Solid Footing

Review of Thin Ice
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

While Bill thinks she may be "low-key in love with [the TARDIS]" (which I thought was both a beautifully subtle nod to Bill's sexual orientation and a lovely statement of sentiment), I'm definitely low-key in love with writer Sarah Dollard's work.

Dollard, who penned last series's Face the Raven, hit another one out of the park with Thin Ice, keeping Series Ten on solid footing. Bill is fast becoming my favorite post-Hiatus Companion, and the developments in her relationship with the Doctor under Dollard's guidance are my favorite yet.

Following the Series One formula of modern-day introduction followed by a future adventure and then a past one, the Doctor (or, more accurately, the TARDIS) takes Bill to Regency-era London. I knew I'd love this episode the instant I saw Bill's initial reaction to the time: reminding the Doctor that as a person with melanin-rich skin, she's likely to have a different experience out there than he is. Better yet, Twelve actually considers her words before acknowledging the (general) danger and sending her off to choose a frock (in stark contrast to Ten's complete dismissal of Martha's similar anxiety at the beginning of The Shakespeare Code).

Throughout the episode, the chemistry between these two continued to fill me with joy. (I'm so crushed at the thought that we'll have no more of Capaldi after this series, and likely no more of Mackie, either—which is nigh criminal, as she's so bloody brilliant.) The Doctor yanks Bill's chain at least twice about her interaction with time travel—the imaginary disappearance of "Pete" and seeing the lights under the ice—and proves himself both particularly admirable and particularly problematic in her eyes.

On the one hand, he seems refreshingly conscientious. When Bill notes that Regency England is "a bit more black than they show in the movies," the Doctor easily replies that "so was Jesus. History's a whitewash." (For those who might not know, in science fiction and fantasy writing circles, stories set in or based on historical Europe and populated solely with white characters are often defended with an argument of "historical accuracy." Despite that all-white vision of history being constantly debunked, the illusion persists. It's really nice to see it addressed right out in the open this way.)

Similarly, the Doctor throws a singularly satisfying punch (as Christopher Jones put it) on Bill's behalf when confronted with an overt racist. And he makes an impassioned speech about how "Human progress ... [is] measured by the value you place on ... an unimportant life." This attitude so impresses Bill that she comments on wanting to be able to speak that way herself at some point during her less-than-2000-year lifetime.

However, Bill also has to face the fact that her tutor/teacher/mentor has a dark side. The scene where she calls him to task for his apparent callousness over the death of the boy called Spider is a key moment in their relationship. And because she doesn't know him from before, she doesn't realize how far he has already come. On the ice after Spider is lost, he actually tells Kitty, "Sorry about your friend" before immediately trying to move on to saving Kitty and whatever other friends she might have. He didn't even need note cards.

But all Bill sees is the veneer. She doesn't see the pain, because he's gotten so good over the centuries at tucking it away and "moving on" in order to prevent further disasters that it doesn't show in his face or demeanor. She sees the Doctor refusing to express compassion and deflecting her questions, and she's having none of it. I love that she refuses to let him put her off with platitudes, that she pushes him until he gives straight answers to her uncomfortable questions. She knows she deserves the respect afforded by honesty, and demands it of him.

So while I understand the narrative necessity of resolving that character conflict within a matter of minutes, it still seems an awfully quick change of heart when Bill tells Kitty that she, too, has "moved on" from the argument. For the most part I buy it, since Bill has been made to recognize that there are other lives at stake now, but I'd have preferred the luxury of seeing that interpersonal dissonance resolve over a longer span.

Then there's the creature-of-the-week "Tiny" (aka the Loch-less Monster, aka the Not-So-Little Mermaid). When the TARDIS team finally come eye-to-eye with her (Yes, "her"! What other writer would've so casually thrown in the feminine pronoun for an unknown creature?), it's obvious she's a captive. I got flashes of The Beast Below, but more than anything, that moment put me in mind of the Torchwood episode Meat (fair warning: if you haven't seen that one and had a soft spot for Tiny, don't go search it out).

Tiny's a bit of a MacGuffin, but she also serves as the focus for another key interaction between the Doctor and Bill. Similarly to his behavior in Kill the Moon, the Doctor cedes responsibility for an important decision to Bill—except this time I don't nearly hate him for it. Somehow, I can almost buy his assertion that "[he serves] at the pleasure of the human race" (a much better explanation than in the prior case), but it doesn't jibe with his behavior in previous situations.

I'm left to wonder if this attitude has something to do with the Vault. While I'd really like that not to be the case, that's the most plausible explanation I've yet concocted for his sudden reluctance to act on humanity's behalf. In particular, he calls Bill "boss" in front of Nardole after they've returned to his office at university. Is that a way of telling Nardole he's keeping to the letter of his oath, if not the spirit? Time will tell.

For now, I'll bask in the afterglow of a truly top-notch episode.

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Comments

I don't trust The Doctor when he says things like "I serve at the pleasure of the human race."

Like the situation with Clara in Kill the Moon, I think The Doctor was letting his companion make the decision as a kind of test. Put your money where your mouth is. You have judged me for my failure to sufficiently value human life when I'm not even human. How much do YOU value alien life forms and how far will you go to champion them?

I thought Clara's decision was profoundly stupid. But I thought Bill made the right one. The fish creature only ate humans because they were the only food offered and it was eat them or starve. Humans were obviously not her preferred food source. And since she had to be chained up there, the Thames was obviously not her preferred home. Left to her own devices, it was likely that she would swim off to one of the poles and eat whales (or whatever).

But Bill got the message. She realized that while The Doctor's hands weren't clean, the situation frequently demanded that people like the pirate keeping them prisoner in the tent had gotten exactly what was coming to them.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I'm not sure I would agree that the Doctor was testing Bill, but the parallel with Kill the Moon is definitely the one that leapt out at me. I don't really trust his motives after a quote like that, either.

I *do* think Bill stepped up and did the right thing, and I have really enjoyed watching her character develop. I wish we could have three seasons of these two together!

By mrfranklin

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