Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Doctor and Bill Versus Racism and Capitalism

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Doctor Who Series 10 Episode 3: “Thin Ice”


After last week’s adventure in the future, the Doctor was supposed to take Bill back to 21st century Bristol, but it wouldn’t have been him without messing up. Instead, they landed during the Frost Fair in London, in 1814. Deciding that they might as well roll with it, the Doctor and Bill dress up and go out to explore. As always, Bill is asking the right questions about rules involving travelling to the past. Her concerns are not dissimilar to those of Martha Jones back in “The Shakespeare Code”: what happens if you step on a butterfly? She and the Doctor share a lovely scene about this important question where the Doctor points out that the past is not any different from Bill’s own present in that changes happen all the time. Bill also points out that because of her skin colour it might be even more dangerous for her to wander around Regency Britain, which was a much-needed reminder to the Doctor, who’s only been a white man so far and doesn’t need to think of problems like that.

Update: Bill Potts is more precious than ever

All concerns aside, they step on the Thames to enjoy the Frost Fair. Both are having way too much fun and that’s how you know that disaster is approaching. Bill notices that there are lights under the ice, something the Doctor has known about since the first moment but he thought he’d let her have fun before work. They find out about the sinister nature of the lights when two street kids try to rob them and Spider, the little boy gets dragged under the ice. The Doctor tries to help Kitty, the other child, but Bill storms off and he goes after her.

Bill is upset that the Doctor moved on so quickly after watching a young boy die and they have an emotional scene about whether the Doctor even cares anymore. Bill– young, brilliant, lonely Bill can’t just move on seconds after watching a little boy die and she’s furious that the Doctor can. She calls him out on it and asks how many people he’s seen die. He says he lost count, but insists that he does care. She then asks if he’s ever killed anyone, and how many, but again he doesn’t know the exact number. Bill sees him for the warrior that he was for the first time, instead of an eccentric professor, and it scares her. The Doctor, being the Twelfth who’s been through too much not to know how to respond defends himself by saying that he’s 2000 years old (not true, way older than that) and yet he doesn’t have the time to be outraged by death, he has to keep on going to prevent more deaths.

A new sort of understanding is established between the two but they don’t have time to dwell on it. They set off to find out as much as they can from Kitty and the other kids she lives with. Both show their softer side when around the kids and their relationship goes back to its more stable state. After the kids tell them what they know, the Doctor decides that the best way to find out more about a creature that eats people is to get eaten. Bill is not too enthusiastic about the idea but she does trust the Doctor once again (perhaps more so than before their argument) so she goes along with it. They get pulled under the ice (in diving suits, of course) and discover that the creature living in the Thames is not only gigantic but also a prisoner of some sorts and is in despair.

The following day they continue with the investigation and thanks to the psychic paper they get further information from the dredgers. Far from the fair, dredgers are searching the Thames for the creature’s poo, basically, which is a sort of fuel that burns a thousand times longer than coal. So the creature is turning people into fuel, and a certain Lord Sutcliffe is behind the whole operation. Team TARDIS then goes to visit Sutcliffe himself, as the Doctor wants to see if he’s alien or not. After all, the creature certainly doesn’t seem to be terrestrial. When they get there the Doctor warns Bill to be diplomatic and charming, but all that goes to hell when Sutcliffe makes his entrance by being disgustingly racist towards Bill. The Doctor, always one to follow his own plans, punches the guy.

In its full glory

What follows is a rather cliché “villain tells the hero every detail of their plan” scene, including how even Sutcliffe himself doesn’t know the creature’s origins but doesn’t care because he makes a profit out of it eating people. The Doctor has a moving speech about human progress being measured but how much you value a life, and Bill is moved but The Bad Guy™ is not because capitalism is more important. He decides to go even further and blow up the ice so all the people on it get eaten, and he can get rid of the Doctor and Bill at the same time. But The Bad Guy™ is bad at storytelling because he doesn’t know that after the heroes get captured they escape, so that’s what Team TARDIS does with the help of the sonic screwdriver.

