Thin Ice Review
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.
- I should really watch some of Dollard’s other stuff and get her on for a podcast sometime, shouldn’t I? Ah, so much to do in life.
- Pete is my new favorite companion.
- In an episode full of smart writing choices, Bill’s reactions to death stand out. “First time watching someone die” is not a note that’s been played with a new companion before, and watching her go from sickened horror to, when she’s complicit in a death herself, realizing how seductively easy it actually is to move on is phenomenal.
- After the clanging dissonance of the Doctor being cast as a policeman last week, his fundamental affinity for thieves and con men this week is particularly delightful.
- Which brings us to the obligatory “yeah, that was an absolutely phenomenal speech” note regarding the “life without privilege” speech. Like I said, I suspect even Jack is going to like this.
- Sutcliffe is well cast too – he’s a throwaway villain, and the decision to give him to a comedic actor instead of someone more serious works with that, ensuring that he’s read as a worthless fop. (Also, if we count Amanda Abington in Sherlock, that’s now five out of the six cast members of Man Stroke Woman that Moffat’s hired. It’s possible I’m the only person who cares about this, but I’m weirdly fond of that sketch show.)
- A smaller thing Dollard is good at, both here and in Face the Raven, is making a concept work without devoting much time to it. The underwater exploration scene and the “fuel bricks of shit” scene are both very quick things that aren’t that developed, but both are great scenes, largely because they each have clear and entertaining concepts worked into them (the Doctor and Bill being unable to hear each other and the moronic foreman). It would be easy for the episode to feel disjointed because of short expository scenes like this – they’re both the sorts of things the classic series would have spent half an episode on. Instead they do their thing and don’t get in the way.
- Also, a comedy drunk that gets eaten by a monster to kick things off! How gloriously Pertwee era! (Really, when did we actually last see one of those?)
- Well, that clarifies the vault a bit. It’s only knocking three times, so it’s presumably not John Simm in there. I like Andrew Ellard’s Twitter suggestion that it’s the next Doctor, which would tie in somewhat satisfyingly with the hints that the regeneration is a bit odd chronologically this time around.
- I didn’t find anywhere to praise the “so the Tardis has dresses and likes a bit of trouble? I think I’m low-key in love with her” joke, did I? Loved it.
- Finally, for the American crowd, here’s my review of “Nightvisiting”. Back Thursday for a podcast with Caitlin Smith, and next week for what looks to be another episode of “new writer old standards.”
- Also, this is going up late enough on Sunday that I’m just going to go ahead and push Proverbs of Hell to Tuesday.
- Thin Ice
- The Pilot
April 30, 2017 @ 10:05 pm
Yeah, very much in agreement will all of the above pretty much. This really worked well, feeling both fresh and familiar at the same time. I’m really enjoying how much they seem to be allowing the Doctor and Bill to just develop a relationship naturally, and the plotlines themselves being a background to that. I can’t remember it exactly, but the Doctor’s “you were enjoying yourself; I assumed we’d get to work eventually” line was a really wonderful way of framing that I think.
Also, the setting is Regency rather than Victorian, no? But actually given all the Dickensian nods (again, anachronistically), even though it’s set at the 1814 frost fair, in practice the setting is actually ‘BBC Victorian’, isn’t it….
Margaret Louise Robinson
May 1, 2017 @ 2:23 am
Victorian author Dickens mainly wrote historical novels about the Regency. Dickensian elements are therefore not anachronistic in the Regency.
May 1, 2017 @ 11:29 am
Nonetheless, Phil using “Victorian” when it should be “Regency” = arggggggggh!
May 1, 2017 @ 11:20 am
Honestly, if Moffatt and Dollard had decided “Now is the time to bring back the straight historical”, and just done 45 minutes of the Doctor and Bill befriending orphans and stealing pies, I’m not sure I’d have had any complaints.
Not that I have any complaints with what they did, either.
April 30, 2017 @ 10:06 pm
A minor classic indeed. I don’t even have much to say about it, besides I just smiled my way through the episode. I hope Sarah Dollard continues writing for the show going forward, she’s very talented and the show would be worse off without her.
Bill remains fantastic as well. She was sort of all I liked in The Pilot and Smile, so it’s nice to see she’s still great when she’s in an episode where everything around her is working as well.
April 30, 2017 @ 10:11 pm
Doctor Who weirdly having its finger on the pulse again with this episode filmed half a year before Richard Spencer got cracked across the jaw.
April 30, 2017 @ 10:23 pm
It was three knocks until the very series of knocks, where it turned into four. Could be a misdirect obviously, but I think that the idea of Missy asking the Doctor to guard Simm!Master who she has trapped in the vault is a pretty likely answer to the vault mystery.
April 30, 2017 @ 10:36 pm
*very last series of knocks
April 30, 2017 @ 11:48 pm
It may well be one of them, but I doubt the other is complicit, and actually it seems quite likely they’re both in there – that would certainly seem a reasonable reading of “I know you’ve got a little friend now”.
April 30, 2017 @ 11:54 pm
Wasn’t the line “I know he’s got a little friend now” – refering to Bill?
As in, “you, inside the vault, may now know (because the Doctor has told you, talking to you like an old friend?) that the Doctor has a companion again and so is off gallivanting, but don’t get any ideas, because I, Nardole, am still here keeping an eye on you.”
May 1, 2017 @ 12:17 am
Ah, was that it? I misheard then. Should watch again.
