Understanding Thin Ice outside the context of wilderness years nostalgia is a tricky business. The first major piece of understanding of it that we had, at least so far as I can tell, came in Doctor Who Magazine #255, where Dave Owen outlines a fictitious history of Doctor Who past 1989. But to understand how Thin Ice, then called Ice Time, fits into this narrative it’s worth looking at the larger picture Owen paints – most notably his description of “scenes which now define the series in the public eye – the closing moments of The Last of the Daleks Part One, for example, in which the Eighth Doctor and companion Kate find themselves surrounded by the Time Lord’s greatest enemies.” OK, it’s certainly a believable scene for Doctor Who, but as a moment that now defines the series in the public eye? A Dalek story, with the Daleks in the title, whose first part ends with the Doctor being menaced by Daleks? This is what the wilderness years was clinging to as the sort of image that would have rescued Doctor Who? Here’s a fun game – name a classic series Dalek story whose first story cliffhanger isn’t some variation of “Oh no! It’s the Daleks!” Practically all of them do. This is not a path back into the public’s graces.
(Answer: The only one to completely eschew “ZOMG DALEKS” as a first cliffhanger is, of all things, Revelation of the Daleks. And even there the four episode cut does it at the end of episode one.)
There is, in other words, a clear element of fantasy to accounts of where Doctor Who would have gone post-Survival, and, more to the point, of not particularly grounded or realistic Which is to say that the erased Season Twenty-Seven is an object of totemic power. Owen’s piece drifts off into excessive speculation in more than a few places, and it’s fairly clear that not a heck of a lot of Season Twenty-Seven was actually worked out at the time. Still, with three detailed features (two in DWM, and one on the Survival DVD) of Andrew Cartmel and company obligingly nattering on about what they would have done, there’s plenty to build up a fan myth.
By the time that the third of these features, in Doctor Who Magazine #433, came out the stories had been repurposed for Big Finish’s Lost Stories line, with Andrew Cartmel returning to script edit the virtual season. And one of the things the writers talk about in that piece, actually, is the difficulty of pulling stories together out of the fanon-built edifices of what Season Twenty-Seven supposedly was. All of them also freely admit nothing like finished scripts or outlines existed for any of this – nor even titles, which were invented by Dave Owen.
The “Endgame” documentary on the Survival DVD makes it reasonably clear that things were much more seat-of-the-pants than the totemic image of Season Twenty-Seven requires. The writers admit that their ideas for the season were tentative and amounted to a couple of high concepts and hook scenes. The litany of these are, roughly: the samurai-inspired aliens adopted from an abandoned Aaronovitch/Andrew Cartmel written stageplay, a story about food aid that was going to use the image of Ace in the Captain’s chair of a Star Trek-esque spaceship as its hook, an Marc Platt-penned Ice Warriors story set in late 60s London in which Ace departs to become a Time Lord, and an upper class cat burglar new companion who would break into a safe to find the Doctor impatiently waiting for her.
But notably, the writers also admit swaths of this were likely to be abandoned – the Star Trek style spaceship, for instance, is explicitly mentioned in “Endgame” as a likely to be ditched idea. Andrew Cartmel speculates in practice that he’d have given Ace’s departure to Ian Briggs, separating the events out from the Platt story, and that they didn’t even have a name for the safecracker companion or any idea why the Doctor was in the safe. (Meaning, equally, that nobody was tagged as writing that story.) But in the fan imagination these stray story threads had grown into a coherent plan that would supposedly also pay off the various hints about the Doctor’s past dropped throughout the Cartmel era.
Tat Wood eviscerates this concept, typically called the “Cartmel Masterplan,” in an essay in About Time, suggesting that it’s an illusion that comes from a post-1989 obsession with a particular kind of epic that became standard for “cult” television. Certainly Andrew Cartmel disclaims the term in “Endgame,” and it appears that most of the so-called Masterplan is just Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow, a story that is, notably, never seriously batted around as something that was ever going to appear in Season Twenty-Seven. In practice, Cartmel seems to have liked Platt’s ideas, but to want to leave the explicit explanation out and just hint constantly at mystery.
The myth of a well-developed Season Twenty-Seven, in other words, is part and parcel of a larger myth of the Cartmel era as an unfinished masterpiece with some sort of clear intention – a myth inexorably linked to the idea that the New Adventures line had completed that. But it wasn’t. The Cartmel era was brilliant. The New Adventures line, similarly, is brilliant. But this totalizing myth is unfortunate on two fronts. First, attributing the New Adventures line to Marc Platt, who wrote two novels for it, and Andrew Cartmel, who wrote three, none of which advanced his own supposed masterplan erases the degree to which that line was shaped by its own set of new blood. Second, turning the Cartmel era into a sweeping, planned epic sells out the messy brilliance of what we actually had.
In any case, in 2011 Big Finish, as part of their Lost Stories line in which the multitude of unused stories, dusting off the Season Twenty-Seven ideas was obvious, leaving Platt, Aaronovitch, and Cartmel with the somewhat unenviable task of trying to make a bunch of half-hearted ideas they’d kicked around in the pub twenty years ago into a coherent season. Unsurprisingly the results differed from the initial setup in some significant ways, including a meta-season organization that is almost certainly apocryphal. In terms of Thin Ice, the most obvious and noted swap is that this was originally to be Ace’s departure story. Curiously, given the “alternate history” aspect of the Lost Stories range, this was scrapped in favor of making the stories fit into the Virgin/Big Finish continuity and having Ace stay on.
