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Doctor Who: Thin Ice

Doctor: 'There are situations when the options available are limited.'

Well, this felt more like a Christmas episode than the Christmas episode. It had a festive fair (not to mention festive flair and arrestive hair), falling snow, not too stinky street urchins, and a whopping big Christmas pud with holly on top. This was also Sarah Dollard's second attempt at a Doctor Who story, and after the unmitigated success of 'Face the Raven', was it another 'Nightmare in Silver' (Neil Gaiman's rather pungent second abomination), or did it reach the lofty heights of Paul Cornell's 'Human Nature'?

In truth, it probably sits somewhere in between. The Doctor and Bill stuff—as has been the case all season thus far—was the real engine of the episode, but it was the setting, the set-dressing, and Dollard's fictional re-imagining of the frost fair, that gave it its visual appeal. A trip to regency England was the perfect way to introduce Bill to the realities of travelling with the Doctor, and the imprisoned Tiny felt like the perfect slavery parable—although holding it in chains was perhaps taking the symbolism a little too far. I mean, it was essentially a big space fish. How do you attach manacles to a fish? Did it even have feet?

I liked that this was such a rude awakening for Bill. She went from dressing up in period costume, walking on the frozen Thames and frowning at offal-based snacks, to the stark realisation that sometimes terrible things happen and it's all part and parcel of the job. People die and the Doctor occasionally kills people: welcome to the new status quo! The Doctor even gave Bill a taste of what it feels like to be the boss, and after a mini-strop, Bill quickly seemed to grasp the truth of the Doctor's just-move-on mantra. Fear paralyses you. Uncertainty leads to indecision, and a failure to act can be fatal. Thankfully, Bill's decisiveness is what saved both the creature and the people at the frost fair.

I'm not sure what it did for the people downriver, however. Was it irresponsible to set free a giant human-eating serpent and let it to go swanning... serpenting off down the Thames? Yes, it's better to live in a society where creatures aren't kept in chains against their will, but when they're prone to ingesting humans, then maybe more than five seconds deliberation is warranted before coming to a decision? I'm tempted to think that the chains were only there to make the slavery metaphor more obvious, but that's really where the similarities ended. Regardless, the Doctor's speech to Sutcliffe was on point, magnificently delivered by Capaldi, and seemed to ease any concerns Bill might've had over the Doctor's ethical fitness.

For me, the episode's main weakness was that it explained little, and when it did try to justify itself, it frequently fell short. They didn't tell us why the monster was there, or who'd managed to imprison it, or even how—it just seemingly was. Who first realised that it excreted interstellar-capable rocket fuel? Why was it on earth? Who makes manacles capable of holding a sea creature? Obviously explaining the ins and outs of everything that happened is way beyond the scope of the story, but they could at least have dropped a few crumbs. I was fan wanking so hard that I almost set fire to my sleeve.

Likewise, Sutcliffe's justification for using Tiny's magical space poo for fuel was oddly incoherent. Yes, people die in coal mines, but people also die when they're eaten, digested, and forced out through the colon of a sea monster. What makes their deaths any less tragic? In the end Sutcliffe offered up 'moving the country forward' as motive for his madness, but this was only after hefty prompting by the Doctor. And could Sutcliffe have been any more two-dimensional? The way he delivered his 'So, it's really not your day, is it?' line made my hair cringe. Sadly, it felt like most of the interesting questions were never really answered, and the moral conundrums were seemingly explained away by Sutcliffe being a dick.

One thing I found hugely encouraging about this episode is what it did for Nardole. As mentioned in previous weeks, I wasn't particularly happy to see Nardole join Bill as a character this season. I had visions of him Nardole-ing up every scene he was in, and taking valuable minutes away from Bill's already limited season time. Thankfully, we now know why the Doctor brought Nardole back to life—to guard the vault—and at the moment, Nardole doesn't appear to be interfering with Bill's development at all. In fact, he appears to be functioning as a minor secondary companion, and I'm totally down with that. I'm even rather pleased about it. Now I can stop chuntering about how infrequently they've been using him.

