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Doctor Who: Thin Ice (Review)

“How is that a screwdriver?”

“In a very broad sense.”

“Well, how is it sonic?”

“It makes a noise.”

Pilot fish.

Thin Ice is a fairly solid historical adventure, one that takes a fairly conventional Doctor Who template and puts a slightly self-aware spin on it.

As with The Pilot and Smile, there is a decidedly nostalgic quality to Thin Ice. As with the two prior episodes, Thin Ice feels like a conscious throwback to the structure of the Davies era. Moffat’s final season as showrunner has opened with the classic present-future-past triptych that recalls Rose, The End of the World and The Unquiet Dead, or The Christmas Invasion, New Earth and Tooth and Claw or Smith and JonesThe Shakespeare Code and Gridlock. This is a very familiar and comforting pattern.

Hat’s off to him.

As with Smile before it, Thin Ice is built upon a stock plot. A series of mysterious disappearances lead the Doctor and his companion to one inescapable conclusion: there is a monster menacing Regency England. Thin Ice feels very much like the kind of episode that Mark Gatiss has been known to write, an affectionate historical depiction of an iconic chapter in British history like The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern or The Crimson Horror. Indeed, Thin Ice looks lavish, complete with all the costume drama trappings that one might expect.

However, much like Smile, there is a slight twist on the tale. Whereas Smile attempted to subvert the classic “machines gone awry” plot with a clumsy last-minute twist, Thin Ice instead makes a point to weave its commentary and theme through the familiar structure of the episode. Thin Ice might be a very conventional historical monster story, but it engages with themes of race and class that are often under-explored in these stories.

The time travelers who came in from the cold…

As with a lot of popular culture, race has always been something of a thorny issue for Doctor Who. There are any number of controversial moments in the show’s history, a seemingly infinite array of poor choices from The Celestial Toy Maker to The Ark. It is somewhat disappointing that the first black companion only really arrived in 2006 with School Reunion, when Mickey Smith decided to tag along in the TARDIS, and that the first black regular only joined the cast in 2007 with Smith and Jones.

The Davies era made a point to be inclusive in its portrayal of historical settings. There are arguments to be made about the validity of that approach, but it was certainly well-intentioned. After all, minorities were a lot more common in seventeenth and eighteenth century America and England than pop culture would suggest. Thin Ice acknowledges as much. “Regency England,” Bill reflects. “Bit more black than they show in the movies.” The Doctor agrees. “So was Jesus. History’s bit of a whitewash.”

Soon to be a freshwater urchin.

There is a lot to be said for a popular family television show assuring children that history does not belong exclusively to one race or class. That is particularly in these racially-charged moments, given the resurgent ethno-nationalism in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is worth reflecting for whom these voters are hoping to “make America great again.” Acknowledging the existence of minorities in a historical setting is important of itself, and the Davies era deserves a lot of credit for that.

At the same time, the Davies era tended to skirt around the more controversial and charged elements of racial identity in the context of these historical adventures. When Martha landed in sixteenth century England, the only commentary on her race came in the form of a joke about the sensitivity of phrasing. “Who is your delicious blackamoor lady?” Shakespeare asked. “Isn’t that a word we use nowadays? An Ethiop girl? A swarth? A Queen of Afric?” However, no big deal was made of it.

Streets ahead.

Thin Ice embraces that subtext and laying it out explicitly. Indeed, Thin Ice often plays as a direct and overt response to The Shakespeare Code. Notably, Bill and the Doctor make a point to return to Back to the Future as a frame of reference for meddling in past affairs, the same explanation that the Doctor offered Martha in the earlier story. (“Oh, how to explain the mechanics of the infinite temporal flux? I know. Back to the Future. It’s like Back to the Future.”) It is an effective way of framing a story that is in many ways expanding on that earlier adventure.

It is a clever use of Bill as a genre-savvy companion, a character who can acknowledge the conventions of science-fiction storytelling while asking the types of questions that would occur to a given member of the audience. When the Doctor invites her to take a stroll through Regency London, Bill wonders whether it is a good idea. “Slavery is still totally a thing,” she states simply. The Doctor hesitates. “Yes, it is,” he quietly agrees. That would be enough to distinguish Thin Ice from earlier historical adventures featuring black characters, but Thin Ice pushes further.

