Thin Ice.

TV Thank fuck for that. After a couple of disappointing episodes and the kind of ennui I haven't experienced for this franchise since the darker days of season eight, I really did almost iPlayer tonight's Doctor Who and viewing when I had the chance and watch some old Star Trek: Voyager instead (forty odd episodes to go).  But feeling a bit guilty about cheating on Who by mainlining five episodes of Trek per day and being pretty mean spirited in writing about Smile despite its best intentions, I decided to give this show another chance, what with it having provided me so much comfort over the past couple of decades.  That's the problem when you're this close to something.  It'll annoy you and annoy but you'll keep coming back just in case some of the old magic returns.

To which I'll say again, thank fuck for that.  Although Sarah Dollard's Thin Ice isn't arguably up to the very highest standards of what the show can do, it's just the sort of assured format embracer which has become quite rare lately, too often limited to spin-off books and audios, in which the Time Lord and his plus one simply problem solve, beat the bad person and save as many people as possible along the way.  Although that's arguably true of Smile, this provided a much more realistic dynamic between the Doctor and Bill as she discovers what he's capable of, supporting characters worth rooting for, an enemy with a recognisable face and a relatable locale.

Which is odd when you consider how much of Thin Ice feels familiar.  There's a Beast Below the Thames being exploited by humanity for the scientific results of its existence (see also Planet of the Ood).  There are homeless street children straight out of The Empty Child.   The Doctor forces his companion to make a choice between destroying or saving a unique lifeform which is threatening humanity (albeit without him recklessly buggering off in the middle as he did during Kill The Moon) deciding that she should take the moral high ground.  But unlike some instances, it's forgivable because the results are so pleasurable.

Once again that's mainly due to the chemistry between Capaldi and Mackie.  It's wonderful having a team who are simply enjoying each other's company again, there isn't some element of suspicion, something not seen since probably RTD's final year, so desperate has Moffat been to create conflict inside the TARDIS.  They're finishing each other's sentences, not making every argument the end of life itself.  The "How many people ..." conversation has had versions before, but never resolved as economically or as much warmth as when Bill pulls her tongues at the Doctor and he returns his wordless appreciation.  The show's arguably always at its best outside of the grand gestures.

Apart from when the Doctor punches a racist.  Like the Prince t-shirt before, this could be interpreted as a loving homage to recent events even though this was filmed months ago.  When Martha joined back in s3, her presence in less woke time frames was treated lightly and euphemistically but it's measure of how much as changed in recent years that the show feels like it has the confidence and duty to confront the issue head on and quite bluntly in places ("History's a white wash.").  The writer's research of the period is admirable; notice the understated portrayal of the domestic staff in the racist's house.  Will the children keep them on?  Give them better conditions?

As a slight detour, it's also noticable just how much of the Doctor's dialogue and Capaldi's performance has shifted towards the Baker of Season 17.  Throughout we find a benevolent bluffer with the potential for darkness, pleasantly bamboozling the likes of the pie maker and the shit miner to give him the information he wants and later facing the villain with a poetic, if ineffectual speech noticing their moral decrepitude.  But unlike recent episodes (both of them) where the bantz are all surface, this is very much about creating a believable bond within the TARDIS and furthering this budding friendship.

Plus it's funny.  I laughed out loud when the chemical make up of the fuel bricks is revealed and when Bill herself manages half a syllable of profanity, because nothing works better than potty humour in unlikely settings.  Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a TARDIS Datacore entry on the topic so I can't confirm but this has to be a first, as least in the main series, at least since "Boll-".  Torchwood was pretty much all about effing and jeffing and even though Bill didn't manage to get all the way to it, this was still a pleasant surprise.  There has to be some shit in the spin-off media though, and I don't just mean ... [cut to next paragraph].

From a colder perspective, as Dickens knew, the homeless street urchin trope are the easy slam dunk of sympathetic jeopardy attractors and are this story's equivalent of the Cute Overload or Emergency Kitten Twitter feeds.  But throughout the Moffat years, in his bid to remind us that this was originally a show for children, he's been unafraid to make them central to the stories and continues because like Smith before him, Capaldi clearly enjoys the challenge of acting with them.  But it's rare that a child has actually died and if I've a question mark about the episode at all, it's how younger viewers might react to this scene, especially as the Doctor seems more intent on saving his screwdriver.

