Doctor Who Thin Ice review: “a splendid production and a story with hidden depths”

"Pearl Mackie has a deeply empathic presence and Peter Capaldi is the best he’s ever been at the wit, fury and remoteness of the Time Lord..."

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★★★★★ I do love a Doctor Who story with hidden depths. Not one that simply runs from A to B or even zigzags and “timey-wimeys” between start and finish. But one that pauses to explore character and give our heroes a moral dimension. The writer Sarah Dollard accomplishes this beautifully in Thin Ice. She wipes away a dusting of frost to give us a window into the Doctor’s soul and examines his moral code; the ideals he aspires to and the crimes and misdemeanours he’s prepared to indulge.

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It’s not so much that the Doctor blithely admits, “I’m a bit of a thief myself.” We’ve long known he stole the Tardis from the Time Lords. Here he steals from a pie maker; a crime that is only partly atoned for when he hands most of the pies to a band of child beggars. (In Les Misérables, set around the same time, Jean Valjean got five years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread.) 

It’s more the Doctor’s behaviour when the little urchin, Spider, is sucked under the ice. His only concern is that he managed to prize his sonic screwdriver from the child’s grasp before he plunged to his death. While Bill is stunned by what she’s witnessed, the Time Lord simply caresses his tool in relief. Quite rightly Bill is appalled, and it compels her to start asking more searching questions. “If you care so much, tell me how many people you’ve seen die.” “I don’t know,” is his honest answer. “I care but I move on.” 

As if that wasn’t enough to needle him, Bill follows it up with: “Have you ever killed anyone? There’s a look in your eyes sometimes that makes me wonder.” We know that the Doctor has killed. He’s been responsible for deaths many times. In his very first televised adventure William Hartnell’s Doctor was going to club to death a caveman. We also know that his chief aim is to preserve life, and that occasionally he faces terrible dilemmas. But it’s rare that a companion puts him on the spot. “There are situations where the options available are limited,” he dodges. “How many?” she persists. “Don’t tell me. You’ve moved on.” 

This is great material and the actors knock it home perfectly – Pearl Mackie with lip-curled disgust and Peter Capaldi with a steady expression but eyes swivelling uneasily. The Doctor realises that Bill’s directness and empathy deserve honesty. “I am 2,000 years old and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage.” That one little scene is worth rewatching. I have. Several times over. It’s superb. 

Mackie has a deeply empathic presence and Capaldi is the best he’s ever been at the wit, fury and remoteness of the Time Lord. He’s like Tom Baker c1976. After all these years the Doctor remains unknowable, his actions unguessable. That’s why it’s effective when they’re in the parlour of Lord Sutcliffe. He cautions Bill to proceed with “diplomacy, tact, charm if necessary” when they meet the man who “uses human beings for raw material, who grinds up children for profit” – but then he lamps his lordship after his sexist, classist but mainly racist treatment of Bill. 

I cheered and laughed when the Doctor snapped. I love that he defends his friend on impulse. So, it’s racism that hits the Time Lord’s moral outrage button. Theft is fine. Killing…? Mmm, depends. Child-grinding…? Let’s talk. But racism…? Verboten! Racism is unconscionable. But it tells us much about the BBC, television drama in general and our society’s moral compass when that one issue is The Final Straw. 

Thin Ice doesn’t make a big deal about racism but it does deal with it. When the Tardis first arrives, Bill is impressed to find that “Regency London [is] a bit more black than they show in the movies”. OK, this is 2017 and BBC drama has an admirable policy to provide multi-ethnic casts, no matter what the setting or period. For years, Doctor Who has striven to observe this directive across all time and space. But for millennia, London, as everyone should realise, has been a melting pot of ethnic diversity. 

Bill’s first concern that in Regency England “slavery is still totally a thing” is prescient, the key to the whole story. The captive elephant is emblematic of this, and bound in chains on the river bed is a monstrous serpent. It gobbles revellers and urchins who are drawn though the ice and it eventually excretes them as some kind of wonder-poo – fuel for the steel mills that burns a thousand times longer than coal. But its enslavers, especially Lord Sutcliffe, are the real monsters.

The dark face of Empire and the Industrial Revolution, Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns, better known for comic roles in Nathan Barley and Benidorm) doesn’t have an ounce of compassion. His inhumanity is what finally compels the Doctor to take a moral stance: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river. That boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.” Another fine speech given great weight by Peter Capaldi.

It’s poetic justice that Sutcliffe’s fate – plunging through the ice into the jaws of the serpent – is the one he had wished upon others. How apt that the Doctor uses the creature’s explosive faeces to detonate its shackles and set it free. As it splashes away down the Thames like a massive East End eel, magnificently realised but wisely never fully exposed, this “loch-less monster” becomes a mythological creature Doctor Who can claim for itself.   

Matching Dollard’s script and the leads’ performances, this is a splendid production. Blackfriars Bridge, New Lime Wharf and the frozen Thames are studio-built sets, impressive in size, their limits blurred by mist. The effects of looking up through, and down through, the ice and the underwater, riverbed sequences are all terrific. If there’s any one failing, it’s that no one really looks cold enough.

It amuses me that Thin Ice is set in the same year and location as Taboo, BBC1’s filthy and rather more adult drama, which ended on Saturday nights a few weeks ago. Both are brilliant but could be happening in other universes entirely. In Thin Ice, the Londoners look remarkably clean (a smudge here and there), the violence is mild and the language is censored. As Bill says, “No sh…!” 

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Every story since 1963 reviewed in Radio Times’s Doctor Who Story Guide