Previously on Doctor Who, “Smile”
“I’ve got questions…”
You’ve been here before?
In Doctor Who’s third season 10 installment, “Thin Ice,” the TARDIS takes us back to Regency Era England for a Monster of the Week episode written by Sarah Dollard, previously of “Face the Raven,” and one of two female writers this season (the second is playwright Rona Munro, whose episode “Eaters of Light” runs in June). As with most Moffat-era MOTW capers, the investigation might be light, but underpinned with heavier seasonal themes and book-ended by sometimes gimmicky shoutouts to the arc. Despite some hand-wavey explanation and TV-budget monster FX, “Thin Ice” was loads of fun, addressed some serious issues, and solidly based in the Whoverse and history.
The TARDIS lands them on the frozen Thames during the 1814 Frost Fair, the background of which is surprisingly true. During the “Little Ice Age,” London experienced 24 winters that were so cold, the Thames froze over. People thronged to the area to see the unusual phenomena, which led to street merchants, ice skating, dancing, bowling, and even pubs on the ice. This might be the first time the Doctor has visited a Frost Fair on screen, but the topic is traditional Who territory, mentioned by River Song in “A Good Man Goes to War” as one of their date nights and by 12 as an option to Clara in “The Caretaker,” in the novel The Roundheads, the online short “The Frozen,” and the audio play “Frostfire.” The last Frost Fair, this episode’s listed date of 1814, featured an elephant being led across the ice as a stunt and used here to lure large crowds as food for what lies beneath.
Recalling the Doctor’s earlier assertion that most things are just hungry, in this version of earth’s history, the villainous Lord Sutcliffe and his family have been profiting from a giant sea snake creature held captive in the Thames for generations. Chained and fed people “nobody” would miss, the monster produces waste that is mined for uber-efficient fuel. Frost Fair revelers drawn from the entertainment by glowing lights under the ice are quickly sucked below. Spider, an adorable street urchin, lifts the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and unwittingly attracts the monster’s attention, resulting in Bill’s first observed death. Movingly stunned, she demands the Doctor do something besides callously snatch his prize back from the dead boy’s fingers.
His reaction to Spider’s death is to avert his gaze and seem distracted, clearly avoiding thinking about it while strategizing. Offended, Bill demands to know, since he claims to care so much, how many people he’s seen die and if he’s killed anyone. Citing his 2000 year age, the Doctor declares disingenuously that she should learn to move on before more people die and that he’s never had time for the luxury of outrage… which proves to be patently false immediately upon tracking down Lord Sutcliffe.
You want to go out there? Melanin. It’s 1814. Slavery is totally still a thing.
Expanding upon the enslavement issue this season, this episode finally tackles a common fault in time-travel fantasies when one of the team isn’t white. Upon arrival, Bill comments immediately on the problem, which the Doctor is forced to acknowledge. Once at the Fair, Bill notes with surprise that London is “a bit more black” than the movies portray, to which the Doctor replies,
“So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.”
Echoing Tom Hardy’s Taboo, the street urchin crew is managed by an observant little black girl named Kitty, to whom Bill promises the Doctor’s help before any more children disappear (thankfully unlike Winter in Taboo, Kitty survives the episode). After following a school of symbiotic angler fish down to the chained and despairing monster’s lair, the Doctor whips out his psychic paper to trick the foreman into revealing Sutcliffe’s address and counsels Bill to let him do the talking since she’s worked up about Spider’s death.
With privilege blazing, Sutcliffe, a Poor Man’s version of “The Snowmen” Walter Simeon, spouts off racist remarks at Bill, earning a rare punch from the Doctor, followed by a lecture as Bill glows.
“Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.
Overall, the entire episode handled racism fairly unflinchingly, rather than glossing over it with sci-fi magic as Doctor Who has before. As for the perpetrator, besides his ignominy at being punched by a pacifist Doctor, this villain doesn’t stand out. His outfit and death are silly, and it is clear that Sutcliffe is 100% disgusting and deserves to be eaten after Bill determines the creature must be released despite potential danger to Londoners and perhaps, jokingly, Greenland. Loch-Lessy’s escape, effects wise, is pure Grade-A Whovian Cheese, but its happy whale burbles may have temporarily warmed my cold, dead heart a wee bit. Don’t tell anyone.
