Given that the only example of such a thing between January of 1967 and the end of the series’ original run 22 years later was Black Orchid, an inconsequential Peter Davison two-parter with a reputation that might best be described as mixed, it could be considered surprising that one of the things Doctor Who fans have been clamouring for since the programme’s return in 2005 has been the return of the “pure historical”, a period-set story in which the only science fictional elements are the Doctor and his accoutrements. Unfortunately, Russell T. Davies was told in no uncertain terms in the wake of the Christopher Eccleston series that his trips back into history should be “sexed up” with strong monsters, lest the audience at home might forget they were watching Doctor Who. And so every journey to the past the Doctor has made over the last twelve years has involved some form of alien intervention, a mode of storytelling the fandom has dubbed the “pseudo-historical”.
Under Steven Moffat’s tutelage, second-time writer – her first Doctor Who was 2015’s Face the Raven, the strong but not unproblematic first round of the three-part Series Nine finale – Sarah Dollard has beaten the odds and found a way to combine strong, “sexy” monsters and the “pure” historical format, granting fans’ wishes as nearly as the modern series is ever likely to. She’s also produced a deceptively simple story shot through with the kind of idiosyncratic moral codes that set Doctor Who apart from its usually more gung-ho sci-fi brethren. Despite strong competition, particularly from The Pilot, Thin Ice is the best of Series Ten so far.
Set during the final hours of the last London Frost Fair in February 1814, the Doctor and Bill’s first foray into the past sees them visiting a frozen river Thames, an obvious but nevertheless very effective metaphor for the persecution that can hide beneath the cold exterior of Regency society. One-time Nathan Barley Nicholas Burns’ Lord Sutcliffe is as heartless as they come, and the crux of the episode is the continuation of his dynastic tradition, the subjugation of a magnificent wild beast that resides in the river, and that has been chained and grown for one purpose alone: to provide fuel for the Sutcliffes’ family business.
As a story, there were shades of The Beast Below and The Empty Child among other things, albeit mostly superficially, but whereas Smile borrowed from the past without really enhancing upon it, Thin Ice merely took a familiar enough situation that could be presented without the need for too much explanation, and used it as a point of departure to tell the story that really drove its engines; the moral complexity of a life of getting involved. In some respects the episode it most resembled then, was Time Heist, although while Stephen Thompson’s story simply reinforced the idea of Doctor Who by showing it from an unfamiliar perspective, Dollard made the lack of alien intervention the position from which she could examine and comment upon the Doctor’s apparent detachment from the people he gets called upon to save.
A number of ostensibly distinct themes were interwoven throughout the episode; Bill’s allusion to the butterfly effect calling into question whether the time travellers’ arrival could change things, before the Doctor’s intervention – after a slightly uncomfortable call-back to Kill the Moon demonstrated this twelfth Doctor’s insistence upon his human companions’ authority in making decisions that might affect the moral well-being of their species – foregrounded the series’ core concept, that it’s only through trying that we can make a difference. Bill’s ethnicity was also underlined as Dollard linked the elements of the narrative together, the creature’s slavery and the urchins’ predicament lightly contrasted by asking what accident of birth makes some of us “superior” enough that the freedoms of our inferiors are of less value. While it’s never really desirable to see the Doctor using physical violence to solve a situation, the instance of him using fisticuffs on Sutcliffe – ameliorated by being written as the pay-off to a joke – was instead the release of a building sense of injustice, entirely deserved by the recipient and a valuable moment in ensuring the episode didn’t start taking itself too seriously.
Not that there was too much risk of that. Through bright, entertaining dialogue and consistent, engaging character interplay, the serious undertones of Thin Ice were never allowed to tip its balance towards lecturing. Instead, Bill’s journey of learning who and what the Doctor is all about – and by extension our own re-examination of what makes good Doctor Who – was at centre stage, and more so perhaps than last week, we really got to learn about the Doctor while concurrently the Doctor got to learn about himself. This was a rare example of genuine character development for the eponymous Time Lord, that didn’t involve the kind of pyrotechnics that come with a series finale. Of course we know that he’s the “good man” this latest incarnation began by doubting, but even after fifty years of living among humans and learning our ways, this much more approachable newest model still had a thing or two to understand about detachment and compassion. The latter half of Thin Ice included a number of very lightly played but nonetheless quite moving character interactions between the Doctor and Bill, that much more subtly than we’ve been used to since the series’ revival, gave us a companion partnership that felt genuine and earned without telling us what we were supposed to be seeing. It’s like watching the seventh Doctor and Ace, reprised with feature-worthy talent both in front of and behind the cameras.
It goes without saying that both Capaldi and Mackie were pitch-perfect, an outstanding association with chemistry to burn. They’re electric in one another’s company, two magnetic presences in perfect accord. With just this single series together to shine, we need to cherish every single moment.
Which made it all the more surprising when Matt Lucas turned up moments from the end; he was sorely missed last week but Thin Ice was so good it made you forget to expect him. By the time he becomes more of a regular later in the run, Mackie will be established enough that the three should make for a formidable team. As for what’s in the vault, is there any doubt? The four knocks that once echoed the rhythm of the Doctor Who theme arrangement might have become three, but surely that’s just a subtle way of counting down to the reveal of a certain someone at the end of the series…? Or maybe it’s just Peter, demanding to know why everybody except Nardole seems to have forgotten about him.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 3: “THIN ICE” / DIRECTOR: BILL ANDERSON / WRITER: SARAH DOLLARD / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, NICHOLAS BURNS, ASIATU KOROMA / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 29TH APRIL)