After a trip to the far future in last week’s episode, its naturally time for a trip back to the past. Arriving in 1814 during the last great Frost Fair on the Thames, the Doctor and Bill find the festivities threatened by a hungry creature beneath the ice that feeds on the revellers above.
From the off, we’re in good hands. Writer Sarah Dollard, who wrote the sublime Face the Raven for the show in 2015, proves her debut Who script was no fluke. Here she delivers a more standard Doctor Who adventure, bereft of the world-shaking themes and tragic incident that made her 2015 story so unmissable. But none of that emotion or sheer-brilliance is left out of Thin Ice, which manages to weave in plenty of weight and drama one wouldn’t normally expect from a story about man-eating sea monsters.
Thin Ice will certainly be remembered in years to come for its excellent character work and its soft, considered handling of adult themes like racism in a family show for children. Unlike when a throwaway line was used to cover up such issues in 2007’s The Shakespeare Code, here the story actively deals with Bill’s race and how time-travelling to less-accepting times may cause her problems. It isn’t forced or overplayed, but the fact the episode takes time to stop and consider this matter is testament to some excelling writing. A racist villain getting punched in the face by the Doctor is also a highlight!
The episode also gives Bill a chance to grapple with the Doctor’s more alien, hardened nature. There’s a glimpse of the Twelfth Doctor’s colder, logical self coming to the fore, thankfully dispelled early on by Bill’s disgust. Bill slowly learns that the Doctor may not be the wonderful, totally angelic hero she’s so far witnessed, and as a result we get some brilliant interplay between Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi, as their characters debate the ethics of their situation. These two are fast becoming one of the best TARDIS teams we’ve seen in years, and their chemistry together is a joy to behold.
The main alien plot of the week is small fry, but entertains nonetheless. The main crux of the story is the usual ‘alien creature gets exploited by man’, but the setting and the narrative are both interesting enough that this small niggle doesn’t distract from enjoying the episode. Its also refreshing to have a proper evil villain in the mix for the first time this series as well, with Nathan Barley‘s Nicholas Burns giving a beautifully understated performance as the repulsive Lord Sutcliffe.
Extra praise must also go to director Bill Anderson and the entire design team – the Frost Fair is bought to vivid, colourful life on screen with such skill its a wonder that it was achieved on a television budget. As always, Doctor Who excels when recreating periods from history, made all the greater here when shining the spotlight on a moment in history that the average viewer may not have initially been aware of.
Ending on a teasing and frankly creepy moment with the all-important vault from Episode 1, Thin Ice is Doctor Who as it always should be – fun, action packed, and scary, yet equally sophisticated and no-holds barred when it comes to contemporary issues like racism and classism.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One next Saturday. Check in to Critical Popcorn for our review.
I totally fanboy when Doctor Who writers do their research properly. This episode was a fantastic example of this. There really was an elephant at the 1814 Frost Fair. The fog really could blanket gas lamps from a few feet away and people really did bowl for skittles. The charming story about the tall tailor cutting a little boy’s thumbs off is a real nineteenth century children’s tale. Petty thieves and con-men were very busy during the frost fair and the food looked very accurate. The villain was a great example of the excesses of industrialisation. I think Dollard probably started by picking up an amazing historical event and then wrote the episode around it.
Also, did anyone else get The Beast Below vibes from when the Doctor said he never had time for outrage? It reminded me of 11 explaining that he was duty-bound never to interfere when time travelling. Meanwhile everyone who had ever seen Doctor who called bullshit and he was talking to a crying child about three seconds later.
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Agreed on research, something that could be hugely underestimated but this was so smartly, intuitively achieved.
His speech about how we’re judged as humans was pretty special as well, just great writing that’s very welcome! (Let’s forget about ep 2 already… ;-p)