Following directly from the previous episode, the Doctor and Bill went to the future last time, now they are in the past. Specifically, the 4th of February 1814, the last great Frost Fair, held on the frozen River Thames. Underneath the ice however is a huge unknown sea
The Doctor and Bill obey the dress code by changing into clothes appropriate for the time period. The Frost Fair has market stalls, lots of food (even if most of it sounds a bit unappetising to us in the modern day), bowling, wrestling and a sword swallower.
The Doctor and Bill both notice some strange green lights moving under the ice. A drunk sees the lights too, and follows them onto a patch of thin ice. He appears to fall through the ice and it sounds like he gets eaten. But the really weird thing is the ice seals up immediately afterwards!
A girl, Kitty, tells the Doctor and Bill she has lost her dog. This is simply a distraction while a boy, Spider, picks pockets. He steals the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and the two kids run away.
The green lights follow Spider, and he falls under the ice, with only part of his arm clutching the sonic screwdriver visible. The Doctor gets the sonic screwdriver before the boy’s arm goes under, then the ice reforms.
Bill is shaken by this, and is upset about having just witnessed a death. The Doctor points out that just a few hours ago they were in a garden full of dead people. Bill says that’s much, much different from actually seeing someone’s death. The Doctor tells her it’s best if she “unlearns” that idea. Bill then asks the Doctor how many people he’s seen die, and there’s been so many he doesn’t know. Then she asks him if he’s ever killed anyone, which he has, and he says he has to make difficult decisions all the time and “move on” from them.
Kitty takes the Doctor and Bill to her hideout, where there is a whole gang of street urchins. She says they are paid to get people on the ice.
After dark, the Doctor and Bill get some diving suits and walk on the ice. The green lights home in on Bill and take her down, the Doctor jumps after her before the ice can reform. Underwater, they see that the green lights are coming from some strange fish, and there is also a gigantic creature chained up at the bottom of the Thames.
They find out that there is a workhouse up the river that is dredging. The Doctor suggests that the creature’s head is down the river, here is… the other end. They are dredging for the dung! The Doctor and Bill find out that the dung is excellent fuel, and the owner of the workhouse is a Lord Sutcliffe.
They go to Lord Sutcliffe’s mansion, and the Doctor at first wonders if he is an alien. Lord Sutcliffe is racist towards Bill, so the Doctor punches him in the face! They conclude he isn’t an alien. As Bill puts it “That was pretty convincing racism for an extra-terrestrial!”
Lord Sutcliffe says the creature has been there for as long as he can remember, and he was making money off it from both the fuel it, er, produces, and selling tickets to the Frost Fair. The creature feeds on people who end up falling through the ice, and Sutcliffe knows people die for his profit. Sutcliffe’s henchmen take the Doctor and Bill to a tent on the ice which has barrels of explosives in it. Sutcliffe’s plan is to blow the tent up with the Doctor and Bill in it, causing the ice to crack, lots of people will fall in the river, the creature is fed and Sutcliffe gets lots of fuel.
The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to lure the green light fish. A henchman comes in, snatches the sonic screwdriver. The fish go over to him, the Doctor tells him to throw back the screwdriver, by which point the henchman has fallen through the ice! This comes off as more comical than Spider’s death, though Bill is still shocked by it, and the Doctor’s indifference.
The Doctor says they have to decide what to do about the creature. Despite worries that the creature could try to eat everyone, Bill says they should try to save her. After all, the creature is just blameless wildlife, it isn’t her fault she’s chained up and stuck in the Thames.
Bill gets the street urchins to tell everyone the ice is thawing. Sutcliffe tries to detonate the explosion immediately, but the Doctor has switched the explosives so they destroy the creature’s chains instead. The ice cracks, Sutcliffe falls through and is eaten by the creature, and she then swims out of the Thames to her freedom.
Before they go home, the Doctor forges Sutcliffe’s will so that the street urchins inherit his fortune and get to live in his mansion.
