We’re running through the standard Doctor Who companion introductory course with Bill Potts. We’ve had an adventure on Earth, and we’ve been to the future, now it’s time to go into the past. Is there something under the frozen Thames of the early 1800s eating people? Meet me after the time travel jump as The Doctor and Bill investigate “Thin Ice.”
“Thin Ice” is by one of the few female Doctor Who writers, Sarah Dollard, who had previously tried to kill off Clara Oswald in “Face the Raven.” Despite her good intentions there, that and this are not among my favorite episodes. In fact, there are parts of Bill’s dialogue here that could have easily come from Clara’s mouth. I had to wonder if quite possibly “Thin Ice” was a recycled Clara script. It wouldn’t be the first time stories have been modified for different Doctors or companions.
Bill is still learning, she’s asking questions and learning more and more each episode about The Doctor and the TARDIS. The Doctor is loving it, he’s showing off. We’ve seen this before with other companions in the new series. It’s not just a comparison to Clara. Bill could just as easily be Martha, Donna, or Rose, or any number of others. Whether it’s a goofy grin, or wild eyebrows, it’s difficult for any Doctor to hide this glee.
As soon at the close of the last episode we saw The Doctor and Bill arrive in early 1800s London, directly from a far future Earth colony, to be confronted by elephants in the snow. It’s a party, a circus, a celebration – called the Frost Fair and held on the frozen Thames River. There are attractions like performers in a renaissance faire or circus, and also like such situations, con men and pickpockets.
Chasing down a kid who swiped his sonic screwdriver, the two discover something under the ice, reminding me of the Kate Bush song “Under Ice.” There are lights down there, and eventually they discover what at first I thought were Macra, but was in fact a huge miles long beastie The Doctor calls ‘Tiny.’ An unscrupulous businessman is using the beast for his own nefarious ends.
When the screwdriver thief is devoured by Tiny, and The Doctor allows it, it affects Bill badly. Sometimes we forget, being in The Doctor’s world of Daleks and Weeping Angels just how much death there really is, and a normal person might not be able to deal with it. Bill gets quite emotional, and quite honestly, I don’t blame her. The Doctor may as well have murdered the child himself by not stopping the death from happening.
On the bad side, again, this sequence is not necessarily Bill-centric, and could have easily been Clara, or Martha, or Donna, or Rose reacting in this way early in their companionship. Bill’s insistence on The Doctor doing something, and harping on how many people has he seen die, or murdered himself, does push The Doctor in a better direction. Bill does what a good companion does – she makes him better. And we know unfortunately what happens when The Doctor is alone too long.
While the companion may have been interchangeable this time out, we do get a rather quotable, and entertaining, Doctor. When confronted on the rules of time travel and the butterfly effect, he tells Bill to just stop worrying about it. The Doctor further posits that wrestling just isn’t wrestling unless it’s in zero gravity and with tentacles, among other things. There are other goodies, like that Jesus was black, or blacker than history would have us believe, and that Bill shouldn’t be smug, “smug belongs to me.”
Later, in a more serious vein, The Doctor proposes that life is what defines a species, and that passion fights but reason wins. This goes back to the concept of this Doctor as a teacher, a professor, and gaining a companion after so long alone provides him with the opportunity to teach. It reminds me of The First Doctor, as played by William Hartnell, with his granddaughter – whose photo we saw in this season’s first episode and is rumored to return to the series shortly, as is the First Doctor as well, as played by David Bradley.
Bill prods The Doctor to save the kids of the Fair. They learn someone, the decidedly human, and racist, villain is paying the kids to get folks on the ice and to the Fair. They go down under the water in old fashioned diving suits and visit Tiny, and learn this beast is in fact imprisoned beneath the Thames for over four hundred years. Here something is done that Doctor Who does occasionally, fills a hole in history.
Until 1814 there were Frost Fairs, with elephants even, on the frozen surface of the Thames, but never again after that. Freeing Tiny ended the Fairs as the Thames never froze over again. Writer Pollard demonstrates a good understanding of time travel in the Whoniverse with this tale, and her (The Doctor’s) explanation of why there are no records of these events.
Still, I have to say this was a mediocre episode. The two do arrive back in the present just as they left, as The Doctor said he would last episode. Nardole is sufficiently nagging about the stunt. He also witnesses something in the vault knocking to get out. The knocking makes me think of drums, the sound of drums. Could it be The Master, or Mistress, in there?
Next: “Knock Knock!”