NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review
Doctor Who picked up immediately after the events of last week’s episode in its latest offering, as The Doctor and Bill stumble into London circa 1814, during the bustling Frost Fair on the frozen Thames River. “Thin Ice” (not to be confused with the aborted Seventh Doctor episode of the same name, which was later turned into an audio play), naturally has another mystery afoot for The Doctor and Bill to solve, one that’s completely earthbound this time, even though a nasty creature still lurks quite literally under the surface, devouring those who would wander and make too much noise upon the thinner ice stretches.
Compared to the previous two episodes of the current season, “Thin Ice” isn’t quite as good, due to re-treading some old ground and having to hastily explain away a few story turns, but it nonetheless makes for another effectively enjoyable mystery, especially as our best chance yet to get to know Bill, and see what she’s truly made of as a new companion. Bill’s race also came into play in this episode, albeit only briefly, since it’s 1814, where slavery still abounds in many parts of the world. Fortunately, the show did play against expectation in an interesting way here though, with The Doctor saying that plenty of 1814 London had black citizenry, and that, “History is a whitewash”, which fortunately allowed him and Bill to focus on the task at hand for the most part.
The beginning of the episode is overall pretty strong, as The Doctor and Bill take in the nearby attractions, which includes no shortage of con artists. Seeing The Doctor take a fascination with these thieves is fairly amusing, especially since he becomes obsessed with learning a particularly devious coin trick, which sets up a nice way to keep Nardole at bay again towards the end of the episode. Again, the absence of Nardole for almost the entire episode is a bummer, even though things ending with Nardole having to fend off a knocking on the vault door makes for a pretty exciting tease for what The Doctor and Nardole are actually guarding. Given the knocking motif, could they be sealing an incarnation of The Master?
When The Doctor and Bill finally learn about what’s really going on at the Frost Fair however, they’re too late to prevent one of the young urchin children from being sucked into the ice by a series of mysterious lights. When The Doctor doesn’t appear disturbed by this, Bill becomes noticeably upset, challenging The Doctor as to his true consideration for human life. To a point, this is understandable, and even interesting, since Bill is a new companion, and hasn’t had to carry the burden of so many of The Doctor’s difficult choices yet. Even so though, Bill accusing The Doctor of potentially not being a good man again is trite and frustrating. The show has gone down this route way too many times by now, especially during the Twelfth Doctor’s run. It probably would have been more interesting to have a companion that was surprisingly alright with having to sacrifice people, and not being able to save everyone, since you’d think The Doctor would eventually get sick of keeping the company of bleeding hearts. Isn’t there a more efficient way to give him a link to humanity, without having to patronize who he’s with by explaining the obvious?
Regardless, the lights come from a series of strange angler fish, which mark prey to devour by a gargantuan creature under the ice, which appears to be miles in size. After following the evidence, The Doctor and Bill eventually find their way to a nobleman, Lord Sutcliffe, whose family has been keeping the creature secret for many generations. Apparently, its excrement can be used as a powerful fuel source, and is one of the secret ingredients to the rapid expansion and development of the British Empire during the Industrial Revolution. Sure, this idea of exploiting a creature for fuel by feeding people to it has been done before on Doctor Who, such as in, “The Beast Below” for example (even though that episode’s creature turned out to be benign in the end), but keeping this storyline earthbound made for an interesting way to freshen it up, especially with the well-utilized 1814 backdrop.
The Doctor and Bill do manage to get captured for the climax, but after some quick thinking with the Sonic Screwdriver (which is actually used as a surprisingly logical sonic device to generate noise, and not a magic wand this time), The Doctor gets away, with Bill making the decision to save the creature, rather than kill it. After The Doctor dives down to replace some dynamite that was planned to kill everyone at the festival, the creature is freed, Sutcliffe goes into the ice, and there are no other fatalities. Looks like all’s well that ends well. The urchins even inherit Sutcliffe’s house and fortune, after some quick document-forging by The Doctor!
As you can imagine though, there are a few issues that spring up towards the end of the episode on account of trying to keep things firmly on Earth this week, which the show, to its credit, does try to address. Bill looks up the results of their intervention in 1814 to see that the urchins’ claim to the Sutcliffe estate is upheld, but is surprised to see that there’s no mention of the creature in history. The Doctor then claims that one should never underestimate humanity’s ability to overlook the important details. Honestly though, this is kind of a crappy excuse. Sure, there was, “Day drinking”, but no amount of alcohol can mimic the sensation of a miles-long creature shattering the ice around you! The, “Snap thaw” excuse is also pretty weak. Ice doesn’t melt nearly that fast, plus, wouldn’t people notice that the air temperature is the same? Even if it suddenly became Summer weather somehow though, there’s no way that the ice would instantaneously and entirely split apart the way it did!
I suppose that these story contrivances are a necessary evil for what’s otherwise a pretty enjoyable earthbound Doctor Who mystery though. Like I said, “Thin Ice” isn’t quite as good as the season’s previous two episodes, but it’s still pretty good overall. The character material for Bill was especially strong this week, as was several fun moments with The Doctor, particularly when he takes a fascination with the Frost Fair’s con artists. The payoff of The Doctor using one of their tricks to fool Nardole so that he and Bill can keep venturing out in the TARDIS was also pretty great. Again, it’s too bad that Nardole keeps being benched for now, despite the hullabaloo around making him the series’ first proper alien companion, but at least the prospect of him guarding something sinister in that mysterious vault is starting to demonstrate some promising teases for later.
- Bill getting her best chance yet to prove her worth as a companion
- Fun moments at the Frost Fair, especially with The Doctor's con fascination
- First sinister teases of what (or who) could be in the vault
- The whole moral bellyaching spiel with The Doctor is very trite at this point
- Closure that follows the mystery doesn't add up