Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. It may be freezing, we might be attacked by savage snakes or elegant Nazis, or we may just be lazy and stuff, but we shall always be there to discuss episodes and be a bunch of leftist pompous arses.
This week, Scarves, Scribbles & Tibère are joined by Ryan Smith, Who aficionado and friend of us, whose blog you can find that way (https://dreamsofcybersheep.wordpress.com/ ). Also, he dabbles a bit in fanfiction, the saucy minx – have a look that way at the occasion: http://sjaneverending.weebly.com/ .
1) General Thoughts
SCARVES: That was just a fabulous episode, really well put together, with enough of a deeper edge to elevate it to “minor classic” status for me – not a “Heaven Sent” or a “Midnight“, but one that gets better with every rewatch, and really excels at being Doctor Who firing on all cylinders. It’s clear that Sarah Dollard has a really strong grasp on what makes this show tick, and is probably enjoying writing an episode without the arc baggage of “Face the Raven” – “Thin Ice” is excelling in doing the things that “Face the Raven” did brilliantly in its first half hour – taking a small scale location and building it out quickly and efficiently, and really revelling in the “Doctor and companion investigate a mystery” dynamic with all the fun set pieces that allows. Best of the season so far.
SCRIBBLES: It’s what was needed right now, really, as an episode. Nothing about the plotting of “Thin Ice” is mindblowing or even remotely demanding, but it’s not trying to be. After the rough and odd plotting of “Smile” and “The Pilot“, which suited those stories but still gave a bit of a rough edge, it’s good to see a well-oiled machine of an episode centering on Bill and giving her some profound moments. Dollard really gets the mechanics of the show and how to use the basic pleasures of it to explore character beats and themes that haven’t really been tackled before. The best episode so far of a strong run.
TIBERE: I was initially a bit cold (ah, ah, ah) towards it, I think. My impression was it it was a bit “Flatline” – redux. Which is to say an episode that could be just a bog standard runaround, and kind of feels like it in places, but which is elevated by the unique, compelling energy of a Who storyteller at the peak of their power. Basically, that it was more of a showcase for Dollard, Mackie and Capaldi than an actual story. And … That’s still not entirely untrue, I guess, and I don’t think it quite reaches the “masterpiece” point, but I made a bit of a 180 on it – I think it’s the strongest episode so far. There’s just something uniquely compelling to it, that completely transcends any formal criticisms I might have. Some scenes might seem a little pointless in the grand scheme of things, and the script might get a teensy bit awkward in places (that double insistence on Twelve’s speech, both on the behalf on Sutcliffe and of Bill, flows oddly), but the episode just works. The character setpieces are virtually flawless, and it’s all you can ask.
RYAN: It’s great to see Bill’s first trip to the past, and to see her continuing to get to know the Doctor and how he operates. The moment where she calls him out, and tries to gain some insight into what he’s about and how things affect him. She’s understandably angry at him in that moment, after he seems to not care about the death of Spider, and then can’t tell her how many people he’s seen die, or has killed himself. It shows how dark his life can be, that he has to “move on” from events in his life, simply in order to continue saving people and preventing injustice. We then see Bill say she’s moved on from being angry at him, having seen how he decides to help the children, and prevent further deaths.
TIBERE: I think what is most appreciable about this episode, really, is the way it builds off the previous one. You really feel that this series is a full-on storytelling unit, in and on itself – and that feeling is what defines the best bits of Who, in my opinion. Like, there’s a coherency to those first three episodes that’s just absolutely admirable. Just take the most evident beat: we get to episodes in a row where the plot entirely revolves around turning people into fuel/compost.
SCARVES: Yeah, comparing Bill’s shock at Spider’s death to her relatively underplayed reaction to discovering the bones in the garden in “Smile”, with the Doctor emphasizing the fact that the two episodes are only hours apart in show time gives the stories a nice character based throughline, I think, and retains a sense of emotional realism they seem to be going for with Bill, that the show didn’t really even go for in the RTD era (not to this degree) – usually the show would rely on the week long break between episodes to paper over the apparent gap in emotional logic, so that it can get on with telling the story of the week – that’s standard genre television practice, whereas this episode directly considers why a person might have such differing reactions to two similar events that, in universe, are only hours apart.
SCRIBBLES: I suppose really that’s what we get of Moffat having the extra time to fine-tune all the scripts and get them to really connect and reflect each other. A year of Doctor Who that flows particularly well through the series.
