When this series began, I made the decision that I would try to go into each episode knowing as little about it as possible. It has been difficult to avoid rumours and near impossible to tame the excitement that raged in my heart as the air date for the series approached, but with Thin Ice I managed to sidestep spoilers and embark upon the episode without a clue as to what might be waiting on the frozen Thames. However, as a bit of a history nerd, my first reaction to the historical setting of the episode was tremendously exciting.
Proceeded by the Victorian era, The Regency Period of British History is often overshadowed despite the questions it raised about the hereditary nature of rule and the colossal breakthroughs in industry and the changes it brought to the fields of architecture, politics, fashion, and literature. The era, often associated with the work of such writers as Jane Austen, officially began when the then Prince of Wales assumed the role of Prince Regent in 1811 after his father, King George III, was declared unfit to rule. The Prince of Wales was able to wield the power of a ruling Monarch but was not officially recognised as the rightful King of England until his father passed away in 1820. Some historians argue that the Regency Period ends here, whilst others state that it actually ended in 1837 when a certain young Queen took to the throne. This often overlooked historical setting felt like a refreshing exercise for Doctor Who considering its affinity with the more familiar nature of the Victorian era, and I think it succeeded, both physically on screen and in keeping with the story being told, in grabbing our attention and drawing the audience in to this extraordinary period in history.
In Thin Ice, the Doctor and Bill are afforded the opportunity, albeit unintentionally, of attending the last Great Frost Fair of February 1814. The splendour and excitement of the fair is cultivated by the various stalls on show, the variety of circus performers and of course that elephant! I think that Bill’s reaction of wonder that all companions experience on their first few adventures, is absolutely delightful and, although it doesn’t last long before they get to work, it is a joy to behold.
Despite the bold “Roll up! Roll up! Enjoy the Fun of the Fair” frivolity that kicked off the episode, it is short lived and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) soon get down to business. They quickly find what the lights beneath the ice are capable of doing and the threat they pose to those enjoying the fair. The idea of falling through the ice is quite literally spine chilling and watching it happen to Spider (Austin Taylor) is breath-taking. Bill’s reaction is rightfully one of shock and when she learns that the Doctor cannot do anything to save him, it’s the first time Bill has seen the Doctor ‘fail’. Despite the best intentions, not everyone can be helped and in such situations the best thing to do is to keep going. As the Doctor says:
“I’m 2000 years old and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”
During the scene where Bill is coming to terms with Spider’s death, my favourite interaction between her and the Doctor takes place. When she asks whether he’s ever killed someone, it felt like time stopped. This was a defining moment for how Bill would see the Doctor and it was crucial that the Doctor answer honestly. Now, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a companion getting to know the Doctor and what it means to travel with him, but it’s also the first time that this Doctor has had to do it. I was intrigued to see how Capaldi’s Doctor would deal with this situation and watching him try to avoid the question built this conflict between wanting to tell the truth and also not wanting Bill to hate him, needing her to help and to try to ‘move on’. The fact that she has to push him for a response and that she ultimately succeeds in getting a straight answer shows the respect that the Doctor has for Bill. It is so refreshing to have Capaldi’s Doctor released from the bizarre Clara Oswald obsession and see how and who he would choose to travel with him. And with Bill asking so many questions and demanding answers so early on in their adventures together, I’m excited to see where this TARDIS team go.
This story doesn’t shy away from the issue of racism. We last saw kind of introspection with another companion, Martha Jones in The Shakespeare Code (2007). Here, the Doctor’s advice to swan about like you own the place was never, I acknowledge, going to set up an in-depth exploration on the nature of how our time travellers react to racial inequality and injustice experienced in the times and places that they visit. And I accept that Doctor Who is ‘just a television show’ and with the current one or two episode story format, there simply isn’t the time to delve into issues like this properly because that’s not what the show is there do on a Saturday night.
Nevertheless, in my opinion, Doctor Who is at its best when it delves into ‘the bigger issues’ and explores them through the type of lens that only programmes like Doctor Who can. This episode, for instance, was a perfect platform for a slightly more in-depth exploration and Bill’s comment near the beginning of the episode about how Regency England was a ‘Bit more Black than they show in the movies’ plants the issue in our heads and from there, the seed is allowed to grow. Leading, of course, to that slap and that speech near the close of the episode, both of which are beautifully executed by Peter Capaldi.
“Well, that explains the lack of humanity. What makes you so sure that your life is worth more than those people out there on the ice? Is it the money? The accident of birth that puts you inside the big fancy house? … 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. That boy who died in the river. That boys’ value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.“
On that note, I would like to comment on the phenomenal writing of the episode and congratulate Sarah Dollard on a really enjoyable Doctor Who story and especially on that speech. You have the fun and enjoyment of Bill’s first journey to the past and the fun of the fair alongside the physical danger that lies beneath the ice and the power of those who justify forging an Empire on the back of torture and slavery of ‘unimportant life’.
And for a ‘kids show’ airing on a Saturday evening, that is some truly gutsy and powerful storytelling.