The first episodes of Doctor Who’s tenth series have been very companion focused. The Pilot introduced us to Pearl Mackie’s refreshingly ordinary cafeteria worker, Bill, before Smile whisked her away on her first voyage to the far future. Thin Ice is the complete opposite of those episodes in every sense. Hurtling back in time to Regency era London, this period-set adventure is the episode that finally puts Peter Capaldi’s Doctor front and centre.
We re-join the Doctor and Bill immediately after last week’s bonkers dropping off point, with a massive elephant roaming across a frozen river Thames during a bustling frost fair. Far more worrying, though, is the giant creature that seems to be lurking beneath the ice and the floating, bioluminescent lights that are luring unsuspecting punters to their frosty deaths.
As is befitting a flagship show on the Beeb, Doctor Who has always excelled at aping period dramas and this episode is no exception. Director Bill Anderson faithfully recreates Regency era London in all it’s showy glory, and while the special effects don’t always convince – at one point Capaldi’s Doctor tries to make a serious point while waving a rubber fish around – Anderson injects plenty of fun into proceedings, particularly as the Doctor and Bill explore the various attractions at the fair. Encountering such odd delights as sword swallowers, street magicians, bare-chested wrestlers, and poor street urchins, the overall effect is wonderfully trippy, like a Dickensian Christmas tale mixed into a fever dream.
It’s not all fun and games, of course. Written by Sarah Dallard, who previously penned the Clara-killing Face the Raven, Thin Ice sees Doctor Who stepping onto its soapbox to touch upon such weighty themes as animal cruelty, the class system, sexism and racism. It’s the latter that’s given the most focus here with 17th Century London refreshingly depicted as a combustible melting pot of different cultures, a fact which is often overlooked by the media (as Bill sharply points out).
That’s not to say the Regency era was some sort of utopian society where all creeds lived peacefully as equals, far from it. Bill’s initial reaction upon stepping out of the TARDIS is one of fear (“slavery is still totally a thing!”) and she’s forced to suffer through her fair share of nasty individuals spitting racist insults to her face (an incident which leads to a genuine punch-the-air act of heroism from the Doctor). There’s perhaps a case to be made for not giving such distasteful opinions the oxygen of publicity, but surely it’s important for a show ostensibly aimed at children to challenge such hateful views head on? And if that annoys the Daily Mail too, well that’s just an added bonus.
But while its themes are thoroughly modern, the episode continues to evoke ‘classic’ Who with its unhurried approach to storytelling. One of the most enjoyable elements of series 10 has been the space given to allow the Doctor and Bill’s burgeoning relationship to grow and develop. Thin Ice sees the early cracks begin to show in their friendship as Bill suffers her first brush with death, witnessing a young homeless boy getting swallowed up by the creatures beneath the river. Naturally, she’s horrified, grief-stricken and angry, feelings that are only intensified by the Doctor’s seemingly callous lack of emotion (though we of course know better). The episode is really a test of whether Bill is equipped to cope with the terrors that come with following the Doctor on his wild adventures. Needless to say she passes with flying colours.
There’s also an opportunity for Capaldi to really flex his acting talents for the first time this series. While it’s been fun to watch the Doctor take to his new role as Bill’s time travel tutor, which looks set to be a regular feature of the series, it’s pleasing to see a return of the complex, fully-rounded Twelve we’ve grown to love. Uncovering a sinister plot to keep an alien creature chained beneath the Thames’ icy wonders, Capaldi is clearly in his element, swinging between a full gamut of emotions with his usual ferocious energy as he goes up against the beast’s cruel captors. He even gets to deliver one of his soaringly eloquent speeches, this time deriding the use of oppression in all its forms. Simply put: it’s vintage Doctor Who.
Sadly, it’s yet another episode in which a capable supporting cast are given very little opportunity to shine. Asiatu Koroma impresses as the savvy and compassionate leader of the pickpocket gang, Kitty, but otherwise there are few characters really worth talking about. Matt Lucas’ Nardole once again makes only a fleeting appearance to advance the series arc – here’s hoping the pay-off is ultimately worth such a frustrating build up.
The only other character worthy of note is Nicholas Burns’ villainous Lord Sutcliffe. Burns is suitably slimy in the role of a ruthless business owner who exploits alien creatures and the poor for his own personal gain, but unlike Capaldi and Mackie, he’s given very little screen time to explore his character in more depth – Sutcliffe apparently acts like an A-hole just for the hell of it. This appears to be the fatal flaw in Steven Moffat’s sedate approach to storytelling this series. While it’s exciting to watch the Doctor and Bill being given more space to explore new worlds and eras in detail, it has a tendency to leave very little time left for the actual plot. As a result, the climax to the episode feels undercooked and completely lacking in tension or suspense as any obstacle is swiftly overcome and Sutcliffe is effortlessly defeated just in time for the start of Casualty.
Overall, Thin Ice is another enjoyable if slightly unremarkable episode that skimps on the story in order to focus on the intriguing interplay of its central pairing. Still, as long as Capaldi and Mackie continue to push their characters in exciting new directions, there’s every reason to keep on watching.