TIBERE: I remember seeing one of the BBC officials talking about how a gap year is sometimes absolutely indispensable to the planning of shows like this on Twitter. I kind of agree, honestly. The level of polish we are dealing with here is pretty impressive. Who is such a chaotic, sprawling show, that to force some order out of it must require huge, huge amounts of careful planning. Of course, brilliant improvisation is kind of the show’s aesthetic, in a way, but when they manage to hit that sweet, sweet balance between order and chaos … It’s delightful. And honestly, I haven’t been that entertained by Who in quite a long time. Well. 2014. That’s not that long, I guess. Ah, 2014. Obama was still president, we hadn’t had to deal with Zayn’s solo singing career … Good times.
SCRIBBLES: Absolutely. I know the fandom often complains about waiting for the show, but then on the flip side, the faster a Moffat series has come out, the more unpopular its reception. He was at his busiest and most rushed around series 6 and 7, and they’re as a result very controversial within the fandom. I love series 6 dearly, it’s my personal favorite, but it’s hard to argue that the extra time to cohere isn’t a strength.
TIBERE: Really, series 6 (and considerable swaths of 7) are good to absolutely great, but they’re not always good at communicating their greatness to the viewer. It sounds like I’m being all “ah ah, you plebes can’t understand high art”, but no – it’s a flaw of the show! A genuine flaw. You can’t expect anyone to stick around and dig really deep into analytical readings and stuff. Those stories are well worth a redemptive reading, but still.
SCRIBBLES: See also: “Ghost Light“. To be fair, I do think series 6 delighted a lot of casual viewers. It’s the nitpickier fans who tend to have the most outrage, which honestly tends to be the case. The average viewer generally will enjoy more than the fan. But series 10 is doing a magnificent job pleasing both so far.
TIBERE: I did really enjoy them on first watch when I caught up with the show, and it sort of went down afterwards. But still – I think the Capaldi era in general has done a really good job of presenting its ideas, and series 10 especially looks like its crowning achievement.
RYAN: It’s great that these three opening episodes maintain a throughline, the events occurring sequentially, as it allows us to see Bill’s reactions to things firsthand. Like, there’s no gaps to fill in, we see her experience everything for the first time, and see how the events of the previous episodes affect her as a character.
TIBERE: I kind of like the fact that “Thin Ice” and “Smile” happen on the same (long, long, as far as Bill is concerned) day. Reminds me a lot of the articulation between “Time of the Doctor” and “Deep Breath” – Who is great at blurring the way we perceive events.
SCARVES: In a way, you can argue that they form a loose three parter, which is always fun – I like how series ten is continuing series nine’s return to the debates about how we define a Doctor Who story.
TIBERE: I honestly think series 9’s greatest achievement was to democratize the “connected stories” as a form of Who storytelling. Girl/Woman and the finale were tremendous successes, and to see that series 10 apparently draws a lot from this is just really pleasant to hear.
2) The Doctor & Bill, or why Sarah Dollard is a characterization genius
SCRIBBLES: I know I saw complaints about “Smile” at how little Bill controlled events, but it’s so crucial as a rehearsal to Bill’s choices here in retrospect. “Smile” has her thrown into a moral dilemma the Doctor gleefully and easily asserts himself onto, with her watching carefully and asking all the right questions. And that means that “Thin Ice” putting her on the spot feels earned. It’s a great sort of reuse of the “Kill the Moon” beat, and arguably stronger than “Kill the Moon” because it doesn’t have to harp on it, it can just have Bill’s agency come to the forefront in a positive way. So much of “Thin Ice” is set-up for future character arcs this year (if episode 8 doesn’t call back to any of these beats I’ll be shocked), but it’s also payoff for what these first few episodes have done. It’ll make for a really rewarding watch in the context of the full series.
TIBERE: I think I’m sort of going back to something I said in “The Pilot” talk, which is that series 8, and Clara, sort of had to break those boundaries for the first time, expanding, sometimes kind of painstakingly, the role and definition of a companion. Now, you get to see how those events changed the Doctor, and, well, just how much better he is at connecting with Bill, respecting her and helping her understand his philosophy.
SCARVES: I think it’s a nice development for the Doctor actually – the Doctor gives Bill the same choice he gave Clara in “Kill the Moon”, but he approaches giving Bill the responsibility with a lot more tact, not patronising Bill as he did with the “taking the stabilisers off her bike” comments to Clara, and making it clear that he is here to support her, where he walked off and left Clara not knowing if he’d come back in “Kill the Moon”. It shows he’s internalised what Clara’s critique of his actions in that episode.
RYAN: I find it interesting that the Doctor asked Bill for an order, something he was very much against initially, which I see as a bit of an impact from Clara’s tenure. Like, even though he can’t remember her, he still learnt so much from her.
