There’s a definite pattern to this season, one that showrunner Steven Moffat seems to be acutely aware of. After cheekily calling the season opener “The Pilot,” and following it with a trip to the dystopian future, the obligatory voyage to Regency England completes the familiar cycle. It’s a good thing that this happens to be a fun yarn in the vein of classic DOCTOR WHO. [NB: Minor spoilers ahead].
Following on from last week’s cliffhanger of sorts, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) arrive in 1814, during the last frost fair on the Thames. The elephants and parlour tricks on the frozen water aren’t the strangest thing about, with glowing lights indicating that there is something under the ice. As street urchins disappear, the dynamic duo work out that the upper-crust Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) knows a thing or two about it.
Australia’s Sarah Dollard writes her second script for the series, the first being the companion-killing “The Face of the Raven,” and it’s a full-tilt historical mystery, the kind that you could happily see working just as well for previous Doctors Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy. What distinguishes it initially is an overt sense of politics, with Bill immediately worrying about the colour of her skin in the period setting.”Hello? Melanin. It’s 1814. Slavery is still totally a thing.”
Aware of the online debates over Hollywood’s Anglo view of history, Bill later makes the observation “Regency England’s a bit more black than they show in the movies.” The Doctor has the perfect response, of course: “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.” The episode literally hammers the point home when the Doctor knocks out the smug Sutcliffe over a racial slur with a satisfying punch to the face. Coupled with a rousing speech that’s 2000 years in the making, it’s a timely reminder that the show has always had two hearts beating and they are both in the right place.
Yet the rest of the episode plays the straight and narrow. Neither the monster nor the de facto villain in Sutcliffe seems to represent much of an immediate threat, and instead Dollard lets us soak in some of the historical details she has clearly planted in the script. It’s a visually impressive piece playing to the BBC’s extensive mastery of the costume drama. There’s also some fun conversations around the implications of time travel, and a fair bit of bonding between the leads that feels like it will pay off in later episodes.
Last week’s outing undid a terrific concept with a rushed ending, and while “Thin Ice” still barrels towards its conclusion, it still gives us plenty to ponder. There’s that matter of the vault that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is caretaking underneath the Doctor’s London office, and we are now thinking it has to have something to do with Missy or the John Simms version of the Master, both of whom are teased for this season. Then again, we might just take the Doctor’s advice from this episode: “It’s just time travel, don’t over-think it.”