We’re three episodes in. In 2005, this would have been ‘The Unquiet Dead’ – a story which was received with far more excitement and appreciation than it arguably deserved, given that it was the first time New Who had attempted period drama, with the comparatively lavish production values and bombastic guest star glossing over the many problems in the script. The following week, we were back in London for the Slitheen, and a story which was unfairly maligned. Twelve years later, in this supposedly rebooted series, Doctor Who returns to the past, only this time Bill and the Doctor are strolling around ‘Regency’ London, where something nasty lurks beneath the Thames. Sadly the elephant from last week’s cliffhanger was nowhere to be seen, a money shot that had no bearing on the story, save an inconsequential line of dialogue.
Actually, the elephant is here. The fact of the matter is that even after twelve years, the stories are still rather less than brilliant. ‘The Pilot’ is twenty minutes of whimsy and fifteen minutes of planet hopping, with a less than thrilling denouement. ‘Smile’ ripped off every story in the canon, and the Doctor’s solution was so archaic it should have been in a museum. And ‘Thin Ice’ features an unnamed creature being bullied by a charmless, featureless villain who dies the most comedic of deaths. Oh, it looks lovely, but that’s kind of the point: it is far more about atmosphere than it is about narrative, and far more about relationships than it is about the story in which they grow and develop.
And perhaps – just perhaps – that’s why it succeeds. Because ‘Thin Ice’ is one of those episodes that might have been tedious had it occurred under the watch of another companion. Perhaps Clara would have managed – early Clara, travelling with the Eleventh, before the smugness kicked in. But this seems to be tailored for Bill, in the sense that it is its immediate predecessor’s binary opposite: cold, foggy and throbbing with life, as opposed to the warm, sterile whiteness of the off-world colony that was home to the Vardy. The Doctor spent some time in ‘The Pilot’ racing from one end of the universe to the other in order to throw off the advancing Heather; the two episodes that followed are a direct extension of that, establishing the same pattern that the show adopts for its new companions by quickly showing them both the future and the past, as well as opening their minds to the hidden layers of the contemporary world that they took for granted. “There is strangeness to be found, wherever you turn,” Sarah Jane Smith muses. “Life on Earth can be an adventure too… you just need to know where to look.”
Race plays a part in all this. Regency London is, as Bill describes it, “a bit more black than they show it in films”, and this was quite deliberate – Moffat stating that “History is always white washed…People all didn’t arrive in the twinkle of an eye. It is bending history slightly, but in a progressive and useful way.” There are times when the sense of worthiness becomes tiresome (it may be something the chief writer says he is anxious to avoid, but if you’re going to write about these things that’s how it’s going to come across, particularly if you give the Doctor a long speech about it). London – at least the microcosmic cross-section we’re allowed to see – is the gloomier side of BBC costume drama, all soft focus and poor lighting. The effect is rather like Witness For The Prosecution, which employed a similar conceit. None of this would count for anything were we not experiencing it through the eyes of an enthusiastic young woman of mixed race whose eyes widen at every wrestling match or local delicacy. We have fun, because Bill is having fun – and when she is upset, we cry with her.
But the genius in Mackie’s casting isn’t Bill’s layman accessibility, or her presence as a BBC box-ticking exercise in diversity – it’s the chemistry she has with the Doctor. She and Capaldi spark in a way that he never quite managed with Clara, even at her best. There is a scene a third of the way into ‘Thin Ice’ where the Doctor puts himself in jeopardy not to save a child whose number appears to be up, but rather to recover a screwdriver. Bill is furious, and cannot accept his apparent indifference. “I care, Bill, but I move on,” he assures her, quietly. “You know what happens if I don’t move on? More people die. Do you want to help me, or do you want to stand here stamping your foot? Because let me tell you something: I’m two thousand years old, and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”
It’s an electric scene. The dialogue helps, as does the fact that the Doctor is dressed rather like a Victorian funeral director, but Capaldi has possibly never been better than he is in this single moment: here, at once, we get a fusion; the fierce authoritarian we saw in ‘Deep Breath’, combined with the world-weary traveller in ‘Hell Bent’. We get a Doctor who has got over the mid-life crisis of his ‘difficult second series’, accepted the darkness within him and learned to live with it. He is reconciled, the same way that Forrest Gump reconciles the two approaches to life that he learns from those close to him. That Bill accepts this and moves on so quickly will be the cause of scorn to many viewers who’ve not realised that this is a long game, and something that will inevitably return later in the series.
The tension isn’t all above ground either: the Doctor’s solution is to ‘get eaten’, and we are, for just a moment, back in ‘Beast Below’ territory (to which we will return at the episode’s climax, and about which nothing more needs to be said). But the river bed is dark and silent and inhabited by a colossal leviathan observing the two explorers with a single, unblinking eye. It is mildly reminiscent of SOMA, a game I played just recently, which features an extended sequence upon the ocean floor, a tropical storm raging around you as you fight through caves of spider crabs, evading poisonous angler fish and trying desperately to stay in the lights. It is intense, claustrophobic and frightening. The floor of the Thames is never quite going to compare to that, but it works.
It helps, also, that Moffat has seemingly abandoned the big overarching mysteries, or at least relegated them to the sidelines. The vault is still a Rorschach: it contains whatever you want it to contain, although we can at least now surmise that its contents are conscious and quite possibly humanoid, given that whatever is inside apparently has the ability to knock. But the story is not about that: it does not linger, the way the crack did, or the way the mystery of Clara permeated every series 7 episode in which she featured (and even some of the ones where she was nowhere to be seen). If anything, the narratives we’ve seen unfold occur in spite of the vault, rather than because of them: the Doctor seeks adventure purely as a means of escaping his responsibilities, almost as if he were tired of having to maintain the sense of continuity and just wanted to tell stories. It’s tempting to believe that Moffat is projecting here, but the road to hell is paved with second guesses.
Still: perhaps the best thing about ‘Thin Ice’ is the wink it makes at the audience. It is not a story that pretends to be grand or significant. It is a story in which the Doctor rewrites Dickens and gets all fanboyish over a con artist. (It is difficult to watch the scenes with the pie man and not imagine a similar exchange between Capaldi and a persistent, autograph-hunting enthusiast.) It is a story in which an unreconstructed Nicholas Burns does the splits as the ground cracks beneath him. It is a story in which you wonder whether the thing in the Vault is actually John Simm, and whether the final ‘boom’ that accompanies the words ‘NEXT TIME’ is a simple sting for the episode 4 trailer or that crucial fourth knock.
But at its heart, it’s a story about the necessity of exploration: to scratch and forage, to find both the joys and the darkness therein, the frozen river serving as metaphor for Bill’s discovery of her mentor’s darker side. The path to enlightenment, it is implied, lies not in the certainty of tradition but the willingness to think sideways, whatever the risk. “Only idiots know the answers,” the Doctor insists, in the episode’s latter third. “But if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?” Ultimately, ‘Thin Ice’ speaks to us of the dangers of venturing deeper – the perils that lurk in the darkness and the fear of the unknown – but also of the unexpected clarity that results when you come back up to the surface.