TIBERE: It’s an inversion of the “do as you are told!” motive that pops up throughout series 8, most notably in “Listen” (which is still the best Who story of all time, okay, bye). Like, this line was uttered both by the Doctor and Clara a lot during this series, and it was sort of them taking turns at occupying this position of Doctor, of leading man/woman that gets to move the plot forwards. But, and that’s kind of the point series 9 makes – at the end of the day, there’s really no reason why full equality between the two, a relation as respectful partners, can’t be established.
RYAN: I feel that Dollard has a really strong grasp on the Doctor as a character. She really seems to get Bill as a character too, and writes her really naturalistically.
SCRIBBLES: I feel like Dollard has a really strong grasp on the show itself, really. She writes a pitch perfect Twelve, knowing how to toe his line between privilege and activism really nicely (THAT SPEECH), she knows how to go about doing companion first and last beats in new and exciting ways, she can map real world issues to fascinating alien plots (the refugee camp in Face the Raven was seriously inspired), and she can make it all an emotionally compelling and narratively smooth package. Twelve really does benefit from how she writes him. He’s utterly charming here, even when he makes Bill’s hair cringe.
SCARVES: Yes, I loved the emphasis on the Doctor’s affinity for con artists, and his love of a bit of thievery in this episode. It was particularly satisfying after “Smile” (which also emphasized this when he admitted to stealing the TARDIS at the start of the episode) finished with what did seem like an odd attempt to portray the Doctor as an “intergalactic policeman” (and although the Doctor did resist being labelled as such by Bill, there is something off about his black lesbian companion going to a policeman as her first choice for a righter of society’s wrongs). Finishing the episode (or the episode proper, excluding the arc teasing) with the implication that he was using the coin trick to cheat Nardole into letting him go on more adventures with Bill was particularly fun, and a satisfying payoff to that thread in the episode. A great way of portraying the Doctor’s irresponsible streak.
TIBERE: Echoes very well “Smile”, too, with Twelve’s line about the best move at chess being to kick over the board (which kind of invalidates the point about being him a policeman, I think – I’d argue that episode wants to show him as both a agent of order that sets wrongs right, and a force of anti-system anarchy). It’s an almost revolutionary ethos, in a way – and really, I think that’s a big part of what Who is about. This sort of chaotic force that finds its way into genre setting and corrupted systems and tear them down in glorious anarchy. He makes physics and the rule of society into poetry. Love that. Really, Dollard makes Twelve into a Dickensian magician. What’s not to love about this? The way she paints him as this sort of weird wanderer that fits inside any space, both the house of the nobility and the slums of the dispossessed, bringing both kindness and philosophical wisdom … It’s just lovely. Interestingly, the episode draws a lot of attention to the sonic, much more than any other episode in recent memory. Magic wand indeed. But it’s not really that far away from Dickens, when you get down to it (by the way, some serious “Unquiet Dead” flashbacks, here, which is glorious, because I love that episode) – he often mingled some gothic horror and near-supernatural in his social plots, like, I don’t know, the way Miss Havisham or the encounter with the convict are described in Great Expectations. And the figure of a mysterious benefactor that comes out of nowhere to bestow boons and riches on the head of poor orphans … Well, doesn’t get much more explicit than that, really. Which is lovely, really – Dollard uses writing that embodied the 18th century’s idea of social justice to talk about the 21st century version. #SJWho, I tell you.
RYAN: I also like that we see Nardole veer slightly away from the comic-relief role he has taken on so far. The scene in the vault shows he takes things seriously, and actually starts to show, more than his previous appearances, exactly why he was brought back for Series 10.
SCARVES: That was probably the most “serious” acting we’ve seen Matt Lucas do in the role so far – he’s probably had at least one sincere, not simply comic scene in every episode of Mysterio, but his little bit with the vault at the end gave him the greatest sense of interiority he’s had so far, I think
TIBERE: There’s something really interesting about him, that hasn’t come into focus yet (Mathieson’s episode look like the first one where he gets some serious stuff to do). I really like the fact that Twelve gets a foil of sorts, here. Nardole both embodies the Doctor’s world, in all its over-the-top silliness, but at the same time, he’s a figure of order – literally a mechanical man. It’s quite a lovely, understated dynamic.
SCRIBBLES: I find it funny that he’s the sort of “mystery” companion now. People always totally misrepresent Moffat’s relationship with “mystery” characters– the “impossible girl” arc, of course, was all about how she in no way is a mystery– but this approach really does work as a strong hook, and using the side character who we know little about to hook interest while the bulk of focus is on Bill is a great choice.
