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Doctor Who S10.03 review: "This is what Doctor Who is made for"

Our Verdict

Thin Ice lets Bill shine and proves monster-of-the-week storytelling still has a lot to offer.

This is what Doctor Who is made for. Monster of the week storytelling is back, with no massive, invasive season arcs distracting from this week’s core story. Accidentally travelling to the 1814 Frost Fair in London, the Doctor and Bill gallivant around the festivities and sample the food stalls that would make hygiene inspectors swoon. Until bright lights appear below the ice, their gentle shine luring citizens away. Pulled below its cold crust into the deadly Thames, something is waiting to consume them...

Unflinching storytelling at its finest, Thin Ice doesn’t shy away from the historical difficulties of taking a black companion to the 19th century. Pearl Mackie’s performance is fantastic from the get-go: looking apprehensive instantly, her uneasy remark about how dangerous it could be for her begins the episode’s sensitive exploration of racism. Nor does it whitewash the supporting cast: in fact, when Bill says “Regency England. Bit more black than they show in the movies,” as Londoners of all ethnicities lark about on the ice, the Doctor’s reply is on point. “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash”. The episode doesn’t treat history as a shallow spectacle, it explores the flaws of the era without sacrificing any sci-fi elements. 

This is the episode where Bill and the Doctor click. Her common-sense questions about time travel put her on equal footing with the Doctor, and she mentions when he’s being a bit too alien. Like Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston, it hearkens back to when we had to be shown how much the Doctor needs someone ‘normal’ to tell him to help. Peter Capaldi does concerned well too though: the look on his face when Bill talks about slavery clearly shows his emotional depth. Similarly the more serious, deadpan tone that Capaldi adopts throughout this episode makes the Doctor feel a lot more real than he has before. His lack of buffoonery is a welcome change. Meaning that when he does fool around, his jokes hit the mark incredibly well. Here’s hoping we get to see more of this Doctor, and less of his bloody electric guitar.

Proving that the ‘monster of the week’ formula is no bad thing, the aquatic monster is a simple premise brilliantly executed. Because when it comes to making sci-fi mean something, Doctor Who shines. It’s basically a vessel for testing out the show’s characters, prodding them with various scenarios (ultimately centred around people dying - cheery, we know) to see how they react. Bill does not react well. Or, rather, the very fact that she takes a young boy drowning pretty hard means that she’s reacting in exactly the right way. Mackie’s performance is outstanding, as she’s given the chance to show just how much depth Bill has. Exceptionally intelligent with two feet most definitely on the ground, her horrified reaction when the Doctor missed the chance to pull the boy out from the Thames shows how blasé we, the audience, can get about death as it didn’t make me bat an eyelid. Growling afterwards that the Doctor has to save him - strikingly unnerving to see Bill turn on the Time Lord - it suggests that her empathy is going to be pushing most of the season arc forward.

Not that the Doctor isn’t empathetic, of course. Life and death are just something he’s got used to. Having Bill question him, though - and I mean really put him on the spot - about how many people he’s seen die is unsettling. Capaldi’s deadpan demeanour means something entirely different here: it’s borderline uncaring. This turns out to be exactly Bill’s concern too, she’s starting to realise that being 2000 years old means the Doctor has gotten uncomfortably familiar with death. After the Doctor frees the sea beast, Bill starts to act in the same way. It only took her a second to decide to save the street urchins once it became too late to get absolutely everyone to safety. The speed with which she switched from saviour to survival mode is notable, and doesn’t bode entirely well for the future. Maybe she’s starting to understand the Doctor’s clinical approach to death? 

Of course everything turns out ok in the end. This is Doctor Who, after all. Upon their return to the present day the Doctor’s fickle humor works its way into the conversation as Nardole chides him for breaking his oath. We still don’t know the exact details of this oath, by the way - he can’t leave earth, and isn’t supposed to leave the vault unguarded. Ah, the vault. Muttering to himself as he approaches its door, Matt Lucas plays indignant very well indeed. Although he did sound semi-bitter too. It’s looking like Nardole might be the Doctor’s downfall if he keeps tricking him like this, as he’s the only other being who goes near the vault. The vault that’s suddenly started knocking. Aggressively. Undoubtedly whatever’s inside is going to be a fairly big plot point for the season. Although I’m excited for the big reveal, a rising sense of dread is quickly overtaking it...

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The Verdict

4

4 out of 5

Doctor Who

Thin Ice lets Bill shine and proves monster-of-the-week storytelling still has a lot to offer.