This was very political, wasn’t it? I tend to try to avoid talking about politics when reviewing Doctor Who, because I generally think politics are beside the point when you’re assessing the quality of a children’s show, but political themes were so overtly at the core of this script that a review that omitted to talk about its politics would be fundamentally incomplete. So let’s talk. Yes — it was political, in more ways than one, and in good ways and bad ways. This was a script with a message to convey. There was a great, ancient, probably prehistoric beast chained to the bed of the Thames. Its captor, an odious man called Lord Sutcliffe, was using the creature’s exceptionally potent excrement to power his mills and turbo-charge his industry. He employed local roughs to lure unwitting Londoners onto the frozen Thames as food for the beast.
This episode then, was about exploitation. “Slavery is still totally a thing,” said Bill at the outset of the episode, causing the Doctor to cast a doleful look over the gay scene before him and mutter wistfully, “Yes… it is.” It’s an indictment of the way countless Africans were put in chains with the blessing of English law for the end of building the Empire and its wealth. “These happy people,” the Doctor doubtless reflected as he looked upon the merry fair-goers, “Do they know that their Crown protects slavers in far-off colonies? Do they know that their civilisation rests on the backs of human beings in chains?” If it wasn’t clear enough, the Doctor even delivered what surely ranks as one of the greatest speeches ever in this show driving home that theme. If your wealth and “progress” and your glittering civilisation is built on the suffering of living beings, is it worth it?
It’s uncomfortable, given the profound strides in human material progress that the industrial revolution represented (and it did, by every measure of human well-being you care to offer), to be challenged to think about the virtue of that progress in this way, even to choose between progress and exploitation. But the value of every single life has been a consistent theme in this show since its inception, but particularly in the modern era, and rightly so, and it’s bracing to see the message put so emphatically. In reality, of course, the situation wasn’t so stark — slavery was certainly a stain on the British industrial revolution, but the industrial revolution wasn’t built on slavery by any means — and the episode wasn’t making that claim — and by and large it was a virtuous epoch of unprecedented material progress which is rightly celebrated.
There was another way in which this episode was political. I’ve no doubt I wasn’t the only one to notice that the only major speaking characters (apart from the pantomime villain) were Georgian persons of colour, or the pains the episode went to in ensuring at least two people of African or Indian origin were seen in every shot of the Frost Fair. I know the intention behind this was nothing but admirable, but I’m not sure it was the wise choice to pretend London in 1814 was as multicultural as London in 2017, especially when you include for good measure a scene involving a pantomime racist getting sucker punched by the Doctor. Whether intended to come across that way or not, it looked cynical, and felt preachy. Because acknowledging the presence of Indian and Caribbean communities in 19th Century London is one thing, but disingenuously trying to convince the English that their past was checkered is the other side of the coin to trying to convince the English that their past was white.
But the story. This was deftly written. It’s at least as good as Sarah Dollard’s first script for the show, Series 9’s Face the Raven. Like that script, Thin Ice gives the Doctor and his companion an intriguing mystery for them to solve. It’s an engaging way of fleshing out the episode and placing the Doctor and Bill successively in a variety of different situations as they follow their noses where the mystery leads them. It rarely gets slow and it rarely gets tedious, and the quality of the writing and the dialogue holds it all together tightly.
Speaking of quality dialogue, though, Sarah Dollard gets the prize for the most riveting passages of dialogue yet in this series. I’ve already mentioned the Doctor’s “value of a life” speech, which, in its understated rhetorical power, was phenomenal. But the quarrel between the Doctor and Bill after Bill witnesses death for the first time was sublime. The “companion’s first death” scenario isn’t something that’s done — at all, really — but future writers take note: this is how you do it. Being desensitised to death isn’t a normal thing, and it’s welcome that the show is choosing to approach the subject this time around so maturely and realistically. Even the Doctor’s own attitude towards death is examined more intimately: if you put this scene together with the Doctor’s speech to Lord Sutcliffe, we get a very candid look at the Doctor’s attitude towards death. He’s a Time Lord who cares viscerally about the suffering of living beings, but who has in his long age and experience become hardened about the utility of being ruled by his heart. “I care, Bill, but I move on.” Twelve is a man who prefers to show how much he cares in his actions, rather than his words.
The Doctor has always had a hardheaded Benthamite streak in his attitude toward saving lives. He was the Time Lord who was prepared to slaughter two entire races to end the Time War and avert the destruction of the universe (in one timeline it still happened). In Series 8 he was the man who was frank about his pragmatic approach to death, killing a soldier in Into the Dalek to gain information about the sick Dalek. In Series 9 we thought we’d seen a matured Twelfth Doctor, a Twelve who managed to find his heart in the indeterminate period of time between Last Christmas and The Magician’s Apprentice. But here we’re right back in Series 8 territory with Twelve. Almost. The compassion behind the eyes, the lack of callous gruffness, the visible discomfort when Bill asks him if he’s killed before, show that Twelve did change, permanently (and for the better), between Series 8 and Series 9, but since then he’s clearly reconciled himself with the cold and stern person he knows is very much a part of him. The romantic and whimsical elopement with Clara ended — traumatically — and the Doctor has been forced to move on, and grow up. “I’m two thousand years old,” the Doctor said. This time we believed him.