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Doctor Who Thin Ice

Review by Paul Bowler

[Contains Spoilers]

The Doctor and Bill travel back in time in Thin Ice to Regency England, in London, to the last of the great frost fairs on the frozen river Thames. But while the time travellers take in the sights, they discover that revellers and children have been mysteriously disappearing on the ice. Bill finds the past can be more like her own time than she expects, and something is lurking in the inky depths of the Thames, waiting for the ice to crack…

Continuing directly on from the final surprising moments of the last episode, Smile, Thin Ice, sees the Doctor and Bill donning stylish period garb as they visit London during 1814 in the third episode from Series Ten, written by Sarah Dollard (the writer of 2015’s Face The Raven), and directed by Doctor Who newcomer Bill Anderson (whose previous TV work includes Mr Selfridge, Taggart, and Silent Witness).

Based around the spontaneous frost fairs that happened on the frozen Thames during the 1300’s and 1800’s, were all walks of life came together to celebrate this icy wonderland in the heart of London, but suddenly ended when the Thames froze in 1814 and never froze over again. It’s that underlying mystery that Sarah Dollard’s wonderful script explores, as the Doctor and Bill set out to enjoy the jubilant surroundings of the frost fair. But when it becomes apparent there are strange lights under the ice luring people into the depths of the Thames, the Doctor and Bill, with the help of some street urchins, embark on a dangerous quest for clues. Someone of great power schemes to get as many people as they can to the frost fair, hiding their true motives, Bill finds out that not all creatures are from space, and in the inky gloom beneath the ice an ancient creature lurks.

Peter Capaldi is in his element here as the 12th Doctor, sporting a dark suit, and dashing top hat, he looks right at home in Regency England and its not long before the Doctor is caught up in the mystery of the strange disappearances beneath the ice. Bill is from 2017, so naturally she finds London in 1814 takes a bit of getting used to, but she looks resplendent in her period dress and soon embraces the carnival atmosphere of the frost fair, and Pearl Mackie gives a wonderfully endearing performance as Bill experiences her first adventure in the past. She continues to ask the Doctor some interesting and pressing questions as well, which in turn continues to build on the refreshing Doctor / Companion dynamic between them. The nuances of time travel Thin Ice present affords the Doctor a chance to explain the somewhat unpredictable nature of the TARDIS, and Bill also learns that there can be a darker side to the Doctor’s adventures.

Nardole (Matt Lucas) once again only appears fleetingly to berate the Doctor for neglecting the promise that’s been keeping the Time Lord on Earth, and there are further – somewhat chilling – hints concerning the ongoing mystery of The Vault. However, Thin Ice does have a good supporting cast of characters to look out for: Peter Singh plays The Pie Man, Nicholas Burns is the villainous Lord Sutcliffe, and from the young gang of pickpockets Asiatu Koroma gets some good scenes and character development as Kitty

After enjoying the sights of the frost fair its not long before the Doctor and Bill set out in diving suits and get to work checking out the mysterious lights under the ice. The time travellers adventure takes them into the inky depths of the Thames itself, where the Doctor and Bill finally get to the bottom of the mystery as they encounter a gigantic snake-like-creature! The monster in Thin Ice is a giant underwater leviathan, captured and chained by the ancestors of Lord Sutcliffe, and the creatures dung has been used as a superheating biofuel in industry to build his families wealth. The snake’s symbiotic bond with the glowing fish that tend it has been used by Sutcliffe to lure people to the frost fairs in order to secretly feed the imprisoned beast.

Thin Ice includes a delightful number of subtle Doctor Who related references and themes. The Doctor casually informs Bill that he’s been to the frost fairs before, which coincides with what River Song told Rory in A Good Man Goes To War (2011). Although the species of the aquatic sea creature in Thin Ice isn’t specified, the Star Whale from The Beast Below (2010) is the most recent example of such giant a creature in the series, the Loch Ness Monster appeared in Terror of the Zygons (1975), but Nessie was actually the Zygon’s cyborg Skarassen, and it also went on to emerge from the Thames like the sea snake does in Thin Ice. When the 12th Doctor says, ‘your species hardly notices anything’ it harkens back to similar statement the 7th Doctor made in Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) about humanities “amazing capacity for self-deception.’ The Time lord once again uses the alias ‘Doctor Disco’ which he first used in The Zygon Invasion (2015). Bill mentions concerns about the Butterfly Effect, a concept that was referred to by Martha in the Shakespeare Code (2007). Bill’s first steps onto the ice of the frozen Thames seem to mirror Martha’s initial caution on emerging from the TARDIS in that episode, and to a lesser degree there are also echoes of Rose Tyler’s first footsteps in the snow as she visit’s the past for the first time in The Unquiet Dead (2005).

Their discovery of the snake creature in the Thames and information Kitty knows about Dowell, soon leads the Doctor and Bill to Lord Sutcliffe, but he takes them prisoner. Once they escape, and while the Doctor sets out to free the creature and foil Sutcliffe’s plans, Kitty and her gang help Bill evacuate the frost fair before Sutcliffe can detonate the explosives. There are impressive and moving scenes as the Thames ice snake is finally freed when the ice brakes up, and Lord Sutcliffe’s fate provides a very fitting from of poetic justice for his actions as the conclusion of Thin Ice gives Kitty and her friends the chance of a better life.

Thin Ice is a fantastically paced and very traditional feeling episode. Sarah Dollard’s scrip embodies the core values of the Doctor’s morality, and it tackles some particularly strong themes at times – including racism, the social class system, and ecological issues. The costumes and sets are absolutely stunning as well, and director Bill Anderson skilfully keeps the drama and suspense building throughout the episode. Peter Capaldi gives what is arguably one of his finest performances yet as the Time Lord, including one of those awesome powerful Doctorish speeches (after the Doctor stands up for Bill and punches the vile Lord Sutcliffe in the face) that Capaldi does so well, and Pearl Mackie is really settling into her role as Bill Potts.

The coda with Nardole talking to the ominous – and rather familiar sounding – knocking coming from The Vault rounds off this episode in fine style, and is sure to fuel the speculation about who, or what, might be inside it. Doctor Who’s tenth series really feels like its getting on track for something very special, especially with the Doctor’s new travelling companions introductory trilogy of adventures set in the present, the future, and the past are now completed, the Doctor’s and Bill’s adventures in time and space can really begin in earnest!

Images belong BBC