Fitting the Bill.

Much like Smile took a stock “rogue AI” narrative and followed it through to the social politics of contemporary science-fiction like Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts, Thin Ice does something similar with the familiar “monster in a historical setting” template. There is a strange creature at the bottom of the Thames, feeding on people sucked through the ice. The creature is being held captive by a sinister figure, who is harnessing rocket fuel from the beast.

The template is familiar. Indeed, even the Doctor has an expectation for how the story will play out. Discovering that “Lord Sutcliffe” is behind this fuel-harvesting operation, the Doctor makes the assumption that Lord Sutcliffe is an alien who is feeding the beast in order to generate fuel to power a space ship of some description. It is easy enough sketch out the story from that assumption; an alien trapped on Earth, looking to either escape or take control; The Time Warrior, The Terror of the ZygonsCity of Death, The Visitation.

A capital fellow.

However, Thin Ice takes a slight turn when it is revealed that Lord Sutcliffe is not an alien. He is the heir to a wealthy family that has kept the beast in bondage for generations, exploiting it to generate wealth. The Doctor and Bill come to accept that Lord Sutcliffe is a native of the planet when he engages in some off-hand racism towards Bill. “That was pretty convincing racism for an extraterrestrial,” Bill reflects. The Doctor seems to agree. “I preferred it when you were an alien,” he advises Lord Sutcliffe at one point. “It certainly explained the lack of humanity.”

To be fair, this is hardly the most innovative twist. Like a lot of science-fiction, Doctor Who has repeatedly suggested that mankind is the true monster. Indeed, the exploitation of the monster by sinister capitalist forces rather heavily recalls the plot to Meat, an episode from the second season of Torchwood. Even within Doctor Who itself, the show has rarely shied away from mankind’s capacity for cruelty or violence. Planet of the Ood was a similar indictment of unchecked capitalism and slavery, while Midnight was another episode where humanity was the real monster.

Taking a dive.

As such, Thin Ice is not as bold a swerve as Smile had been. This is not so much a clever subversion of an existing storytelling trope as it is an expansion of a familiar concept. Doctor Who has never been subtle its criticisms of capitalist excess or economic slavery. Robert Holmes might just be the best example in the history of the show, as demonstrated by his scripts for The Sun MakersThe Power of Kroll or The Caves of Androzani. In many ways, Thin Ice is a worthy companion piece.

After all, the monster in Thin Ice is arguably capitalism. The creature at the bottom of the Thames is merely a biological process by which humans are converted into rocket fuel. As the Doctor summarises, Thin Ice is the story of “a monster that turns people into fuel” and which “grinds up children for profit.” It feels very much like a Marxist definition of capitalism. Lord Sutcliffe is incidental in all of this, just an expression of an inhumane system. After all, Thin Ice never bothers to explain how the Sutcliffe family found the creature or how they captured it.

A deep dive.

In some ways, this fits with the season’s broader return to the Davies era. The Pilot was very much structured as a Davies era season premiere, with Bill introduced as a Davies era companion. While stories like The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion demonstrate that the Moffat era is still engaged with contemporary politics, Moffat is much less engaged with political and social issues than Davies was. Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense; Davies emerged as a writer of social and political drama, while Moffat wrote character-driven comedy.

At the same time, Thin Ice marks a return to a familiar Moffat theme. This season is to be the writer’s last year as showrunner, turning over the reigns to Chris Chibnell as the new executive producer. By all accounts, Moffat has accomplished everything that he set out to do. This season is an excuse to do something different, something self-contained, something weird. It looks to be a victory lap for the veteran writer, an excuse to play with crazy big ideas and to indulge ideas that might not have worked in other more carefully constructed seasons of television.

He’s not the Thames anymore.