The Flan in the High Castle
May 1, 2017 @ 12:31 pm
Considering that Moffat invoked “he will knock four times” as a playful throwaway joke literally just five episodes ago (Ashildr in Hell Bent), I’ll be surprised if it turns out he’s just using it to signify the Simm Master. That’s definitely what he’s hinting at, but it’s too straightforward not to be set-up for a narrative substitution (unless Moffat’s final piece of trolling is to spend an entire series hinting at something and then actually go ahead and do it). I just can’t see the character revealed in the trailer at the end of the episode that introduced the Vault mystery also being the solution to that mystery.
Factoring in the David Bradley rumours, my current guess is that the “promise” the Doctor made will turn out to be something we’ve already seen: “One day, I shall come back.”
April 30, 2017 @ 10:23 pm
I can’t wait to see someone complain about Sarah Dollar erasing the Middle-Eastern people by blackwashing Jesus.
Seriously though, I don’t actually care if racial composition of extras is historically accurate, but all this blatant racial pandering in tandem with Moffat’s recent comments that sound like Minitruth audition tape made for eye rolling experience. This includes Doctor randomly losing his cool and punching a person for being rude (The only racist in the story, by the way, can’t have more than one having historical attitudes) while usually keeping calm around much worse.
About at this point I got hungry and left the room, so I’ll need to rewatch the episode before I form full impression, but I must say, I have to like the bad guy. Greed is a vice I don’t see on Doctor Who very often, even if the scheme could probably be made more cost-effective with livestock.
May 1, 2017 @ 6:49 am
I wouldn’t say he loses his cool randomly. Not only is it the comedic pay-off to (and redemptive comeback from) his patronizing Bill about her having a temper – Peter Capaldi lectures someone on having a temper – it’s entirely in keeping with the Doctor to take drastic action when he feels protective of his companion.
If you want a specific reason why the punch – well, not in years has Doctor Who been so “transgressive” as to have a human character verbally debase the companion on explicit racial grounds. So the Doctor transgresses right back, skipping the wit and delivering a crack to the jaw.
Is it “blatant pandering” if it’s an organic part of the story?
May 1, 2017 @ 8:38 am
As one of the Middle Eastern people supposedly erased, i.e., a Jew, I liked the line. Because it’s entirely plausible Jesus had a black ancestor or three, while he almost definitely had no white ancestry at all, so the Doctor’s statement that he’s “a bit” more black than usually depicted is 100% accurate, and no more an erasure than the constant depiction of Jesus as white.
Also, what “blatant racial pandering”? All I saw was the Doctor reacting appropriately to a racist jackass. Where’s the pandering?
May 1, 2017 @ 11:06 am
These days, of course, “blatant racial pandering” means any alignment in any mainstream media property with contemporary race politics’ progressive edge. It makes all the bright white snowflakes of the internet upset to see a show that should be “for everyone” acknowledges how “whitewashed” history and media has been.
More seriously, though, I loved this episode for all the reasons Phil laid out and a few more besides. That this episode made a contemporary progressive ideology so explicit and so aligned with the Doctor himself, is a sign that I think the show is in good hands going forward. I’ve watched the unfolding Brexit chaos with all the skepticism it deserves that the British government won’t send the UK into a decades-long spiral of depression and social-economic isolation. One aspect of those worries was whether Doctor Who, along with every other BBC property, would become correspondingly insular and conservative. Which is what particularly worried me about the Kris Marshall rumours – it was a very safe, very conservative choice that would have likely locked Doctor Who into a very staid template.
The BBC Drama heads at least seem to know who the prime signal boosting audience is for Doctor Who today – progressive-minded dorky intelligent young women all over the world. If they didn’t, then an episode like “Thin Ice” that baits all the “I don’t see race so I can’t be racist!” super-fragile white egos so explicitly never would have been made.
More details at my own blog, of course, where I happily piggyback on Phil’s audience whenever new Doctor Who comes out.
Roderick T. Long
May 1, 2017 @ 8:51 pm
Gripe mode: I hate that use of “progressive.” Historically, progressivism was an attempt to wrap a technocratic, eugenicist agenda in leftist rhetoric, and while it’s improved since, it’s still fundamentally an establishment ideology with crinkly leftist edges.
May 1, 2017 @ 9:26 pm
I find your implications of distance between establishment and leftism odd.
May 2, 2017 @ 2:53 pm
I didn’t pick up on this before, but the way you use the past tense about the Kris Marshall rumours implies they have been debunked. Is that so?
April 30, 2017 @ 10:42 pm
I really did not like the way the story treated race. It essentially had one conversation about systematic racism, only to then for the rest of the episode treats racism as the domain of the comically and cartoonishly evil alone. It’s disingenuous, especially when throwing something like one of the people on the Thames refusing to get off the ice being because Bill and the child were black would have gone very far in moving this beyond “Lord Sutcliffe is evil.”
Also, Doctor Who just killed a child on screen. That feels wrong somehow.
May 2, 2017 @ 9:21 pm
It’s a tricky one, because honestly, I reckon if they had done that it would have come across as “This is The Past, which is a different country, that’s just how things are”, whereas the way I read the story as written, the message is that Sutcliffe isn’t racist because it’s the Regency, but because he’s a racist, just like the racists that exist today. I dunno.
Agree about Spider – I’m not sure at what point I realised the Beast Below reveal wasn’t coming, but it was definitely long after he’d disappeared. I’m trying to remember if this has ever happened before (assuming that Luke Rattigan doesn’t count).
