❉ 100% good old fashioned historical Doctor Who.
“I’ve never the time for the luxury of outrage.”
If last week’s episode was stylistically brilliant but a bit unbalanced on the story side, Sarah Dollard’s Thin Ice was a great example of how to weave together an atmospheric setting with a straightforward science fiction story that tapped into the mores of the era in which it was set.
Doctor Who has a long tradition of making capitalism the enemy, and in the all too human Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns, nicely underplayed) we had a classic of the kind – ruthlessly exploiting an aquatic alien life form in 1814 London that could produce Frost Fairs on the Thames, and happy to sacrifice human lives in the interests of “moving this Empire forward.” At the time, people like Sutcliffe at the top of Britain’s Industrial Revolution were reaping its benefits, even if it was hurting its lowest wage earners, confined to punishing working conditions and slum housing.
As the Doctor said, quite beautifully, “human progress isn’t measured by industry, it’s measured by the value you place on a life.” Sutcliffe had no such ethical qualms, so I had no problem with the Doctor lamping him one. Fisticuffs are a rare sight Doctor Who these days – long-term viewers will remember he was at it all the time in the liberal mid-to-late 1970s – so when they do occur these days it’s always memorable.
The Doctor and Bill partnership continues to impress. It’s a testament to Sarah Dollard’s skill as a writer that in a story that involved an elephant, a band of street urchins and Londoners disappearing under the ice, there was time to step back and look at how their relationship is developing. Bill’s reactions to people dying was impressive and emotionally raw – and, I’d argue, some of the most convincing in the history of the series – as was her being alternatively repelled and impressed by the Doctor’s contradictory ethical standards. It’s great to see the convincing detail and light and shade in Peter and Pearl’s performances, a continuing joy to watch in this series. Capaldi was particularly charming in the scene where he bantered with the street children.
New director Bill Anderson ably created a convincingly ice-bound Frost Fair and Regency London, but shone particularly in the gloomily atmospheric scenes under the ice when Bill and the Doctor investigated what was causing the disappearances. FX were more than up to par, but I did wonder how such a massive sea creature managed to avoid demolishing the bridges on the Thames.
All in all, Thin Ice was traditional, straight ahead but well-realised. Nardole’s cameo, with all the banter about tea with added coffee “to give it some flavour”, was nicely done, thickening the plot regarding the Doctor’s “oath” and what the pair are guarding at the university.
Did I mention how good the Doctor looked in his Regency outfit? Absolutely top notch.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One every Saturday at 7.20pm. Click here for episodes and extra content.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.