“Thin Ice” was written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Bill Anderson - Saturday, April 29.
Spoilers ahead for “Thin Ice” because hey ... it's a TV Recap.
The Short Version: Picking up right where last week's episode left off, the Doctor and Bill stand at the door of the TARDIS and see an elephant. It's London in 1814, and the Thames is frozen, so it's time for the biggest Frost Fair in decades. The Doctor and Bill dress for the time period and head out to partake in the fair. But it doesn't take long before they are drawn into a mystery involving people going missing, one really big monster fish, and a new source of fuel.
The Good: Bill and the Doctor, the Butterfly effect, and that speech
This week we get another good episode when it comes to the Doctor and Bill's relationship. While Bill may ask questions such as how is the Doctor's sonic screwdriver really a screwdriver, in this episode she gains a better idea who the Doctor really is, and he learns a bit more about her as well.
Initially, the Doctor is ready to leave the TARDIS to go off on his latest adventure. But Bill reminds him that 1814 in London isn't a very good time and place to be black because “slavery's still totally a thing.” Bill briefly considers whether or not it's safe to leave the TARDIS, and the Doctor admits that he's not the right person to ask. After a change of clothing to match the time period, they set out and Bill notes, “Regency England, a bit more black than they show in the movies.” The Doctor replies, “So was Jesus. History's a whitewash.”
What's nice about the way it's handled is that the discussion of racism is organic within the story and it's handled with a light touch. It feels very natural.
Since this is Bill's first trip to the past, she asks the Doctor what the “rules” are. There must be rules, after all. “Every choice I make in this moment here and now could change the whole future,” Bill says. “Exactly like every other day of your life. The only thing to do is to stop worrying about it,” replies the Doctor.
This is one of the reasons Bill feels like she's part of today's world. She asks questions I would ask if I'd never seen Doctor Who.
While the duo get to enjoy the Frost Fair for a bit, below the ice lies an enormous sea monster with very big teeth, and people are starting to disappear.
The Doctor and Bill notice that green lights are moving beneath the ice just as a couple of street kids steal the Doctor's sonic screwdriver. As they chase one of the kids out onto the ice away from the fair, the lights chase him and the Doctor and Bill can only watch as the young boy is sucked through the ice with only his hand and the sonic screwdriver left above the ice.
The Doctor grabs his sonic screwdriver as the boy's hand disappears. Bill is shocked and asks the Doctor to save the boy. When he tells her he can't, she doesn't believe he'd be more concerned with his sonic screwdriver than with the boy's life.
For Bill, this is the moment where nothing will be quite the same for her. “Seriously, what's wrong? I've never seen anyone die before,” she tells the Doctor. Then she asks him how many people he's seen die, a question he doesn't know the answer to. And how many people has he killed? Another one he can't or won't answer. “I'm 2,000-years-old and I've never had the time for the luxury of outrage,” the Doctor admits, and he tells her more people will die if he doesn't stop what's going on.
The Doctor and Bill visit the street urchins, with the Doctor giving the kids meat pies and reading to them. It's another moment for Bill that let's her see him in a different light. Then it's back to work as the Doctor and Bill put on diving suits to find out what's below the ice. The lights are fish and the thing eating people is an enormous sea creature that's chained to river's floor.
They soon learn that the monster is eating people, who turn into giant sea creature poop, which can be turned into a fuel powerful enough to be used for interstellar travel. A brief investigation takes them to Lord Sutcliff, who is behind the plot. No, he's not an evil alien. He's just an evil human. He has plans to blow up the ice at the Frost Fair to send half the people into the depths for the monster to consume.
While the Doctor and Bill end up prisoners of Sutcliff, it's not before the Doctor punches out the racist Lord. At that point the Doctor gives one of the best speeches he's given in recent memory about the value of human life. It's a speech that impresses Bill and us.
In the end Bill and the kids get the Fair-goers to safety, while the Doctor sets it up so the Lord, instead of blowing up the fair, blows up the chains that imprison the creature, and frees her. Luckily the Lord gets his due as he's drowned or eaten by the creature. Then the Doctor fakes the Lord's will to state that one of the kids is his heir. Who doesn't love a happy ending with street urchins inheriting a fortune.
Sarah Dollard's script has both humor and depth, and doesn't shy away from tough subjects or a really big sea creature. The episode atmospheric feel to it and the underwater scenes are scary. It's my favorite episode of the season so far.
The Bad: A soggy villain, Bill's big decision, and Baby it's cold outside
While this was a good episode, there were a couple of weak spots. First and most important is the lack of depth when it comes to the villainous Lord Sutcliff. He's a mustache twirling (well, if he had a mustache) villain. He has no redeeming value starting with his racist outrage that Bill is in his house.
Yes, I'll admit I loved seeing the Doctor punch him out, especially after telling Bill not to speak up because she might say something to insult Sutcliff when all they needed was information. And while I don't expect a lot from a villain that's only going to be around for an episode, this one will not go down in the Doctor Who books for anything other than getting punched by the Doctor.
One other thing that left me uneasy was the Doctor's forcing Bill to decide whether or not they were going to try to free the creature or keep it imprisoned. It felt like a test of Bill's character. But why? The Doctor interferes all the time. He makes decisions for humans, aliens and everything in-between every week. So why push Bill regarding this creature? What if the creature had eaten Greenland? Would Bill be to blame then? It seemed very similar to what happened in “Kill the Moon” where the Doctor forced Clara to make a similar decision.
One other point... Why isn't anyone cold? I'm not expecting the Doctor or the creature to get cold, but Bill and the kids seemed perfectly comfortable running around for hours on the ice.
At the end of the episode, the Doctor and Bill return to present day in their 1814 clothes just as Nardole is bringing tea into the Doctor's office. When he notices that the Doctor had obviously been off-world, Nardole reminds the Doctor that he took an oath. Nardole leaves the office and ends up in front of the vault and something or someone in the vault is pounding on the door.
So it looks like the vault and what it contains will the major mystery for the season. Who or what is behind the door? Why are they pounding? What oath did the Doctor take? Was Jesus really black? Why didn't anyone notice an enormous creature swimming in the Thames? Where does the Doctor get all those clothes in the wardrobe? Did the creature eat Greenland?
Lines of the Night:
“I told you, you don't steer the TARDIS. You reason with it... and successfully most of the time... She's a bad girl this one. Always looking for trouble.” - The Doctor
“You travel into the past. There's got to be rules. If I step on a butterfly it could send ripples through time that mean I'm not even born in the first place and I could just disappear.” - Bill
“I hope you realize I'm going to try everything. Everything.” - Bill
Best Line of the Night:
“Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life, a life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.” - The Doctor