This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler free review is here.
10.3 Thin Ice
“She’s a bad girl, this one. Always looking for trouble”
Picking up at the exact point where last week’s Smile left us, Sarah Dollard’s second Doctor Who episode, Thin Ice, quickly moves its constituent parts into place. Even pre-credits, we’ve had the reveal of a big monster under the frozen River Thames, we’ve learned that the TARDIS has steered the Doctor and Bill to this place, and that danger lies ahead. A quick trip to the TARDIS wardrobe later – “the TARDIS has dresses?!” – and the Doctor and Bill are off in a London with a distinct Dickensian twinge to it.
Turns out there’s a Frost Fair (the biggest in London, we later learn, on a very specific part of the river), and a well-realised one, with due credit to director Bill Anderson and the production team for that. It involves walking all over the frozen river, as the residents of London happily play games, get merry (merry enough to forget to notice things afterwards!) and enjoy themselves.
But what’s this? Strange lights under the ice? Dollard’s script soon begins to escalate the mystery here, with Thin Ice going about its business a little quicker than the episodes we’ve seen thus far this series. We get children luring people to the lights, which then pull people down into the Thames and, more pertinently, the teeth of the massive creature we saw at the start. The internal logic of the story then plays out, with Nicholas Burns’ particularly slimey Lord Sutcliffe overseeing a plan that involves sacrificing people – and it’s very, very cold drama at times, with a young child proving to be fish food – creating fuel, and a bit of good old-fashioned child labour thrown in for extra measure.
To unravel all of this, Thin Ice becomes more of a Peter Capaldi-centric episode, albeit hinging, again, on a choice that Pearl Mackie’s Bill is forced to make.
We’ve seen, happily, the detective side of the Doctor come to the fore this series already quite a lot, notably with Bill taking more of the lead. It continues to be more of a teacher-student relationship between them, and note that he’s keen to educate Bill as he goes, stopping early on in this episode to query whether she thinks the lights, for example, are organic or not. Again, the fact that Bill knows her away around the sci-fi section of Netflix is quite handy.
Here, though, the balance shifts back in the Doctor’s favour, building up to the stand-out moment of the episode. There’s a bubbling racial and slavery subtext to the episode, and just when you think it’s going to stay there, Sarah Dollard brings it furiously to the surface. It’s the moment where Sutcliffe first sees Bill, immediately after the Doctor has cautioned calm. One paragraph of racist drivel later, Sutcliffe is on the floor, the Doctor’s fist is hurting. I know the Doctor is a pacifist at heart, but I for one was cheering a proper grandstand moment. Backed up by an excellent Capaldi monologue – and who delivers them better right now than magic eyebrows himself? – and the middle of Thin Ice in particular is hugely satisfying.
But the episode entire works because the quiet moments really hit home, too. The sequence where firstly the Doctor questions why Bill doesn’t count the people who perished in Smile after she gets upset over seeing someone die in Thin Ice is swiftly countered. For she in turn interrogates the Doctor on just how many people he’s seen die. It’s a terrific exchange.
It also proves to be peak Capaldi and Pearl Mackie – “I’ve never had time for the luxury of outrage” – with their eyes doing as much of the acting work as the words coming out of their mouths. The range of Pearl Mackie is given a workout too, not least in her character’s realisation that progress from the past to the present day hasn’t been as dramatic as she’d like.
The welcome wraparound is that the Doctor leaves the uncertain decision as to what to do with the creature under the sea to her. It’s the kind of decision the Doctor’s been making every week, but what do you do: free a creature that’s been held against its will, and risk it eating half of London, or keep it there, and stay on the safe side? Bill makes the right call this week, and it’s strong writing too, giving her a flavour of just what’s made up the Doctor’s 2000 years and counting (note how his age has crept up).
There is the point that the big monster itself isn’t the monster, that the real foe is a human being, something of a recurring theme in the show in recent times. It certainly makes sense to the story too, but there’s a little bit of me that’d love to see Doctor Who unleash a monstrous monster on us again.
“I’m drinking my tea in my specially chosen tea clothes”
A few other highlights. Bill’s one-woman tribute to Bonnie Langford’s screaming made me chuckle, and the Doctor’s attempt at yoof talk was fun too. “Even my hair was cringing” says Bill at one point. If I had much hair, mine would have been too.
One thing, though. The TARDIS has gone from being so reliable that the Doctor will use it to travel and avoid the stairs the other week, to the old days of being erratic and taking the Doctor to places it wants to go. Will it settle on either? Because my preference, for what it’s worth, is the latter. “You reason with it”, the Doctor explains to Bill, but why did the TARDIS take them to the Frost Fair in the first place? Was it simply a case of people needing help (a perfectly reasonable explanation, of course), or does the ultimate ending with Perry the street urchin inheriting riches have a repercussion ahead?
Anyway, I liked Thin Ice. A solid, self-contained, well-told story that gives the standard of Doctor Who series 10 at a good level. I don’t yet get the sense that the current run is soaring, but I do think it’s consistent, and fun.
And it’s also continuing, as we saw in the effective epilogue to the story, to set up bigger things. Sadly, we barely got any time with Matt Lucas’ Nardole again – he doesn’t yet feel like a fully rounded character – but what we did get here was important.
Theory time, then. We can safely cross off the list the suggestion that there’s nothing in the vault that the Doctor is guarding, for a start. There’s something in there that sounds sizeable, and knows how to bang a door very hard. We’ve already been told of key villains returning later in the series, so the obvious assumption is it’s to do with them. But Steven Moffat loves his rug pulls, and I’d suggest that key clues are still missing, and surprises lie ahead.
Also, there’s talk of that oath again, one that the Doctor seems to spend most of his time ignoring. Given that there’s nobody the Doctor loves ignoring more than the Time Lords, one theory – and this would be a callback to Jon Pertwee-era Who again – is that they’re involved somehow. Could it be a vault of Masters? It’s not like we’re not expecting at least one of them to appear in the weeks ahead.
Whatever it is, Nardole is far more frightened of it than the Doctor right now. That may be in part down to the difference in their characters, of course. But there might be something else there too.
Lots to digest, then. And one more poser to leave you with: just what did happen to Pete…?!
Our review of last week’s episode, Smile, is here.