It’s been a Doctor Who-intensive week, with one thing and another; and one cannot live by Doctor Who alone. So this review is posted somewhat later than I would have ideally liked.
Thin Ice has been widely praised and deservedly so. I enjoyed the episode’s treatment of Regency London, more black than it was in the movies and yes, perhaps more black than it would have appeared to many of those in London on 4 February 1814. This story, though, was set by the Thames, where London was at its most diverse and a large proportion of Britain’s trade came, often to be re-exported. The Frost Fair allowed the sons and daughters of Empire, the children of unions of no or doubtful legality or those made across social class and colour in the colonies and trading posts, to emerge from their protracted schooling or clerkships, their domestic service or their soldiering, or even, now and again, their unexpected but substantial wealth, and mingle with those from around the world who were just off ship, and perhaps not feel so odd and tolerated by an ambivalent society. It’s entirely likely that Bill would recognize this feeling and share it, and we see the crowd through her eyes. The companion has been explicitly identified before as the series narrator – Doomsday was the last story Rose would ever tell, and BBC America viewers in 2010 saw an introductory narration from Amy at the start of each episode which framed Doctor Who as her story – the young woman whose childhood imaginary friend turns up the night before her wedding and takes her away from everything.
Bill is a step away from the Amy model, back towards Rose – the ‘mystery’ she holds for the Doctor isn’t that she embodies a fantastical problem to be solved, but that her reactions are human and early-twentysomething and the Doctor is non-human and two thousand years old (at least). Thin Ice as we see it is Bill’s adventure – her experience, her casting, and it is right that we should see the story that way. However, there’s more to this ‘diverse’ London than boosting Bill. The London of 1814 was a few decades beyond Ignatius Sancho keeping his shop in Westminster, and of Olaudah Equiano campaigning for the rights of enslaved Africans; Dido Belle had been dead ten years, but Joseph Emidy was alive and was a celebrated musician, and Britain was eighteen years away from the election of its first known non-white MP, John Stewart. Bill’s reality needs to be our reality because it’s the memory Britain had to be prodded to remember after more than a century of it being painted out.
Pearl Mackie has a marvellous expressive face, and feet which can show off the most daintily laced boots. These are the slightest representations of her range. Her disgust at the Doctor’s apparent lack of concern for Smiler’s fate makes us feel the conflicts – how can we put our trust in the Doctor when he seems to show such little concern for human life? We are also unable to judge the Doctor ourselves because Bill is our narrator; for me, the Doctor’s calculations as he moved across the ice were based around saving the boy and the screwdriver, but circumstances meant that the screwdriver had to be saved if nothing else was. Bill as yet knows little about it nor understand what it means to the Doctor. The viewer is caught between choices made by the director, camera operator, editor, performers and writer among others and they have to make their decisions about their own impressions of a scene as it plays out before them. I thought that there was a lot of room for a more compassionate reading of Peter Capaldi’s performance than many found, but the emphasis in editing was on Bill’s interpretation of events.
Capaldi’s Doctor, though, remains much more approachable than in previous series, but without losing his edge. In reading from Struwwelpeter to the children, he’s refusing to conform to twenty-first century ideas of responsible guardianship while at the same time showing his appreciation of children’s attraction to the gruesome. He’s reading Hoffman thirty years before publication, which suits the Doctor’s philosophy of not worrying too much about the consequences of intervention in the human past. The scene nevertheless might point towards the Doctor’s irresponsibility at breaking his oath by travelling in space and time away from twenty-first century Earth. He thrives on crisis, and wants to promote it.
The realisation of the frozen Thames was striking, with enough shadow of Canaletto’s riverside views from sixty or seventy years before in them to convince me, while depicting an altogether more rumbustious river scene than he did. The design of the handbills and posters was believable too, resembling real survivors or images seen on early photographs from twenty or thirty years later, though a street nameplate seen looked distressingly modern and digital. Costuming was astute with the Doctor and Bill firmly in the middle or upper middle of a society otherwise seen at its extremes.
For an episode about a trapped marine creature and a frozen river, it’s not perhaps surprising that the episode felt it needed more buoyancy. I’d have enquired about the colour grading too. We need more warmth against the cold on a Saturday night. It’s a pity we couldn’t have seen more of the river serpent or of Lord Sutcliffe, the monsters below and above the water. Sutcliffe was credibly petty, his vision hobbled by greed, but we saw less of him than we might have done. His villainy was based in the cruelty of his time, but there was room for the viewer to have seen more of his schemes and how they might have played out in practice. I’m sure the residents of Fairford – a Gloucestershire village associated with one of the major political families of the period, the Hills, marquesses of Downshire, and latterly with a forthcoming open-minded literary festival – are happy that Sutcliffe is not wanted in the Fairford Club.
Thin Ice, though, was a very good Doctor Who story indeed, not only for its muscular liberalism as the Doctor referenced Captain America number one’s cover in a scene recorded several months before someone punched American ultra right-wing leader Richard Spencer, but also for its sense of design and its vivid sketching of a historical place and time through costume, setting and modelwork as well as through dialogue and performance. The Doctor doesn’t overthrow the established order in this story, but in endowing the children, though Perry, with the Sutcliffe inheritance, he does shift it a little towards the society we hope we know or would like to see, an optimistic note in troubled times.