“Thin Ice” continues the trend of this 10th season of New Doctor Who embracing the best qualities of what makes the show such effervescent fun when it’s at its best, even as Sarah Dollard‘s script improves upon the first two episodes of the season in how it manages to weave in some weightier themes and character moments along with the fun. I really enjoyed the first two episodes of this season, but “Thin Ice” might be my favorite yet.
The TARDIS lands in Regency England during the Great Frost, in which the Thames froze over and a carnival atmosphere breaks out on the frozen tributary. The Doctor and Bill land, and we’re treated initially to sparkling dialogue that further reinforces the engaging chemistry between our two leads. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve earned our happy and joyful Twelfth Doctor through his journey over the previous two seasons, so seeing Peter Capaldi bringing such charm and wit to the proceedings only further confirms that he might be the most deft and subtle actors to take the lead role since it re-booted. Pearl Mackie continues to be a fantastic presence, able to nimbly shift from wide-eyed joy at finding herself in new surroundings to being able to ask the requisite companion questions with enough spin to make them feel organic; an opportunity for witty conversation rather than required exposition. Throughout the episode, Mackie goes on a real journey and she makes every turn for her character, even moments that should rub against the grain of any long-term Who fan, feel earned and real rather than contrived.
Dollard’s script is just as nimble, able to shift between some of the most fun and engaging moments we’ve seen in the new series to moments of self-reflection that asks questions about what motivates the Doctor, as well as focusing on Bill’s journey to adapt to the more consequential and tragic aspects of the Doctor’s way of life. Thankfully, Capaldi and Mackie are deft enough to handle the changes in tone without too much whiplash, especially Capaldi, ever the master at underplaying a moment to strong effect. “Thin Ice” also tackles several issues of race, a topic that Doctor Who has noticeably avoided. The addition of Pearl Mackie has given the series a welcome opportunity to discuss the issue, and Dollard’s script does so brilliantly. When Bill notices Regency England is a lot blacker that the movies show, the Doctor’s response, “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.” was so fantastic and overdue it was hard not to cheer. And the way that aspects of the plot revolve around the treatment of Bill’s race by the odious racist and classist villain of the episode gives the Doctor an always welcome chance to deliver a heartfelt speech about tolerance and the value of every life. Delivered wonderfully by Capaldi, the speech provides not just a touching moment but also serves to resolve Bill’s central dilemma of the story.
Like the other episodes in the tenth series thus far, the central threat is somewhat archetypal Doctor Who, and also somewhat easily resolved once recognized, but this doesn’t mean it’s boring or rote at all. The script invests the central dilemma with enough drama that it really doesn’t matter that it’s evocative of other Doctor Who stories we’ve seen in some ways. This is a series in its tenth season, with another series before that that ran for 26 seasons, so it’s unavoidable that it won’t draw upon itself, consciously or otherwise. As always, it’s the execution that matters. Director Bill Anderson does a great job with an script that relies a lot of conversation and dialogue, though I never found it talky or slow. There’s some cool set pieces, including a spooky and suitably atmospheric night time diving sequence that may be low-key but still delivers some chills and thrills. The climatic sequence doesn’t quite have the energetic rush that past, more bombastic episodes would have featured, which is perhaps the sole flaw I can think of for “Thin Ice.” All in all, Anderson balances the contemplative thematic concerns and character interactions very well against the classical old-school fun the rest of the tone is shooting for.
“Thin Ice” once again proves that Doctor Who‘s 10th Season works at its best when it focuses on the joyful and engaging interactions between the show’s two stars, and when their adventures place them in fun and exciting, if perhaps archetypal, situations. Despite a climax that underwhelms just a bit, “Thin Ice” is another hugely enjoyable episode from writer Sarah Dollard, who is fast becoming one of my favorite contributors to the show. It’s another brick in the construction of a strong, fun season so far. 9.5/10