April 30, 2017 @ 10:42 pm
If I recall correctly, ages ago, some sorta-kinda reliable spoilerhouse on Gallifrey Base suggested the Doctor would be in the Vault – past or future, not sure, but as Gareth Roberts has said, whenever there’s a mystery box it’s always gotta be the Doctor inside. Though I also wonder whether, somehow or another, he’s got Gallifrey hidden inside there. If it’s a Time Lord vault, it’s gotta be bigger on the inside.
Anyway, about Thin Ice… If I had to critique anything, it’s a tad awkward that the Doctor is the one to save the day this time (albeit with Bill’s blessing). I feel like an Ood Sigma moment of comeuppance from someone Sutcliffe wronged would’ve worked well. But anyway, Dollard gets the point across. You can’t just debate things like racism and capitalism. You can’t wait till your oppressor realizes he’s wrong to oppress you.
So I found it interesting how the Doctor makes it so Sutcliffe is the one who inadvertently frees Tiny the Sea Monster from her chains. Of course, in a story about exploitation, it’s easy to read Tiny as a simple metaphor for the racially oppressed, the economically exploited proletariat, etc. Basically serving a Frankenstein function. So Sutcliffe’s punishment (apart from being eaten alive) is to become an ally. The Doctor weaponizes allyship… seriously, Dollard really gets this show.
May 1, 2017 @ 9:29 am
I’m really hoping the “I serve at the pleasure…” line is linked into later and has some connection to the vault and/or some other ongoing part of this season, because otherwise it’s a really weird line. Other than maybe the UNIT years, when has the Doctor ever really served at the pleasure of humanity? He just turns up and does stuff, that’s almost always been his modus operandi. If it’s foreshadowing of something, then fair enough, but it stuck out more than a little (to say nothing of the “Kill The Moon” / “Ood Sigma” comparisons others have mentioned).
May 1, 2017 @ 4:14 pm
The context of that statement matters much more than the content. What is going on there is the Doctor is putting the final decision about whether to unleash the creature on Bill. “I serve at the pleasure of humanity” was just the rationale he used to get her into the position to make that call: Earlier, he had tried to explain that sometimes he is in a position where he has to make difficult, even impossible decisions where the moral consequences on both sides are problematic. She didn’t accept this answer, demanding instead a straightforward reply to her inquiry about whether he had ever killed someone. And then in the end, he shows her exactly what this kind of decision feels like by asking her to make one: release the enslaved creature and risk it killing someone else, or leave it in chains.
May 1, 2017 @ 7:23 pm
I completely agree that’s what the episode was going for, I just don’t think it really landed it and as a result ended up looking a little…arbitrary, as it if had another purpose but one which hasn’t yet been seen. Not the episode’s finest moment, I don’t believe.
Roderick T. Long
May 1, 2017 @ 8:55 pm
It’s “Kill the Moon” meets “The Beast Below.”
May 2, 2017 @ 9:51 am
Same decision Mattie faced at the end of Humans 2. Knowing the oppressed is likely to do harm on its way to equality of life, release it anyway.
May 3, 2017 @ 2:59 am
This may be not a Doctor thing, but a Twelve thing. He’s the one who explicitly had Clara step into the role of being his conscience. He adopted the concept of having a “duty of care” specifically towards his companions, but perhaps, also, to humanity in general. He accepted Clara making him flash cards to study more appropriate interactions.
He seems to look for rules and guidelines to structure his interactions with others. Hence his protectiveness towards Bill when the bigot attacked her – he brought her there, she’d dependent on him while they travel, he has a duty of care. And when it comes to issues involving Earth, he wants a human conscience, but he also has learned to handle it better than he did just abandoning Clara to the task in “Kill the Moon.”
April 30, 2017 @ 10:43 pm
Nothing more to add, other than I’m liking having Bill’s university as a ‘base’. Very UNIT Pertwee era.
May 2, 2017 @ 3:13 pm
There’s not enough hills for it to plausibly be Bristol though.
May 3, 2017 @ 10:31 pm
They need to CSO some in, for old times’ sake.
April 30, 2017 @ 11:01 pm
I’d like to point out that, just before punching the racist, Capaldi paraphrases one of Colin Baker’s more famous lines.
Also, good thing you did your giant poll thing last year, or you know Pete probably would have made top ten favorite companions of all time, at least.
April 30, 2017 @ 11:03 pm
Theoretically a nice idea having the gang of children, all at the bottom of the heap of society, having Sutcliffe’s fortune given to them. Or rather, to one of them. In reality that would still leave the others vulnerable. Would ‘Peregrine’ share what he had with them and with wider society? Or would he become more like his predecessor? Tricky one, that.
April 30, 2017 @ 11:34 pm
While it almost certainly won’t happen, it’s something that could make a really interesting follow up episode at some point. Lots of ways that story cold go and some really interesting tensions.
In fact, I would be interested to see two paired series that returned to some of the characters/episodes from the first in the second, and/or recast episodes in the first in light of new information in the secon. So, like revisiting Satellite 5, or the way Me was used last time, it would be interesting to see a series 11, with a new doctor, revisit the Vardi/Colonists, follow up on Peregrine ‘Sutcliffe’ and other episodes of this series.