Both Smile and Thin Ice return to some of Moffat’s core preoccupations as a writer. Smile is built upon the classic Moffat plot template about machines that have been programmed to do their jobs too well, causing chaos by simply following their directives; the nano bots in The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, the repair robots in The Girl in the Fireplace. However, Smile ultimately (if clumsily) subverts that narrative by refusing to end the story with the Doctor repairing or destroying the errant hardware, perhaps a commentary on those earlier stories.

The metaphor at the heart of Thin Ice, and the choice that the Doctor forces on Bill at the climax, harks back to The Beast Below. That was one of the most overtly political scripts of the Moffat era, albeit in a way less focused on class than the bulk of the Davies era. The Beast Below was a story about mankind’s capacity to distort and corrupt the beauty of the universe, making the entire human race complicit in the mutilation of a gigantic space whale. Thin Ice is ambiguous on the question of whether its whale-like creature even come from space, but the comparison holds.

A screwdriver loose…

The Beast Below was much more engaged with the philosophy of voting and governing than simple economics, but the parallels to Thin Ice are very strong. In both cases, a gigantic monster is kept alive as part of a larger social project, fed on the disenfranchised underclasses. In both stories, this apparently monstrous creature is eventually revealed to be a captive, chained by mankind for their own sick ends. Both episodes climax with the Doctor effectively forcing the companion to make a tough choice; free the beast, or kill the beast.

“If your future is built on the suffering of that creature, then what is your future worth?” the Doctor challenges Bill, which is a succinct statement of the moral at the heart of The Beast Below. Indeed, there is a nice joke about the Doctor’s skill at delivering stirring speeches; the Doctor suggests that he has had millennia to hone his outrage to a fine (and verbose) point. In some respects, Thin Ice could be seen as an effort to revise and to rewrite the central themes of The Beast Below, a rough second draft reflecting the expanded experience of the production team.

Ringing any diving bells?

Indeed, there are other elements of Thin Ice that play as thematic repetition of earlier Moffat-era stories. The previous season did a lot to smooth over the rough edges of the Twelfth Doctor, to soften the grumpy exterior by giving him kick-ass guitar solos and sonic sunglasses in The Magician’s Apprentice. However, there are hints of his original colder characterisation in Thin Ice. Most notably, his willingness to accept Spider’s death (and his prioritising the recovery of the sonic screwdriver) recalls his attitude to Ross’ death in Into the Dalek.

Similarly, the choice that the Doctor presents to Bill consciously reflected the choice that he offered to Clara in Kill the Moon. In both episodes, the Doctor asks the companion to make an important moral choice on behalf of mankind as a whole. While Clara (justifiably) tore into the Doctor for abdicating his responsibility in making that decision, Bill seems to accept the Doctor’s argument at face value. In some ways, this reflects the characterisation of Bill as a much more conventional companion figure, one who presents less of a challenge or foil to the Doctor.

Wet work.

Even just in terms of the Twelfth Doctor, this is an interesting shift in characterisation. It is interesting to wonder whether these references and callbacks are intentional, perhaps reflecting the mindwipe that the Doctor received at the end of Hell Bent. After all, the climax of The Pilot made a point to broach the topic. If the Doctor has erased Clara from his memory, has he also erased a lot of the character development that he underwent as a result of his time with her? Is the Twelfth Doctor consciously regressing, even if he still seems more cognisant of his “duty of care” to Bill?

Alternatively, it seems entirely possible that the production team are writing more consciously to Peter Capaldi’s version of the Doctor. After all, the actor has spent two full seasons in the role, and the writing staff have a very strong sense of what he can and cannot do. Indeed, the basic plot of Smile could be seen as a wry commentary the stock criticism of Capaldi’s “grumpy” iteration Doctor. The slightly rougher edge to the Doctor in this season might simply be a conscious attempt to recalibrate the Twelfth Doctor to more precisely align with Capaldi’s strengths.

Making a splash.

There is still a clumsiness to Thin Ice, in part from director Bill Anderson. Some of the special effects shots are awkwardly composited, particularly during the diving sequences. While these special effects shots were undoubtedly expensive, Anderson struggles to created a sense of place and space. It is occasionally difficult to keep track of objects in relation to one another during these sequences, particularly during the action beats. Anderson fares a lot better when it comes to the standing sets, where he is dealing with physical objects.