That being said, I'm still not a huge fan of him appearing every episode for two minutes and grumbling about the vault. I assume that it's all part of the wider season arc—the mystery of who's in the vault—and I'm fine with that, but the way they're setting it up does feel horribly Russell T. Davies-y. The first episode of the season spoiled that John Simm's Master will be returning, and we already know that Missy's due back later in the season, so if it's either of those two in the vault, I'm going to throw a right widdy. Here's hoping the tabloids haven't ruined everything for us with their incessant desire to spoil all good things. Fingers crossed that Moffat has managed to hold back something special for his last hurrah.

Other Thoughts:

—In memory of Pete: the best character the show has ever had.

—The ice CGI was a bit ropey, but I thought they did well with the monster CGI, particularly at the end where we saw Tiny swimming up river.... presumably to devour some innocent children in High Wycombe.

—While punching people in the face is generally to be discouraged, seeing the Doctor twat Sutcliffe in the chops was grand.


Bill: 'You work for the palace?'
Doctor: 'Haven't heard that one in a while.'

Doctor: '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.'

Doctor: 'I'm 2000 years old and I've never had time for the luxury of outrage.'

Doctor: 'I know what you're thinking, but don't worry... these are stolen.'

Doctor: 'I was being down with the kids there, did you notice?'
Bill: 'My hair was cringing.'
Doctor: 'Awesome!'
Bill: 'Please stop!'

Bill: 'Is this stuff safe?'
Doctor: 'Potentially.'
Bill: 'Potentially? What does potentially mean?'
Doctor: 'Safe, with a frisson of excitement.'

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. The 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.'

Doctor: 'Don't be smug. Smug belongs to me.'
Also posted at The Time Meddler.


  1. Hey, I liked "Nightmare in Silver!" It was one of my favorites from that season.

    Bill and the Doctor's interactions are still being the highlight for me. I loved the conversation where she asked how many people the Doctor had watched die, followed by how many people he had killed. And her insistence that the Doctor actually answer the question that she asked. I know that there's a lot of talk of giving the new show runner a blank slate to work off of next season, but I really, really hope that Bill sticks around. I don't want her to go so soon.

  2. — Have you ever killed anyone?
    — Yeah, but they were all bad.

    That was better than the previous episode, but still not great. It felt a bit recycled. Haven't the Doctor already freed a giant enslaved sea creature, with a lot of risk for some humans?

    As for the content of the vault that this-creepy-guy-I-don't-care-about is guarding, I would offer another possibility: The Doctor.

  3. Interesting review and interesting comments (using interesting in the best way). I think when it comes to the Doctor that I just go for the ride. I don't think I even notice when they don't explain things or when things are flat. I really appreciate your reviews Paul for making me thing more deeply about this show. I watch the episode again after reading and have a totally different experience. I am also liking Bill tremendously. She reminds me of Donna in that she challenges the doctor rather than being in awe or being strangely attached. Not that she doesn't admire and care for the doctor but there are no stars in her eyes. All in all I'm enjoying this season but really hope that when the Master/Missy returns that it's something new.

  4. The problem I had with this episode is that it was just a rehash of 'The Beast Below'. That is the second time this season that they have recycled a plot from a previous episode. I'm worried this is becoming a trend. Is the next episode just going to be a rehash of 'Hide'?

  5. I noticed that the Doctor usually brings new companions on two opening trips: one into the future one into the past. Just like Rose in the beginning of New Who.

  6. Lots of problems here Paul, as you aptly point out. I loved Bill here though, and she looked brilliant in her period costume. I also loved when he Doctor punched Sutcliffe for being a racist jerk towards Bill.

    The vault thing got old in a hurry, but I also agree that Nardole gets better and more interesting. Mark's point about it feeling like the Beast Below certainly rings true to me as well.

    I also find the idea that being devoured by some sea creature can hardly be better than dying in a coal mine, in fact barring extenuating circumstances, it's likely much worse (and more disgusting). They could have freed it and gotten it the heck away from people instead!


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