Thin Ice is a serviceable slice of Doctor Who. We're sure a lot of people really enjoyed it.
Hmm. There must be more to say than that.
All right, then. Since it's apparently compulsory to follow the New Companion Prescribed Track, we've done the intro and the shiny white future episode and are now up to the 19th century one. It looks pretty much like the Dickensian London Doctor Who is so fond of, but it's actually the Regency (check out those empire line bodices) during a Thames frost fair. Bill is about to trip happily out of the TARDIS when she realises that she's gone back to a time when slavery, as she says, is still totally a thing.
Steven Moffat, stung by internet criticism of his right-on credentials, is clearly determined to prove he is woke in every possible direction in this series before he goes. We had the sexist food division comment in the last episode, and here we're tackling racism. Okay, sure. We don't think they win any bravery awards for Slavery Is Bad, because aside from a few wingnuts there are very few people who would take issue with that. What does work very powerfully, though, is the issue facing Bill. Of course she's absolutely correct to be worried, and bringing up this unpleasant side effect of time travel feels fresh, to the point and very, very overdue.
Pearl Mackie handles this scene, as she does all of them, to perfection. There's a lot of heavy stuff in here for her, from confronting racists to watching tiny little children die to realising the Doctor's a serial killer, and she gives it all the appropriate gravitas without taking it over the top. What's more, she does it in a way that utterly convinces us she's hearing it all for the first time. Add that to her infectious zest for time travel and she's rapidly turning into one of our favourite companions.
The Doctor, on the other hand, doesn't come out of things quite so well. The whole episode is structured around making the audience believe he couldn't care less about humans and their trivial little problems, deaths etc, before pulling the rug out from under all that with one punch. However, in order to make the "he really does care" thing work, they take him, we think, too far in the other direction. The scene where he watches Adorable Grubby-Cheeked Tyke slipping beneath the ice, observing carefully for the right moment to repossess his sonic screwdriver, is actually rather chilling. (Big ups to them for letting the kid stay dead, by the way. Loving their work.) Although he tells Bill he cares but moves on, there's precious little caring and a whole lotta moving on as far as we can see. Without doubt Peter Capaldi tempers this in the way he delivers his "I care" speech, but it left a little sliver of ice in our souls all the same.
And the punch? On balance, we think it works. They did over-egg the pudding a little with the lengthy speech first, and he's also going to get a pretty sore hand if he metes this treatment out to everybody in this era who thinks the same as Sutcliffe, but it was effective enough and richly deserved. While it doesn't seem strictly Doctorly, what Doctorly is changes with every new Doctor, and we think they did enough to convince us.
Less convincing is the Doctor's hands-off schtick. It's the same line he took in The Moon Is An Egg, and it was bollocks then as well. The Doctor is a servant of earth, doing humans' bidding? In a pig's eye. Worse, forcing Bill to make the decision to free the fishy thing puts her in an impossible position. Initially, she's concerned that fish-saving might lead to some and maybe many human deaths. If she picks the humans, she's an evil fishkiller. But if she picks the fish, it makes her look pretty cold towards humans, especially as she doesn't give any reasons for her decision (in the end, they evacuate the Thames, but they don't mention this before she decides in favour of the fish). Is the idea that it makes both us and Bill realise that behind the Doctor's apparent lack of caring is the fact that it's difficult to make the moral-quandary decisions he makes all the time? And that the kneejerk sympathy response doesn't cut it in these circumstances? Some of us thought this was the whole point, while others thought that was giving the writing too much credit (sorry). If it was, they really didn't bring this out enough despite Pearl Mackie's excellent agonised expression. Faiing to make the link (assuming there is one) back to the Doctor is an odd decision, especially given how they spell out everything else in this episode in big fiery letters. And having the decision be the right one by not turning out to kill anybody that matters is the cheat's way of resolving it.
As for the rest of it, it's strictly by the numbers. And this is the problem we had with this episode. We could see it was hitting its marks and ticking its boxes, but we were bored. Bored, bored, bored, so very bored, booooooored. Bored. For us, it was one of the dullest episodes, like, ever.
Part of that's about the repetition. Bill's a new companion and has to learn all this stuff, but we don't. Been there, done that. And no matter how beautifully portrayed, the whole thing about whether the Doctor is naughty or nice is a giant yawnarama on the umpteenth go-around.
That's not the only repetition, either. It didn't help us that we'd seen a frost fair episode in the anime Black Butler that was infinitely better than this one, but we can't really blame Doctor Who for that. We can, however place a big moist wodge of blame squarely on their heads for the plot recycling that's going on here within their own universe. This is way too like The Beast Below and a hundred and three other episodes.
And the other thing that made it so boring was the way everything was all out on the table. All the issues Bill had with the Doctor, all the stuff with Evil Moustachioed Capitalist, all the racism, it was all on the surface and discussed to death. And as with the previous episode, aside from the punch the Doctor gets his point over via lengthy speechifying rather than action. About the only thing that was slightly allusive was the parallel between human slavery and the fish in chains, and that was so bash you over the head obvious it scarcely qualifies. When they do all the thinking and all the emoting for us, it doesn't leave anything for the audience to do.
There's been a lot of chuntering about how Steven Moffat is putting off new viewers with his reliance on backstory going back years. It couldn't be more obvious that this season is designed to address this concern: the reset button the Doctor pressed on the Vardy is a whacking great metaphor for the fresh start they're going for. This has its upsides, but for the longterm viewer not so much. If you're new or newish to Doctor Who, this probably was a fresh, fun and dramatic episode. Since this is far from our first rodeo, we were asleep on the sofa rather than behind it.
Budget cuts at the Beeb? The ice SFX are absolutely woeful.
FLOUNDERING PART I
Where did the fish come from? If it's an alien, shouldn't the Doctor take it home? You may very well think so, but clearly the Doctor couldn't give a toss, as he doesn't spare it even a wave of the sonic screwdriver to find out. Harsh, man. Harsh.
FLOUNDERING PART II
We see the fish romping happily along the Thames at the end. Er, how did it get under the bridge in the foreground?