Doctor Who: Thin Ice
(1 episode, s10e03, 2017)
Going ice skating with monsters.
Picking up immediately after the previous adventure, the Doctor and Bill rush back into the TARDIS to discuss their landing on the frozen Thames. They’ve landed at the site of the last great frost fair on February 4, 1814. The TARDIS is steered by reasoning with her, and she has decided that they are needed here.
The Doctor wants to explore but Bill is afraid that she’ll stick out since slavery is still legal. The Doctor points her to the TARDIS wardrobe as a creature rumbles beneath the ice. The travelers, now appropriately dressed, venture into the frost fair while the Doctor teases Bill about temporal causality. Bill has the time of her life trying (most nearly) everything while remarking that Regency London is a lot more racially diverse than she sees in the movies. The Doctor replies “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.”
Along the way, Bill notices green lights racing under the ice. To her relief, the Doctor has seen them as well. On the outskirts of the frost fair, those green lights end up leading to the death of a drunk man. Elsewhere, a pickpocket lifts the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and the travelers give chase until the lights break the ice under the kid’s feet. The sonic is left behind as the ice refreezes, leaving Bill beside herself as the Doctor is unable to save the boy.
Later, Bill asks about the Doctor and his history with death. She learns that the Doctor has killed before, but she doesn’t learn how many lives he’s taken. The discussion is interrupted by one of the pickpockets asking about what’s under the ice. The Doctor and Bill eventually learn that someone is paying the orphaned children to work the fair, and the Doctor feeds them with stolen pies before telling them a story beside a warm fire. They soon learn that the man they’re looking for has a tattoo of a ship on his hand.
After dark, the travelers don diving suits and search for the lights beneath the ice. Soon enough, Bill is taken below and the Doctor dives in after her. They find a giant sea creature chained to the river bottom and return to the surface through a fisherman’s hole. The fisherman was the pie maker, and the pies are made from the angler fish that produce the lights. They get another lead from the pie man and use the psychic paper to gain access to a dredging camp. They eventually come to Lord Sutcliffe after learning that he’s in command of the dredging teams who are excavating the sea creature’s very powerful bodily waste. The Doctor notes that it could be used for interstellar travel.
Visiting the manor of Lord Sutcliffe, the Doctor recommends that he do the talking since Bill is easily angered. Under the guise of Doctor Disco of the Fairford Club, he confronts Sutcliffe but loses his own temper in the face of sexist, classist, and racist remarks. After sucker-punching Sutcliffe and knocking him out, the Doctor determines that he is indeed human. The travelers are captured by Sutcliffe’s minions and learn that the sea creature is a family secret that can freeze the ice. Sutcliffe lures people to the ensuing frost fairs and propels industry by feeding innocent people to the creature. The Doctor chastizes Sutcliffe for not seeing the value in human life, but Sutcliffe decides to accelerate his plans.
Sutcliffe takes his prisoners to the river where he has explosives planted. He plans to blow the ice and feed the creature a veritable buffet, including the elephant. Once the captors leave the tent, the Doctor and Bill try to use the sonic screwdriver to escape. The sonic draws the lantern fish as one of the guards takes it away. The guard is eaten and the travelers are freed.
The Doctor asks Bill to decide the fate of the creature. Bill eventually settles on saving the creature, enlisting the street urchin gang to help clear the frost fair attendees from the river. The Doctor moves the explosives to the chains holding the creature down, and as Sutcliffe triggers the explosives, he falls into the river and is eaten. The creature, now free, heads toward colder climates.
Later on, the Doctor and Bill welcome the street urchins to Sutcliffe’s manor. Bill feeds the kids while the Doctor alters Sutcliffe’s will to make a boy named Perry the next lord of the manor. The travelers return home to be criticized by Nardole for going off-world as Bill reads about their exploits in the newspaper.
The Doctor and Nardole flip a coin to determine if he can continue going off-world. Nardole sulks over losing the flip by checking on the vault. He’s surprised to hear a knocking from inside, but refuses to let the occupant out.
Here we see an adventure that asks the companion to decide the fate of a creature, but it does a much better job of having the Doctor guide the companion to the right answer than stories like Kill the Moon and Cold Blood did. Along the way, Bill gets to learn more about the Doctor and the choices that he has to make in his lives.
This adventure also doesn’t pull any punches regarding classism, sexism, and racism. In fact, it hangs a lampshade on racism within the first few minutes, and it draws a hard line for the Doctor’s tolerance of such atrocious views.
The Doctor Who universe has been pretty progressive in the fight against human racism over the years, notably in stories like Human Nature & The Family of Blood, The Shakespeare Code, Captain Jack Harkness, Lost in Time, Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield, and Ghost Light. (It’s worth noting that the Doctor was far more dismissive of Martha’s concerns in The Shakespeare Code than he is here.) By nature, the show is inherently progressive when using aliens as metaphors for racism – the Daleks are the most obvious narrative vehicle – but the show has also stumbled a couple of times as well, most notably in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (yellowface and Asian slurs), The Daleks’ Master Plan (in which the Doctor engages in Orientalism), The Tomb of the Cybermen (in which the only Black character is an intellectually-challenged villain who sacrifices himself), The Evil of the Daleks (in which Kemel mirrors the mute strong Black man trope, but in Turkish), and The Celestial Toymaker (in which a racial slur is quoted in a nursery rhyme and the villain is coded in Orientalism).
Sexism plays a lesser role in Doctor Who history, popping up most notably in The Five Doctors and some of the First Doctor’s attitudes towards Tegan. Otherwise, the fights against sexism and classism are spread throughout the franchise’s history.
We get a few callbacks with this adventure. First, Martha was concerned about the butterfly effect in The Shakespeare Code, which was also a trip to London in the past. Second, parallel universes are mentioned again, nodding to their existence in Inferno and Rise of the Cybermen & Age of Steel. Third, the Doctor reminds us that humans are keen to ignore the bizarre happenings around them, such as with Remembrance of the Daleks and In the Forest of the Night. Last but not least, “Doctor Disco” makes a return, dredging up the off-hand joke from The Zygon Invasion.
What I really like about this adventure is the creature feature aspect with the companion saving the monster from torturous captivity. It’s an exercise in finding the best in humanity, giving us hope for the future that is reinforced by themes that (unfortunately) are still relevant today.
That’s the mark of good science fiction.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Knock Knock
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.