April 30, 2017 @ 11:36 pm
No argument with the quality Bill stuff, but I felt that the episode plot was pretty much The Beast Below with the fangs removed, crossed with a more extreme version of some of the flaws of Kill the Moon.
Whereas The Beast Below dealt with the collective complicity and wilful obliviousness of a society regarding the crimes that keep it running (or purport to do so), here it was all just some one-dimensional moustache-twirler from Central Casting to blame for everything. And whereas that story left the field of applicability for its metaphors challengingly wide open to all manner of contemporary evils, by fixing the gunsights of its analogy so firmly on transatlantic slavery this episode encourages the audience to settle for comfortable condemnation of something that was done away with long, long ago, and self-congratulation that they live in more enlightened times.
As for Kill the Moon, we got basically the same moral dilemma, handled with the same logic – that is, the same phony rigged game, where the characters make a decision very likely to lead to utter carnage, on the grounds that all those people are acceptable collateral damage, but get spared any consequences by authorial fiat. It’s worse in this case, because the alternative is not killing the creature, but just leaving it where it is a little longer until they can work out a way of releasing it that’s a bit less likely to get vast numbers of those precious lives the Doctor was getting so emotional about a little earlier abruptly and violently curtailed. Again, The Beast Below did better with similar material, by giving the characters actual reason to believe a win-win outcome was available, rather than just presenting what effectively amounted to “Is it really a good ides to unleash a colossal, hungry, traumatised and enraged carnivore long accustomed to eating people in the middle of a city?”; “It might seem risky, but don’t sweat it – the writer’s totally got our backs on this one”.
The manner of resolving the question also cribs from Kill the Moon, with the Doctor again taking the quasi-legalistic “it’s your planet, not for me to decide what happens” pose. I suppose in this case one might posit a degree of didactic disingenuousness on his part there. But taken straight, besides being strikingly incongruous with pretty much everything he’s ever done anywhere ever, it seems a bizarrely spurious way of finessing his responsibility. “Sorry I got your family eaten, but I did have authorisation. Who from? Oh, a friend of mine. Yes, just one. No, you wouldn’t know her – she doesn’t live here, doesn’t really know anyone here, hasn’t actually been born yet to tell you the truth. But she’s totally the same species as you and she’s even from this actual planet, so all those currently being digested into high-energy turds can rest assured that they were not devoured without the proper consultative processes being observed.”
May 1, 2017 @ 12:25 am
On reflection, though the invocation of slavery was what leapt out at me, I suppose we were prompted to a broader spread of allusion than that – like the reference to the dredging labourers being in the workhouse. But it adds up to the same “well, it’s a good thing it’s not like that any more then” problem arising from fixing this sort of thing in a fairly remote historical context, and not (that I recall) doing anything to insist on more current parallels.
May 1, 2017 @ 3:28 am
I endorse this post. The Beast Below is in no way Moffat’s best episode, and yet it is more moving and meaningful in nearly every way. Even it’s children are better. And I think 11’s speech was better, too, though it was on a somewhat different theme, and dealt with a more complex sense of personal guilt rather than just asserting equality as if it’s a brand new idea and then having the companion talk about how inspiring it was. I mean, Clearly you don’t have to be 2000 years old to make that speech, unless Dollard and Capaldi have some secrets we don’t know about.
Still, it was par for the course Doctor Who, just not as special as Phil makes it out to be.
May 1, 2017 @ 4:40 am
I don’t quite think that’s the argument he’s making; he merely argues that this is an excellent episode that plays a standard Doctor Who inventively and with passion, which elevates it to “a minor classic”. I don’t think that anyone would argue that, say, the Empty Child/The Doctor Dances was really very unique or momentous as far as Doctor Who episodes go, but we all still call it a classic because it does Doctor Who damn well. So does this.
May 1, 2017 @ 11:34 am
I think that’s selling TEC/TDD very short. I mean, it gave me that old-time Doctor Who feeling in a way that hardly anything else in the new series has done, but at the same time it was highly inventive. If it seems less distinctive now, surely that’s in large part because things we saw first there went on to become standards. It’s a long way from being just a good performance of the old hits, and even further from the kind of grab-bag of reheated ingredients that makes up the plot side of this episode.
May 1, 2017 @ 1:43 pm
I don’t think that either are just a good performance from old hits. There has never been a straight historical that has directly dealt with racial issues (Human Nature/Family of Blood doesn’t count) or explicitly condemned capitalist leanings. In addition, Thin Ice works so well for the exact same reason The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances works as well as it does; the characters are all incredibly fun while still retaining depth (and, frankly, Bill gets more character work here than Rose got in 90 minutes). It deals with the Doctor’s dark side fantastically well, reconciling his Season 8 characterization with his Season 9 characterization better than we’ve yet seen before, and the whole thing is a breezy joy.
May 1, 2017 @ 8:04 am
I think this one has a couple of defences not available to Kill the Moon. Firstly, keeping animals in chains for the benefits is something humans do, which means if it did kill people, there would at least be an element of poetic justice to it. Plenty of people on the ice who have nothing to do with it of course, but that’s less of a problem to a story than it would be to a real-world ethical situation. Nothing humanity does really links satisfyingly with getting wiped out by giant moon eggshell.
