We’re only three episodes into Doctor Who Series 10 and I have to say, without a doubt, the pairing of the Doctor and Bill is the best Doctor/companion pairing since the tenth Doctor and Donna, and Bill is my favourite companion since Donna. There’s a naturalness to the relationship between the Doctor and Bill that wasn’t there with Amy or Clara.
It is in large part due to the fact that Bill gets to be a normal person, rather than a mystery to be solved. She reacts to travel through space and time in an original, yet also very relatable way. She asks questions that have never been asked—questions that make you wonder why no one’s asked them before. She experiences joy, anger, sadness. She’s inquisitive and intelligent, willing to stand up to the Doctor when needed, but also willing to acknowledge and accept his greater knowledge and experience.
The third episode, “Thin Ice” by Sarah Dollard, continues to build on the Doctor and Bill’s relationship, and to develop Bill as a character. Bill’s first trip into the past exposes her to some of the darker realities of travel with the Doctor—realities she must come to terms with. Yet despite some dark undertones, “Thin Ice” is also a light-hearted adventure with numerous fun moments, a diverse cast of characters, and incredible costumes.
Some might call the story thin on plot, but I wouldn’t say that’s entirely accurate. Its plot is straight-forward, yes, but this allows for greater emphasis on the characters, particularly the Doctor and Bill. There’s also quite a bit going on despite the straight-forward plot. Overall, the episode is highly entertaining and moves to a satisfying and emotional conclusion.
And I don’t see this as being at all detrimental to the advancement of the story. In fact, it’s essential to the story’s progress in this case. Although the Doctor and Bill haven’t yet become aware of the threat and much of what they do may seem inconsequential at first, it provides an important moment to learn more about Bill and the Doctor. Seeing them enjoy themselves provides the contrast to the more serious moments to come, as Bill has her first real experience of the death that surrounds the Doctor.
To be pedantic, this isn’t really Bill’s first encounter with death as she says it is. At the conclusion of “Smile”, the Vardies kill several people within view of her. However, given the chaos of that moment, it’s not entirely unbelievable that those deaths didn’t really register with her in the same way that Spider’s death does. With the Vardies, there’s a lot more going on at the same time and more events continue to happen in the wake of the deaths. Yet with Spider, there’s a tangible pause. His arm sticking out of the ice, clutching the sonic screwdriver, for a few seconds before being pulled the rest of the way in leaves more time for Bill to internalise what is happening—and to be sickened by it. The fact that Spider is also a child helps even more to hammer this home.
(As an aside, this is also an extremely rare moment of a child dying on Doctor Who. The only other instance I can think of at the moment is the young girl at the beginning of “School Reunion” and she dies off-screen rather than on-screen like Spider. There have been some fake-out moments, like in “The Beast Below”, a story thematically similar to “Thin Ice”, where a child appears to die, but later turns out to be alive—but actual child death is very rare. Indeed, on my first watch, I kept expecting a reveal that Spider had somehow survived, and was quite surprised when that reveal never came.)
This is the first time Bill has gotten truly angry at the Doctor, and it’s the first time she’s had to deal with the realities of the Doctor’s life. Until now, it’s been mostly exciting adventure with the Doctor being brilliant. For the first time, she has to accept that the Doctor isn’t all-powerful and can’t do everything. When she begs him to save Spider and he says that there’s nothing he can do whilst also appearing to not really care, it’s not surprising that she gets angry with him.
Her questioning the Doctor about the deaths he’s seen and the people he’s killed is one of the truly great moments this show is capable of. Indeed, it’s one of the best examinations of life with the Doctor the show has ever had, and it plays out incredibly well and with intense emotion. It makes her later acceptance to move on all the more powerful.
This is not only an important character moment for Bill, but also one for the Doctor. Through Spider’s death, we see a bit of the Doctor’s darker side, and a bit of the twelfth Doctor from Series 8. As I mentioned in my review of “The Pilot”, this incarnation of the Doctor has mellowed quite a bit since then, but he’s still believably the same person. He may be better at relating with people, but he still pretends to be the unemotional, unaffected, rational person who does what must be done.
The twelfth Doctor is actually a very emotional Doctor (to be fair, all of them are, really, but in different ways), but he tries to hide it. “I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage,” he tells Bill in what is a pretty blatant lie. Long-time viewers will know the lie for what it is right away, and newer viewers won’t have to wait very long for it to be exposed when he loses his temper and punches Sutcliffe later in the episode.
