Monday, 1 May 2017

Perhaps to be remembered as the one where the Doctor gets in on this year’s in-thing of punching Nazis in the face. But we’ll get back to that.

After killing off Clara Oswald in 2015’s Face the Raven, writer Sarah Dollard returns for a second crack at Doctor Who. With no such major twist to dominate the discussion this time, Dollard gets the chance to write a more typical episode, one that’s very much an ‘episode three’ in the model Russell T Davies established for the series – the companion’s first trip into the past, with a mystery and a monster but nothing too extravagant plot-wise. 

By all objective standards, it’s a very good episode three – nice choice of setting, witty dialogue, a pacey but never rushed plot. The Doctor gets to use his detective skills while the companion’s empathy and humanity plays a major part in both conflict and resolution. Just what you need at this point, and all very ably structured. But on top of that, Thin Ice manages in several ways to be more than just a historical run-around.

There’s the development of Bill’s relationship with the Doctor. Going by that RTD formula, the new TARDIS team should be comfortable with each other by the opening of episode four, so this is the time for cracks to show and, for now at least, be repaired. Bill’s anger at the Doctor over his inability to remember how many he’s seen die and how many he’s killed shows off some subtle but very solid character development, a change to Moffat’s more heavy-handed style. And the conflict’s settled by the end of the episode, at which point Bill has made a clear decision to keep travelling with the Doctor and the Doctor’s made a clear decision to let Bill stick around. End of act one. Bill and the Doctor are a team, now we’re rolling.

Then there’s the very impressive world-building on show. Both episodes so far this series have felt very insular, with the plot having little visible effect on characters other than the Doctor and Bill; this is a common feature of Moffat episodes but felt particularly bad in Smile, where no other characters showed up for the first half hour. Thin Ice, refreshingly, depicts a bustling world with a real sense of community; within minutes, we have a sense of the lives of the dodgy dealers, loveable urchins and comedy drunks who inhabit it. The effect of setting up this very well realised slice of history is that we care when it’s threatened; Dollard displayed a similar skill with the Trap Street community in Face the Raven.

Dollard also very coherently handles her theme of oppression, of those who believe themselves superior to others, and of fighting back against them. Specifically with Bill, we have the worry of being a black woman travelling into Britain’s imperial past; these concerns were brushed over with Martha in The Shakespeare Code, but Thin Ice brings them front and centre, directly correlating Bill’s struggle with the sci-fi plot about the chained up serpent, with the same hapless aristocratic bigot antagonising them both. As you’d expect and want from a writer as outspokenly political as Dollard, these racial politics are key to the episode. Addressing issues like this is what Doctor Who at its best should be doing; any episode where you can immediately imagine the Daily Mail comments gets an easy thumbs-up from me.

Which brings us back to that punch, something that it’s impossible to imagine David Tennant or Matt Smith’s Doctors doing, but which feels oddly appropriate for Capaldi’s. Though he still has much more than violence in his arsenal, as he follows up with one of modern Doctor Who’s most eloquent speeches, I get the feeling the combination of punch and speech is going to be Capaldi’s stand-out moment of the series. The equivalent in series nine was his virulently anti-war speech. You could argue that going from that moment of anti-violence to this of violence jeopardises the pacifism of Doctor Who, but don't both actions work towards the same goal? What we have in the Twelfth Doctor is a character who’ll try his hardest to prevent meaningless conflict, who’ll argue vehemently for the importance of understanding and tolerance, but who can realise when some people just can’t be redeemed, and when intolerance can’t be tolerated.

More than anything, it’s worth celebrating that Doctor Who is willing to start these discussions, to show its characters addressing real-life prejudices, and to include that Jesus line, all while providing an undeniably fun adventure. Thin Ice is an expertly crafted episode three, and a powerfully challenging Doctor Who episode.

  1. Thin Ice
  2. The Pilot
  3. Smile


Post a Comment