My review of the previous episode: Smile.
Thin Ice is just about everything I love about Doctor Who, from its compelling, evocative setting to its epic, spooky monster to its deft mixture of the serious and the silly. It's easily my favorite of this season, one of my favorite Capaldi episodes overall, and a welcome second installment from promising newbie Who writer, Sarah Dollard.
Bill and the Doctor arrive on the frozen Thames in 1814. When a street urchin steals the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor and Bill chase him out onto the ice, only to watch as the boy is sucked beneath the ice by mysterious green lights. Why? Well, it turns out a massive creature is sleeping beneath the Thames, devouring unwary Fair-goers and turning them into a super-powered fuel. A predatory aristocrat is promoting visitors to the Frost Fair to amp up production.
There are tons of things to love about this episode. For one, the art direction is great, from the Doctor and Bill's snazzy dress clothes to their vintage diving suits. The banter between the two main characters is an absolute delight. Bill asks genre savvy questions about time travel and the Doctor fields them in clever and creative ways. Dollard has a great feel for both characters. Even better is when their conversations turn serious and contemplative. Bill is starting to discover the darker, deeper side of the Doctor, and she's not sure she likes it.
It's the first question. Doctor who?
Ever since its 2005 reboot, Doctor Who has been a meta show. It wasn't always this way. At first, the meaning of the show's title was a question of origin, not identity. We literally didn't know who he was - he was a stranger. Now, that question - who is the Doctor - means "what sort of man is the Doctor?" And it's every Doctor's question. The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors all faced moments where they had to define themselves.The Doctor used to be on a journey to find adventure, now he's on a journey to find himself.
For the Twelfth Doctor, his main questions were about his identity as an officer and whether or not he was "the hybrid." But Dollard revisits a subtler facet of Twelve's personality which was highlighted in some series 8 episodes: his aloof, matter-of-fact approach to saving people. The Doctor doesn’t deny that he cares, but he emphasizes the necessity of removing one’s emotions from the equation. “I’m two thousand years old,” he tells Bill, “and I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage.” Bill is repulsed at first, but the Doctor’s solemn efficiency ultimately wins her over.
Of course, the Doctor is also a bit of a hypocrite. When the episode’s slimy villain makes a racist comment about Bill, the Doctor immediately decks him. His detachment only goes so far.
Speaking of which, I really like how gracefully and frankly the episode handles the issue of Bill's race. Race, class, and value are all big ideas in the episode. The villain has a typical Victorian attitude towards the least of these. The Doctor quickly sets him straight in a lovely speech, making it clear that even while he doesn't appear to care, his philosophy is firmly founded on a belief in the value of a life.
Thin Ice isn't perfect. Like The Beast Below and Kill the Moon, it’s another story which centers on a huge, innocent, imprisoned creature, and it asks a bit much for us to believe a huge wild animal has benevolent intentions. The villain's plan doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. If you really think about it, there's nothing very remarkable about the episode's events, but it's such a wonderfully constructed, beautifully executed story that I didn't notice. Dollard is really a rising star in the Doctor Who world, and I hope she sticks around when Chibnall takes over.
I didn't mention it in the last speculation section, but there was a hugely SPOILERy article which started the rumor that the First Doctor (as portrayed by David Bradley) will be returning for the 2017 Christmas special, after the departure of Bill. Apparently, Moffat will revisit the events of Day of the Doctor (again? le sigh) to see the climactic scene from the First and Twelfth Doctors' points of view, right before Capaldi regenerates. Now, this is all rumor, so I'm not taking it as confirmed, but it does square with the Susan Foreman foreshadowing, the Twelfth Doctor's similarities to the First, and Capaldi's well-known love of William Hartnell. Plus, while I hate Moffat's retconning, I do kind of love the idea that the first shot we saw of Peter Capaldi was part of his regeneration.