The Doctor is planning to set the creature free but only with Bill’s permission/ order, as she’s the human there and therefore the one with authority. In reality this is just the Doctor’s way of putting some responsibility on her and making her take a step into becoming a true time-traveller (turning people into weapons indeed), but Bill does eventually agree with the decision. The Doctor uses Sutcliffe’s bombs to break the creature free, and The Bad Guy™ himself gets eaten by her. To finish it off, the Doctor rewrites Sutcliffe’s will so that Kitty and the other kids can live on his money. Satisfied by a job well done, Team TARDIS goes back to Bristol for real this time, only to meet the disapproving Nardole. The Doctor tricks him into a coin toss so that he would leave him alone with the oath and the guarding of the vault and he can get back to business and travel with Bill instead.


One of the most talked about aspects of “Thin Ice” was the acknowledgment of racism in it. Back when Pearl Mackie was announced as the new companion, and especially when it was revealed that Bill is going to be openly gay, I was hoping that something like this would happen. Bill is a queer woman of colour travelling through time and space, to not acknowledge the difficulties she could face would have been a missed opportunity, and quite frankly a shame. But in this episode we start right off the bat with Bill asking the Doctor whether it will be dangerous, pointing out issues such as slavery that I can’t help but think the Doctor is prone to not care about. Then we have the two of them calling out history for being a big whitewash, and for the cherry on top we have the Doctor punching the racist jerk of the episode. Normally Doctor Who and the Doctor himself don’t condone violence, but sometimes there’s just a greater good and she’s called Bill Potts. I’m glad this happened in Bill’s very first historical, to show that she and the Doctor don’t take anyone’s shit.

Another delightful element was how the relationship between the Doctor and Bill continues to evolve. So far all three episodes took developing the Doctor-companion relationship seriously, and this is how it should be. “Thin Ice” saw Bill meet a new side of the Doctor, and although I think she got over it just a little too quick, it was still a brilliant scene. The Twelfth Doctor at this point in his life definitely needs someone like Bill, who can keep him down to Earth (oh well, the irony of that) and gravitate him towards humanity and compassion. He already seems more playful and free than he was for the majority of his run, and that’s not me dissing Clara for not being able to do that to him, I’m just saying that it’s a different dynamic and that it looks good on Capaldi. Having seen these two for these three episodes makes me feel sad about Capaldi leaving after Series 10, because I know we’re only going to have a limited amount of time with them. But that’s why we might as well make the best of what we have, and it seems to me that the writers are doing their utmost to accomplish that.

To this dynamic comes Nardole, who only had a small part, just like last week, but from now on we might see more of him. At this point I’m looking forward to that because I want to like him, I want him to prove himself as an actual companion. It also seems interesting that Nardole is the one nagging the Doctor about the Vault and his oath, I like the idea of one companion being all “let’s go to space again” and the other being there to remind the Doctor of his duties. Whatever the reason for the oath might be, it seems to me that Twelve would rather forget about it and relive his younger days by showing Bill the universe, but that’s not a good idea and Nardole is the only one who’s fully aware of that. I’m sure we’ll see the Vault storyline develop as the episodes go by and we’re approaching the series finale, I just hope that Nardole will get some development as well. As for the Vault itself, something alive is in there, and after the episode I kept wondering if it has something to do with the Master. It must, I suppose.

My only issue with “Thin Ice” was that the villain of the week felt incredibly boring. I get that sometimes people are just giant jerks and it’s as simple as that, just blame capitalism, but Sutcliffe still felt like a baddie who might have passed with Classic Who, but for a modern audience, he’s just way too lame. Because of him and his weak motives the story itself suffered from being cliché, the second half in particular, but it’s just one episode so I’m willing to look over it if the rest of the series provides some more compelling antagonists. Given how the Master(s) will be returning I’m sure we’ll get at least one, but I know Doctor Who can do good one-off villains (Sharaz Jek, anyone? well, I suppose he was more of an anti-villain). Then again, it can’t produce one every single time, and I did prefer this more traditional and rather chill story to the increasingly intense ones we were getting throughout the Moffat era.

I enjoyed “Thin Ice” just as much as I did the previous two episodes. Series 10 continues living up to the standard and Saturday’s “Knock Knock” looks delightfully creepy. It looks like Doctor Who is going to try and make us afraid of ordinary things once again, and even though it’s not Steven Moffatt writing the episode this time, it looks like it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

Images courtesy of the BBC

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