Contains some spoilers for the episode
Judging from the online reaction to “Thin Ice”, the third episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, it’s been a huge hit with both professional and fan critics who evidently believe it to be the best episode of the show in years. And I’m very happy to see that sort of positive reaction, even if it does make me feel I’m on the outside looking in on this occasion – able to see the enthusiasm from a distance but unable to join in, like the designated driver at a particularly exuberant house party.
It’s not that I thought “Thin Ice” wasn’t very good – far from it, it’s got some great moments and overall is really quite admirable. But I didn’t love it, not in the same way that everyone else seems to have done. Instead, it left me oddly cool – which is perhaps appropriate given the title and the setting of a 1814 Frost Fair on the frozen surface of the River Thames, a far cry from last week’s futuristic utopia.
With its raucous carnival atmosphere, circus performers, street market stalls and even an elephant on display it’s the sort of wildly implausible fantasy setting that is utterly preposterous – and also entirely historically accurate. As the saying goes, you really couldn’t make it up. Where “Smile” went to Spain to film on location, most of “Thin Ice” was shot on a big studio soundstage by new-to-Who director Bill Anderson who does a brilliant job of making it look impressively real, with the help of some CGI mist and fog to smooth over any joins. The whole thing is also another example of how well the BBC does period drama even to this day, and in particular the 19th century-appropriate costumes adopted by the Doctor and Bill are especially wonderful.
Looking deeper, I couldn’t shake the sense that the episode had a strange flavour to it from the start. It just didn’t feel like your typical episode of Doctor Who, or at least not the modern strain that we’ve become used to. Actually the moment when the Doctor and Bill are tied up back-to-back and placed next to a big bomb feels rather retro and harks back to the show’s 1970s heyday. In fact, this tenth season of Doctor Who has been making something of a habit of rewinding the show back to its roots and dispensing with all the epic timey-wimey-ness that has been its hallmark since 2010. It’s almost as though a brand new showrunner has arrived and is busy repudiating all of its predecessor’s work; except Steven Moffat is actually still in charge, and he’s apparently determined to thoroughly do-over his own legacy before passing the baton to Chris Chibnall in 2018.
Just as “Smile” contained the unmistakable imprint of its writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, so “Thin Ice” has clear echoes of Sarah Dollard’s previous contribution to the series which was 2015’s “Face The Raven”. In both stories the Doctor is less the action hero than he is a slow but steady investigator unravelling a vaguely sensed mystery, gathering clues into what’s going on before contemplating taking any action. How different is that to the Doctor we saw in “Smile” whose impetuosity nearly wiped out a whole colony of human settlers? Dollard’s is a potentially risky approach because if not done right it can cause the episode to drag and sag a little: she got away with it in “Face The Raven” because we had the meta-knowledge that it was leading up to something momentously bad happening at the conclusion. However, it’s not as convincingly the case here in the somewhat more subdued “Thin Ice”.
Perhaps the biggest quibble I have with the episode is that it’s essentially a remake of the 2010 story “The Beast Below”, in that it’s about a sentient creature shackled and chained into servitude and fed on live human victims until an indignant Doctor intervenes. Obviously the setting is changed – a space-faring colony ship has been replaced by the Regency Frost Fair and you can hardly get more contrasting locales than that. And the themes surrounding the central premise are also quite different: in “The Beast Below” it was about the individual’s personal responsibility in a democratic system, and the lengths a society will go to ensure and justify its survival; whereas “Thin Ice” is a simpler and not particularly subtle case of exposing the inherent greed, exploitation and persecution of modern capitalism where nothing and no one is more important than making money and keeping the nation’s factories in business.
