The Doctor and Bill take in the last great Frost Fair in 1814, but soon they notice a green light under the ice that follows stray people and sinks them under. Not only that, but upon further investigation, they discover a giant prehistoric angler fish under the ice and heavy chains. Connecting these, the Doctor and Bill determine to find out who is keeping the fish there, and what other nefarious plans do they have.
“Thin Ice” is your basic sympathetic monster story, but as far as those go, it’s okay. There’s nothing incredibly exciting or new to it, but it’s not boring either. This episode brings back the psychic paper and the Doctor’s screwdriver plays an important part. There’s also some good attention to history. Firstly, a lot of people probably don’t know about Frost Fairs during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and this episode provides a decent education as to what they were. Racism is a stronger factor than in episodes’ past, given Bill’s concern for her ethnicity in slave trade era Britain, and their nemesis, the aristocratic Lord Sutcliffe is pretty condescending and insulting towards her as well. His attitude is very imperialistic. Also, I have to say the Doctor and Bill look very stylish in their period dress. Unlike Matt Smith who when in the Victorian, or in this case Regency period looked like he was dressed up for the era, Peter Capaldi appears to belong to it, he’s so at home in this type of costume. I’d love to see him in a Dickens adaptation.Speaking of which, there’s a subplot that dives into Oliver Twist territory with a band of thieving street urchins who both advertise for the fair, and attempt to steal the sonic screwdriver, leading said pickpocket to an early death, the lights under the water being drawn to the noise of the Doctors’ tool. I assumed something would happen where the kid would turn out okay in the end, and was very pleased when he didn’t. Bill’s character arc of the episode involved her learning to deal with death, and how travelling with the Doctor means she has to expect that. And it adds to her shock the way the kids’ death is played out, where he sinks under until his arm holding the screwdriver is all that’s visible, and the Doctor…snatches the screwdriver just in time for the arm too to sink under. And the way Peter Capaldi plays it with a cold detachment makes it very easy to understand Bill’s shock at his apparent lack of remorse or even realization of what’s happened.
That’s one of the interesting facets and does inevitably lead to the best scene of the episode. Often the scenes where companions confront the Doctor over his occasionally ambiguous behaviour is really satisfying. Hell, Clara’s one great moment in Doctor Who was her telling him off at the end of “Kill the Moon”. And this makes for a pretty good scene too. Bill asks how many people he’s seen die and it’s clear by his silence he doesn’t know. Nor does he answer her follow-up: “how many before you lost count?” She learns through implication too that the Doctor has killed. We as the audience of course know the Doctor’s more of a grey figure morally than he passes himself off as, but for Bill who’s only just learning this, it is daunting. This is someone she’s trusted for months after all, and Pearl Mackie plays the angered and confused response to this unsettling revelation convincingly. Capaldi it goes without saying, is fantastic. The Doctor ends it with a good line: “I’m 2000 years old and I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage”. Essentially he uses the “needs of the many” logic to get Bill to move past it and help him save more lives. And it’s clear this effects Bill throughout the rest of the episode, as she makes special effort to promise one of the other kids they’ll be saved.
But while this character arc takes place, the remainder of the episode is fairly standard, except for a few highlight moments. Like the Doctor knocking Lord Sutcliffe for his abhorrent exclamation on seeing Bill. And yes, that speech of his was pretty good. Sutcliffe’s family has known about the fish for generations and has orchestrated the fair on thinning ice with the plan on feeding them to the fish and covering it up as a fireworks mishap. The reason? Because its excrement is incredibly valuable as fuel, burning a hundred times longer than coal. The Doctor responds to Sutcliffe’s blatant disregard for poor peoples’ lives as well as his insistence on it all being progressive with a brief but meaningful speech: “human progress isn’t measured by industry, it’s measured by the value you place on life…that’s what defines an age, that’s what defines a species.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I wonder if the writer is too proud of it, as both Bill and Sutcliffe go on to compliment it (Sutcliffe’s is hilarious, because he does so while also admitting he lacks compassion). And of course there’s the Bond moment, where the Doctor and Bill are literally tied up as the villain reiterates his evil plan and leaves them only under the eye of a gormless goon.
What happens in the end is the Doctor and Bill are quickly freed because of his sonic screwdriver, their guard upon confiscating it seals his own fate by luring the creature. The Doctor leaves it to Bill to decide what to do about the fish, once again giving a human the chance to do the right thing for their own species, which of course she does. And from there the Doctor basically takes it as permission to put together his scheme. As Bill rounds the children to evacuate the Thames, the Doctor rigs things so that the chains holding back the fish break when Sutcliffe pushes down his mighty explosives lever. How he’s able to do this is never explained. The fish comes to the surface, breaks the ice, allows Sutcliffe to drown, and swims off. It’s a very big fish, but sadly we’re never given a great view of it, though that may be due to the episodes’ budget as much as anything. Bill later takes the street urchins to Sutcliffe’s home and gives them a feast, while in possibly the goofiest development, the Doctor rewrites Sutcliffe’s will to name one of the boys (Parry) his heir. It’s pretty ridiculous and such an occurrence would most likely never have flown despite what we later hear, but it’s pretty harmless. And the look on Bill’s face when the Doctor tells her SHE was the one who saved them is terrific, regardless of how true that statement may be.
This episode gets a few of its lighter moments right. I particularly love the butterfly effect gag the Doctor pulls on Bill by referencing her supposed friend “Pete”. Kudos to Bill for bringing that up but the butterfly effect means shit in the Doctor Who universe. Shit, of course is a word this episode painfully reminded us Doctor Who isn’t allowed to say. I know it’s because fish droppings feature into the plot, but that moment Bill’s “no sh--” gets cut off by a horse whinny, it’s absolutely grating. It honestly makes me just want the show to purposely say “shit” a dozen times in a row. I guarantee the kids watching who are over nine have heard or said that word anyway. Bill’s reaction to hearing the sonic screwdrivers’ name however is cute, and I like the fact the Doctor has been to this period enough he has a favourite food (it appears to be some kind of lamprey?). And Bill looking at the bigger picture at the end gets a light chuckle : “what if we just, like, doomed Greenland?”
“Thin Ice” is an okay episode overall in spite of some generic plotting. It definitely has some really good moments, just not enough that are going to make it stand out. When the episode ends, the Doctor and Bill return home just in time for Nardole to come in with the tea as the Doctor had predicted early last episode. Nardole is peeved to see them in period clothes and tells the Doctor off for betraying his mysterious oath. We then get a teaser scene where Nardole is apparently talking to whatever’s behind the vault, a life form clearly as it’s able to knock, startling Nardole at first. It’s possible that whatever it is, it dislikes Bill, or at least the idea the Doctor has someone to travel with. But further answers are going to have to wait, because next week the Doctor has a haunted house to look into. And who better to be involved in such an investigation with the Doctor, than Hercule Poirot himself?