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Monday, 1 May 2017

Doctor Who S36E3: Thin Ice

Doctor Who
Series 36, Episode 3
Thin Ice.

So, spoiler alert: This is another fun but ultimately mediocre episode. It wins some points over Smile for having, at least, an interesting setting, and some genuine character development as Bill and the Doctor come to understand each other, but it still sits below the first episode, which marked itself out by having some pretty decent horror chops.

This week's episode is written by Sarah Dollard, whose last contribution to the series was Face The Raven, an episode with some Neil Gaiman-ish aesthetic sensibilities that actually managed to pretty effectively create a compelling world and an actually pretty sinister antagonist in the form of a spirit raven that flies into your body and kills you, as a kind of advanced alien death sentence. This episode is not nearly so imaginative.

Set in 1814, at the last great Frost Fair, this episode sees the Doctor and Bill discovering that there is a creature beneath the frozen Thames, imprisoned by a local noble, Lord Sutcliffe, and feeding off humans to produce powerful fuel for Sutcliffe to sell. Before long, the two of them find themselves tied up while Sutcliffe puts into motion his plan: To blow up the Frost Fair to sate the creature's hunger, ensuring that it continues to produce fuel for years to come. With the Doctor ceding power to Bill, she must decide whether to free the creature and risk it attacking London, or kill it.

They do make a nice Doctor-Companion pair.

So, first thing's first: Early on in this episode, Bill remarks that in 1814, slavery was still legal and she was thus at risk -- which reeks of the writers not doing their historical research (again): While slavery was legal in the wider Empire until 1833 (although trading slaves was not, having been made illegal in 1807), the situation wasn't as simple in the UK: Slavery in England had been ruled as illegal in 1706, and while we know there were still slaves in the country afterwards, that ruling was confirmed in 1772, at which point the remaining slaves in the country (numbering between ten and fourteen thousands) were emancipated.

Is it reasonable that Bill wouldn't know this? Yeah, definitely. She's not, as far as we know, a history expert. Is it reasonable that the Doctor wouldn't know this, and bring it up? Not really, no. In the episode he agrees with her that it's a possibility, and that's more than a little strange.

It's an odd bit of historical inaccuracy in an episode that does seem to try to be at least somewhat historical accurate. The last Frost Fair really was in 1814, after all, and they even got the number of days it went on for right.

Apparently this is an actor well-known for playing terrible people.

This episode takes a few subtle jabs at racism -- the Doctor remarking on how whitewashed history is, Sutcliffe's seemingly-cartoonish but actually pretty era-and-social-class appropriate racism and the Doctor punching him in response -- but honestly, I wish the jabs had been less subtle. I would love to see a Doctor Who episode where the monster of the week is just 'the Doctor and Bill land somewhere in the past, and there's a racist society doing racist things and they have to save some people.' I'd love to see it approach racism with the maturity that the subject deserves, rather than limiting it to throwaway comments or slightly hamfisted analogies.

(I'm pretty sure I said something similar last episode, and I will continue saying this, forever. Give me more episodes where the setting is the problem, rather than it being a setting plus a monster. Experiment with form a little more, guys, come on.)

Arguably, even Davies' era two parter Human Nature and The Family of Blood had a more hard-hitting depiction of racism, since it showed that racism isn't exclusively the purview of the cackling megalomaniac, but a societal problem that can be seen even in people who seem perfectly good natured.

Mostly, though, this episode pans out basically exactly how you'd expect. Much like Smile, there's not a lot new to say about it: It is middle of the road. It isn't bad, and it's enjoyable, but it's also not an especially interesting episode. It's Doctor Who via painting by numbers, and as a result, the best thing I can say about it is 'if you like Doctor Who, you should enjoy this episode.'


Perhaps key is that nothing in this episode is really new: A large fish-like creature being imprisoned by humans for their own gain? Saw it with the space whale. Evil aristocrat? Seen it countless times? The BBC rolling out their 'snowy past London' set? Seen it every Christmas Special. Doctor Who is at its best when it's breaking new ground, and this episode doesn't really break any new ground at all.

Next week, it looks like we have a more gothic-y horror episode, as the Doctor and Bill return to the home where Bill grew up, which appears to be a creepy house that eats people. That's a solid premise for an episode, and the writer -- Mike Bartlett -- has apparently never written for Doctor Who before, so it'll be very interesting to see how this episode turns out.

1 comment:

  1. On an unrelated note, after the TARDIS implied the fish was a long snake thing, I was disappointed by how small it was.