The relationship between the Doctor and new companion Bill is as interesting and entertaining as ever as they take on a human-eating sea creature trapped under the frozen Thames in 1814 London.
Some Doctor Who episodes are all about the monsters. Some are just fun, timey-wimey space romps. And some really take a look at who the Doctor is. ‘Thin Ice’, the third episode starring the magnificent Bill (Pearl Mackie), and the first in which she explores the past, is one of the latter, as we get treated to the fascinating dynamic between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his latest companion.
Arriving in 1814 London (by way of the Tardis not wanting to return to the Doctor’s university study from this series’ first episode just yet), the Doctor and Bill are treated to the last great ‘frost fair’ to pop up in London (yes they did really take place, yes they did really have elephants, and yes they do sound totally awesome). However, things are not quite as they seem – this is Doctor Who after all – and after a brief foray into the fair (in which the whitewashing of history is tackled perfectly) the true threat of the episode arises: a giant sea creature, trapped under the ice, is luring unsuspecting frost fair guests to their doom. The question is, why? And how can Bill and the Doctor put a stop to it?
It’s been great to see the role of the companion really explored this series, and for the third episode in a row we are treated to the ever more interesting dynamic between Bill and the Doctor. When tragedy strikes early in the episode, we learn more about both characters as Bill reacts with sorrow and “outrage” as the Doctor says, whereas he buries his feelings deep down, having learned to just “move on” after 2,000 years of adventure and the unfortunate loss that comes with it. Writer Sarah Dollard is superb at crafting empathetic scenes (having been behind the heartbreaking goodbye from Clara in series 9’s ‘Face the Raven’) and she really makes you feel Bill’s shock as she learns of the Doctor’s dark past. It’s a brilliant contrast between the two characters, and one that continues to be explored later in the episode, albiet to a lesser degree and sometimes comically. It’s also a scene that makes you think – how much worth is it mourning one life when there is a need to save hundreds or even thousands more?
The downside to this is that the villain takes a bit of a backseat. Not in terms of plotting – much is made of the sea creature and how one conniving character is using its human-chomping tendencies to his own gain – but in terms of development and ‘fear factor’. We’ve had many great villains and monsters (human, alien and otherwise) in Doctor Who over the years, but Sutcliffe will not be remembered as one of them. It’s a shame, but watching Bill challenge, tease and bring the best out of the Doctor throughout the episode more than makes up for it.
One last thing I wanted to touch on is the costume and set design. Whilst maybe not quite on the level of a full-on period piece such as Taboo, it is certainly impressive enough to convince you that the Doctor and Bill really are in 1814 London, and the sights and sounds of the frost fair are an absolute treat to watch.
So how has the 10th series of Doctor Who fared over the first three episodes? Well, so far, so good. Bill is quickly becoming one of my favourite companions, whilst the 12th (or 14th, or ‘first-2’, or however you want to refer to him as!) Doctor is finally becoming much more likeable – thanks in no small part to Bill’s constant challenging of her teacher. The villains have suffered somewhat, as ‘Thin Ice’ continues the trend set in the first two episodes of prioritising the Doctor’s relationship with Bill over the threat they face, but that has resulted in one of the best Doctor-companion dynamics of recent years. Hopefully the villain will start to take on a greater role in future episodes, starting with next week as David Suchet takes on the role of the mysterious Landlord in ‘Knock Knock’…
Doctor Who continues next Saturday at 7:20 on BBC One. Check out our series guide for what’s still to come!