This is an odd decision. As we’ve already noted, the idea that Ace’s enrollment in Prydon Academy was a sure thing is already uncertain. It’s also a jarring idea – the idea that a human can become a Time Lord fits oddly at best with what we know of the Time Lords. I’m hardly one to worry excessively about continuity, but there’s at least some valid question as to whether the idea that a human can just go to school and become a Time Lord is actually an interesting idea in the first place.
It’s also interesting to note that both of the times Platt has explicitly engaged with this idea, here and in the Lungbarrow novel, he ends up dismissing it as a farcical idea. And he’s not wrong. It combines the worst elements of both Romana’s departure and Sarah Jane’s, simultaneously suggesting a future return (surely the idea of a human becoming a Time Lord – and Ace, at that – is something the series would have to pay off) and risking having Ace’s adventures on Gallifrey seem more interesting than whatever the Doctor’s up to. But perhaps the biggest problem is that it’s just not a very satisfying ending for Ace, a companion who was always more interesting for the ways in which she was not like the Doctor than for the ways in which she was. To have her go be the Doctor’s surrogate in shaking things up on Gallifrey just… cheapens her, especially when the action continues to follow the Doctor, making it implicitly clear that what she’s doing is less important.
So the decision to drop that departure was a good one, although I confess to not really seeing why relegating the Lost Stories into an alternate history would have been a bad thing – surely the basic concept implies more fidelity to the intent of the era they were to be made in than to continuity. Nevertheless, the plot was a bad idea. What’s stranger, then, is the decision to also keep the plot in. Everything in the story plays out in accordance with the Season Twenty-Seven of myth; it’s just that at the end the Time Lords turn Ace down. And, of course, a concept as big as “the Time Lords are testing Ace for admission to their ranks” is something that you kind of have to build an entire story around.
Which brings us to the real problem here. Nothing about Thin Ice actually supports this plot line particularly well. The “Ace is being tested” plot is there, but it’s as grafted on as the Key to Time or the Trial were. It’s a pointless addition. Which is probably something that, if Cartmel and company weren’t bound to the fanon Season Twenty-Seven, would have been taken care of at the time. The solution is clear enough – move Platt’s story back (the fourth story of the season was nebulously defined, so give it to Platt), moving the presumably inevitable McCoy regeneration to his story, and, as Cartmel contemplated in “Endgame,” hire Ian Briggs to give Ace the Gallifrey write-off in a story that’s actually about that. (Or, better yet, come up with a better departure for her.)
The other major change from the fanon version that Thin Ice underwent was a change of setting, moving from late-60s London to late-60s Moscow. This is, obviously, a bit of a huge change. In “Endgame” they describe this story as their Avengers pastiche, so to move it to Russia and ditch the Avengers feel is a huge change. Still, on balance it seems like a good thing. Platt uses the Russian setting to introduce some interesting and provocative themes, having Sezhyr, the ancient Ice Warrior hero, be a thinly veiled Stalin figure who is terribly important to Ice Warrior history but who is also a horrible person with a wealth of human rights abuses. The story, as finally written, wants to be a piece about how the original ideals of Communism are worthwhile but they’re perverted by bad leaders.
It’s difficult not to have some affection for this. Certainly it’s an ongoing theme in Marxist theory, much of which spends more time explaining why the Soviet Union was a disaster than it does criticizing capitalism. And, for a story transmitting in a hypothetical 1990, it’s bracingly relevant. It’s a good story to do in the aftermath of the Cold War. And thematically speaking, it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than Ice Warriors in swinging London, a pitch that sounds uncomfortably like something out of Season Twenty-Two.
Unfortunately, when the “Communism could have worked” theme is paired with the “Ace is tested” plot nothing has any room to breathe. The thematic resonances are there, but they don’t have time to spark. The character and emotional beats are there, but there’s not enough for them to hang off of. In many ways it resembles the problems of Silver Nemesis – a bunch of good ideas that don’t actually cohere into a workable story. It’s not that Thin Ice is unenjoyable – it’s a perfectly average piece of Cartmel-era Doctor Who. It’s that it’s trying to be a classic and just doesn’t have any of the drive to do it.
And this gets at the very real problem with our imagined Season Twenty-Seven. The reality of the era is that large numbers of the people involved were actively checking out. It’s not even clear that Cartmel would have been in charge of Season Twenty-Seven, since he was busily getting head-hunted by Casualty. McCoy intended to leave at the end of it, Nathan-Turner was desperate to leave at the beginning of it, and Sophie Aldred was definitely on her way out. And as we noticed in Survival, there was already a sense by then that the approach of the McCoy era was reaching its limit and that it was time for another move forward. Thin Ice, in many ways, demonstrates the problems with this. All of the supposed Season Twenty-Seven, in fact, lacks the mad ambition even of Survival, little yet the maniacal epics of Ghost Light or The Curse of Fenric. None of them seem to be trying for the same sort of greatness that the Cartmel era had been routinely achieving in 1989. There is a real extent to which the Cartmel era is remembered better for the fact that it went out at its best. Better, in some ways, to want more than to have it.