For what it’s worth, when I write these pieces for the magazine, I know in advance what the page-flow will be. In this case, it meant I was aware this would be the last of my reviews in the issue, so I tried to give it the sense of also rounding off my reviews thus far. A sort of ’till next month…‘ feeling.
It’s a moment in between moments that sticks with me from Thin Ice, and it comes early into the story. Bill points out that she might appear obtrusive in 1814s London, thanks to one thing: Melanin. Although it’s peopled by despots and robots, the Doctor’s world can be morally naïve, essaying its unpleasantries only in allegory. With that in mind. it looks like he’s going to shake off the complicated portents of his companion’s comment. Then she continues: “Slavery is still totally a thing”, and that’s where we find it. The pause before he answers, with so much in the balance.
“Yes it is.”
With this admission, Doctor Who lets in the real world in a way it’s rarely done. Following directly on from an adventure where we saw humanity’s guileless subjugation of a species of Kenwood-type automatons, there’s no bright-future trappings here. No moral get-out clause. It’s a head-on acceptance that, actually, there are some things dispiritingly bleak and horrible about humanity. Allowing that through the door is huge.
The exchange is a credit to writer Sarah Dollard, who does well to then offer up a story full of fun and danger, which doesn’t diminish the sentiment with which it began. Let me signpost another moment-between-moments, in fact, that gets us there. It’s as the Doctor and Bill are scampering down the steps onto the frozen Thames; he looks back at her and flashes an easy smile, as if, this is what I’ve been telling you about!
No wonder, because this is favoured Doctor Who territory – a Regency setting, a mystery, a monster, apple-cheeked street kids – but given a fresh airing. All the familiar connectors are there towards the final unmasking of a marooned and malevolent alien menace (speculation of Sutcliffe requiring rocket fuel), but in the end, it turns out he’s just a local toff, in it for the money. His racism isn’t what defines him – other than as being definitively human – because the script isn’t pushing too hard on that pedal. Rather it informs his tawdry sense of privilege. That means when the Doctor socks him across the jaw, and when our hero then delivers his, “That’s what defines a species…” speech (Peter Capaldi doing so with a well-judged gentleness that doesn’t strive to take the floor) neither feel like the trite, simplistic victory against prejudice they possibly could have become.
This is a great story. So great, it can risk basing its central line around the harvesting of monster guano, with all the easy possibilities that affords a mean-spirited reviewer. It also ventures into other hazard areas, by exploring the theme from this Doctor’s debut year which had painted him as a little too remote and uncaring for… well, at least for my liking. We see young Spider consumed from below, only his hand remaining above the ice, still holding the sonic screwdriver. The Time Lord steps in and retrieves it with visible relief. “Save him,” says Bill. “I can’t, he’s gone,” he replies, opening up discussion yet again about how his response to death seems cold to we humans. While I didn’t buy the line about, “I’ve never had time for the luxury of outrage” (how pompous!) the exchanges regarding how many times he’s watched people die and, moreover, how many of those he caused himself, went right to the core of this incarnation. The one who reserves “smug” for himself actually looked a little embarrassed. At last there’s someone bright and bold enough to properly skewer him.
It’s a satisfying moment, all the more because the story doesn’t dawdle over it. Before you know it, the Doctor is back to being this year’s agreeably scary grandfather figure, reading from Der Struwwelpeter (stories of misbehaving children and their gruesome comeuppances) to the youngsters and producing stolen pies from a top hat.
There is perhaps one production shortcoming in Thin Ice, and it feels okay to mention that kind of thing nowadays when visual failures are a rarity in Doctor Who, and that’s the final images of the beast below, now free, leaving the Thames. Not that what we see looks bad, it’s just there isn’t enough of it. Glimpses of a wafting fin only direct your attention to the fact there’s no satisfying long shot of the creature for its final goodbye. Sometimes, you can’t help but long for the impunity of the Skarasen.
If the Doctor doesn’t have time enough for rage, I lack the space to fully communicate my enthusiasm for this adventure. A few paragraphs more, and I’d be quoting, almost verbatim, the master class of exposition that is the conversation with the overseer about what’s going on in Sutcliffe’s factory (“All the way to Hampton?… Hampton is code for the steel mill”). But there’s a velocity, anyway, to Doctor Who right now which keeps shuttling us forward. Knock! Knock! Knock! What’s next?