The Doctor and Bill visit the last ever Thames Frost Fair in Regency era England. When they both take it upon themselves to investigate a series of disappearances upon the ice, Bill quickly discovers the past isn’t so much different from the present, or that monsters don’t always come from outer space.
Last time Sarah Dollard penned a screenplay for Doctor Who, she was assigned the task of scripting an episode based entirely around series nine’s most significant plot beat. The fact she managed to nail such an assignment proved she was more than capable of writing a stand alone piece.
While not exactly saying much, Thin Ice is series 10’s most solid and entertaining episode to date. It has a decent plot, moves at a competent pace, refuses to shy away from difficult subject matters and gives both Bill & the Doctor’s characters plenty to do. It’s detective-lite structure provides it with the liberty to unfold and restructure itself when necessary while simultaneously allowing our two leads enough room to to develop between beats. This essentially provides Thin Ice with enough room to retain the character-centred structures showcased during the past two weeks as well as getting on with telling an actual story that evolves as its runtime progresses.
Although the script focuses mainly on the Doctor, Bill’s character shines brightly once again. Her reaction to seeing a child die is the most human response we’ve had from a companion for a while. She’s horrified and bewildered at the Doctor’s apparent dismissal toward what’s happened. Whereas companions have usually often been more than happy to skip through bloodshed, Bill responds as a real person would; horrified that death is a frequent part of the Doctor’s’ world. Bill’s shock at how the Doctor responds to death is in many ways a subtle criticism upon the nature of this program. Instead of glossing over the loss of life in ways past series have, it decides to raise the problems brought about by such nonchalance. Dollard isn’t so much as altering the ways in which the show works in Thin Ice, but is offering a far more sincere and honest portrayal of Doctor Who’s tropes, a move which extends into the episode’s position as an historical.
Doctor Who has often struggled when it comes to period pieces. That’s not to say there haven’t been good stories set in the past – there’s been plenty – it’s just the series has trouble figuring out how on earth to execute such episodes. More often than not, the show chooses to go down the fanciful “playground” historical route; in which writers/directors take particular visuals, myths and stereotypes from whatever period the episode in question is set in, then attempts to make them into something you may see in a fairground. Set in Victorian London? Let’s have Charles Dickens and Gas Lantern Ghosts! The Middle Ages? Throw a bunch of exaggerated Vikings with horns on their helmets! 12th Century Sherwood you say? Here’s Robin Hood, merry sword fights and mean spirited Sheriffs! Nothing necessarily wrong with this of course. It is a sci-fi fantasy kids show after all. Only problem is, more often than not, an inaccurate re-telling of history behaving as a jovial one-dimensional romp often overlooks the deeper, darker and significantly more interesting layers to those particular time periods. It removes the social and material realities from whichever era it’s set in, opting instead to tell a cartoonish lark featuring fancy costumes and -more often than not – celebrities from that era. This can remove a lot of potential from any given story, not because it’s “childish”, but because there’s plenty of interesting tales to tell from the centuries gone by. Much can be utilised from the richer social and geographical locations of Earth’s yesteryears. Thin Ice manages to address this problem head on, offering a story that lands somewhere between being history for a sci-fi show as well as exploring some of the realities buried among the English history books.
Set in February 1814, the episode takes place during Britain’s last ever River Thames Frost Fair. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, when the winter weather was much sharper than it is today, the River Thames would occasionally freeze over. Whenever this happened, stalls would set up across the River and the residents of London would hold what’s often described as a cross between a Christmas Market and circus. Thames Frost Fairs isn’t the most commonly accounted event from history (even Bill thinks they’ve landed in a parallel timeline at first). Dollard uses the opportunity of her script’s setting to shed some light on an often overlooked period from British history. It may well be largely used as a backdrop for the episode’s premise, however it’s inclusion in the story is enough to draw the viewer’s attention to it; hopefully prompting some to go away and read up on it a little more.
Deciding to move away from the “playground” historical approach also means Thin Ice offers a slightly more critical view of the episode’s designated time period. Regency society is often remembered for its elegance, beautiful art and exquisite architecture. It’s perceived by many as a time of great industrial and economic achievement. Upon closer inspection, a much darker world lies beneath the so-called glitz and glam; lurking deep within the shadows of this world. Although the rich and powerful flourished, the less wealthy areas suffered greatly. Rape, bigotry, prostitution, crime and addiction tainted many of the streets in large UK cities. With the exception of bigotry (which we’ll get onto shortly), the script doesn’t exactly delve into these issues on a narrative level, however the cinematography and direction hints at an earlier undertone. On the one hand director Bill Anderson and Director of Photography Damian Bromley flaunt the fashions and essence of this period. All those dashing streets, tailcoats, top hats and loose dresses. Oh how quaint the whole affair is! Except there’s a dry and frosty (apologies for the pun) tone to the episode’s visual palette that adds a more ominous tenor to the story. Shots lack warmth or colour, providing an almost misty overtone to the camera’s lens. Muddy browns and cold greys bleed into sequences; manufacturing a sinister atmosphere. This isn’t all sunshine and daffodils. A grubby coat has been applied to the lens, depicting this time and place as a rotting corpse pretending to be a dazzling saint.