At the end of the episode, Nardole is at the vault, and whatever is inside the vault, it is knocking heavily and wants to come out…
The Doctor wonders how the green light fish evolved the way they did, but they don’t look that otherworldly, indeed he thinks they might even be terrestrial, as might the giant creature. The green light fish look a bit like female anglerfish, which have a luminescent lure on top of their heads. The anglerfish is quite a weird animal in many ways, weirder than most science fiction could come up with, one of those examples of fact being stranger than fiction, but that’s a topic for another day I guess.
The episode is set during the time period that became known as a “Little Ice Age” during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. If you wonder why we associate Christmas with snow, it’s to do with Christmas cards and paintings from these centuries, as they actually did have a lot of ice and snow around December.
The Frost Fairs really happened, and history records that an elephant did indeed walk on the frozen River Thames during the last Frost Fair in February 1814.
In the context of ‘Thin Ice’ they imply that the sea creature is responsible for causing all the cold weather somehow, but it’s a bit of a plot hole. Although the winters in that time period were very cold, it wasn’t like Narnia with eternal winter! Unless the creature’s time in the Thames was some sort of deal like the Persephone and Hades myth. Lord Sutcliffe lets the creature have the summer off like Hades let Persephone leave the Underworld for half the year. I’m guessing Lord Sutcliffe didn’t feed the creature pomegranates though.
There were a lot of interesting discussions in this episode. Bill at first worries about her safety because of the racism of the time, especially with slavery being around then. Although slavery wasn’t legal in Britain at this time, Britain was still profiting from the slave trade.
Bill is surprised though that Regency England is a lot more racially diverse than she expected. She says it’s a “Bit more black than they show in the movies”. The Doctor replies “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash”.
The Doctor calls out Lord Sutcliffe on his attitude that his life is worth more than that of poor people who die so he can make even more money. Sutcliffe’s attitude is based on nothing more than “the accident of birth that puts you inside a big, fancy house”.
Bill encounters death in a more direct way than she had previously, and understandably it unsettles her, even if you could argue logically death is death whether you witnessed it or not. The Doctor says he’s 2,000 years old and “never had the time for the luxury of outrage”. People who have certain jobs will also have to find a way of dealing with the issue of loss of lives. Soldiers, police, government, nurses, and yes, doctors. Many more types of jobs too. They have to try to keep a clear head and do the job they need to do. But you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t effect you.
The Doctor of course isn’t human, which is a big difference with him and Bill. However, later in the episode the Doctor does let his emotions take control, because he is so angry with Sutcliffe’s racism. Bill says to the Doctor that far from never having the time for outrage, it’s the only thing the Doctor has time for.
On a slightly less heavy note, I thought the Doctor’s names for the creature were quite funny. “Tiny”, “the Loch-less Monster” and “the not-so-little-mermaid”.
‘Thin Ice’ looked good. It certainly looked lavish! All the snow, the extras, period costumes, underwater scenes, special effects. It bought up some interesting philosophical discussions. But it’s another one that had so many ideas thrown in it could be a bit of a mush sometimes.
One weakness was the guest characters. They were very one-dimensional. The street urchins were a bit corny. Lord Sutcliffe, played by Nicholas Burns, was a cartoon villain. He even gets a box of explosives with a lever to press down! The episode reminded me of Futurama, where Nibbler’s poop turns out to be the most powerful starship fuel in the universe. Futurama also had an amoral industrialist exploiting the Nibblonians. The thing is though, I kind of want to take back the “cartoon villain” comment, because Futurama‘s amoral industrialist, Mom, is a literal cartoon villain and even from just her first episode, she was a LOT more interesting and fully rounded a character than Sutcliffe is!
‘Thin Ice’ was another fairly average episode, and one where the whole wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, ‘Thin Ice’ and the writer Sarah Dollard’s other episode ‘Face The Raven’ in series 9 both had a lot of interesting ideas in them, so I hope in future series of Doctor Who they keep getting her to contribute episodes.