Thin Ice is written by the brilliant Sarah Dollard, who also penned Clara Oswald's exit from the Whoniverse (mark I) in Face the Raven. Here the tag on the end of the previous episode trumpets successfully into the teaser at the top of this one, the Doctor and Bill finding themselves on the frozen Thames in 1814. And, as I had assumed it might, most of this adventure does fit into the time it took Nardole to brew up tea and carry a tray into the Doctor's office, back at St. Luke's University. Or, to put it another way, sometimes the TARDIS doesn't only take you where you need to be - she'll also manage to get you back home in time for tea.
Their arrival in Regency London may be unplanned, but it's not unwarranted. Just as in Deep Breath a monster roams the banks of the Thames, or rather lies chained down on the river bed. Shown on the TARDIS console screen as a flashing, red serpent, barely fitting into its watery habitat, the image is an amusing piece of c.g.i. reworking an image of the river map very well known to viewers of BBC1's soap East Enders.
Nodding to another famous series, Thin Ice can be read as a reworking of the pilot episode of Star Trek Next Generation Encounter at Farpoint where a captured alien life form was enslaved to synthesise matter - creating and powering a space station - whilst the human race (as represented by Captain Picard and his crew) was judged for its conduct by the omnipotent entity Q. In Thin Ice the Doctor is all powerful, the alien sea-serpent (Nessie, but not as you know her) trapped so her captured waste, moulded into bricks, can be burnt - alien biogas powering steel mills and out performing coal mining for the enrichment of one man. And feeding the alien!nessie, so she can produce enough waste to power this industrial boom? The poor and dispossessed, who wouldn't be missed if they fell through the ice and were served up as dinner.
The small band of homeless waifs and strays who work this frost fair wouldn't be out of place in Dickens' Oliver Twist (serialised from 1837–39, with the book publication appearing six months before the initial serialisation was completed) its themes redolent here, given the juvenile pickpockets, although this adventure is set some twenty years earlier than Dickens' classic social novel. The little girl who hands a flyer to the Doctor catches his attention. But, it's the little boy who picks the Doctor's pocket and runs away with his sonic screwdriver, only to meet his doom on the ice, who illustrates what's wrong in this time and place. It's that child's small, red hat, floating up out of the monster's gullet as she belches, which instills a touch of horror in the viewer.
Bill Potts is the heart of this episode, the emotional beat at its centre. It's her perspective which is lent to the viewer (most likely a young, unjaded, audience) and her point of view which the camera follows - from delight to grief-stricken horror. In juxtaposition, the Doctor is seemingly unshaken and unmoved by what he witnesses. Of course the Doctor lies, primarily to himself. And, whilst he always hopes humanity will appeal to its better self, he has often seen us fall short. The speech he gives to the villain of the piece:
- is truly beautiful, and the moment when he casts judgement on the worst of the human race. Later, in paraphrasing that same speech the Doctor gently judges Bill and doesn't find her wanting as she decides to prompt him to action to save the creature.
DOCTOR: "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."
The initial arrogant dismissing of the Doctor's speech is fantastically acted by Nicholas Burns whose performance wouldn't be out of place in the Bullingdon inspired drama 'The Riot Club' . It's Burns's character, Lord Sutcliffe, who benefits most from harvesting the creature's waste, the secret of its existence apparently inherited from his forefathers. For all that the Doctor had warned Bill to be calm and collected (asking her to sit herself down, in what I assume is meant to be Sutcliffe's study) it's the Doctor himself who flies off the handle, landing a sucker punch on Sutcliffe's jaw. In part, he's furious at the other man's obnoxious, arrogant, behaviour. In the main, his ire is raised by the slurs cast at Bill's feet and by Sutcliffe's utter indifference to the fate of those fed to the sea serpent in the name of his own aggrandisement.
I do wonder if Sarah Dollard named Lord Sutcliffe with an eye to the subtext embedded in that surname, given Peter Sutcliffe was the Yorkshire Ripper. Undoubtedly, Sutcliffe's coat (a bright royal blue) is meant to call to mind the Tories - this, for a British viewer. But I assume such subtext will be lost on a US audience where the Democrats wear blue and the Republicans red. Fittingly, Sutcliffe meets his doom in the jaws of the very creature he enslaved, his plans to blast the ice on the Thames (and so doom hundreds of Frost Fair goers) thwarted by the homeless street children he was happy to sacrifice and, by the Doctor and Bill.
