Doctor Who: Thin Adventure Reveals Doctor’s Indifferent Sadism
It’s time for the yearly review that I open with the reminder of the fact that yes, I really do love Doctor Who. DW is one of my precious baby shows, with episodes that I’ve watched literally dozens of times over with aplomb and adoration. I’ve always known it’s had it’s faults, but I do adore it. I get a lot of people assuming I review Doctor Who for the same reasons I review, say, American Horror Story; because I love to point and laugh and shriek and dance around the wreckage of every episode. But I don’t. I love this show, I do, and every week I go into new episodes with an earnest smile and an eye out for the good bits of each forty-minute outing.
And, you know, there were plenty of good bits in Thin Ice, an episode with a title so punancious that it almost sold me purely on the strength of that element. Pearl Mackie continues to be – and I cannot overstate this enough – pretty much the best assistant of the Moffat era to date. She’s charming, funny, and when called upon to deliver an excellent bit of script regarding the Doctor’s callousness in the fact of death, she fucking nailed it. Maybe I’m still just blind-faced gleeful over the fact that Clara is no longer in the show, but calling Bill a breath of fresh air is an understatement; she’s an entire window-flapping tornado of newness and brilliance and she’s doing a lot to lift this season out of the mediocre for me.
I also have a soft spot for historical Who episodes, even if they are always set somewhere between the Regency/Victorian period because the costume department is going to get the most out of those top hats and bustles, dammit. I particularly enjoy when the show focuses in on a specific historical event – in this case, the great frost of 1814 – as it means the writers and directors can really get their teeth into the look and feel of the time and place instead of just having them be vaguely history-y. The plot – revolving around a giant creature under the Thames who eats people and poops out fuel – was as thin as the titular ice but at least allowed the show to explore a different-feeling London than we’ve seen before. I was also relatively impressed with how the episode handled the racism of the time, not shying away from it but not letting it overwhelm the episode, even if the Doctor’s critical remark about history being whitewashed was a little rich coming from a show that has consistently upheld that problem.
But once again, more than anything, I’m finding myself kind of surprised by how brilliantly this episode has been recieved. It’s no stinker by any means, but, for me, Thin Ice rates somewhere pretty low on the must-watch episode list.
My biggest problem with the episode was the scene in which the Doctor watches a child die and basically shrugs his shoulders and wanders off. Well, no, that’s not fair – a child pinches his sonic screwdriver (which I really don’t care for the new design of, but hey), runs out on to the ice, and is pulled beneath it and presumably drowned and eaten by the beast below (oops, no don’t mention that episode, it’s not as though this entire thing was a blatant rehash of that!). The Doctor snatches his sonic screwdriver out of the hand of the drowning child moments before he vanishes for good, and does nothing to intervene in his death. Bill is horrified by what she’s seen, and the Doctor dismisses her with a comment about how there’s no time for outrage in the face of death.
But look, Bill’s reaction wasn’t outrage, it was compassion. And the Doctor, more than anything, is compassionate, oftentimes to a fault. To have Capaldi’s incarnation dismiss the brutal death of a child as coldly as this just feels so wrong to me. I touched on this with the Hell Bent review last season when the Doctor shoots a fellow Timelord to save Clara, but preserving life has sort of been the Doctor’s MO as long as I’ve been watching the show. That’s not to say the Doctor has to be flawlessly good – in fact, the show is at it’s best when it explores the nuances of his goodness and badness – but for him to look at an innocent child drowning in front of him, not try to intervene at all, and shrug his shoulders when it’s over and basically go “don’t get so bloody upset”….nah, this isn’t the Doctor Who I signed up for.
Yes, the episode attempts to right that later in the episode with a big speech about how periods in history are remembered through the compassion humans showed for each other (which, you know, no, but alright), but the Doctor I feel like I’ve been sold over the years would never watch a child die so callously and show so little grief over his passing. It feels, once more, like the show twisting the character to fit the episode instead of the other way around. In the superb season one episode Father’s Day, the Doctor shares this exchange with a couple who were going to get married before Rose accidentally almost brings about the end of time:
SARAH: I don’t know what this is all about, and I know we’re not important.
DOCTOR: Who said you’re not important? I’ve travelled to all sorts of places, done things you couldn’t even imagine, but you two. Street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that. Yes. I’ll try and save you.
That’s the attitude of the Doctor that I know. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re important enough for the Doctor to try and save you no matter how grim the circumstances are. And the Doctor in Father’s Day is right out of the Time War, having just killed millions of his own people, so if anyone has the right to be cynical, it’s him. Yes, the character develops over time, but I’ve not seen a good enough arc to justify just how fucking ice-cold this scene is compared to how central compassion was to this character in the past. If Capaldi can basically turn time inside out to make sure Clara – who chose her death and met it with the insistence that he shouldn’t try to change it – is alive, his shrug in the face of the life of a little boy being snuffed out is just…rough. Yes, the Doctor changes with with every incarnation, but compassion and an unwavering attempt to save everyone even to the detriment of himself – that’s been key across all three Doctors since the show picked up again, and the last few seasons haven’t articulated where this callousness might have come from, especially since he doesn’t remember Clara or her death. It doesn’t make sense, and it rubbed me up all kinds of the wrong way.
Phew, alright. There were other things wrong with the episode too – the story was incredibly thin and felt cobbled together from other episodes (The Beast Below, Kill the sodding Moon, The Empty Child/Doctor Dances), and the villain was so barely sketched in that he might has well have been a broom with the word “baddie” blu-tacked to it. The episode never really got any tension going, and blistered through plot points so quickly that everything was left feeling oddly empty at the end. We never found out what the beast was, where it came from, where it went, why the villain’s family had kept it for so long, how they came across it in the first place, how they found out it usefully shit rocket fuel, etc. I liked Sarah Dollard’s last script, Face the Raven, but it felt like she was handed some moral plot points to hit and tried to fit everything around them as opposed to the other way around, even if it managed to cram lots of solid jokes into the mix and keep Nardole’s appearances to a minimum, thankfully.
In short, this episode just wasn’t for me. Despite some encouraging scenes from Bill and a gorgeous-looking forty minutes, Thin Ice just threw up a bunch of irritating scenes that niggled at me as a long-time fan of the show. For lots of people, including people who are as invested as me, this was a classic and the finest of the new season to date, which is great for them. But for me, it couldn’t help but feel like another step away from the character that drew me to the show in the first place.
But wait – is that David Suchet I spy in the next episode? They better not ruin Poirot for me too. I’ll have you yet, Moffat.
If you enjoy these recaps and want to see more stuff like them, please consider supporting me on Patreon!