Doctor Who Review: Thin Ice

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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.

I suspect it says a lot that I’m already starting to run out of ways to describe just how good Bill – and, by extension, Pearl Mackie – is. Three episodes in and you’re making this much of an impression? That’s surely a hallmark of a successful companion.

Once again, we’re getting an episode that’s largely defined by Bill, but it’s one that’s done so in a markedly different way from Smile and The Pilot. Where Thin Ice’s two predecessors relied on fairly simple plots to give Bill the space to take centre stage, Thin Ice itself builds its approach to history around Bill’s perspective, and the manner in which Bill’s perspective is going to differ from (almost) every companion who’s gone before her. (More on which shortly.)

As a result, then, the episode feels a lot like Bill’s story in much the same way the previous two episodes did, while at the same time allowing it to touch on some deeper themes and ideas. There’s a lot here that we’ve actually never seen from a companion before, which again is a great way to make Bill distinct – not only is it her fears and concerns about time travel (which of course give way to her wonderful enthusiasm soon enough) but her reaction to seeing someone die for the first time. We haven’t seen a companion respond in that way before ever; not only is it a very clever way of continuing Bill’s premise as the companion who challenges the accepted norms of the genre, it’s just a very nice moment.

It’s one that Pearl Mackie does some brilliant work with, here getting a real chance to show her range as an actress. She gets to continue doing a lot of what she’s good at, of course; the enthusiasm I love so much, and that wonderful charm and charisma that have made people take to her as a companion so quickly. But at the same time, Mackie is given the chance to continue pushing and developing Bill’s relationship with the Doctor – Thin Ice is the first time there’s a meaningful challenge or conflict between the pair – and Mackie carries that brilliantly. If anyone still had doubts at this point (though surely no one did) this is undoubtedly the final proof of how abundantly skilled she is; she managed to hit that complex point between fear, revulsion and anger at the Doctor, yet still ensuring it grew from the closeness of their relationship, absolutely perfectly.

And so, Thin Ice is a great conclusion to the trilogy of episodes that introduce a new companion – although it’s very lucky to have such a great companion to introduce in Bill, and a great actor to bring the material to life in Pearl Mackie.

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I suspect it also says a lot that I can already tell I’m going to start running out of ways to describe just how good Sarah Dollard is. Two episodes in and you’re making this much of an impression? Well, that’s surely a hallmark of a phenomenal writer.

The first time I saw an episode of television she wrote was actually an episode of You, Me and the Apocalypse, a tragically short-lived comedy-drama about the end of the world. Dollard’s episode was the fifth one, and while not exactly an event episode, it was clearly one of the best – her deft handling of the characters was expert, and there were some wonderfully poignant moments. (I said this to her at the time, and she said it was lovely of me to say. I count that as something of a personal achievement.)

And, of course, everyone knows how good Face the Raven was. That’s just sort of an accepted fact, and I don’t need to tell you that again. It’s nice to see, then, Dollard coming back and proving that it wasn’t just a one-off success, but a high benchmark of quality that’s evident across of her work (that I’ve seen). It’d be an absolute tragedy if she didn’t return under Chris Chibnall, or indeed take over the whole shebang herself in a few years’ time.

But it’s worth pausing for a second to reflect on just what it is that’s so good about this episode. I mean, obviously, there is a lot – we’ve already spoken about how wonderful the moments examining Bill’s reactions to death are, and I’m going to talk about that speech in a moment. The bit that stood out to me, though, was the pacing and structure of the piece.

Admittedly, that’s not necessarily the sort of thing that you’d instinctively pick up on; certainly, it’s not as easily noticeable as the lovely dialogue. However, it’s just as important in many ways – Thin Ice is a really well put together piece of Doctor Who. It moves along at a quick pace, yes, but it’s more accurate to describe it as an expert pace – Thin Ice gels together exceptionally well, and it manages to hit all the right beats while letting them all breathe appropriately. I genuinely think you could study this one to work out how to put a Doctor Who episode together well.

So, it’s an excellent effort from Sarah Dollard here, giving us what’s arguably the platonic Doctor Who episode. I can’t wait to see what she does next – Doctor Who or not.

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The bit that everyone spoke about when the episode aired, and the bit that I loved and immediately started gushing about, was that speech from the Doctor about the value of a human life. And, obviously, the punch.

On the most basic level, it works really well within the episode. It’s the moment where the Doctor more meaningfully addresses Bill’s concerns – the demonstration that actually, he does care. And, of course, it is a lovely speech. Plus, the punch is great on a couple of levels – a moment of triumph, absolutely, but also as payoff to the joke about the Doctor’s comment about needing to be charming. It is, literally, a punchline.

More than that, though, this is probably one of the better handlings of injustice and inequality that we’ve seen in Doctor Who. It’s not so much simplistic as it is straightforward, but it benefits from being deeply emphatic in how it advances these ideas; it’s utterly unforgiving in its rejection of racism, its subtle critique of imperialism, and that redistribution of wealth at the end. It’s perhaps odd to be able to praise an episode of Doctor Who for saying racism is bad, but that does feel increasingly necessary these days – despite having been filmed in August 2016 and written before that, Thin Ice manages to be deeply in tune with the zeitgeist of 2017, and does an excellent job at being post-Trump/post-Brexit Doctor Who.

Similarly, it’s also one of the better handlings of race in Doctor Who, in that it… actually does address and acknowledge Bill’s race. It gets it exactly right in the way that The Shakespeare Code got it entirely wrong; we’ve seen what it’s like when they drop the ball on this issue, and Thin Ice is obviously all the better for getting it right.

Ultimately, then, I loved Thin Ice. I could talk about it at length, really; in a way, I’m almost disappointed with this review, because I don’t think I’ve done the episode justice. But then – much like with my review of Face the Raven last time – Knock Knock is about to start, and it’s time to post the review.

Much like Face the Raven again…

10/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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