My god Sarah Dollard is good. I’ve said before that a really important aspect of the Capaldi era is the way that Moffat has found a new generation of writers. And while I’ll be gutted if Mathieson or Harness don’t make the jump to the Chibnall era, it’s increasingly Dollard who’s my real canary in the coal mine for the Chibnall era. If she’s on the list of writers, I’ll breathe a little easier. If she’s not, well, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to muster any optimism. This was fantastic - the first story to rise to the self-evidently ludicrous task of writing post-Brexit/post-Trump Doctor Who.
Where to start, I suppose, is with the place Smile fell most frustratingly short: the characterization of Bill. Thin Ice was shot in the next production block after Smile, so would have had virtually as little to go on with the character as Cottrell-Boyce did. And yet in her hands Bill feels like a character. Dollard’s basic approach to this is at once obvious and effective: she builds out around the fact that Bill is black. Obviously there’s a comparison to The Shakespeare Code to be made here, right down to the major beats - the companion frets about slavery, expresses “step on a butterfly” concerns, and eventually it’s established that, actually, no, the past wasn’t white. Obviously Dollard pushes all of these beats further, which you’d have to when recycling the same jokes more than a decade later, but that expansion is the difference between a throwaway “we’d better acknowledge Martha’s black before hurriedly assuring everybody we don’t need to worry about that” to something that’s actually used to define Bill’s perspective on events.
There is of course a thin line between this and just saying I like the episode because of its politics. And to be fair, I do like the episode because of its politics. I mean, the Doctor literally sucker punches a racist. Of course I like it. Shit, I suspect even Jack is going to turn out to like it. Yes, most of its overtly political statements are very right-on and generic ones that are easily traced to common social justice rhetoric on Twitter. But Smile’s politics were just as generic. The difference, and the reason this works as opposed to just being a confused mess, isn’t just that the politics are good, it’s that they’re coherent. This is a story where all the ideas are actually pointing the same way. The story is about exploitation, and so Bill talks about slavery, points out the erasure of black people from history, and confronts a racist shitlord. Where Smile spent most of its time having no idea what it wanted to be, taking up and discarding ideas willy nilly, Thin Ice knows exactly what it wants to do.
Admittedly what it wants to do is still not something of reckless ambition. We’ve seen this before and no doubt will see it again. It’s completing the “companion’s first three stories” arc with textbook precision, which means that this is the one where some friction arises between them and gets resolved. And there’s something a little disappointing there. Last year Dollard got handed a show-stopper - by some margin the most straightforwardly “big” episode not to be by Moffat - and she absolutely killed it. So this feels like a demotion - there’s just not a way that a story built almost entirely out of standards can compare with Face the Raven.
The flip side, though - and it’s a flip side that should have been immediately obvious to anyone who actually looked at Face the Raven - is that this was her opportunity to prove that what was good there wasn’t the bit that fed into Heaven Sent. The most refreshing and revelatory bits of Face the Raven were the opening half hour, in which Dollard reinvigorated the basic business of the Doctor running around investigating stuff and learning how a setting works. Here she does it with a set of standards and turns in one of those scripts that demonstrates why they’re standards in the first place. It’s worth contrasting with Mark Gatiss, the writer you’d most expect to find out was writing a Victorian-set episode full of old standards. There, the point of trotting out the old standards would have been to revel in them, possibly with small twists that amount to little more than cleverness for the sake of it. Dollard, on the other hand, digs in, trusting that a new writer and new actors doing them with sincerity and conviction will prove fresher than some carefully placed lampshading ever could. And she’s right. A minor classic.