It’s London, February 4th, 1814, and the last ever frost fair. For hundreds of years, the Thames has frozen once during the winter. It has become such a regular event, the city has made a tradition out of throwing a party on the river’s uncommonly icy surface. And this year is no exception. Fair food, acrobats, sword-eaters, games, and even elephants draw thousands out into the snow and onto the Thames for this once-a-year festivity. But something is amiss under the ice. The Doctor and Bill turn up in time to witness a child swallowed up by the river. Both Bill and the Doctor noticed little green lights under the surface, gathering around the boy’s feet just before the ice opened and he was sucked down. Whatever is hiding out in the Thames is not human, but something human seems to be pulling its chain. And this person has plans that could jeopardize the lives of many, unless the Doctor and Bill can stop him.
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
If there’s one thing the best of the New Who writers grasp, it’s that you don’t need an overly ambitious concept to write a good story. Sarah Dollard, who wrote last season’s Clara finale, “Face the Raven,” this time gives us a tale of human greed, and the lengths to which it will go. The villain of the piece is not the giant serpent creature living in the Thames, but rather Lord Sutcliffe, the compassion-challenged aristocrat who wants to make money from the serpent’s extraordinary excrement. Poop that burns at twice the heat of coal and lasts longer could change the world and make him very rich. For that, he’s willing to sacrifice the creature’s freedom, and the lives of however many “forgettable” people it takes to keep it fed.
Once again, Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts is superb, and if this keeps up we’re both going to get bored of me saying it for the next ten weeks. She draws the Doctor’s attention to the fact that her melanin count might be a problem in Regency England since, well, to put not-too-fine a point on it, “Slavery’s still totally a thing!” Then, when they venture out to watch the shows, Bill notes the variety of people in the crowds. “Interesting,” she says. “Regency England. A bit more black than they show in the movies.” To which the Doctor responds, “So was Jesus. History’s a white-wash.” This is quite a provocative comment, though admittedly quite accurate. This was the first time (as far as I can remember) that Jesus has been mentioned in Doctor Who by name, and the Doctor noting Jesus’s real ethnicity indicates the Whoniverse accepts the historical fact of Jesus. I know, that’s not an endorsement of Christian theology, but it’s better than I expected of a show produced largely by atheists and secularists.
Back to Bill, I really appreciate the genuine wonder and excitement she brings to the show. When the Doctor gives her the decision whether to leave the creature in chains or set it free–after all, it’s the future of her people, human beings, that’s at stake–she doesn’t need to make a speech about the huge responsibility being placed on her, and the mind-blowing idea of acting as representative of humanity. It’s on her face. And again, at the end, when the Doctor reminds her that the change in fortunes for the street urchins was because of the decision she made, the look on her face says more than words could. Excellent acting.
I’m glad we actually had a villain. I was afraid this was going to be another “Beast Below” (see New Who Season 5), where the “villain” was actually a victim of ignorance. Granted, the villain here is not one that will go down in the annuls of great Who monsters, but he gave the story an antagonist, which gives our heroes something to fight against.
The BBC always do a good job with period drama, and this story is no exception. Everything looks wonderfully believable, the effects are top-notch, and even the kids put in good performances on top of being adorable.
Nardole got just a few minutes in at the end, solidifying his role as the Doctor’s butler and caretaker. The “vault” story arc advances a few paces too, with the strange knocking that takes Nardole by surprise. Is it just coincidence that it’s three knocks? Remember the Tenth Doctor’s finale…?
Another great episode of Who. At this rate, this may end up being Capaldi’s best, as well as last, season!
What did you think of “Thin Ice”?