Sarah Dollard made a strong impression with her debut story, "Face the Raven" and I was looking forward to what she would come up with next. To say that "Thin Ice" exceeded my expectations is the least of it. As with "Smile", there is nothing particularly original about "Thin Ice" and again, a good writer elevates the plot into something else entirely. "Thin Ice" is even more old-fashioned than "Smile" and its plot of a colossal leviathan imprisoned under the ice of the Regency-era Thames, wouldn’t look out of place in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. Antecedents can also be found in "The Beast Below" amongst others. It seems picky to point out that it is the plot that is (comparatively speaking) the weakest aspect of the story. However, as anyone who has read anything that has more words than pictures in it will tell you, plot is only the beginning. The cosiness that one finds in such early-in-the-season adventures forms a very thin veneer in this story - the storytelling is a good deal more raw, meaning that, fun though the story is, it cannot be describes as a ‘romp’. A street urchin is killed and the racism that Bill faces is very accurate to the time – slavery may have been legally unenforceable in England and Wales for 40 years in 1814, but there were still slaves elsewhere in the British Empire. We have the common man being ground in the gears of the Industrial Revolution and the common man taking the palaces of the mighty from his conquered masters. The handling of such variance in moods and tones shows remarkable skill on Dollard’s part – the funny bits are hysterical, the shocks are real and, whilst the plot may be rushed, the story satisfies. Most notable of all, Sutcliffe’s treatment of Bill makes a very serious point comedically and gets away with it.
Anchoring this is the triumph in the characterisation of the Doctor and his companion. The Doctor is clearly not human in his reactions, seeing the big picture and connections that humans cannot. Yet he is also revealed as a master pie-thief and bonds with urchins left, right and centre - the difference between not-human and inhuman is clearly made by the story. Dollard gives the Doctor some magnificent speeches about the nature of his detachment and the nature of his compassion and he is equally adept at the story’s comedy. It goes without saying that Capaldi faces this challenge seemingly effortlessly. Supporting him is Pearl Mackie who just gets better and better – Bill’s shock and cold fury at the death of the urchin is flawlessly played, without it damaging the joie de vivre of her character. The supporting cast is excellent, with a sparky performance by Asiatu Koroma as Kitty, the head urchin. Perfectly cast as the odious grandee Lord Sutcliffe, is Nicholas Burns, an actor who can portray smug in 50 different ways.
Bill Anderson directs with great feeling, getting a good sense of period and making the action sequences very striking, particularly the pilot fish zeroing in on the prey and the wonderful scenes of the Doctor and Bill diving in the Thames (with slightly anachronistic suits, but, aesthetically, really the only way they could have gone!) The beast below the Thames is never seen whole, its size being shown by expertly framed shots of parts of it.
"Thin Ice" bears comparison, as said, with many pseudo-historical stories of the past, but in evaluating it, I must draw comparison to "The Zygon Invasion"/ "The Zygon Inversion" – a wonderfully entertaining story that shows precisely how wonderful a programme Doctor Who can be.
NEXT: "Knock Knock"