This time, Bill wonders about the Butterfly Effect, as any proper modern sci-fi fan would do, inspiring a crack from the Doctor about her fictional friend “Pete,” who has now winked out of existence thanks to her actions. Funny, except when you recall Rose’s dad Pete, whose alternate reality version is happily living with Rose’s present-reality mom. Despite the truthful pang to the joke, it’s worth Bill’s expression when she realizes this 2000-year-old alien is joshing her and runs with it. This kind of chemistry is such a lovely turn, and makes you feel as though you are a part of their student-mentor-mutual-admiration friendship.
Have you seen my dog?
Rounding out the thematic patterns, the Doctor once again mentions to a street merchant that he’s also a thief and begs to know how he does a coin trick before boasting that he could steal anything in his shop, then encourages the children to eat a stack of proffered meat pies because they’re stolen.
Much like the children’s Lost Dog con, which he admires openly, the Doctor waves his long-absent psychic paper willy nilly, passing as an agent of the palace, an inspector, and Dr. Disco (har har!) of the Fairford Club. With Sutcliffe gone, the Doctor forges a change into Sutcliffe’s Last Will and Testament, deeding the ill-gotten estate to one of the urchins, Perry, as “Peregrine Sutcliffe,” bastard heir, ultimately helping all of the children, even if his care wasn’t immediately apparent. In the cutest moment of the episode, Kitty welcomes Bill and the Doctor into their new home by counseling the kids not to stare when “the lady talks peculiar.” Bill bounces in, exclaiming,
“Get a load at you lot! Cute as!”
Do these look like off-world clothes to you?
Once they finally pop back into the present for tea, Nardole lectures him about his vow, which the Doctor brushes off due to semantics. After all, they weren’t off world at all, and besides, these are just tea clothes. Nardole blusters and fusses, then goes into the basement, hearing strong, distinct knocks from inside the vault. BUM BUM BUMMMM!
- After the Doctor’s “magician” phase last season, where is this thievery theme coming from? Could it be a leaking instinctual memory of Clara and Me/Ashildr’s theft of the white TARDIS?
- Vault possibilities: the Master (but which?), Time Lords/Gallifrey, Rassilon, Daleks, Cybermen
- Although it wasn’t explicitly Christmas, the Regency Era visit felt Christmassy, which seems to suggest emphasis on Christmas going forward, as with the other themes.
- Street urchin names: All the kids were named after previous companions.
- “There’s your tea. I put a bit of coffee in it as well, just to give it some flavor.”
- Sutcliffe never mentions the monster’s gender, but Bill uses “she” and the Doctor goes with it.
- He also suggests the monster causes the extraordinary freezes, which might mean it has in fact been stuck in the Thames for 500 years (sad!), or it might just be a faulty superstitious belief.
- The Doctor reads creepy old German tale, “Struwwelpeter,” or “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb,” about a tailor who snips off the thumbs of little boys who suck them. Cheerful! Don’t these kids have enough stress in their lives?
- Bill cheering on the street wrestlers, “GET IN!” while the Doctor pretends not to be impressed. Loved it.
- “What’s that face? Is that a “no” or are you against tattoos? I’m against tattoos, too, I think that we’re bonding.”
- “So, the TARDIS has dresses and likes a bit of trouble? Yeah, I think I’m low-key in love with her.”
- “All right, you guys, hang tight! Laters. I was being all “down with the kids” there, did you notice?”
“Yeah, my hair was cringing.”
Doctor Who S10E3
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Nicholas Burns, Asiatu Koroma, Simon Ludders, Tomi May, Guillaume Rivaud, Ellie Shenker, Peter Singh, Badger Skelton, Auston Taylor, Kishaina Thiruselvan