And secondly, the creature just swimming out to sea is at least an obvious possibility, so there’s an element of just trusting it here which isn’t entirely unreasonable. Kill the Moon tries to do something like that with its line about birds not destroying their nests, but it makes no logical sense at all since there’s just no reason why they might destroy their nests in the first place. And not killing the moon, unlike in this case, is actually certain to cause carnage on Earth according to the information available to the characters, even if the eggshell is safe, species are going to go extinct from the changes in the tides resulting from the moon flying away. “It turns out the creature just wants to swim away” is trivial as authorial fiat compared to “not only is the eggshell magic, but the creature lays a new moon”. (Yes, it kind of foreshadows that with the mass changes, but nobody links that with there still being a moon at the end of it, so it’s irrelevant to the decision.)
(And it’s a just a small chunk of the story, rather than the central thing the story is about.)
But generally, yeah, it’s the character work which made this one good, not the plot/politics. It is at least on the right side instead of being pally with Churchill or anything, but the Doctor going to the past, finding racism, and this being the thing which makes him so angry he punches someone counterproductively instead of all the murder, is the sort of thing which feeds into people thinking racism isn’t a problem nowadays or trying to pretend it doesn’t exist in Talons.
But I thought it did characterisation better than anything else we’ve seen on Who for quite some time. I’m convinced Dollard is very good now.
May 1, 2017 @ 11:38 am
Fair points. In my defence, that was a quick comment on The Beast Below that spontaneously mutated into an extended off-the-cuff digression on the Kill the Moon, and ended up rather undercooked as a result. I was forgetting quite how elaborately daft KTM was.
Roderick T. Long
May 1, 2017 @ 9:04 pm
It’s also very similar to this scene in Django Unchained:
In both cases, the white protagonist indulges in a feel-good act of violence against the racist, but in such a way as to endanger the life of both himself and his black companion.
May 1, 2017 @ 10:56 pm
“finding racism, and this being the thing which makes him so angry he punches someone counterproductively instead of all the murder”
I don’t think this entirely works as a criticism when you factor in that the racism was directed at Bill. It’s well established that most of the Doctor’s principles fly out the window when his friends are threatened.
May 2, 2017 @ 10:37 am
It’s not a criticism based on the Doctor’s behaviour being out of character, it’s a criticism based on the story’s presentation of racism being geared to making viewers feel good about themselves because they’re not racists or think they aren’t racists, rather than equipping its audience to avoid non-obvious racism and/or more effectively fight it.
April 30, 2017 @ 11:45 pm
Pete is by far my favorite companion. It’s a shame no one can ever seem to remember him.
April 30, 2017 @ 11:57 pm
I thought this episode felt like really traditional classic who. But in a good way. There was a monster! And a villain who was villainous and had actual motivations! And the ‘here’s what the Doctor has to do to win’ was clear. And he gets to do something clever and beat the baddy. And he gets to nobble the baddy. And it’s fun!
This stuff isn’t rocket science, but the show’s been stuck for years navel-gazing and treating the most important thing as ‘Doctor Who’ with the Doctor being relegated to being pretty much impotent, and most episodes being about a ‘situation gone wrong’ or ‘something is misunderstood’. It’s nice to get back to basics for one. And be fun. Season 10 has been fun so far. Thank goodness.
May 1, 2017 @ 12:34 am
Although I really enjoyed the episode, largely for its competence and how well the Doctor/Bill relationship came off, there were definitely significant problems I had with it. I actually didn’t really like the Doctor’s speech that much, with its strange fixation on value, although granted this might be in part because the day before this aired I spent a long time reading a bit of Baudrillard where he critiques the idea of use value very heavily and that was in my mind. I also thought the resolution with the big fish didn’t work very well – as Aylwin points out, it cribs the Kill The Moon bit. In my opinion it works much less well here, because Kill The Moon was actually deeply invested in exploring the ethics of making that choice, whereas this episode spent no time whatsoever dwelling on the moral aspects of setting the fish free vs. letting it go, when it seems like it would have been just as easy to have a situation in which the fish isn’t going to kill anyone without jettisoning any of the thematic weight of the episode.
Re: Aylwin’s comment: I’m not so sure the episode’s gunsights were fixed firmly on transatlantic slavery. I would say that’s conflating up two of the episode’s themes – racism and industrial exploitation. The racism is pretty much only thematically relevant because of Bill’s race, but it does tie into the larger narrative about Lord Nathan Barley and his enlightenment-industrial project of feeding poor people to fish because people die in coal mining anyway.
I did really like the episode. Both this and Face the Raven have an interesting kind of bricolage feel to them – like Dollard made the worlds they occupy out of a basket containing odd historical facts, sci-fi ideas, and pyschogeographical texts. Both this and Face the Raven have a visual fascination with maps and their inability to reflect the truth – in the case of Face the Raven, the existence of the trap street, in this the fact that the Thames (heavily focused on on the Doctor’s map) is the home of a real big snake fish. Other than that, Dollard really knocks the Doctor/Bill out of the park, giving Capaldi some of his best material. While people often single out Capaldi for his solo acting à la Heaven Sent and his big monologue in the Zygon Inversion, I think Capaldi is typically at his best when he gets to play off someone else, and the sequence when Bill asks him about how many people he’s seen die and how many people he’s killed was a masterpiece. Capaldi is always coming up with new ways to underplay things.
I really look forward to seeing more from Dollard.
