One of the highlights of the previous series was Face the Raven so I, like many, were looking forward to Sarah Dollard’s second episode for the show and she doesn’t disappoint.
If the first three episodes are anything to go by then this series is going to be more character than plot driven. Like the previous episodes the plot of Thin Ice is very basic. There is a big monster under the frozen Thames and with the help of smaller fish it is dragging people under the ice and eating them. What sets this episode apart are the details that fill out the basics.
Firstly the issue of race through history is addressed head on. The series has mostly skirted around it in the past but here it is expressly stated that people of colour have existed in British society throughout its history and it is depictions of history in popular culture that have removed them. This is exactly the sort of thing that the modern show should be doing. Doctor Who was partially created to teach children about history. Now it can do so again by correcting some of the cultural erasure of the past.
This story doesn’t pull its punches and not just in a political sense. It also does something that the show pretty much never does, explicitly kill off a child on screen. As a way of showing Bill the grim realities of travelling with the Doctor the death of a child is pretty much as strong as you can get and it isn’t glossed over. What follows is a really powerful exchange between the Doctor and Bill. The two actors have been playing things relatively light up to this point but given a scene with more dramatic weight and they show they are just as good. Mackie is filled with shock and anger at not just what has happened but how unaffected the Doctor appears to be by it and Capaldi looks like he wants to crawl into his shoes when asked directly if he has ever killed. They eventually patch things up because the show needs them to but they have both taken something from the falling out and grown.
It is a nice twist that instead of some alien being behind the exploitation of the monster it is, in fact, very earth based 19th Century bastard instead. Again the script is very clever in depicting Sutcliffe’s racism through his language and outrage rather than resorting to any racial slurs. The Doctor’s physical response to this may not sit well with some but as a literal punchline to the Doctor lecturing Bill on the importance of subtle diplomacy I found it both funny and immensely satisfying.
My only criticism would be that after his initial introduction Sutcliffe tips a little too far into caricature. This is less to do with the writing and more to do with Nicolas Burns playing the role bit too moustache twirlingly evil. I understand the need to show that Sutcliffe is a nasty piece of work entirely deserving of his unpleasant fate but I would have liked a little more nuance.
Sutcliffe’s villainy does lead to another beautifully impassioned speech from the Doctor. It is almost a little aggravating that it has taken the production team this long to realise that if you give Peter Capaldi good dialogue and point a camera at him he will be mesmerising. They only seem to have properly woken up to this fact at the tail end of last season but at least they are now making up for lost time.
Thin Ice is Doctor Who written with passion and direction, design and performances living up to that passion. While it is still early days this is the best episode of the series so far. If the show continues on this upward trajectory we are in for an amazing series.