In both cases, the episode’s nominal monster – the space whale in “The Beast Below”, and the giant sea serpent in “Thin Ice” – is actually the principal victim. When we finally get to the real monster, it’s all too recognisably human in the form of an odious privileged peer of the realm only out to make a quick buck regardless of the cost and consequences. Unfortunately as presented, Lord Sutcliffe is rather a pompous and stupid oaf, an example of too many generations of in-breeding. He’s more of a pantomime villain played for laughs by Nicholas Burns, best known for roles in comedy shows such as Nathan Barley and Benidorm, which rather leaches away any sense of genuine danger at the heart of the story. You know he’s going to end up taking a dive into the icy waters of the Thames and get punched in the face by the Doctor as soon as you see him.
Yes, punched in the face. And actually this is one of the episode’s best moments. It’s very obviously set-up – as soon as the Doctor tells Bill that he’ll do the talking because she’s too impetuous and prone to anger, that the punch line will be … Well, the Doctor throwing a punch. But it’s done very well, and if Sutcliffe’s racist remarks toward Bill haven’t left you seething and wanting to hit the guy in the face yourself, then there’s something very wrong indeed. Not that violence is ever really the answer, but – well, this is no time for nuance.
Up to now, the opening episodes of season 10 have been principally about the new companion: “The Pilot” was all about getting to know Bill, and “Smile” was a chance to watch how she and the Doctor get along and work together. “Thin Ice” takes a different perspective again, using Bill as a new set of eyes through which to examine the character of the Doctor. That puts the Doctor back at the centre of the show, but there’s nothing particularly new that will come as a surprise to long term fans. His moment of apparent callousness at Spider’s death is reminiscent of his cold demeanour in season 8; and we know he’s seen incalculable deaths and indeed directly and indirectly caused many of them through his own actions. But seeing these questions posed so directly by Bill, and her appalled reactions to some of what she’s finding out, is what brings the episode alive. And the moment when the Doctor finally drops his dissembling protestations about not having time for outrage and reveals just how deeply he really does care after all manifests itself in one of Doctor Who’s all-time most beautiful and memorable soliloquies, immaculately performed as always by Peter Capaldi.
This is also another terrific performance by Pearl Mackie, who give us a very real and multi-faceted portrayal of a very relatable modern young woman, someone who is clued up enough to have seen science fiction films and know the clichés and theories about the butterfly effect as pertaining to time travel. She’s very much one of us – the audience – in a way that neither Amy nor Clara ever really managed, straight-jacketed as they were by being framed from the start as “the girl who waited” and “the impossible girl” plot devices before they ever got to be proper people. We’ve not had a companion who feels so very “normal” since the days of Rose, Martha and Donna a decade ago; Bill even echoes some of the concerns Martha had in The Shakespeare Code about visiting a period of history when black people were treated as possessions (and itself a clear allusion to the plight of the giant sea serpent in the Thames.) I’ve missed those ‘ordinary’ aspects to the show in recent years, and I’m consequently thrilled by Bill and by Mackie’s work – and it seems that she’s bringing out the very best in Capaldi in turn.
There is, then, a lot to like and admire about “Thin Ice”. Usually it’s the devil that lies in the details, but in this case it’s where the best aspects of the episode are undoubtedly to be found residing. I just wish the centre of the story – the bit where the plot usually sits – had been stronger, the pace a little quicker, and in general the whole thing just a little more sweeping to get me really excited about it rather than merely charmed. For me at least these things were missing from the episode – or at least, only partially present – and I believe that’s why I felt just that little bit flat about “Thin Ice”. I’m clearly in the minority on this, and that’s fine too. Vive la difference and all that. It would be so dull if we all liked the same thing, after all. I’m honestly just glad that so many people did love it as much as they clearly did.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate my feelings about “Thin Ice” is to describe my reaction to the Next Week trailer for “Knock, Knock”, a haunted house story guest-starring Poirot himself – David Suchet. I’m so excited about seeing the episode that I can barely contain myself for an entire week. And it’s exactly that sort of visceral, knee-jerk sense of anticipation and excitement that for me was lacking this week, however much I appreciated and admired the fine craftsmanship, styling and details to be found under the surface of “Thin Ice.”
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 29 2017 with the second half of the season following on July 17.