On Thin Ice was yet another genius & classic episode of Doctor Who, continuing the trend of fantastic television for Series 10. Peter Capaldi and Pearle Mackie have yet to disappoint me, if anything I am already sad that this will be the only season we see of them. This episode picks up immediately where Smile left us, with Bill and The Doctor traveling back to London to be in his office in time for the tea that Nardole is bringing up. The TARDIS of course has other ideas, and The Doctor and Bill end up still in London. However, it’s 1814 London at the Last Great Frost Fair. After quickly moving the TARDIS to higher ground, our dynamic duo change into period appropriate clothing and off they go to explore the past.
Of course, true to Whovian fashion, the TARDIS doesn’t flash up a giant warning about an extra life-form hiding under the river until after the Doctor and Bill have left her parked. One of the things I love watching unfold on screen is each new companion and how they learn the ropes so to speak about time traveling in general. This episode allows for Bill to discover not only more about The Doctor but also about what he does. At first she is very concerned that if she makes a single wrong move, she’ll accidentally step on a butterfly and change the entire course of human history. After some assurances from The Doctor they continue along and end up on the ice enjoying the frost fair.
With elephants, sword swallowers, circus performers, and shops it’s easy to see why so many are drawn to the fair. Bill is just commenting on these interesting lights under the ice when a young boy, Spider (who seriously could be Oliver Twist himself), pops up and knicks The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. They chase after Spider and his cohort Kitty and end up away from the regular fair festivities, further out on the ice. The glowing lights appear encircling under Spider’s feet and before The Doctor can do anything to save him he gets pulled underneath the ice to what we all assume is a cold and terrifying death. The Doctor does get his sonic screwdriver back first, which puts Bill in quite a temper over the entire incident.
This is yet another moment that I always love watching a new companion figure out, and it’s something that I always love to pose to Whovians as a question, is The Doctor a good man? Bill is now so angry with The Doctor over just letting the young boy die and seemingly not being affected by it. The Doctor so nonchalantly can handle death and pain and loss; but then move along in the blink of an eye, and each companion has to learn that, question it, and deal with it in their own way.
Do you want to help me? Or do you want to stand there stamping your foot? Because let me tell you, I’m two thousand years old. And I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage.
After Bill and The Doctor have sorted that out, they chase down Kitty, Spider’s friend, and learn that not only do they pick-pocket people who come to the fair, but that they are getting paid by an unknown villain to lure people down onto the ice for the fair. It isn’t any concern for them that people do go missing out on the ice, but that they are aware it has happened. Of course The Doctor always has a plan, and so he and Bill suit up in what have to be the most ancient looking dive suits ever, and decide to get themselves taken by the lights. The lights turn out to be weird little fish, that serve a much bigger and more scary fish that is eating the missing people but is also imprisoned at the bottom of the river in giant chains. Upon returning from their cold river dive, our time traveling pair learn from Kitty that they are being paid by a wealthy businessman in the area, Lord Sutcliffe.
The Doctor breaks out one of my personal favorites, the psychic paper, and does a little digging around the docks to find out more about Sutcliffe and what is really going on here. Deciding that Sutcliffe must be an alien trying to collect rocket fuel from the beast under the river, he and Bill make their way directly to Sutcliffe’s mansion to face him head on. Here is where the episode really puts the icing on the cake, as it tackles the issue of racism head on. Bill did make a few comments earlier on in the episode, about if it was safe for her as in the 1800s as “slavery is still totally a thing“, and about how historic London actually was more diverse than she remembers any history book ever showing. Lord Sutcliffe it turns out is not an alien, but a very racist and despicable man. He fully knows that there is a creature chained up under the river, but that the creature’s waste is what’s providing his family fortune to continue to grow, so he purposefully feeds it people to keep his own business ahead and profitable. The Doctor gives a fantastic monologue about the value of human life, that should move anyone with an ounce of compassion in them.
Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It is measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege.
Lord Sutcliffe has decided that he has had enough, but that The Doctor and Bill now know too much and they must be disposed of. His plan of giving the beast a feast of people now has to be moved forward, so he rigs a bomb to explode, shattering the ice and giving the beast below a buffet of a meal. Of course we are dealing with The Doctor here, so he is able to come up with a plan to escape, with the help of his handy sonic (I am oh so glad that we are back to a screwdriver variety and that the sunglasses only have made a small appearance thus far this season).
Bill and Kitty work with other orphans to get as many civilians off the ice as they can, claiming that the ice is thawing and people are starting to fall through. Meanwhile The Doctor moves Sutcliffe’s bomb down under the water and places it on the chains of the prisoner below, so when he tries to detonate it, he’s actually just setting free the thing that was keeping him rich. Luckily for humanity, Sutcliffe gets lost under the ice and we never have to see the likes of him again. The Doctor and Bill make a few quick changes to his will, leaving his estate to the orphans who assisted them during this adventure, giving Bill the peace of mind that she was able to help them somehow, if not bring Spider back.
The TARDIS now allows The Doctor and Bill to make it back to his office with Nardole walking in with tea right on cue. Nardole of course isn’t oblivious to what’s just happened and gives The Doctor a lecture about breaking his vow to stay on Earth and traveling around with Bill. Nardole goes to check on the vault that is under the university, mumbling to himself all the while that even if The Doctor isn’t taking things seriously, he at least is. We then hear a knocking coming from behind the vault doors as the end credits roll, leaving us all to wonder, were those three knocks really supposed to be four….
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