Another week and another really solid episode of Doctor Who. This tenth series has a pleasingly throwback feel to it, with self-contained stories playing out in breezy, entertaining fashion. ‘Thin Ice’ continues to flesh out the dynamic between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, while giving the Doctor another mystery to solve. This time around, there’s also a genuinely loathsome villain to deal with and a moral dilemma that proves a tough ask for Bill as she adjusts herself to being part of the Doctor’s dangerous world.
At the end of last week’s episode, we saw Bill and the Doctor land on the frozen Thames in 19th century London. We pick up precisely where we left off, with Bill wondering out loud about the butterfly effect as she takes her first steps into the past. Soon, there are unusual lights under the ice and people begin to disappear. Before the opening titles roll, we get a good look at a mammoth whale-like creature underneath the Thames that seems to be the source of the lights. What follows is a plot that borrows from series five episode ‘The Beast Below’, as well as Torchwood story ‘Meat’.
We see a lot more range from Pearl Mackie this week as she is forced to grapple with how the Doctor deals with death. She also has to deal with something that hasn’t been an issue for recent Doctor Who companions in that she travels into a past where slavery is still around and black people aren’t all that welcome. That subtext pleasingly rises to the surface when we are introduced to Nicholas Burns‘ over-privileged lord, who proves not only to be the hideous villain of the piece, but also a racist buffoon. This leads us to a wonderful moment in which the Doctor, who had advised towards diplomacy, gives Burns a swift right hook in the jaw for his prejudice.
The middle section of ‘Thin Ice’ was exceptionally strong, featuring some vintage Capaldi. No one can deliver a potently moralistic monologue like Capaldi and it’s scenes like those that make it clear he’s arguably the best performer to have played the Doctor in terms of pure acting chops. He’s clearly warming to Bill and there’s a definite feel of the Ten/Donna relationship in how Bill confronts the Doctor on an intellectual and moral level, asking questions that companions often don’t ask. It’s telling too that Bill goes on a real journey this week – from being terrified to step on anything to making a huge decision with ramifications for Earth’s future.
This week’s episode culminated with a little more of a tease for what we have ahead in the rest of the series. Nardole seems genuinely concerned about the Doctor breaking his oath to remain on Earth and he certainly has real fear surrounding whatever they are keeping in that vault. There are plenty of obvious candidates, but there’s also certainly something there that can knock rather loudly. Could there be a little more to the fact that next week’s episode is called ‘Knock Knock’?
Nods to the future aside, ‘Thin Ice’ was another really solid episode of Doctor Who. Its central conceit was nicely realised, even though it felt a little derivative of a few other stories within the recent Whoniverse. The relationship between Capaldi and Mackie continues to develop in compelling directions, but there’s no sense that there’s any deeper connection between them that’s going to create Moffat’s typical knotty nonsense when we get to the finale. So far, this is self-contained Doctor Who, where the only goal is to be entertaining every week. Sign me up for that.
Next week: We’re getting proper scary as Bill moves into a really weird house and Poirot is there for some reason. Should be fun!
Doctor Who is airing on Saturday nights on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
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