TIBERE: Plus, I almost find it politically loaded. Like, you get the alien time-traveller and the black lesbian that want to go out in the world, righting wrong, and making a difference, and they’re opposed to by a chubby white dude that’s perfectly happy with staying on his arse, drinking tea guarding a vault and doing nothing else. Not that I have anything against chubby white tea-drinking lazy fucks, mind you. I’m one.
SCARVES: Adam Riggio made a funny comment in his review of “The Pilot” that pointd out that Nardole does look a lot like a stereotypical 4chan commenter. Though I’m not inclined to be mean to Matt Lucas or Nardole, there – he doesn’t seem like that sort of person at all.
TIBERE: Well … To be honest, his dress sense is far better. Like, duffel coats are a bit silly, but it beats a MAGA hat anyday. But yes, kudos to Matt Lucas. He’s utterly lovely.
SCRIBBLES: He is gay, of course, though. Matt Lucas, I mean. And I think that’s worth stressing. We’ve got three very unconventional leads going here.
TIBERE: I mean, if you read Twelve as asexual – which I do – it’s kind of a full three-hits noncishet combo with added POC. Which sounds like a really weird technical term …
SCARVES: Yep, an older male, a black lesbian, and a chubby middle aged robot in his forties played by an openly gay actor makes for a delightfully unconventional set of leads for a mainstream family show.
TIBERE: Let’s segue into the “have you ever killed someone” scene, maybe?
SCARVES: Absolutely. That was one of the two big high points of the story, I think (I’m sure we’ll get to the other in a minute). There are tons of delightful little moments, and there’s barely a single scene wasted, but that’s one of the moments that elevates the episode to one of the more memorable ones, I think. I always love the scenes that have two characters with different, but understandable, moralities challenging each other’s worldview, and that sort of material has been a tentpole of the Capaldi era’s success so far. And it’s probably the most serious application of Moffat’s stated aim of having Bill ask questions about the Doctor that previous companions usually don’t ask. And I think we can count this: all companions are confronted with the greyer sides of the Doctor’s morality, but most don’t confront him with the fact that he has an uncomfortable relationship with death, either through the lost lives he moves on from, or the lives he has to take.
TIBERE: It’s a genuinely unique scene, in many respects. I don’t think you ever see any companions having that much of a reaction to death. Rose and Donna sort of accept it as part of the Doctor’s world, Martha sees it as a part of her job, Amy in function of her traumas, and Clara as a part of the narrative, in a meta way (she sees the world in a meta way, I think it’s fair to say). It’s an incredibly compelling, and unique, line of questioning.
SCRIBBLES: I think it’s a great case of Dollard as one of the first true post-Moffat writers we’re seeing. She’s taken concepts he’s explored and twisting them on their head in fascinating new ways. Like with “Face the Raven“, pushing the difference between the Doctor and the flawed man he is into a terrifying beat with Ashildr. Here we get the idea of the man who forgets notion explored particularly with Eleven reconstructed into something uncomfortable but then positive and heroic in a really interesting way. And her devotion to the emotional realism of Bill’s response allows her to follow a through-line in that reconstruction.
TIBERE: I’m not sure she is quite the one that originated the concept – for me, it’s sort of a follow-up to Twelve’s “idiot speech” from “Death in Heaven“. Like, Moffat’s big point, in the Capaldi era, is that the Doctor has a sort of fundamental innocence to him. That yes, he might commit terrible deeds, but that at the end of the day, there is this child-like quality to him, that allows him to progress forever forwards. Builds a lot on Mathieson’s ideas, too: Clara’s line about people that doubt and fear ending up dead from “Flatline” looms over the exchange, and so does the whole characterization of Twelve in “Mummy” … But that’s what Dollard is so good: she takes the whole of Twelve’s characterization, and I say all of it, even some of its darkest aspects, not really seen since the beginning of series 8 (the scene where he catches his sonic and doesn’t save Spider feels very much like a riff on “Into the Dalek”), and makes it all move forward. He still is a man who has to face “impossible choices”, but this time he doesn’t face them alone, he doesn’t delude himself in thinking he needs to be a hero or a warrior, but settles into a role of teacher, of healer, of facilitator, that allows for a decision to be taken as easily and painlessly as possible. It’s an incredibly strong and layered vision – I’m not sure you can credit Sarah Dollard for having invented it, but she sure as hell articulates it better than anyone, and that is a tremendous success.
