What lurks below?
And so Doctor Who continues on to week three of the new series. This time, the Doctor and Bill take a journey to the past and take in a frozen over Victorian-Era River Thames. It's all fun and games until people start being pulled under the ice by strange glowing lights. Something deadly is going on, and, as per usual, its up to the Doctor to investigate. What strange beast lurks below Thin Ice?
This week's episode felt like it had a lot of boxes to tick. Having visited the future last week in Smile, we are contractually obligated to visit the past this week, marking new companion Bill's first trip backwards in time. She has also has her first "Questioning of the Doctor's motives and morals" moment, which, while thematically mandated, always feels like false jeopardy. It's never going to be that much of a companion, is it? Because we're only three episodes in to the series. Its important to remember, at times like these, however, that not everyone is as familiar with the show as I am, particularly younger viewers.
Stripping away all the genre commentary, Thin Ice is a very enjoyable romp. As an early series episode it doesn't have too much to establish in the long term plot, beyond the aforementioned development of the Doctor-Companion relationship. To that end, the main story gets lots of breathing room. We have seen the Doctor tackle the big, mysterious, possibly benevolent, monster problem before (see The Beast Below), but there is enough variance here to make it feel unique. The street urchin characters are fun (and make for a shockingly good victim scene), and the episode's bad guy is well… the bad guy. He basically says it himself. It's actually quite refreshing to meet a villain who's not misunderstood or morally grey, and knows himself to be so. Nicholas Burns does a great turn in the role.
Notable also this week was the overt discussion of race. Writer Sarah Dollard tackles the subject here better than we probably ever saw in the Martha Jones stories. In the sense that the issue was never really tackled in the Martha Jones stories. A couple of flirty lines in The Shakespeare Code, and one well-placed (if cliched) scene in Human Nature, and that's all we got as commentary for the first ever black companion. Here we get the Doctor making overt comments about white-washed history, Bill genuinely worried about being treated like a slave, and Peter Capaldi punching a racist square in the jaw. This feels like the discussion Doctor Who should be having about race in these uncertain times we live in.
If you're looking for a mostly by the numbers, but highly palatable, episode of Doctor Who, Thin Ice is for you. It's a well-packaged story, featuring scrapes, hijinks, a thoughtful addressing of race, and a few good shock moments. A couple of conventionalisms mar it, but there's enough fun being had that it's hard to worry too much. Hints are being dropped again about "The Vault", and Nardole seems concerned about it, but the Doctor is clearly restless and itching to adventure. Next week, we see him doing just that in present day…
Tune-in to see new episodes: Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9/8c on BBC America.