May 1, 2017 @ 11:52 am
I did scramble to walk that one back a bit after posting – as you say, the field of fire is not nearly as narrow as I first suggested. But I think the general point remains, as the focus is on things in the past that don’t exist in the same form or in such intensity any more. Condemning the ills of the past is a weak (and even potentially counterproductive) instrument for making a political protest, because it invites a complacent gladness that things aren’t that bad any more (see also “nice-but-then” and all that). Perhaps even more so when it’s paired with a sci-fi metaphor, which rather invites people to relate those two things to each other, rather than relating either to current reality. If you want an audience to read denunciation of the past as denunciation of the present, I think you really need to be explicit in a way that I didn’t see here. There was no “Who do you think made your clothes?” moment (at least, I don’t think so – on my present form, maybe I just missed something).
May 1, 2017 @ 1:56 pm
That’s mostly fair, although I do think it does more to relate to the present than you suggest – for example, as someone points out in the comments above, Doctor Who firmly makes its position clear about what the proper response to disgusting outright racism is (a punch in the face) and then identifies that racism as a specifially human problem seems to me very relevant.
May 1, 2017 @ 1:54 am
I enjoyed this as a collection of suitable moments. As a story, it felt a bit like scrambling through the skeleton of something that ought to have been fuller, but such is the way with many new series episodes. (The throwaway villain wasn’t nearly camp enough to earn that one ridiculously camp line he suddenly got, and we didn’t really learn much about the creature before 12 dropped the Kill The Moon Dilemma on Bill. I got an impression of beats being hit out of necessity, without the structural robustness we’ve seen from Harness/Math)
All that aside, I found it weird that the script was so open about race but suddenly hiked up onto such euphemistic tiptoes for the villain’s reaction to Bill. A step down from the equivalent in Family of Blood, for certain.
May 1, 2017 @ 5:49 am
Please sir – can I have some more?
Dollars is stellar, and that episode was just excellent “classic Who for the modern day”.
Love the leverage she got from Bill being such a genre-aware companion, then suddenly having to face the awful reality of life with the Doctor. It felt like all her sophistication was suddenly revealed for the shallow knowledge that it is: making her vulnerability even more potent.
And Geeze – Pearl Mackie is acting the hell out of this. Eating it up. If she keeps this up she’s stepping onto the stage with Donna, Rose, and yes, even Sarah-Jane.
May 2, 2017 @ 9:59 am
She is the only one I know to stick her tongue out at the Doctor as Sarah Jane did (when she noticed him noticing her realising their fight was over, she was moving on); that same easy-going equality of relationship that Sladen and Tom B had so quickly.
May 1, 2017 @ 6:15 am
I can’t understand some of the negativity here. Ghis was a stone cold classic!
Another vote here for Pete as fave companion!
“It’s just time travel, don’t over-think it.”
I can’t help thinking this advice was also aimed at showrunner Steven Moffatt.
Taking the mundane or the familiar and turned it into the problem to be solved is what Doctor Who does best. This time it was the serpentine Thames itself, so familiar from the Eastenders titles (mirrored in the TARDIS scanner) which was monstered.
The last Frost Fair was indeed in 1814, but not above sewing some anachronistic seeds of dissent, the Doctor reads the children a story from 1845: The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb from Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter. Hoffman had a strong scepticism towards dogmatic ideology and a distaste for religious or political bigotry. Just like the Doctor. Indeed this story thoroughly examines the Doctor’s moral code; the ideals he aspires to and the crimes and misdemeanours he’s prepared to indulge. Oh that speech! Capaldi gave it his all as did Pearl Mackie, relishing their Regency cosplay as much as their galumphing brass diving suits they played off each other excellently. Mackie’s teary “How many people have you killed?” after witnessing her first (and knowing this show definitely not her last) death of an innocent had me welling up and punching the air simultaneously.
This is more like it! Finally and not before time Capaldi has found the Twelfth Doctor. I’ll be genuinely sad to see him go now.
Speaking of which what’s a knocking on that vault door? The Master would be too obvious. My guess at this stage – it’s a slowly cooking and potentially unstable thirteenth Doctor. Allowing Moffat to have his cake and eat it. A regeneration in episode twelve where Capaldi must lock himself away and the events leading up to that for the timey wimey Xmas episode. Maybe. Time will tell.
May 3, 2017 @ 11:53 am
The Valeyard was supposedly between the Doctor’s “twelfth” and “final” incarnations…hmm.
Lovecraft in Brooklyn
May 9, 2017 @ 12:07 am
That story the Doctor reads shows up in the first arc of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol.
May 1, 2017 @ 7:13 am
There were flaws in this episode, definitely – little moments that didn’t quite work, things that were undercooked (a little more depth to the villain might have been nice, with time), some
And yet watching it, Doctor Who feels like “new” to me for the first time in years. The unearthly Frost Fair in the familiar setting of Regency London, the astonishing visual metaphor of the world seen from below through an (almost literal) glass ceiling. The sudden edge of a Doctor who goes thieving for fun, who frightens his companion with his casual killing, who surprises us by punching the bad guys, who rewrites and cheats the rules to give vagrants a home. Bill comes to life as a character for what feels like the first time to me, the performance, scripting and direction full of moments that give her agency, depth and interiority.
Whatever its flaws, this is a story heavy on “magic”, and I can’t not adore it for that. If every episode aspired to capture this feeling, I would be a very happy bunny indeed.
May 1, 2017 @ 7:15 am
Oh, and – maybe the thing in the Vault is just the baddie of this season arc, but it would be classic Moffat to set up his own version of The Next Doctor, but with the real Next Doctor. (The Chibnall factor probably wouldn’t allow for it…but you just know it’s something he’s thought about.)
