Doctor Who S10E3: Thin Ice
Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Nicholas Burns
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Doctor Who honestly has not felt this authentic in years.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) arrive in 1814 London. The Thames has completely frozen over, and a massive fair – the final Frost Fair ever to be held – is in full swing on the surface of the ice. People are vanishing, however, and it seems something large and hungry is lurking in the river below.
Doctor Who’s back-to-basics approach continues in this, the third episode of Season 10. It many ways it is replicating the formula established back in 2005 with its original revival: the Doctor met a new companion on contemporary Earth, took her into the far future in the second episode, and then back into history in the third. Given the series’ absence from the screens in 2016 – the annual Christmas special notwithstanding – and with showrunner Steven Moffat giving way at the end of the year to Chris Chibnall, it makes a certain sense to give the series a clear ‘back-to-basics’ approach and remind viewers of precisely what the show is about: inventive science fiction adventure for all ages.
Writer Sarah Dollard has found a fantastic period setting for the episode: the 1814 Frost Fair, which allows for some wonderful visual imagery including an elephant walking across the Thames (that actually happened), acrobats, performers, food stalls and pickpockets. The episode also goes to admirable pains to represent a properly diverse population in London, something that Bill – a person of colour herself – is quick to comment open. In fact it is quite admirable that the episode addresses Bill’s race in the manner that it does. She is concerned about walking the streets of London in an age when slavery is legal, and for his part the Doctor gets to chip in on this year’s online debate over whether or not it is okay to punch Nazis.
Bill has been a breath of fresh air for the series: not only distinctively performed by Pearl Mackie, but set up in such a way as to ask all of the questions the viewers would ask if put in her position. She is also wonderfully free of any of the weird gushing sexual tension that kept rising up between the Doctor and her predecessor Clara Oswald, and that has enabled the series to return to a nicely traditional Doctor-companion relationship to match its more conventional storytelling. There is one exchange in particular this week that impresses, as Bill interrogates the Doctor over how many people he has seen die – and how many he has killed himself. The conversation really drives home how much the simplified relationship has benefitted Peter Capaldi’s performance as the Doctor. He seems finally free to play the character in the manner he had previously just hinted at.
While there are some nice surprises in regards to the episode’s villain – the mysterious Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) – the episode overall does echo several other earlier storylines in a manner that some viewers may find frustrating. It is, it must be said, a relatively predictable outing. The period detail and the strong character work between the leads lifts it back up, however, and ultimately makes for yet another strong, hugely entertaining hour of television. It is honestly great to see this simplified format being put into play, one that favours humour and adventure over complexity and romance. Doctor Who honestly has not felt this authentic in years.