Thin Ice

Posted in Episode by - April 30, 2017
Thin Ice

Aired 29 April 2017

Following a pair of solid episodes tasked with establishing the new dynamic between Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and Pearl Mackie’s Bill, ‘Thin Ice’ takes to exploring the moral compasses of the two leads while further refining their relationship in the process. The two are clearly idealists and hope to do the best for everyone they come across, but writer Sarah Dollard is able to poignantly explore the differences in the foundations of those ideals as the story of a monstrous serpent beneath the Thames during the last Frost Fair unfolds.

While that setup may make it seem like ‘Thin Ice’ is a cold and calculating dramatic piece, the story is actually quite adept at shifting tones and styles, adding an especially mercurial sense of unpredictability to the Doctor by doing so that pays immense dividends as the truth behind the serpent is revealed. Indeed, the prolonged tongue-in-cheek conversation about Pete, the companion who never was, underscores the camaraderie of the two leads and is certainly a comedic highlight in the fledgling series as normal companion questions about traveling in time are deftly handled. Yet the story quickly strikes at the heart of the Doctor’s sometimes-ambiguous sense of righteousness, first by having him casually boast about his thieving prowess as he steals pies from a local conman but more gravely as he quite overtly places the well-being of his sonic screwdriver over the life of an endangered street urchin. Having never seen anyone die before, this, quite rightly, shocks Bill who quickly grills the Doctor about how many people he has seen die and how many people he himself has killed, concurrently scorning his evasiveness and proclaimed ability to get over what he experiences. This scene is wonderfully played and is unquestionably the weightiest material Capaldi and Mackie have shared together so far, delivering an incredibly emotional weight that anchors a story that maintains a slightly lighter tone overall.

Of course, ‘Thin Ice’ is also unafraid of the difficulties that bringing a black companion to 1814 Regency London entails even if London has always been a grand melting pot throughout the ages. While bandying words such as whitewash and privilege, ‘Thin Ice’ actually acquits itself quite well here, and it’s particularly telling that it’s racism directed towards Bill that finally puts the Doctor over the edge and makes him unable to control his emotions. Following an episode spotlighting Capaldi’s trademark subtlety and calling the Doctor’s character into question, his powerful and bombastic speech to Sutcliffe expertly provides resolute proof that the Doctor is unabashedly still the hero the audience and universe have come to know him as. Having the Doctor wear the attire of the time does seem like a bit of an odd choice given the Doctor’s usual individualism regarding his wardrobe as it indirectly implies acceptance of the norms of the time, but the emotion-laden speech about the value of human life puts that to rest effectively and quickly.

Taken as a series of individual notions, ‘Thin Ice’ quite proudly alludes to aspects from several previous adventures within a new context, and it’s intriguing to note this incarnation of the Doctor once more steps aside and puts the resolution squarely on the shoulders of his companion, for better or worse. As a whole, though, ‘Thin Ice’ masterfully makes the most of both of its leads as both characters continue to better understand each other as they become better defined. It’s not a truly revolutionary story by any means, but it is very confident with its narrative, and the strong direction and subdued score bring this character piece to life wonderfully.

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