May 1, 2017 @ 10:04 am
The obvious answer would seem to be that it’s either the Doctor or the Master, although which version is unknown.
Considering the rumours that David Bradley will be playing the first Doctor in the Xmas special (which may be rubbish, but who can say?), it would be incredible if it was the first Doctor who was locked in the Vault for some reason. Lord knows why, but what a cliffhanger for Xmas. It could even lead to bringing Carole Ann Ford back as Susan – she could rescue the Doctor from his own future self.
If this doesn’t happen, at least there’s inspiration for some wanky fanfic.
Roderick T. Long
May 1, 2017 @ 9:13 pm
A regeneration has involved pounding on a vault door from the inside before:
May 3, 2017 @ 8:11 am
So it’s the Doctor, but possibly not the one we’re expecting?
May 2, 2017 @ 1:47 am
It’s obviously Pete!
May 1, 2017 @ 11:26 am
“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.”
Should break it to you now, Phil — Gatiss reckons that Chibnall has an “entirely new writing team”, which accords with what the insiders I’ve spoken to have been saying.
May 1, 2017 @ 12:03 pm
It’s funny – at the time, the sharpness of the Davies-Moffat transition seemed like an exceptional phenomenon arising from an unusual combination of personnel changes happening all at once, so different from the non-synchronous changes of Doctors, companions, script editors and producers in the old series. Yet it looks as though the Moffat-Chibnall break is going to be even sharper, if not only the showrunner and the whole regular cast but also the entire writing staff are to be replaced, plus the introduction of a different working method (the writers’ room). Such thorough purging of any kind of continuity that might ease the transition suggests that Chibnall is going at this with a quite remarkable degree of confidence in his own abilities and plans…
May 1, 2017 @ 4:27 pm
As he should. I’d rather Chibnall swagger into the job than become too timid, as if he’s in charge of an antiques shop. Still, I think it’d be a mistake not to bring Mathieson/Harness/Dollard on board.
May 1, 2017 @ 12:13 pm
While I’m spamming the board, as this doesn’t seem to have come up so far and as I seem to be the designated carper-in-chief on this one, can we all just take a moment to marvel at the sheer Matrix-style ultra-wrongness of the idea of an animal that excretes highly concentrated fuel. That’s more or less exactly how things don’t work…
May 1, 2017 @ 1:05 pm
Coal, petrol, peat. Isn’t it all someone’s feces in the end? Mostly bacteria, but that’s not the point. Although there’s better ways to make fuel off fuel-shitting fish than to feed it occasional human. Humans are not big enough to make good fuel.
May 1, 2017 @ 2:42 pm
Not so sure about peat, but aren’t coal and oil produced by endothermic chemical reactions arising where biomass is subjected to intense heat and pressure in the absence of oxygen? That is, through a further input of energy into matter which has already had energy (derived ultimately from sunlight, geothermal heat, oxidation of inorganic chemicals or whatever) stored in it through the initial formation of the biomass.
Whereas faeces is the stuff left over once an animal has finished extracting energy and useful chemical compounds from its food. Hence it is by definition lower in energy than the food from which it is derived.
May 1, 2017 @ 1:11 pm
Don’t cows fart methane?
May 3, 2017 @ 7:48 pm
Yes. Though you really don’t get a lot of excess energy from having methane dissolved to carbon dioxide and water. Pretty high oxygen too, as with methane only having one carbon atom, and therefore a much higher hydrogen-to-carbon -ratio than most hydrocarbons that are used for fuel.
May 1, 2017 @ 2:01 pm
Didn’t irritate me as much as the Doctor holding up a science fiction anglerfish, light and sharp teeth and all, and saying “this is clearly not a predator.”
May 1, 2017 @ 4:23 pm
Not in principle. Indeed I can even imagine an eccentric but maybe plausible energy-making scheme utilising such a creature.
So there are aphids out there which excrete sugar (honeydew), because the sap that they consume is very high in sugar, and to get all the other nutrients that they need from it, they have to consume more sugar than they can possibly make use of. You excrete whatever you don’t want, that can be carbon-y energy if you’ve got massive surpluses of it.
Now one of the hopes of renewable energy is some algae which are comprised of nearly 50% oil, which we might one day grow in massive tanks in the desert, as a kind of organic storable solar power. But maybe harvesting them is a pain. Suppose we were to genetically engineer a big filter-feeding fish which ate them. It would need to consume loads in order to get all its micronutrients, and take in massive amounts of oil it had no need for. So maybe it could excrete easily collectible pellets of (the solid at room temperature types of) oil.
May 2, 2017 @ 12:57 pm
May 2, 2017 @ 2:46 pm
People use/have used dung of various sorts as fuel. But that’s just a way of making use of a resource which exists anyway, is easily gathered and would otherwise go to waste, unless used as fertiliser, while alternative fuel sources may be scarce. It’s not because it’s particularly good for the purpose. Excrement will always contain less energy in total than what the animal originally ate, and will generally also contain lower concentrations of energy relative to its mass than that food.
(Though as Lambda points out above, in extreme cases where the food source is very high-energy, the excreta may actually contain a higher concentration of energy than the food source, though still a smaller quantity of energy in total. So the concept is not in principle quite as silly as it seemed, though in practice still pretty silly when, as here, the food source is human bodies.)