Props and costumes present lashings of Regency era charm, whereas the cinematography hints at the more gloomy truths tucked away in the recesses of this age. There’s a sinister bite in episode’s appearance, but it isn’t just its look which nods at darker truths, as the script also delves into a topic other historicals often shy away from; racism. Despite the common whitewashing seen in other costume dramas, there were a relatively sizable number of non-white folk living in Britain during the early 1800s. Slave labour had lost support in the eyes of British Law around this time and the 1807 Abolition of Slave Trade Act was working toward ridding the British Empire of Chattel Slavery (though it would take many more decades before it was abolished completely). Many non-white folk worked as domestic servants in large towns and cities, however some served in the British Navy/Army and a few went on to obtain notable professions within society. That’s not to say life was rosy for non-white people during this period of course (heck, it’s still tough 200 years later). Although many campaigned to end slavery, most fighting for such a cause didn’t necessarily believe in racial equality. The poisonous notions of white supremacy and the institutional bigotry that allowed white people to pretend that the British Empire was built upon moral foundations had burrowed deep into the minds of British society. They still perceived themselves as superior, and treated though of a different skin colour as if they were somehow less. Regency Britain may have not approved entirely of chattel racism, yet society still very much decided to treat racial minorities as if they were less intelligent or human.
All of this is raised within Thin Ice. At first it’s done subtly, as Bill discovers despite what she’s been raised to believe in school/the media, ethnic minorities did indeed live and work in Britain during the early 19th century. Multiculturalism didn’t spring up overnight around the mid 20th century, as some may care to believe, but has been around for far longer. Later on in the episode, the topic is pulled straight to the foreground when the villainous Lord Sutcliffe speaks to her using explicitly racist language. This is a considerably large turning point, not just because it’s tackling a subject usually overlooked within Doctor Who, but because it’s tackling one that’s avoided in pretty much all mainstream costume dramas produced and distributed on British television.
Thin Ice isn’t merely shedding light on an awful stain from our country’s past, in many ways, it’s commenting on an aspect of human behaviour still present today. The fact Lord Sutcliffe speaks to Bill as if she’s subhuman is the very attitude which makes Bill and the Doctor realise he’s not an alien (Bill: “that’s some pretty convincing racism for an extraterrestrial”, The Doctor: “my thoughts exactly”). Bigotry and delusions of racial superiority are human constructs. Such behaviour wasn’t isolated solely to a part of the 19th century, but is still very much with us today. Bill and the Doctor declaring that racial prejudice confirms Sutcliffe is human are the sorts of truth even our own media are far too uncomfortable admitting to most of the time. Holding a mirror up to society and being frank about racism being a human construct is an extremely audacious move for the show to make, one that will no doubt rile up the racists and Daily Mail viewers of the show.
Lord Sutcliffe isn’t only the episode’s repugnant bigot, but the culprit behind the Frost Fair disappearances too. Below the Thames lies a giant snake-like creature who’s been trapped there for many centuries. Sutcliffe’s family have been manufacturing the Frost Fairs to lure people onto the ice where they can be fed to the entrapped creature living below. After the victims have been digested, Sutcliffe takes their remains and manufactures them into high-powered fuel. He claims his motives aren’t done out of malice, but to move the empire forward. This argument wonderfully shot down by the Doctor, who delivers a counter speech that’s arguably one of Capaldi’s most standout moments to date.
Sutcliffe’s actions are naturally born out of pure selfishness and greed. This essentially makes him a representation of humanity at its worse, both from a past and present day perspective. He’s a bigot, completely heartless and believes industrial/economical progress is what solely defines a person’s value. In many ways, this makes for a more unsettling villain than any beast below the Thames could ever be. For one thing, people like Sutcliffe exist in our own world. They aren’t a make-believe product of fiction. Real people in positions of power across the globe in 2017 happily sacrifice lives and extend human suffrage for economic/personal achievement on a daily basis. Sutcliffe isn’t a mustache-twirling villain, he’s a reminder of humanity’s darker sides.
Whereas Thin Ice shows the goodness of humanity in some ways – namely through Bill’s horror at death and the suffering of others – it also exposes the horrors of our species more so than anything else. Dollard is brave enough to raise truths about diversity and bigotry from years since gone as well as exposing some rather difficult truths about our species as a whole.
In addition to being the strongest episode of series ten, Thin Ice is perhaps the show’s strongest historical episode to date. Its closest contender is Human Nature/The Family of Blood, which addresses similar subject matter, albeit in slightly less depth. The solid execution and willingness to bring up difficult subject matters makes Dollard’s latest story a strong, brave, interesting and memorable addition to Doctor Who.
Next week, Bill moves into a creepy home with some of her friends. The rent is cheep, the landlord is creepy and something sinister creeps beneath the floorboards. The Doctor thinks something sinister is afoot…