Speaking of that later moment, the Doctor throwing a punch is another rare thing in Doctor Who, though the Doctor has certainly gotten into a few scuffles in his long life (it’s certainly not as rare as a child dying). The moment is very much a literal punchline (pun almost certainly intended) to the comedy surrounding the Doctor’s hypocrisy. He lectures Bill on the importance of rationality and staying calm, then moments later reacts with pure emotion.
Yet this moment is also a great example of just how much the Doctor cares. When his companion comes under threat (a verbal tirade of racist abuse and the physical threat of looming over her), he reacts to protect her. It is also very much a cheer-out-loud moment as the villain gets his comeuppance.
And even though the Doctor does resort to a bit of violence, he still later follows his more typical route of lecturing the villain through a wonderful speech:
Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s life is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.
This is a classic Doctor moment. Sutcliffe’s response is also a classic Doctor Who villain response. Indeed, Sutcliffe is a bit over the top at times, but he works all the better for it.
I’m very glad to see the programme tackle the issue of race. Bill, as a black woman travelling into the past, is understandably going to have some concerns. “Slavery is still totally a thing,” she says. Way back in Series 3, when Martha expressed a similar concern in “The Shakespeare Code”, the tenth Doctor gave a rather glib reply that she should just act like she owns the place, and then the episode proceeded to ignore the situation entirely. Many people have criticised that story for this, and as much as I like “The Shakespeare Code” overall, they have been right to do so.
Here, in “Thin Ice”, it’s clear that Sarah Dollard, Steven Moffat, and others involved in making the show have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors by tackling the issue a little more seriously and not shoving it aside. It also allows for the great moment when, in response to Bill commenting on Regency England being a bit more black than they show in the movies, the Doctor says, “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.” It’s a hilarious moment, but also draws attention to the fact that many white people are under the impression there were hardly any people of colour in Europe and the U.K. prior to the twentieth century.
One of the highlights of “Thin Ice” is the costuming. From Bill’s dress to the Doctor’s top hat and the mix of outfits at the Frost Fair, the episode simply looks gorgeous. It’s a feast for the eyes! That said, one area where it’s less successful is with the children, who don’t look very very much like they’re homeless and living on the streets. Less effort seems to have been made with their costuming and make-up. However, I consider this a minor point since everything else looks so good, but it does stick out a little.
There’s also the diving suits. While I love the look and idea of the diving suits (they’re exactly the kind of diving suits I’d expect the Doctor to have stashed away in the TARDIS), I have to wonder how Bill and the Doctor were able to breathe in them. While they have some rope attached to them, there doesn’t appear to be any air tubes, and there’s no pump in sight. Are these some sort of retro-futuristic diving suits—made with advanced technology so that they have interior oxygen generators or something, yet made to look old-fashioned? This was handled rather poorly—a situation that looks nice, but doesn’t really make any sense.
The creature under the ice—and I like that we never really learn what it is or where it came from, whether its alien or native to Earth—is somewhat reminiscent of the creature in “The Beast Below” from Series 5, primarily in the fact that it is being held captive and being fed humans. Overall, this doesn’t really bother me. Doctor Who is bound to retread similar ground from time to time, and in all honesty, “Thin Ice” is a much better episode than “The Beast Below”.
The last few minutes of the episode bring us back full circle to the moment Bill and the Doctor took off in “Smile”, and also provides a reminder and a couple more hints about the mystery of the vault. I do hope a bit more is done with Nardole in upcoming episodes. These first few have rightfully focused on Bill, but a bit of development for Nardole would be nice too. That said, despite his very brief appearance in this episode, we do get a few nice moments. Coffee mixed with tea? Yuck. But it somehow makes sense for Nardole.
To finish off with, I want to draw attention to some of the great dialogue in this episode. I’ve mentioned a few lines above, but here are a couple more of my favourites:
“The boy’s the one with your magic wand.”“Sonic screwdriver.”“How is that a screwdriver?”“In a very broad sense.”“All right, well how’s it sonic?”“It makes a noise.”
Referring to the sonic screwdriver as a “magic wand” echoes many criticisms of how it is often used in the programme (though incidentally, not in this episode).
“Are you against tattoos? I’m against tattoos, too. I think that we’re bonding.”
The Doctor has gotten much better at relating to humans, but he’s still not perfect.
“That was pretty convincing racism for an extra-terrestrial.”“My thoughts exactly.”
“Don’t be smug. Smug belongs to me.”
Of course, there’s also the whole exchange about Pete. Poor Pete.
Overall, “Thin Ice” is a wonderful Doctor Who episode. It looks gorgeous and I love the blend of light-hearted fun with darker, more serious undertones. This is the second episode Sarah Dollard has written for the show (her first being Series 9’s “Face the Raven”) and I do hope we see more from her in the future.