RYAN: I like that this scene happens here, instead of further down the line, as with a lot of the previous companions. I mean, certainly none of the others react like that when faced with death for the first time, but I suppose that in a way makes Bill slightly more grounded. It’s also the first time that she sees another side to Twelve, one which she doesn’t like. She’s seen him as her lecturer, and someone who tries to save people in the previous episodes, but she’s not seen this slightly uncaring edge to him before. That, I feel, adds a lot of weight to what she says to him.
3) Politics and stuff
TIBERE: And now, “puts on German accent” – the race question.
SCARVES: Is it okay to punch racists? According to the Doctor, yes, yes it is. And we live in a better world if Doctor Who continues to advocate for that position.
TIBERE: The Doctor is sort of the moral ideal of the show, in a way, so, it’s a win-win. If you think it’s wrong to punch Nazis, well, he’s above your moral standing and is not human, so, he’s kinda entitled. If you think it’s right (like I do), it’s a wonderful bit of validation.
SCARVES: And you really get the sense that Dollard is deeply engaged in social justice oriented Doctor Who fandom – just as “Face the Raven” was a visibly conscious commentary on fridging in genre fiction, this episode opens with a scene that both echoes and responds to Martha asking the Tenth Doctor if she’ll be safe in the past in “The Shakespeare Code”, a scene that is frequently critiqued among progressive Who fandom for being more than a little tone-deaf. The episode both uses what was good about that episode, emphasising that the past wasn’t monolithically white, and that people of colour existed in Britain before the 1960s, while not having the Doctor underplay Bill’s fears and suggest that she walk about as if she owns the place, as Ten does to Martha in “The Shakespeare Code”. Instead, Bill points out that slavery is still a thing, the Doctor acknowledges that she is right instead of downplaying her understandable fears, and admits that staying out of trouble has never been a thing he’s especially good at.
TIBERE: “The Shakespeare Code”s handling of race is all kinds of problematic, but at least it’s vaguely understandable – you want a fun first trip for Martha, to give her a reason to stick with Ten, especially considering he kinda treats her like shit. Now, the Dalek two-parter where they conveniently forgot segregation was a thing, that’s something else … But yeah, Dollard just does not pull any punches. See the line about whitewashed history and Jesus, which is just … Oh, god, it’s delightful, there’s no other way to say it. I feel like it has been included specifically to troll the Daily Mail readers and their ilk. Some might say that it’s inorganic or bad storytelling – but really, what is Who for if not for laughing at the imbeciles and the bigots?
SCRIBBLES: Dollard really gets the current political moment and isn’t subtle in building an episode around it. There’s been numerous comparisons to the punching of Nazis debate recently, I’ve seen. The racial question is an interesting challenge to the Doctor’s series-opening promise of the TARDIS as a safe space, and it’s wonderful to see Doctor Who taking on the present day problems through a historical lens. Critiquing capitalism, imperialism, systemic racial oppression, all of it is really relevant today.
SCARVES: And of course, that’s all the more impressive, as Dollard wrote this script well before the Richard Spencer incident happened. And yeah, I think it’s nice to see that the Doctor, while initially planning to be charming and polite, instantly becomes protective the moment Sutcliffe starts verbally abusing his friend. It deflates his initial warning to Bill, which could otherwise come across as a little patronising, and avoids any “white saviour” overtones, as punching Sutcliffe doesn’t straightforwardly make their situation better (they are, after all, immediately captured in the wake of the Doctor punching Sutcliffe), while still sending a clear message that the Doctor won’t casually appease racism. Dollard approaches the issue with real nuance. And it’s a nice development of the “have you ever killed anyone?” scene, thematically linking the two key sequences of the episode together, with the Doctor’s claim that he “cannot afford the luxury” of outrage being proved directly wrong, something Bill notes and makes fun of him for after his speech to Sutcliffe.
TIBERE: I’d be curious to know if, and how much, the script was altered to reflect the most recent politics. I mean, the episode itself was filmed in August … I don’t know if the team of Who writers had a sort of cosmic insight into the future, or if they just did a lot of work to retrofit their scripts to the new political context, but whatever it is, it’s just wonderful and they deserve all the kudos in the world. But yeah, I agree with Scarves – the script is really good at suggesting in ever so subtle ways the privileges of the Doctor without ever, ever making him a white man ordering the poor and the POC around. The top hat is a nice bit of symbolism that way, I think. A fancy piece of clothing he immediately gives to a poor (female!) orphan. And then he buys another … To use as a prop in a con trick where he steals food for more orphans. You go, Twelve, you go.
SCRIBBLES: If anything, Dollard makes his privilege his shield he protects others with. Something he struggles with but also knows how to let it down and listen. For example, there’s no way Bill could have set the thames snake free. She doesn’t have the skills or the sonic or any of that. But he gives her the choice, rather than take it on herself. Then he listens to what she says. Using his privilege as a vehicle for the will of the oppressed, really.
