an elephant. But why?
Through some heavy sleuthing (and Peter Capaldi doing a great job as the Doctor undercover), they discover that the man with the plan is Lord Sutcliffe. Racism rears its ugly head when Lord Sutcliffe verbally attacks Bill (though I’m not sure if he meant as a black person, a mixed person, or as a woman. Could be all three in the Victorian ages!).
The Doctor, having just advised Bill to keep her temper at a minimum, dutifully punches Sutcliffe in the face, solves the crime, and makes a speech about the value of human life. It’s a speech that will go down in Twelve history as the juxtaposition of his Zygon speech. This speech about human life, and about respect for each other is played small, contained, but equally as stunning. It’s a moment for the rich white man to “check his privilege,” if you will. And who better than a 2,000 year old Time Lord to help with that.
You see, in keeping with the ever-so-light slavery theme, Sutcliffe has inherited this giant fish creature from his family. He (meaning a team of workers) harvested its feces for fuel (gross). He’s been pumping up this particular Thames Festival for profit. And his utter lack of compassion for the people he’s killing or for the fish he’s exploiting is reminiscent of any pompous, entitled, classist, racist man.
Alas, despite, or perhaps because of, the Doctor’s speech, he and Bill find themselves caught. Sutcliffe has every intention of blowing up the frozen Thames, killing our heroes and feeding the beast below. Except our Doctor friend is too clever for that! He rigs up the sonic to attract the luminescent fish, who sink the bombs. So instead of Sutcliffe feeding his creature, he’s instead freeing it. And in his attempt to thwart the Doctor’s plan to thwart his (much thwarting is afoot), he winds up dying in the Thames. Bill will, no doubt, “move on” from her part in his demise.
After the Thames is saved and the giant fish roams free, the Doctor and Bill have one last stop to make. The Doctor, ever so clever, makes young orphan Perry the heir to the Sutcliffe fortune. Which means the scruffy gang of orphaned children have a home for all their livelong days.
The Doctor and Bill return to their time, just as Nardole arrives with the tea (he’s added coffee for flavor). Matt Lucas playing the Grumpy Mum to the Doctor never gets old. Nardole scolds the Doctor about going “off-world,” and “keeping his oath.” The Doctor reacts like a teenager, splitting hairs and rolling eyes. But Nardole has his points. Because whatever is in the vault is here, and it’s knock knock knocking. But that’s for next week.
Doctor Who High Points:
- The diversity of the cast, both named and background, was a delight. East Asian, Subcontinental, and Black British where all represented. I thought they would shy away from social issues. Turns out they leaned in.
- Bill as a companion just keeps getting better and better. Pearl Mackie seamlessly transitions from comedic to dramatic. And Capaldi looks like he is enjoying himself so much when they share the screen.
- The little things like the Doctor defending his screwdriver, or the Victorian metal scuba gear.
- There’s a lovely moment where Bill has to decide to free the creature or let it live in chains. She decides the fate of the human race, and the Doctor can (for once) relinquish control to her. It seems he learned something from Clara about control and letting go.
- Hurray for the first of two lady-written episodes! Sarah Dollard wrote “Face The Raven” last season, and we’re glad to have her back for Season 10.