The following post is full of SPOILERS. We feel we need to discuss Doctor Who as thoroughly as possible, and cannot do so without getting all up in it. So, please, go watch the episode, and then return!
I’m a bit of a broken record about this, but the best science fiction can reflect the current, modern world under the guise of being a distant future society or another planet. Doctor Whohas been doing allegorical for almost 55 years, and it’s gotten to tackle everything from fascism to the terrorism to (whether the writer meant it or not) the abortion debate. But in all of those cases, the issues were veiled; in Sarah Dollard’s “Thin Ice,” despite a historical setting and sci-fi monster movie premise, the issues are front and center, and I couldn’t love it more.
Dollard was a new writer on Series 9 where she did a bang-up job writing Clara Oswald’s ostensible exit in “Face the Raven,” which had some lovely moments between the characters and a tragic ending people talked about for forever. With “Thin Ice,” though, we get the sense that she’s been able to explore the topics that are important to her, worth talking about, and don’t pull any punches. From the tackling of racism and classism to the moral dilemma of the Doctor being surrounded by death at all times and even being complicit, it’s all right there, and it’s refreshing.
To start with the latter issue first, each new companion since the reboot has had to have that moment where they realize that the Doctor is good and tries to help people, but also can’t save everyone, and has even had to kill a few people along the way. “The Fires of Pompeii” did this beautifully, as did “The Day of the Doctor,” but none have done it with such beautiful simplicity as “Thin Ice.” There are essentially two conversations: one where the Doctor says he doesn’t have time to be affected by every death, and another where he asserts he’s absolutely affected by every life. Simple, and to the point.
Dollard’s dialogue throughout the episode is stellar (Bill saying she’s low key in love with the TARDIS, and the Doctor saying he is too, is a particular favorite), but the first conversation, following the death of the child (the CHILD!!!) is the pinnacle. “If I don’t move on, more people will die,” says the Doctor. That’s true, but how callous must that sound to Bill? “I’m 2000 years old and I have never had time for the luxury of outrage,” he then says, which is a patent lie, but Bill doesn’t know that. The truth of the matter is, he’s just seen a kid die, and while “Into the Dalek” Twelfth Doctor might not have cared, “Thin Ice” Doctor has grown to care too much, but has to pretend he doesn’t in order to get through life.
As for the other, perhaps more pressing and controversial theme of the episode, “Thin Ice” deals with racism in all its ugliness in a way the show hasn’t really before. In actuality, going back in Earth’s history as often as the Doctor does, he’d run into a lot more of it than has been shown. It’s either not been addressed, or–as in “The Shakespeare Code” when Martha Jones has the incredibly valid concern that she’s a black woman wearing period inappropriate clothing in the 16th Century–the Doctor merely says for her to “just walk around like you own the place; it works for me.” Funny joke, but not a thing that’s actually helpful.
In this episode, however, upon landing in London in 1814, Bill’s first response is to be concerned about the color of her skin in a time when slavery is still a thing. The Doctor resignedly says “yes, it is,” and tells her to go put on a dress to explore the last great frost fair (which was a real thing, folks). She then remarks on how there are a lot more people of color than she expected, to which the Doctor says “History’s a whitewash,” which of COURSE it is/was. Another thing that never gets addressed. The whole episode is about how history tends to forget things, even monsters trapped under the River Thames.
All of this is context, but once we meet the villain, it becomes much more immediate. In an episode about a giant underwater fish that uses smaller fish to find and suck people under the ice for it to eat, the actual villain turns out to be nothing more than a simple, hateful, aristocratic racist. In 1814, this wasn’t so uncommon, but the Doctor cannot stand for him speaking to Bill the way he does. And not only this, but the man, Sutcliffe, uses the giant fish’s waste from eating people (poor people and children, mind) for energy cubes that will burn hotter and longer than coal. “Doesn’t that save lives?” he callously asks.
Sutcliffe represents the classist disdain for those lesser than him, not to mention his horrific beliefs on race. The Doctor, in his beautifully delivered speech about decency and worth of every individual, mentions “the accident of birth”: being born into wealth and privilege as the defining factor that makes Sutcliffe better than the urchins he subjects to aquatic fishy death. If one life matters, then they all do. Dollard, without putting too fine a point on it (but finer than most) has embodied the intolerant and the hatefully wealthy in a villain just about all of us can be a-okay with getting his comeuppance.
“Thin Ice” is such a good episode. You’ll notice that I hardly mentioned the fish plot, and that’s because it’s about so much more than that. This is an episode with a clear point of view that cannot be misread, and I love it for that. Both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are masterful, the setting is properly gloomy, and the resolution is incredibly fulfilling.
Oh, I guess we ought to talk about that tag with Nardole and the knocking in the vault. I’m guessing it’s the John Simm Master, a future version of the Doctor, or a third unrelated thing. Thoughts?
Next week, we get an episode I’m very excited about (which is all of them, I grant you). “Knock Knock” by Mike Bartlett looks to be a good ol’ haunted house story, with David Suchet–Hercule Poirot himself!
Let me know your thoughts about this episode–and any episode, really–in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!