In his role of teacher, the Doctor is definitely guiding Bill. Whilst he delights in her enjoyment of the frost fair, teases her for her abhorrence of the food on offer, and pockets more than one pie to keep his thief credentials sharp (and show them off) he's waiting. He’s waiting as Bill sight-sees, waiting to have her notice the uncanny. And, he scolds her gently for the time it takes her to do so. Later he waits for her to command him to act, but it's a test. Forcing Bill to choose as to what action, if any, is to be taken is an almost identical stance to that which he took in Kill the Moon when he stranded Clara Oswald, Courtney Woods and Captain Lundvik, forcing humanity to decide the fate of an alien creature - and by so doing, decide its own fate too.
Through action and sometimes by offering up nuggets of his own past the Doctor teaches his companions to be the best that humanity can be, to go past their limitations and to do so with compassion and care for all species. But teacher is only one of the hats he wears.
That telling comment:
"Your people, your planet. I serve at the pleasure of the human race, and right now, that's you. Give me an order."
- delivered by Peter Capaldi with more than a hint of desperation was telling. It made me realise the Doctor's been bereft of a companion for a very, very, long time. All incarnations of the Doctor (in this new era) have admitted to needing a companion to rein them in. Increasingly (since losing his Ponds’s and his wife River) the Doctor seems to have realised he needs a companion as guide, or moral compass. But, I'd say his reluctant admission of the darkest chapter of his history (reiterating his great age, the telling silence when asked by Bill if he has ever killed anyone) is less to do with decades of solitude and more to do with a well-refined defence mechanism. But neither his reticence nor his self-control denote apathy, the Doctor is still more likely to find himself acting as the oncoming storm, in the face of injustice, than to walk on by.
Having already divulged his alternate 'career' as thief to Bill, amusingly, it's these skills he brings to bear throughout this episode. From the perfect play on a traditional conjuring trick - taking first one pie and then a second out of his top hat in offering - to changing children's destinies with a skilful scratch of a pen, we're reminded the the Doctor is as much magician as story-teller and righter (aka writer) of wrongs. Ushered into what was Lord Sutcliffe's house and led to a feast, the happy end served up to these children is aptly similar to Oliver Twist's fate, who was taken in by those he'd been instructed to rob only to discover familial connections.
Production wise (sets, costumes and the look of the period) Dollard's Regency London sits somewhere between Pride and Prejudice, as directed by Joe Wright in 2005, and the recent dark, macabre, and bloody drama Taboo starring (and produced by) Tom Hardy. This isn't the refined world of the Beau Monde as penned by Georgette Heyer. I did love the costumes though, the Doctor in his top hat and frock coat; Bill in her forest green, fur-lined, pelisse and plume topped cap.
Dollard and Moffat address the issue of people of colour in historical drama (or rather, the lack of persons of colour being cast in historical drama) by mentioning that history has long been white washed, the Doctor stating that Jesus was black. To digress for a moment: The Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai is one of the oldest Byzantine religious icons, dating from the sixth century AD. If Jesus Christ was a real historical figure, I'd say he was of Middle Eastern origin. But, still not caucasian and blue-eyed the way history (and later cinematic drama) may have attested. Of people of colour living in Britain, whilst the percentage was small there were people living here from the Twelfth Century. By the Eighteenth some had even become famous in their own right, Ignatius Sancho becoming the first African prose writer to have his work published in England.
I found this episode far more enjoyable than the last. Dollard's script is tighter, with brilliant banter and interplay between the Doctor and Bill. There is real magic at the heart of the story, as well as magic in the world re-creation. Just as Bill walked through the frost fair wide-eyed, so we too follow the camera pans, marvelling at the acrobats and sword swallower (a trick sword and c.g.i. perhaps?) Casting-wise the children are more than adequate, Peter Capaldi's focused, careful, acting in his scenes with them reinforcing their textual vulnerability. But the real gift in this episode, acting-wise, is Pearl Mackie who plays Bill with an open, gentle, heart. Mackie has an amazingly expressive face, and is a damn bloody good actress. Here she runs the emotional gauntlet from cautious and careful through to furious, but the moments which stand out in her portrayal are when Bill cries at the pointless, tragic, death of a little boy and when she's frozen with indecision, being tested by the Doctor to discover the strength of her own convictions. Mackie is a lovely actress. It will therefore be very interesting to see how Bill Potts's relationship with the Doctor progresses, over the course of next nine episodes.
Nardole's character arc this series will undoubtedly map that of the series over-reaching arc. Or, to put it another way, he stands guarding the vault upon which someone, or something, knocks repeatedly. Three knocks, three times, then four continuous knocks. It calls to mind the way the Master once knocked to open dimensional doors and free time-locked Gallifrey. It calls to mind Wilfred Mott knocking, and inadvertently leading the Tenth Doctor to the regeneration he'd tried so hard to out run.
It's an arc, but one whose end I can only hope won't come too quickly.