I was half expecting Stevie Wonder to show up in “Thin Ice”, writer Sarah Dollard’s contribution to this year’s series of Doctor Who. Why? Well, as fans recall, the setting of Dollard’s episode, the Frost Fair of 1814, was previously mentioned as the place where River Song and The Doctor celebrated her birthday in “A Good Man Goes to War”, and Wonder apparently played a private concert for her under one of the bridges on the Thames.
Suffice to say, “Thin Ice” didn’t require such embellishments. The episode effortlessly let The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) loose at the Frost Fair, in a story that oscillated between the joys and tragedies of time travel. Here, the vexed question of whether these trips into the past potentially change history raises its head, once again, above the freezing waters of the Thames. Bill also has to confront the fact that travelling with The Doctor is a perilous life, as there are consequences and death is The Doctor’s constant companion.
“Thin Ice” does replay many aspects of similar episodes. The opening sequence of Bill, suitably attired courtesy of the TARDIS wardrobe, replicates the lovely beats of “The Unquiet Dead”, where we had the gorgeous shot of Rose Tyler stepping out onto the snowy streets of 19th-century Cardiff on her first trip into the past. This sensibility is echoed as Bill stares in wonderment at the London of 1814 but, like Martha Jones in “The Shakespeare Code”, she’s concerned that “slavery is still totally a thing”, that it could be dangerous out there, and the so-called ‘butterfly effect’ might “send ripples through time that mean I’m not even born in the first place.”
To put it briefly into context, by the end of the 18th-century there had been great unease about the slave trade and 100 petitions against it were made in the House of Commons during 1788. By 1792, it had voted to gradually abolish the trade but then the French Revolution frightened Parliament into doing nothing and it wasn’t until 1807 that the trade was abolished within the British Empire.
In Regency England, people of colour had a variety of occupations, including those as servants, soldiers, and sailors. However, many would have lived in poverty. Those without skills or education would have been reduced to living by illicit means: pick-pocketing, begging, and prostitution. Bill picks up that there was actually a very diverse population in London at the time. “Bit more black than they show in the movies” is her acknowledgment of the perceived invisibility of people of colour in modern popular culture. The Doctor’s response “so was Jesus. History’s a whitewash,” suggests we’ve still got a lot to learn about the history being presented to us.
The Doctor also enjoys a little wind-up with Bill and claims that companion Pete, who was standing there momentarily has now disappeared having “stepped on a butterfly”, to the extent even Bill doesn’t remember him. The Doctor reassures her the choices she makes in the past are like the choices she would make on any other day. “It’s just time travel,” he offers. It’s a refreshing change from the burden of creating temporal paradoxes that last an entire series.
This is all played with such ease between Capaldi and Mackie. She’s the companion the Twelfth Doctor’s been looking for and now richly deserves. She isn’t burdened with an esoteric plot function. It’s a honest, back-to-basics relationship, and while The Doctor tutors her, Bill also begins to shape his reactions and attitudes.
Director Bill Anderson masters the setting wonderfully, intercutting the busy, noisy activity of the Frost Fair — wrestling, eating, and skittles (Bill was “pub champion, two years running”) — with the murky depths of the Thames and the eldritch horrors of some great behemoth waiting in the dark. Production design, by the always reliable Michael Pickwoad, is a particular strength here, and in combination with the period costumes it gives “Thin Ice” a tangibly effective atmosphere.
There’s a long tradition of alleged sightings of creatures and sea-monsters on the Thames, and one that carries a resonance in myth. This sea creature could reflect the general cultural fears about the dangers of the sea in those communities living close to rivers and coasts. The Kraken and the Leviathan are just some of the names we’ve given to such beasts and, of course, The Doctor later mockingly refers to the creature as “the Loch-less Monster, the not-so-Little Mermaid.” The series itself has visited the titular beast from Loch Ness in the form of the Skarasen in 1975’s “Terror of the Zygons”.
But the sea monster is not the evil, monstrous ‘other’ as we discover much later. When Bill sees strange lights beneath the ice covering the Thames she wonders if time travel can produce side effects. However, she and The Doctor soon realise that the lights are harbingers of the fate that befalls those who wander off on their own. After being scammed by Kitty (Asiatu Koroma) and her young gang of thieves, The Doctor has his sonic screwdriver pinched by a young boy known as Spider (Austin Taylor). Spider, on the run from The Doctor and Bill, is eventually swallowed by the ice.
This experience serves as Bill’s traumatic realisation that The Doctor is steeped in death. Every companion has to rationalise this, and Bill’s reaction opens up a debate about the nature of The Doctor and the morals of doing right and wrong for the right and wrong reasons. Bill is shocked by Spider’s death and The Doctor’s attitude to it. He seems to care more about his sonic screwdriver. Unlike the deaths in “Smile”, this one has happened in front of her eyes. Her plea for him to “do something… save him” recalls Donna’s response to mass slaughter in “The Fires of Pompeii”, and her demand that he at least saves someone from the volcano’s eruption. As we all know, that someone was the man with The Doctor’s face, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, also played by Capaldi. He’s the very reason why he frowned that face. It’s a reminder to always try to save people, no matter what the consequences.
Here, Bill’s questions about how many people The Doctor’s killed, and whether he cared at the time, return us to the ethical backbone of the character. His sense of right and wrong shapes the way he interacts with people and history. But this has consequences and he seems to operate on the principle that it isn’t the actions that are right or wrong but whether the outcomes are good or bad.