TIBERE: Yeah, he sort of twists the privilege out of its normal position of only benefitting one person into something to be shared. That’s exactly what happens to the orphans at the end of the story – the privileges of Sutcliffe are extended to them, through the beauty of tricks and con artistry.
SCRIBBLES: I love how the Doctor genuinely does spend the whole episode treating it as an art, as well. He loves being a mischievous trickster indulging his revolutionary whims, boasting about stealing pies for the poor and then doing just that. And he actively compliments anyone else’s conning abilities quite enthusiastically.
TIBERE: He’s also shown to be improving at it, in a way. I recall “The Girl Who Died”, where he fails dramatically at his yo-yo/Odin impression double act. A sort of reflection on the way he has evolved and become a better teacher/Doctor? … Yeah, I’m probably reading way too much into this. Since we’re on the topic of politics, though, it’s interesting to note that the episode follows very strongly on “Smile”’s anticapitalist line. Like, the racist asshole is also the owner of a steel mill
SCARVES: Yes, absolutely, Twelve’s “the value of an ordinary life” speech is held up indirect contrast to Sutcliffe’s vision of progress as something based in industry and empire, key tenets of 19th century modernist Capitalism, which is still in many ways the basis of Capitalism today.
TIBERE: Also, the shit gag. It’s a bit silly, maybe, but I do kind of love its implications. You have this pompous, proud aristocrat who sees himself as part of the Empire (oh, colonialism, another theme that was introduced in “Smile”!) and of the Industrial Revolution literally made his fortune based on shit. I love it.
SCARVES: I think any great Doctor Who episode needs room for an idea as ridiculous as a giant underwater snake’s fecal matter being a source of superpowered fuel.
TIBERE: At the same time, while being a bit silly, it has some serious fridge horror potential. One of these piles of excrement might be the little Spider we saw at the beginning of the episode. And of course, all of this means that Sutcliffe literally pays workers (probably not much) to literally have their hands in shit all day.
SCRIBBLES: If shit stinks while burning underwater does it really make a smell? Ah, the complex questions Doctor Who raises. It’s interesting how, like you have all pointed out, these social injustices have been a huge focus of this run, it’ll be interesting to see how they translate onto the present day over the course of the series, particularly with whatever happens in the three parter and then the Cybermen, which could arguably the greatest metaphor for human exploitation in this show. I will point out, though, dredging through shit from the Thames was indeed a real job.
TIBERE: Dollard did some serious research work on that one, and it shows. Those first few scenes are a marvel of, well, I’m not gonna say historical accuracy, because I’m no historian, but at least historical verisimilitude. I saw her talking about the fact that the people that charge passers-by for entrance at the fair were the former bargemen that were rendered jobless by the freeze, for instance.
SCRIBBLES: I was googling transcripts and stuff to gif it, and as it turns out, even the food Bill was being offered was real food served at that exact Frost Fair! That roast thing was apparently absurdly expensive. And there was even an elephant for real! She had a lot of fun putting research into it. The twist of even making some of those historical artifacts part of the plot, like the elephant as a lure for the creature to get more people to eat, was inspired. Gotta wonder if the poor thing survived, though. If not, it’d be a hell of a meal at least.
TIBERE: Of course, some people only saw the elephant as a metaphor for gay love or whatever, but still (yes, real thing that happened!) … Your efforts are noticed and appreciated here, Sarah, don’t worry.
RYAN: It certainly all felt very real to me, even if I don’t know all that much about this point in history. And it really added to the flavour of the episode, and sold the setting really well, in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen for a while, certainly with an area of history.
4) Snakes on the Thames : plot, Regency Era and symbolism
TIBERE: So. We have a giant snake under the Thames, that’s held captive by humans.”The Beast Below” comparisons, yay or nay?
SCARVES: Well, going back to the commentary on imperialism, there’s just something wonderfully backhanded about Capitalist industry and imperialism literally being fueled by shit. That’s not a subtle metaphor, but I love it all the same. Particularly as the fuel is sourced from an exploited creature – more animal rights themes in this season, which is nice (although we did see the Doctor eating meat for the first time in a long time, continuing the show’s fluctuating position on his vegetarianism established in “The Two Doctors”). And yeah, there definitely are similarities to “The Beast Below”, but then “sympathetic monster exploited by humans” is hardly a new Doctor Who trope – heck, it’s a common sci fi trope. “Thin Ice” revisits the themes of “The Beast Below”, while also adding some new things to the mix through its own specific themes, ideas, setting, and Doctor/ Companion pairing, I think.
