Thin Ice

Story No. 292 Commemorative mugs
Production Code Series 10, episode 3
Dates April 29, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Sarah Dollard Directed by Bill Anderson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Doctor and Bill visit London's last frost fair in 1814.


Today in 1814 by Niall Jones 11/7/21

If travelling into the future is a strange experience, then travelling into the past must feel stranger still. For, unlike the future, when we arrive in the past, we bring with us all our preconceptions, knowledge and stereotypes. In short, we have expectations of what the past will be like, expectations that will no doubt be challenged by the reality.

For Bill Potts, this moment comes soon after she has stepped onto the frozen surface of the River Thames, marvelling at London's last frost fair. 'Regency London. Bit more black than they show in the movies', she comments, to which the Doctor replies 'So was Jesus. History's a whitewash.' In comparing perception with reality, this exchange highlights the ways in which history is shaped by the prejudices of those writing it. Recent books such as David Olusoga's excellent "Black and British" have begun to challenge the popular notion of pre-twentieth-century England as a wholly white space. It's nice to see Doctor Who acknowledge the more diverse reality, even if only in passing.

It takes a moment for Bill to accept that she really has travelled in time, however, and even longer for her to feel comfortable engaging with her surroundings. Like Martha in The Shakespeare Code, Bill brings up the butterfly effect, only to be rebuffed by the Doctor. For the Doctor, past and present are matters of perspective, and it is this attitude that underpins Thin Ice's approach to history. For most of its running time, 1814 is presented not as the past, but as another today, just as alive and unpredictable as all of Bill's todays in 2017. The sheer vitality of the frost fair plays an important role in expressing this aliveness, but there are also some smaller details which emphasise its contemporaneity, such as the commemorative mugs the Doctor picks up at the fair.

It is only at the very end of the episode that 1814 is presented as history. The Doctor and Bill return to the twenty-first century and find that, despite having freed a giant sea creature from the Thames, the arc of history remains unchanged. Despite Bill's disappointment, however, she is thrilled to find that her and the Doctor's actions did change the lives of the orphaned children they befriended.

The tension between grand historical narratives and the value of 'smaller' lives underpins the Doctor and Bill's conflict with Lord Sutcliffe, the villain of the piece. Sutcliffe is a distinctly nineteenth-century creation, motivated by profit, in love with the abstract concept of progress and inured to the suffering caused by his plans. He is also a very human villain: believing himself to be on the side of angels, he is arrogant and callous rather than actively malicious or evil. It is noticeable that, despite the Doctor's suggestion that the sea creature's dung could be used as rocket fuel, Sutcliffe only seems interested in using it as an alternative to coal, making him a rather parochial villain. The presentation of Sutcliffe as 'a man of his time' is also made clear through his racist attitudes towards Bill, which earn him a rare punch from the Doctor.

This punch is a vital turning point in the episode. Up to this point, Bill's faith in the Doctor has begun to waver. After seeing Billy, one of the orphans living rough around the frost fair, being sucked beneath the ice, she is shocked by the Doctor's unemotional reaction. When she asks whether he has ever killed anyone, you can really sense the urgency of the question. His statement that 'I'm 2000 years old and I've never had time for the luxury of outrage', illustrates a distinctly non-human approach to dealing with death that is hardly reassuring. When he attacks Lord Sutcliffe, however, it becomes clear that he is in fact emotionally affected by the events going on around him.

The Doctor's subsequent speech is perhaps even more significant. He challenges Sutcliffe's callous disregard for human life by arguing that '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'. This acts as a riposte to the values of the Industrial Revolution and shows the Doctor to be compassionate and caring.

Peter Capaldi shines in both of these speeches, demonstrating why he is such a good fit for the Doctor. His delivery is subtle and full of nuance. Crucially, when confronting Sutcliffe, he does not raise his voice, instead delivering the lines in a calm, understated way. This speech also develops the relationship between him and Bill. His question to Sutcliffe, asking whether he keeps a record of how many people the sea creature has killed, references back to Bill's own questioning of him earlier. It acts almost as a kind of test, one which Sutcliffe, who blames the festival goers for their own demise, fails. At the end of the speech, Bill turns her face towards the Doctor, her eyes full of something like pride, her faith in him restored.

Pearl Mackie also shines as Bill, expressing both the wonder and terror of time travel. Her visible upset at seeing someone die for the first time emphasises her compassion and highlights the extent to which she is removed from her normal life. Although her relationship with the Doctor is still that of student and teacher, she is much more confident challenging him here than in previous episodes.

Overall, Thin Ice is an excellent episode that takes a simple plot about a sea creature being oppressed by a greedy industrialist and uses it to explore the relationship between Bill and the Doctor. Sarah Dollard's script is also very funny and succeeds in entwining its thematic concerns with plot development. Whereas much of Series 11 and 12 resort to preaching to express moral or political viewpoints, Thin Ice lays out clearly its criticisms of the Industrial Revolution in a way that feels organic and embedded in the story.

While I would hesitate to call any episode of Doctor Who perfect, Thin Ice proves to be one of the best historical episodes of recent times. The historical and science-fiction elements are perfectly balanced and an unsung period of London's history is brought vividly to live.