Doctor Who Season 10 continues its fantastic start, as Twelve and Bill go on an exciting adventure to the London Frost Fair of 1814.
Since we went to the future in last week’s Doctor Who episode, it makes sense that this week we go back to the past. In Season 10’s third installment, we journey to nineteenth century London, where a monster lurks beneath the frozen Thames. As such things go, the story of “Thin Ice” isn’t terribly remarkable. There’s usually an episode early in a new companion’s run that visits the past, and this one doesn’t break any new ground in that area. And several previous installments touched on many of the narrative themes used here. (See especially Season 5’s “The Beast Below,” which features a remarkably similar plot.)
Happily, none of that matters all that much. Even though bits of “Thin Ice” occasionally feel like a retread, the episode as a whole is a winner. The monster-of-the week plot is gloriously fun. And several interesting emotional beats bubble right along next to it, as Bill and the Doctor continue to navigate this delicate “getting to know you” stage of time travel. Season 10’s greatest achievement thus far is the tremendous character work going on between these two and the emotional arc of Twelve and Bill’s relationship feels the strongest since the Russell T. Davies era.
Plus, Peter Capaldi can wear the heck out of a top hat. There’s really a lot to love here.
"Doctor: I told you, you don’t steer the TARDIS. You reason with it.Bill: How?Doctor: Unsuccessfully, most of the time. She’s a bad girl, this one. Always looking for trouble."
Welcome to the Final Frost Fair
Generally speaking, “Thin Ice” is a pretty normal adventure story, with a monster and a fairly straightforward problem to solve. There aren’t a lot of twisty surprises, and the episode spends as much time on character moments as it does plot. Our story goes like this: A giant alien sea monster is somehow chained under the Thames. A loathsome aristocratic businessman is luring frost fair guests out on to the thin ice, in the hopes they’ll be eaten by the creature. And once digested, they become some sort of super coal. (Yuck.) In order to save the day, the Doctor and Bill must befriend a local gang of street urchins, don some seriously Jules Verne-looking diving apparatus, and escape a tent full of homemade bombs. Which is pretty much just an average day in the life of the Doctor and his companion, I guess?
This episode is an example of one of Doctor Who’s best tricks as a series. And that is when it visits the past and uses some variety of alien-influenced weirdness to explain away an actual gap in history. While this whole Frost Fair business may seem kind of crazy, it actually did happen in real life. More than once. Between the 14th and 19th centuries, the Thames froze over fairly regularly. And on at least five separate occasions, the ice was thick enough for a Frost Fair to take place.
The last Frost Fair did indeed occur in 1814. And if watching it feels like a magical experience on Doctor Who, well. It was in real life, as well. Events included dancing, pubs and, yes, a real elephant, led out across the ice below Blackfriars Bridge. After the 1814 fair, the river never froze over again. Why? In reality, the answer probably has something to do with the end of the Little Ice Age. But isn’t it more fun to think that it’s actually because a despairing sea creature was finally set free?
"Doctor: You know what happens if I don’t move on? More people die. There are kids living rough near here. They may well be next on the menu. Do you want to help me? Or do you want to stand here stamping your foot? Because let me tell you something – I’m 2,000 years old and I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage."
The Story Itself Isn’t Really The Point This Week
As an episode, “Thin Ice” is a good time. It’s a fairly exciting adventure with a lot of appealing moments – Bill’s obvious glee over the Frost Fair and her detailed curiosity about the practicalities of time travel, for starters. But the key moment of the episode occurs just after the Doctor and Bill see a little boy sucked into the ice to his death. The event leaves Bill distraught, and rather upset that the Doctor isn’t. Every companion goes through some version of this scene, wherein they realize that the Doctor is…complicated. And since Twelve is definitely a bit less warm and fuzzy than some earlier Doctors, it makes Bill’s struggle to grasp how her awesome new tutor can also be so casual about the idea of death easier to understand.
The Doctor is a hero, of course. Forever and always. But he is also over 2,000 years old and understands sacrifice and death and loss in a way that Bill cannot. So while her disbelief at his admission that he lost count of how many people he’s seen die is understandable, the Doctor’s response is equally so. His logic – that by moving on and making hard choices, he saves more lives – makes sense, in his situation. And in the end, for a creature as old as the Doctor, compartmentalization has got to be a learned survival skill. That both of them come at this debate from completely reasonable perspectives is part of the reason the scene is so compelling to watch.
Bill ultimately learns the truth of the Doctor’s words when he leaves the final decision of the episode up to her. Free the beast that’s lived its life in chains and risk it eating half of London, or leave it where it is, in the name of keeping people safe? These are the choices the Doctor makes all the time.. And some times he gets it right and some times he doesn’t. But every time, over and over again, he still tries to do the right thing. And, as it turns out, so does Bill, who votes to free “Tiny.” (And, honestly, she gets pretty lucky that no one ends up eaten.)
"Doctor: Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. That boy who died on the river – that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species."
Back to the Future
Bill and the Doctor make it back to modern day London. Just in time for Nardole to show up with the tea he went to fetch at the beginning of “Smile”! And though Bill herself displayed possibly more concern about the unknown ramifications of time travel than any previous companion ever has, everything seems pretty normal. Or at the very least, releasing a giant sea creature into the Thames doesn’t seem to have even made the papers. Let alone changed the modern era. So, all’s well that ends well, it would seem.
As with Season 10’s previous two episodes, “Thin Ice” succeeds because it focuses so predominantly on Bill and the Doctor’s relationship. And their dynamic is fascinating. The tutor/mentor role fits both Capaldi and Twelve so much more naturally than whatever BFF thing they tried for with Jenna Coleman’s Clara. Due to this framing, the progress of his relationship with Bill feels much more deliberate and earned. Maybe the problem with Clara was always that Capaldi’s Doctor was born into an already-existing relationship, and we never really got to see the two of them grow together in this way.
These first three Season 10 episodes featured a lot of moments intended to serve as Bill’s introduction to companion life. And not every episode in the future will likely feature this much time with Bill and the Doctor one-on-one. But it’s been lovely to take Bill’s introduction slowly, and this season of Doctor Who is stronger for it. Though it’s probably time to get back to that business with the vault in the basement again.
Next week: A creepy looking house that looks haunted or infested with monsters or something awful. But who cares – because Poirot himself, David Suchet, is somehow involved!