Following on from last weeks story, Smile, The Doctor and Bill pick up where we left off, gazing at an elephant cheerily wandering across the River Thames, precisely as elephants aren’t prone to doing. At the end of the previous episode, one could have been forgiven this was merely a cheap “sight gag”, however, as we will discover, it becomes an integral part of the plot.
The Tardis has landed in the middle of Regency London, at the peak of the last great Frost Fair of 1814. As an interesting side note, this is not the first time The Doctor has visited this point in history. Whilst he states this, it is not expanded upon, however those with a good memory may recall his mention of taking River Song there (A Good Man Goes To War).
With Bill and the Doctor leaving the safety of the console room, an ominous warning appears on the Tardis computer,, a “life form has been detected”…
Bill is initially concerned that she would be treated badly due to her skin colour, remarking that slavery was still “totally a thing”.. However, as they observe the festivities in the fair, she remarked that there were more black people present than the movies showed, with the Doctor observing that “so was Jesus.. history is a whitewash”.
This is the first time that I can recall Doctor Who tackling the subject of race, and particularly racism, head on. It had been touched upon before, notably in Human Nature, with Martha, however was not explored beyond the occasional passing remark (one, if memory serves correctly).
The central plot of the story revolves around a creature held captive at the bottom of the Thames. This is not a new theme, by any stretch of the imagination, having been explored in The Beast Below, and the Torchwood story, Meat, however the utilisation of the creature is somewhat unusual, in as much as it is its excrement which is collected and used as fuel.
Having been robbed by a gang of street urchins, the Doctor and Bill track them down, in order to recover the sonic screwdriver, at which point the story takes a more sinister turn, with one of the children, “Spider”, being devoured by the creature. As a side note, it is refreshing to see death return to Doctor Who, where the dead have the courtesy of remaining dead, rather than reappearing at the end of the story to provide a happy resolution.
Spider’s death also gives Mackie an opportunity to further demonstrate her compassionate nature, and her, and the Doctor’s, interaction with the children is a positive joy. Twelve attempting “street talk” continues to show a more playful incarnation of the Doctor.
There are surprising moments in the story.. The Doctor’s reaction to the delightfully odious Lord Sutcliffe, played by Nicholas Burns is unusual to say the least. Violence from the Doctor has not been seen for some considerable time, so, following a racially charged diatribe by Sutcliffe, a solid punch landed squarely on his face is unexpectedly out of character, and yet, at the same time, perfectly IN character. It’s a highly relevant scene and underscores the Doctor’s abhorrence toward intolerance. In less capable hands it could have made the Doctor appear “thuggish”, and yet walloping a bigot seems to come perfectly naturally to the Twelfth Doctor.
With Sutcliffe regaining consciousness, the Doctor delivers a bold, impassioned speech about the worth of a human life, which, sadly, as is often the case, falls upon deaf ears.
Capaldi is, perhaps, the finest orator since Tom Baker’s incarnation, and his speech about the value of a human progress is poignant, relevant and is, as always, delivered with utter conviction. His speech in The Zygon Inversion may have been have finest moment, however, this brief speech hits all the right notes. Although short, it it quite extraordinary.
The value of life is a strong theme, so far, in Season Ten, and whilst we have seen Bill’s emotions expressed on the subject, this is, perhaps, the most expressively succinct statement by The Doctor on the measure of a single, unremarkable human life.
Similarly, Bill’s discovery of the fuel burning underwater leads to a truncated “oh sh..” line, which gave this viewer a damn good laugh! Perfectly cut away, it seemed precisely in character for Bill, who is literally going from strength to strength in every passing scene. Pearl Mackie is an utterly captivating actor, convicting and is. above all, believable and intensely likeable.
Ultimately, with the aid of some wonderfully authentic diving equipment, the creature is released by the Doctor, doubtless making its way northward, to join the copious other Loch Ness monsters the show has created along the years. In the final scenes, the Tardis returns to the Doctors office, where he is greeted by a Nardole, who, aside from making tea mixed with coffee (for flavour!), is back to guarding the mysterious entity concealed behind the vault. With a whole lot of knocking going on, one cannot help wonder if something, or someone, rather masterful lurks behind the doors. It’s worth noting the Matt Lucas’ portrayal of Nardole is much more tempered and restrained in this episode, provide a pleasing blend of humour and apprehension.
The episode is beautifully directed and both scenery and costumes lend a wonderful authenticity to the Regency atmosphere. Frankly, it is a long time since Doctor Who has looked more splendid. If there is one minor criticism to be had, it is that the CGI is, at times, somewhat questionable, although not sufficiently so as to detract from the story in any way.
The bottom line? Thin Ice is bloody magnificent! Yes, the plot is somewhat borrowed, and again, a little light, and I am just fine with that. Season Ten is proving that overly complex, convoluted storylines aren't necessary, and that sometimes, good old fashioned, back to basics storytelling can be much more effective. This season has had very strong overtones of the classic era, and Thin Ice is no exception. Writer, Sarah Dollard, whose last outing was Face The Raven, has produced a stellar story, packed with adventure and character exploration, and the episode is beautifully realised by director Bill Anderson.
Thin Ice earns a well deserved 9/10, and is a story which will, I am certain, stand up to repeated viewings.