Bill's reaction is the key to all of this.  I rather skirted past the "How many ..." conversation, but this Doctor's approach to death has always been open to scrutiny.  Quite often he's failed to intervene in situations when he could quite obviously have made point at least, generally in Season Eight, and this seems like another example.  Except Bill somewhat accepts that he's a big picture kind of guy, that some deaths, however tragic, cannot be avoided.  Later in the episode, when the surfaces of the Thames is about to be ripped apart, she decides to prioritise her new friends above the strangers who can't be helped, a judgement the Doctor has had to make time and again.

Like the street urchins, casting Nicholas Burns as the villain is flagrant shortcuttery, given his track record in such roles.  But he's only rarely played complete evil.  His key skill is smug arrogance or characters with very punchable faces like Nathan Barley.  There's a version of this story in which he's layered in from the start, whole Holmesian scenes in which he's colluding with an underling regarding their mysterious discovery intercut with the Doctor's investigation, but there really is something to be said for figures with creepily smooth faces hoving into view two thirds of the way in like an end of level boss or the murderer in an episode of Elementary.

All of which is enveloped in a near perfect expression of Victorian London, shot by veteran tv director Bill Anderson with just the right visual gene splicing between the language of costume drama and the need to have people running places and dodging things.  A lack of realism between the merging of actual people and CGI is compensated for with a painterly quality, with the Doctor and Bill's underwater meeting with the creature evocative of the posters for 60s Jules Verne adaptations beloved by Mark Gattis and the rest of us.  Expect an episode later in the run which takes place all in one room to compensate for the visual splendour.

If there's another slight hiccup its the episode doesn't complete at the obvious moment in the house, but cuts back to Earth in order to justify Matt Lucas's screen credit.  DS9 often has brilliant scenes, usually set in Quarks, in which numerous series regulars are stuffed around a table for contractual reasons and chat about something unrelated to a story which concerns Odo falling love or Worf handed discommendation by the Klingons again.  Nardole's return here, as with last week, although related to the main season arc, feel superfluous and to some extent hurts the main story of the week by reducing the available screen time (which could arguably have benefited Smile a bit).

The upshot is having given the episode a satisfactory conclusion, the writers then have to ramp up the tension again with another cliffhanger.  Perhaps if, like Agents of Shield, a logo had popped up making this feel more like a coda scene than an unexpected five minutes more episode it would have flowed better.  Perhaps it'll work best during a rewatch, when the three episodes are seen in close succession, with this final scene wrapping up the mini-arc of the Doctor defying his orders about leaving the 21st century and taking Bill on a very long journey.  Perhaps I'm simply picking nits more than usual.

Since Moffat wants us to case about this thing, what could be the vault?  I had actually thought about it being the Simm Master before reading Dan Martin's recap but as he says, he's knocking just three times for the most part.  But given that he was in that trailer, it feels too obvious.  Which leaves us with either something which'll be revealed in the coming weeks or my current suspicion that we're watching another Moffat loop and something horrendous happens to Bill, who Nardole is deeply suspicious of and would explain why the Doctor's decided to teach her, his past self having agreed to take care of her before meeting the younger version of her on purpose in the future. Or something.

1 comment:

  1. Like you, I breathed a sigh of relief with this one (actually, given FCB's previous atrocious outing - worse than The Twin Dilemma, and therefore the nadir in all of DW, in my opinion - Smile was a relief, too). Bill reminded me of Donna in The Fires of Pompeii, and the Doctor talking to the fish of Tom - to a 'T'. And, as you say, and which is directly linked to the Donna/Bill reaction to it, the Doctor's apparently(?) callous attitude of the Sonic over the kid. Food for thought which has been lacking for a while. I was amongst the number who cheered ar RTD's exit, but I have to confess that history, and my own opinion, has been much kinder to his stewardship than I ever imagined (and that even includes the character of Rose, who I didn!'t like very much overall). Perhaps the same might happen with Moffatt after X years of 'Ashes on Mars/Torchwood/Broadchurch' Chibnall. "Interesting times". Sorry about the lengthy rabbitting-on, cheers, Alex.