So it makes no sense to keep an animal and supply it with food for the sole purpose of using its dung as fuel. Whatever you’re feeding it will certainly contain more energy than the dung does, and will generally also contain more concentrated energy, at least once you’ve dried it out. Certainly no way do you remove a load of energy from some meat and get left with something with an energy concentration a thousand times higher than coal, or whatever it’s supposed to be.
May 2, 2017 @ 2:56 pm
OK. I’ve resisted this temptation long enough. Time to just say it.
Even for a pointless nitpicking of the science of Doctor Who, this discussion is pretty crap.
May 2, 2017 @ 7:45 pm
The missing companion was Peat not Pete.
May 3, 2017 @ 11:41 am
And not the sort of crap that can power interstellar travel, either…
May 3, 2017 @ 3:37 pm
I’d like to think you’d only been restraining yourself from the pun, but…
May 3, 2017 @ 2:12 am
Futurama did something very similar, with the Nibblonians excreting super-dense pellets of dark matter to be used as spaceship fuel.
Anthony D Herrera
May 3, 2017 @ 7:43 am
This is as a good a place as any to mention that when I was really young I asked my dad what the book 1984 was about and he told me it was about the government feeding the population a kind of food that destroyed their insides but turned their excrement into a powerful fuel source to power the country. In conclusion, this episode brought back a really baffling memory.
May 1, 2017 @ 6:56 pm
This episode made me share Phil’s sometimes expressed hope that Doctor Who keeps doing new things. It was a full, coherent competently written story in all the ways Smile wasn’t… But we’ve seen the vast majority of it before (most notably, as a lot of commenters here observed, in The Beast Below and Kill the Moon). There were some lovely bits, of course (the Doctor’s monologue about outrage, punching the racist guy…), but once we knew all the elements of the story, it was very easy to fit them into a certain well-known shape. That made me feel slightly underwhelmed, as unfair as that is (and I do feel really awful about that, because I really like Sarah Dollard).
This is the third story in a row that uses the iconography of past adventures (we had all the little Moffat trademark tropes in The Pilot, the Vashta Nerada in all but name in Smile, and now the beast below which posed the threat of killing the Thames). I wonder if this is deliberate. It feels a bit qlippothic, this debris of previous Doctor Who, doesn’t it…?
My ranking so far:
Roderick T. Long
May 1, 2017 @ 9:40 pm
We also got several callbacks to “The Next Doctor” — including the sonic screwdriver’s being sonic because it makes a noise.
May 1, 2017 @ 7:22 pm
I recall seeing “First time watching someone die” played out with Clara in “Cold War” and I was impressed with it at the time, but I believe it was performed even better with Bill.
Roderick T. Long
May 1, 2017 @ 8:52 pm
“Pete is my new favorite companion.” —
New? You had six whole posts devoted to him last year.
That’s funny, i can’t seem to find them now.
May 2, 2017 @ 10:12 am
I liked this episode. I certainly enjoyed it more than I enjoyed “Smile”. Apparently having some actual characters with personalities and an actual plot really helps an episode. Who would’ve thought, huh, FCB?
Wasn’t the Doctor’s speech about “life without value” the best embodiment of this blog’s running theme of material social progress being the secret to alchemy? He pretty much came out and said it explicitly.
Bill was amazing in this episode. I was hoping she would get some real character moments – and boy, did she ever. Watching her is just pure joy.
Having said all that, I feel strangely alienated by this whole season so far. All this effort put into making Doctor Who available to new audiences makes me feel like I’m watching a reboot, and one not aimed at me. Like my GF said: these stories are so small on the inside. Just treading safe ground, simple plots, no experiments or challenges. I really hope this changes as we go deeper into the season. So far I’m a little underwhelmed.
May 4, 2017 @ 9:31 am
I know what you mean. I think it’s for the good of the show, by and large; but I’m nonetheless itching for the meatier stuff in episodes 5-8.
May 2, 2017 @ 10:17 am
Call me shallow if you like, but I’m enjoying the tropes stuff. In FTR she knew killing Clara was the given, which the audience knew in advance, so the means was almost irrelevant. So she filled the whole Trap st with Lampshades and even launched her McGuffin from one.
Here she ‘homages’ so many bits of WHO and other good stuff, and majors on the Doctor’s appreciation of theft and a good con. The Doctor hands out goodies and says: ‘It’s ok; they’re stolen.’
The hatful of stolen pies both celebrates the writer’s art, and asks the anti-capitolist question ‘Who stole all the pies?’ Probably not left-wing enough for Jack though: it wasn’t the poor or oppressed that rose up and freed themselves, like PotOod. It was two people in a position of power and privilege who engineered it.
To me the most left-wing thing they did wasn’t the redistribution of a tiny bot of wealth to one urchin, it was the Doctor and Bill playing the Overseer, but at the same time giving him the idea that he was worth more than his current situation, and could apply his reasoning to his own advantage. Raise people’s expectations and self-belief if you want a revolution.
May 4, 2017 @ 9:54 am
So….this episode establishes that the Doctor likes pies right? And people who eat pies are pie-eaters, right? And pie-eaters are people from Wigan, right? And lots of planets have a north, right? And Bryan Talbot is from Wigan, right? So Bryan Talbot is really the Doctor.
May 6, 2017 @ 10:57 pm
The monster in the Thames and the coal mines have the same effect: they devour people in order to produce fuel. So what’s the difference between them?
The difference is that Bill could save people from the monster.