“Always remember Bill, passion fights – but reason wins.”
The third episode in the latest series of the BBC’s stalwart science fiction show feels like the best stuff from the original Nu-Who days, back when RTD was running things. It’s got brilliantly campy performances, sets and special effects that are inexplicably both 2017-BBC-level impressive and 2005-BBC-level cheap, and best of all; an excellent script. Despite a very strong opening for this season, Thin Ice is almost certainly the best episode of the season so far.
3 episodes in and I’m starting to think that Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts might just be one of the best companions the Doctor has ever had. The promos released before the series aired didn’t give me much hope, mainly because all they revealed was Bill was a confused human – like literally every other companion ever. But given a proper introduction she suddenly becomes one of the most interesting and enjoyable companions yet and one free of the usual companion tropes. She’s not in love with the Doctor, she’s not got a great big destiny entwined to the fate of the universe (not yet anyway), and it doesn’t feel like there’s anything more to her meeting the Doctor than just being in the right place at the right time. She’s like Rose in the early seasons in that she’s a normal person swept up into the world of the Doctor, no magic leaves or entwined destinies here. Sure she goes through the usual motions of not at first understanding the wacky world of the Doctor, but with Mackie’s energetic and earnest performance even that seems fresh. And at least some of it is down to this seasons improved writing and pacing. Through Bill we get a refresher on the ways of the Doctor and this week it was all about the Doctor’s morality. As much as I hated the idea that this season was a (very) soft reboot of the series I’ve got to say; it’s working pretty well so far.
‘Thin Ice’ has one of those awesome concepts that makes you wonder why Doctor Who hasn’t used it earlier. The Doctor and Bill travel back in time to London in the early 18 hundreds for the 1814 Frost Fair, a Thames set carnival that only takes place on the occasion that the Thames has frozen over. Episode writer Sarah Dollard (‘Face The Raven’) uses the concept and time period to full effect with the Doctor and Bill getting mixed up with Oliver Twist-esque street urchins, evil rich people, and a giant sea monster living under the ice. The monster itself is a little on the Primeval side of CGI beasties but it’s a cool visual nonetheless, and it allows for a debate on the morality of The Doctor. The old-timey diving suits are a neat visual too and the almost-silent scene of Bill and The Doctor underwater with the monster was impressive. I also really appreciated that the kid who was eaten by the monster was never brought back. It was important for the plot but most of all it allowed the show to explore how the Doctor can be quite cold sometimes, much to the horror of Bill. The idea that the villainous Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) was using the sea monsters crap as a fuel was an original and darkly hilarious touch too (Bill’s “no shi-” cut away gag was wonderful) and felt again like the earlier, more playful days of Who.
Peter Capaldi is once again magnificent as the Doctor. I think he’s been around on the show long enough for me to say he’s without a doubt the best Doctor ever. I’ll admit to being only a casual watcher of old-Who (don’t shoot me) but as huge fan of Nu-who I can say with certainty that Capaldi is the best of a very good bunch. He demonstrates all sides of the Doctor, good and bad, playful and serious. Maybe it’s his age (or him being Scottish perhaps) but when the Doctor’s dark side rears it’s head I can believe it, something that was less convincing with previous incarnation Matt Smith. In ‘Thin Ice’ it’s this darkness that Bill is shocked by. A child is killed in front of them and The Doctor doesn’t even bat an eyelid. This conversation between the two of them is wonderfully written and it really gets to the heart(s) of The Doctor (“I’m two thousand years old. And I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”). Pearl Mackie’s performance as Bill is also excellent and the back and forth between the two of them is great. Bill’s naive assumption that the Doctor rarely faces death could be irritating in the wrong hands but Mackie handles it perfectly, balancing the aforementioned naivety with a brilliantly believable performance. Whether Bill will be able to continue with the Doctor after she realises just how many people seem to die around him remains to be seen but I really hope Mackie stays on.
‘Thin Ice’ is a throwback episode of Doctor Who, like the ones that existed before the series long plots and complicated story lines. And although I love these things about Doctor Who it’s good to get back to basics with an episode like ‘Thin Ice’. It’s funny, the central mystery is strong (and original) and the cast are all excellent. It’s not one of the bigger episodes, I’m sure in an end of series overview it’ll look almost inconsequential. But it’s a great episode, and with the abundance of so called ‘prestige TV’ about these days it’s refreshing to see a show that can simply give you 45 minutes of gloriously fun TV.
Next week’s episode, the David Suchet staring ‘Knock Knock’, is a promising looking haunted house episode. Could it be this season’s ‘Blink’? See you next week to find out!