This one had a huge amount to live up to for me, because I love history and one of things I would want to do if I had my own TARDIS would be to visit a frost fair. The idea of a frost fair has captivated me for years. So I was probably placing a bit of unfair pressure on this episode to impress me. As always, it is worth having a bit of background knowledge about the history behind Doctor Who episodes set in the past. Plus, if episodes inspire people to go off and find out about these things that is a beautiful thing, and has been happening since Marco Polo. So here’s a “snippet” of information from my own history blog:
Visually, Thin Ice had a lot to deliver, and I was hoping to be blown away by the sight of a frost fair on my television screen. Because as far as I know that has never been done realistically and I so wanted Doctor Who to be the show that delivered that, with a bit of nifty cgi or something. Because here’s an idea of what a frost fair should look like, albeit probably a romanticised view:
… or this, with the Thames stretching way off into the distance:
Compare and contrast with the image from the episode at the top of this post. What we saw on screen was far from a bad effort, but didn’t quite scratch that itch for me. And that is really a metaphor for the whole episode. I had a similar reaction to Smile. Thin Ice didn’t wow me but I thought it was a good, watchable episode. Again, the ideas are running out, with a close parallel to The Beast Below, especially with the moral choice being faced.
The stand out moment was the Doctor saying how calm he was going to be and then totally losing it when Bill was racially attacked. That’s how I see the Doctor – not a saint, not a pacifist, just a good man who is still capable of getting furious about an injustice. It is important that Doctor Who gives us these moments. I think it was absolutely right to show him punch the man at that point, and I hereby relegate the Seeds of Doom punch to second place. I am a little less keen on him taking delight in theft, although it was not so bad as it might have been as the victim was dodgy himself.
So far, we have had a very derivative series, with at least two episodes out of the three that have just thrown together past concepts in different settings. We are also following that well-worn RTD pattern for the beginning of the series, with:
(1) Contemporary story to introduce a contemporary companion
(2) Episode set in the future
(3) Episode set in the past
That goes right back to Rose, but why not stick with the formula? It probably works better than any other approach, as it says to new viewers “this is Doctor Who, and here are the three different things we spend most of our time doing”. It’s a monster-of-the-week episode and the monster is entirely forgettable, as are all the guest characters, but again it is the rapport between the Doctor and Bill that really elevates the episode above the average. This season so far has allowed us to rediscover Doctor Who through the eyes of a magnificent new companion, and that’s a lot of fun. Just look at the moment Bill steps carefully out onto the ice. Doesn’t that bring back memories of Rose stepping out into the snow in The Unquiet Dead? The plots so far have been thin, but that doesn’t matter when the series has “turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure”, as the First Doctor might say. I wonder if we will ever see him again… RP
The view from across the pond:
Acting is playing “make believe”. It’s what our kids do when they dress as Spiderman and Harry Potter, running around the house zapping bad guys. A talented actor makes us forget that the story isn’t real. During those moments, we have a magic box to watch others live their lives and we lose ourselves in that story. A truly talented actor can go a step further….
In the 2017 movie The Circle starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, Hanks has a moment toward the end of the movie where he’s in trouble, knows it, but is in front of a crowd and has to play it off. Here, Hanks does something sublime: he conveys every bit of emotion with barely a word while maintaining as straight a face as he can for the crowd. It’s an incredible scene, because of the way he plays it. Maybe it’s an eye movement, a slight inclination of the head at the right moment… whatever it is, it stands out. It goes beyond all the best acting and hits upon sublime.
Thin Ice does indeed follow the format of many other stories like The Beast Below and The Unquiet Dead, but Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie bring this episode higher than the earlier stories. I’m not saying it’s a better story (as I’m a big fan of The Unquiet Dead) but these two actors bring this episode to another level and it’s down to a few specific moments. The best moment comes when The Doctor is discussing what life is worth. It’s not just the words he chooses, it’s the subtlety … something in his eyes, thinking about what words to say. It’s beautiful and Pearl’s unspoken reaction is perfect. It’s more than acting, it is deeper than that. We feel pride at what he says and we are inspired. Mind you, his words run a mere 22 second! And yes, it’s a script, it’s “make believe” but when it resonates deep down in our cores, it’s more than that. And Pearl knows it.
Later, when she asks what it takes to be able to make a speech like that, it serves to drive the point home even further.
There’s another scene where they are talking about “moving on” and getting over the death of others that is also powerful and again, it’s more than words. He’s not happy admitting it, but he decides honesty is better than lies (and about time that the writers understand that the whole “doctor lies” thing is a moronic mantra for a hero!) and she has to stomach it.
Lastly, there’s that wonderful punch. Like Roger, I don’t like the Doctor lying and I don’t like him glorifying in violence but that racist knockout was glorious.
Considering the axiom that heroes are defined by the quality of their enemy, this episode surpasses even that truth because the enemy is an unremarkable money-hungry bigot and the monster is utterly forgettable. But the anti-racism of the episode and the idea of truly introducing Bill to the TARDIS carry this episode above the average. It doesn’t hurt to have a few scenes underwater with a giant creature down there! And the humor, when the Doctor and Bill are asking the local foreman for some information is priceless. And while surprisingly crude for Doctor Who, the humorous realization about the bricks is amazingly well done and funny.
This was the first season I had the pleasure of watching with a group. Everyone agreed that the opener was great and everyone agreed that Smile was merely ok. With Thin Ice, everyone loved it and moved it to the #1 spot for the season. Sometimes the actors just get it right and make you forget that you’re watching grown-ups play “make believe”. And that is truly magical!
I know, I know, you already knew that. You’re all thinking the same as Bill….
“No shi…” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Knock Knock