In many ways Thin Ice is the polar opposite of last week’s Smile. Smile’s strength as an episode came almost exclusively from the chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, as the setting, while impressive, was empty and sterile. Thin Ice goes the other way, and in doing so achieves the sense of watching a traditional episode of the show which, at this point, is a pleasure even if it’s not pushing the show forward.
Thin Ice completes the three episode introduction of the companion as Bill has adventured in the past, present, and future. Like Rose and Amy, and Clara (the third and least interesting version of the Impossible Girl) Bill has completed her maiden voyage, her beginners guide to the Tardis. So how does Pearl Mackie rate after a significant amount of time spent with her? Very well actually as Mackie continues to be an engaging presence while also bringing out the best in Peter Capaldi. I have a feeling that I will be repeating this praise every week so allow me to move on from the thoroughly excellent performances from the main duo in order to investigate the episode’s other strengths, and a few of its weaknesses.
One thing that has been lacking in season ten so far is a great location. The Pilot never stayed in one place long enough, indulging in Steven Moffat’s habit of keeping his audience off-balance, and the aforementioned Smile sacrificed an engaging location to focus on character dynamic, that is before they got lost in that damn engine room. So it feels like the charm of the London Frost fair is by design, that the show kept the previous locations sparse or brief not just to make the impact of this location better for us, but Bill as well.
Since its regeneration from charming relic to modern classic with the 2005 reboot, Doctor Who has adhered to the Star Wars promise by constantly showcasing a universe that’s teaming with life. That’s why trips to the future will invariably involve various different aliens, and trips to the past will lovingly examine, not too closely because it’s a family show, past societies. Which brings me to one of Sarah Dollard’s scripts most interesting observations. Bill, after a fantastic conversation about the butterfly effect and poor Pete, observes that London is a lot more diverse that media has suggested, leading to the Doctor stating that history has been whitewashed. This is such a loaded statement, especially considering that the show itself has been guilty of a lack of correct historical representation. It’s a good thing that the show is calling media, and itself out for this, but it has to keep up this discourse about the strength of diversity in media, which Bill is part of, even after her time in the Tardis comes to an end. If it doesn’t many will remember this line as no more than lip service.
What is most impressive about Thin Ice, apart from the great setting, and sharp banter, is the morality of the Doctor as seen through Bill. This is something that previous companions haven’t necessarily had to deal with. Rose knew from the beginning how dangerous the Doctor could be, and that killing was a last resort, Donna, Amy, and Clara, were all introduced to the Doctor in life or death situations, whereas Bill has been having a laugh, and so has the Doctor. It’s clear from Capaldi’s subtle smiles how much he enjoys travelling with Bill, but this is the first of their adventure with a human cost that Bill can see for herself. When the boy died, an the Doctor’s lack of compassion (he got over it), that proved to be a turning point for both Bill and the Doctor, Capaldi’s Doctor has always had a callous nature, preferring actions over words, and doing nothing when nothing can be done. I can see why this is a bone of contention with fans, it annoys me every time he does it, because the Doctor that we know tries to save everyone no matter what. When the show commits to the opposite of this, which is frustratingly only a fundamental part of Capaldi’s Doctor sometimes, it feels more jarring. Which meant that the episode put particular effort into proving the Doctor’s stance wrong. We all know that when he’s been alone for a while he can get hard, that he needs someone there to keep him good, and that’s what Bill gives him. He gets a lesson in humanity from his companions, and Bill gets a harsher lesson of what type of “hero” she has chosen to be with. The nature of the Doctor’s body count is always the elephant in the room (or on the ice) with the character, so to actually explore that through the companion is something that I’m surprised the show doesn’t do more often.
This episode was a very enjoyable one but it still had some flaws that are becoming more prevalent in this tenth season. For the third episode in a row the threat, and the villain where underwritten, with a lot of very interesting themes, and fascinating info only hinted at. Also the fact that the magnificent beast in captivity is a story choice nearly as popular in the new series as base under attack means that this episode doesn’t present anything new from a plot perspective.
Still I find it hard to care too much about these criticisms because of how enjoyable I found most of the episode. It’s been a long time since we had a single episode adventure that truly stands on its own, with a classic Doctor Who feel, and not second part to ultimately ruin it, which happened way to much last season.
8/10 – Thin Ice is about as traditional an episode of this show that you can get, with many of the elements that made me fall in love with Doctor Who in the first place.