SCRIBBLES: As I said earlier, I think the crucial piece is in how it’s dealt with. It’s a similar narrative and thematic construct to several brilliant and socially aware character pieces, like Torchwood’s “Meat” and, of course, “The Beast Below“. The exploitation of a massive alien as a metaphor for other forms of exploitation. But here, the way it goes is tied to the particular racial message of the episode, with the Doctor giving Bill the choice of how to use his privilege to take a step forward. It’s also interesting how he’s learned since “The Beast Below“. He no longer insists on making all the impossible choices for the people, no longer needs a friend to call him out on that. He now gives them their own choice. Which really elevates it from a rehash to a fresh new character beat and a natural evolution from the character work with Amy in “The Beast Below“, and, of course, with Clara in “Kill the Moon“.
TIBERE: I mean, it’s sort of symbolism 101 there, but still – a creature held in chains by a racist, that’s assumed to be “alien” but apparently comes from Earth … Race metaphor? A teensy bit?
SCARVES: In an episode that places such a strong emphasis on the theme of race, absolutely.
RYAN: I find it interesting that “Smile” and “Thin Ice” subtly relate to “The Beast Below”. With the former, we got a reference to the many ships which evacuated from the Earth, and the latter has a creature in similar circumstances to the Star Whale.
TIBERE: I think the “Beast Below” is in many ways Moffat’s archetypal companion introduction episode – it’s just a little less easy to spot its influence when he went out of his way to break any kind of typical model with Clara’s introduction. It’s almost as if the birthing act of a companion, or at least the point where they completely assume this status, for Moffat, was a first engagement with politics.
SCARVES: And even with Clara, you can see the parallels between “The Rings of Akhaten”, “Cold War” and this story and “Smile”.
TIBERE: Oh, yes. Marketplace scenes! Good spot. I guess “Bells of Saint-John” is a very political story too, but she does occupy sort of a special status – whether that’s good or bad …
SCRIBBLES: “Cold War” in retrospect feels like a first noble attempt from Mark Gatiss at getting Thin Ice right. It’s got the Clara reacting to death beat and an archetypal Doctor Who being used to map on political anxieties. But this works so much better, in part, I think, because Sarah Dollard is just really something special, but mostly because in “Thin Ice” the political issues are more interconnected to the personal ones and the episode is willing to say interesting things about them.
TIBERE: I have nice things to say about Mark Gatiss. That he’s good at political writing is not one of those.
SCARVES: On the subject of plot, I like how this episode makes use of the “Doctor and companion investigating a mystery” dynamic, as I said in the introduction, it’s something Dollard excels at – the Doctor bluffing his way past the mill’s foreman to get the information he needs being an example of a classic Doctor Who scene being done particularly well.
TIBERE: To be entirely honest, I think that might be the weakest aspect of the episode. I think (well, now, after a second viewing) that those scenes flow pretty well, but I don’t think they always carry the momentum and the themes forwards. Well, the foreman scene kind of does. The worst offender is probably the point where Bill and Twelve go diving. It does have a couple of nice moments, including her hitting him on the head with a lantern, but I didn’t find it especially interesting. I’d have loved to see some more creative directing at play here – not that I resent shoddy CGI (they’re part of Who’s charm, really …), but I think it could have been something truly special instead of just a plot-advancing scene.
SCRIBBLES: I love the diving sequence. The effects aren’t all perfect (though not as loveably ropey as Sutcliffe’s death), but the whole thing feels like something fresh and new to Doctor Who. The sound design in particular is magnificent, as is the sense of awe when the eye opens. I love Doctor Who finding new ways to curate a sense of wonder and tell stories in different ways, and I think that sequence was a standout for that.
SCARVES: Agreed. It’s a lovely, atmospheric sequence, and it’s the kind of set piece we haven’t really seen in Doctor Who before. And it does advance some key themes and plot beats – Bill and the Doctor learn the creature is chained and suffering, and is just as much of a victim as the people being fed to it.
TIBERE: Definitely agreed there, though – it’s very original, and it has to get praise for that. I’m actually surprised Big Finish never did that, interesting diving sound effects sound like something they’d have done.
RYAN: In some ways, it feels like Moffat decided to get the writers, at least Cottrell-Boyce and Dollard, to draw on certain elements from the previous companion introductions in his era. There are certainly shades of “The Beast Below”, “The Rings of Akhaten” and “Cold War”, as mentioned, in both episodes. But that’s not to say that “Thin Ice” takes all of it’s elements from those, and does nothing new, because it does a lot of things that I’d say we’ve not seen before.