The fact that he doesn’t know how many he has killed shocks Bill. “I care, Bill, but I move on.” For such a long-lived being, it’s clear introspective reflection isn’t very practical for him. If he stopped to consider every death, more people would die if he didn’t move on. “I’m 2000 years old and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage,” he explains. However, as we see later this does not mean he can never exercise his outrage. This superb, quietly intense scene dovetails particularly well with his speech to the real monster at the heart of the story, the slimy Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns).
After the death of Spider, The Doctor and Bill visit Kitty and her gang of artful dodgers. While Bill convinces her that they are there to help, The Doctor reads ‘Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher’ (The Story of the Thumb-Sucker) from Der Struwwelpeter, a collection of tales published, anachronistically in relation to the dating of the story, in 1845 and written by Heinrich Hoffmann. The musical adaptation Shockheaded Peter was where Julian Bleach, in the cast as the MC, was first considered to play Davros. The tales were supposed to teach children the consequences of disobedience. I wonder if this is a comment not only on those urchins’ misbehaviour but also on The Doctor’s disobedience in leaving the vault unprotected.
The Doctor learns that Kitty’s gang of children lure people to the ice on behalf of the said Lord Sutcliffe. Here, Sarah Dollard turns the story on its head. “Thin Ice” is not simply a story about a monster that eats people to survive. After The Doctor and Bill do a spot of deep sea diving and discover the sea creature is actually a lonely, desperate prisoner, the focus of the story turns to the man whose family presumably kept the creature chained up for centuries in order to exploit it. It produces a fuel for the Sutcliffe dynasty’s steel mills and makes them more productive and competitive. Under the Thames, the sea creature’s merely a metaphor for excessive capitalist consumption and production. Sutcliffe’s plan to exploit the market is to blow the ice up, drown more people and feed the creature to produces even more fuel.
Marx saw this metaphor in terms of the vampire, and Judith Halberstam noted that capitalism was often realised as a monster sucking, draining and transferring “matter into commodity, commodity into value and value into capitalism.” It’s ironic that Dollard switches the focus to Sutcliffe at a time when we feel we’re living in some variation of the greater and greater divide between the haves and the have-nots. There’s also quite an interesting subtext about a man getting richer on the shit produced by a sea monster, transforming it into filthy lucre through the further exploitation of his poorly paid and treated labour force, the dredgers. Dollard even manages to get a somewhat corny “no sh — ” joke in, cutting off Bill’s exclamation in the yard by switching to her arrival at Sutcliffe’s house.
At the yard where the dredgers are working, there’s a sparkling little scene between Capaldi and Mackie. The Doctor pulls Bill into his subterfuge and they con the Overseer (Simon Ludders) into letting them see Lord Sutcliffe. The con seems to be a running theme through the episode, from The Doctor’s obsession with the coin trick deployed by the pie seller (Peter Singh), Kitty’s scam about her lost dog and then the way he and Bill flatter to deceive the foreman into telling them about the fuel.
When The Doctor finally encounters Sutcliffe he also realises that this monstrous capitalist is, like many of his ilk, deeply racist. He’s not only racist towards Bill but also speciesist towards the creature in the Thames seeking its own freedom from intolerance and economic exploitation. This builds magnificently from a conversation with Bill, where The Doctor implores she leaves the talking to him because she has a temper. He claims they’ll only get information through the application of diplomacy and tact: “always remember, Bill, passion fights but reason wins.”
He delivers this by planting a punch on Sutcliffe. Well, an extraterrestrial could never be as convincingly racist and Sutcliffe is the epitome of privilege who “made the most of the situation.” The Doctor makes no bones about telling him: “what makes you so sure that your life is worth more than those people there on the ice. Is it the money? The accident of birth that puts you inside the big, fancy house?” That the series is articulating these ideas about privilege chimes with the recent comments by actress Maxine Peake about the self-entitlement she wish she’d had.
Dollard’s speech for The Doctor, as he castigates Sutcliffe for his lack of compassion, is not only one of the most humanitarian delivered by the character but it also suggests the greatest con of all. The Doctor has to pretend not to care, not to be outraged, just to get through his days: “human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life.” Later, in the carriage that takes them back to the Frost Fair, Bill understands that The Doctor has never had time for anything but outrage.
The episode culminates in the inevitable destruction of Sutcliffe. Planning to blow up the ice and feed the Frost Fair’s visitors to the sea creature, he doesn’t anticipate The Doctor will instead get him to blow up the chains holding the creature captive. What’s delicious is that, while it reiterates a lot of typical Doctor Who moments, it places familiar tropes we haven’t seen for a long time at the heart of the drama. Hence, The Doctor and companion tied back-to-back and trying to get out of a scrape still doesn’t feel stale because we haven’t see it like this for a while.
By freeing the creature, the ice is destroyed and Sutcliffe becomes fish food. The Loch-less Monster abandons the Thames and disappears, presumably, out to sea. Sutcliffe veers towards the pantomime villain at times but his lack of compassion is all you need for this coup de théâtre to work effectively enough. The Doctor arranges for Sutcliffe’s estate to go to one of Kitty’s gang, Peregrine, by committing one final con and altering his deeds of entitlement. The critique of capitalism is perhaps a tad too much on the nose but it works in context with Dollard’s deft exploration of The Doctor’s moral and ethical stance and Bill’s reaction to it.
Upon their return to the present day, Nardole (Matt Lucas) reappears with the tea (“I put some coffee in it to give it some flavour”) to remind them and us of the agreed policy not to go off world. We’re left with that mysterious final scene where Nardole admonishes whatever it is behind the doors of the vault and scurries away. Intriguingly, the doors are covered in Gallifreyan symbols and suggest the promise made by The Doctor was very close to home.