As with The Pilot, there is a conscious effort to contextualise the story within the larger scheme of Doctor Who, to welcome potential new viewers to the show by suggesting how best to read this episode with regard to the characters. Bill gets to be angry at the Doctor when they witness the death of a young boy on the ice, which leads to an effective discussion of the horrors that the Doctor has seen – and the horrors that the Doctor has committed. There is nothing especially new about this emotionally-charged exposition, but it serves a clear purpose.

A chilly reception.

By devoting so much attention to these character points, Thin Ice maintains the tone established by The Pilot. For the first time since Deep Breath (if not The Eleventh Hour), it seems like Doctor Who is constructing a solid and accessible jumping-on point. The character of Bill allows the show to reintroduce the Doctor and to acquaint new viewers with his identity and his history. This is effectively a relaunch of the show, following the clutter that built up over the previous seasons.

There is a clear “back-to-basics” aesthetic at work. Character details such as “the Doctor has seen and done terrible things” are fair play to enter into the record, clearly aimed at newer viewers who might not have been around when that detail was suggested by Rose or The End of the World. Of course, there is some small irony in all of this. It seems strange that the season should devote so much effort to cleaning the slate, given that all of the major production team members will be gone by the end of the year.

Ice to see you.

Chibnell will undoubtedly offer his own reintroduction to the context of Doctor Who, as any showrunner should. It feels weird that Moffat’s final season should feel so much like a new beginning for the series, a fresh start wherein the Doctor reintroduces concepts like the TARDIS wardrobe or the psychic paper or the sonic screwdriver. This is the first time that the show has done this since Clara came on board in The Bells of St. John, if not when Amy arrived in The Eleventh Hour. It feels weird that the show will effectively do this all over again only one season later.

Thin Ice is a solid pseudo-historical adventure, one that feels very much in keeping with the kind of story that traditionally appears in this stretch of the season. At the same time, there are just enough minor variations on the formula that it works. Thin Ice is not an instant classic, but it is engaging and effective.

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8 Responses

  1. There’s definitely a familiarity to the ideas here but I don’t mind so much because I’m really warming to the more classic and straightforward dynamics.

  2. While I appreciate the efforts this show makes to show diversity it does seem to have great difficulty understanding that race and ethnicity in Britain is more than a binary black/white thing. South Asian characters are ridiculously underrepresented and Eastern Europeans are essentially nonexistant, which given most of the present day scenes are set in London… well… (the show has also been pretty dreadful about showing minority religions.)

  3. I appreciate the efforts to promote diversity, but I do have to wonder how historically accurate it is. I’m a bit worried about trying to depict history through the lens of modern values rather than striving for accuracy. I’m not as familiar with the UK, so I genuinely don’t know if it is historically accurate (so please tell me if I’m wrong). That said, I agree with Ross that to the extent we would have seen ethnic minorities in England in 1814 they would have likely have been South Asians given immigration from Britain’s Indian colonies. However, even then, they would have constituted a small proportion of the population. Even today, the UK is around 90% white, so only 1/10 people would have been non-white. I assume London would be more cosmopolitan so would have had more non-whites, but I also England would have been less diverse in 1814, before the massive influx of immigrants with decolonization. But again, I’m genuinely curious about this issue and would be interested understanding the historical evidence about diversity in the West before the modern era. I’d be pleasantly surprised to learn that there is evidence backing up representations of more diversity in historical periods.

    • and let me say as an addendum I’d love to see more diversity introduced to pop culture by exploring historical periods of other countries. Why is time travel often limited to 19th century England? Why not go back in time to the Bagan kingdom in Myanmar? Why not have a fantasy set in the Inca Empire? I think that would be a much more meaningful exploration of diversity than simply inserting a few non-white actors into a scene.

      • I’d also agree with that. It would be an interesting way to do it. After all, even the Hartnell era would do that on occasion.

        That said, it does seem to be something that would have to be done very carefully.

    • London was historically a very diverse city, actually:

      http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34809804

      Which I think makes sense when you look on it as a global trading/infrastructural hub.

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