SCRIBBLES: I think that sums up this early run of series 10, really. A progressive synthesis of past Doctor Who into something fresh, exciting, and utterly charming. And now that the first beat is out of the way, I expect they’ll use that foundation to do some really interesting things, like in the back half of series 8.
TIBERE: The next three stories look absolutely incredible. Oh, last thing – can we have a moment of appreciation for the sets in this episode? God they look amazing.
SCARVES: They really were incredible. The production team did an incredible job of recreating the Frozen Thames, which is no easy task.
TIBERE: The directing was very strong, too, although I felt like it was a bit of a step-down from Lawrence Gough’s work on the first two episodes. With that said, it’s a very visually complex piece, and Bill Anderson has to be commended for the way he shot the frost fair – it looks great, vast but never confused.
RYAN: Also of note, I feel, is the costuming in this episode. We’ve seen plenty of Victorian-set episodes, and all the costuming that comes with that, but we’ve not really seen stuff from this era before. The dresses, particularly the one Bill wears, are stunning, they really are. And the Doctor’s outfit here is wonderful, we’ve not really seen him adopt period clothing before, so it’s great to see him trying to blend in a bit more, something he’s struggled with in the past. Kudos to Hayley Nebauer for her work on this episode.
5) Final Thoughts
SCRIBBLES: That was pleasantly solid, wasn’t it? At worst, a couple minor plotting niggles and they’re really beside the point, aren’t they? This is Doctor Who after all. The character and thematic work was among the best this show has ever done, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this episode is single-handedly responsible for a generation falling in love with Doctor Who, Bill, and the Twelfth Doctor, just because of how well it handles those ingredients. It looked nice, it sounded nice, and it said really important things. What’s not to enjoy? Thank you, Steven Moffat, for bringing the brilliant Sarah Dollard to Doctor Who. The world is in your debt.
SCARVES: It was just a lot of fun, a satisfying and cohesive piece of television, with some brilliant high points and no major weaknesses. It gave me the feeling “Mummy on the Orient Express” did: it’s not breaking a huge amount of new ground (although it is tremendously bold in places), but instead shows Doctor Who doing the things it does best really well. And when a story this good feels like “business as usual”, you know the show’s in a solid place.
RYAN: I think we all agree that Sarah Dollard is brilliant. She really understands the show, its characters and its themes. And she delivers another fantastic episode here, one which is both complex and relatively simple. As Scarves says, it feels like “business as usual”, but it has an awful lot of depth to it, and that makes it even more stellar in my opinion. It’s a lot of fun, really, and I can’t really find much fault with it at all, it’s just really solid stuff. I sincerely hope that Dollard returns for series 11, and I hope she continues writing for the show for a long time to come.
TIBERE: Yeah, it’s just a really strong, really nice little slice of Who. I can definitely see the people that castigated the previous few series for not being fun enough adoring it – but, as Alasdair Wilkins pointed out in his review’s title, if the show hasn’t been this fun in years, it also hasn’t been this relevant in years. That’s the joy of it, really – you feel like all the lessons the show has learnt about itself during the past two series, spent largely into contemplating its themes, history and morality (some may say it was navel-gazing, but I say poppycock) are paying off; that it’s now turning a new, revivified look onto the modern world and its issue. The show is back to being pure escapism, but it also problematizes escapism in new, challenging, and honestly incredibly compelling ways. And of course, Sarah Dollard. She’s just wonderful – as a person, from everything I’ve seen, but mostly as a writer. It’s really interesting to see that both her episodes have been centered on London geography, too, especially considering she’s from Australia – she sort of takes this tested and tried method of Who screenwriting, imbuing familiar concepts and places with a new, mystic aura, but uses it to deliver absolutely scathing, and spot-on socio-political commentary and character insight. While never renouncing to be accessible, simple and clear – I mean, this is the shortest talk we have had on an episode so far, and that’s not really because we had nothing to say (well, I hope, that’d be a testament of failure if ever there is one), but because the episode really just is self-evidently awesome and deep in the best ways. God, Chibnall, just keep her. Please. I’ll go burn some candles if I have too. We all will.
That concludes our talk on “Thin Ice”!
Assessing Stress will return throughout May to offer you coverage of the coming BF releases (including UNIT – Assembled and The Ninth Doctor Chronicles) and the next series 10 episodes!
The talk on “Knock Knock“, however, will probably be delayed until the middle of the week, due to one of our hosts’ personal commitments. We apologize for the inconveniance!
(It’s totally Tibère)
(I don’t want to rat or anything)
(But it’s totally him)