Friday, 5 May 2017

Thin Ice written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Bill Anderson

This story in a nutshell:
There’s something very large and very dangerous underneath the Thames…

Indefinable: ‘I know you! You’re the cheat! I love your work!’ How fabulous does he look decked out in Victorian garb? I’m not especially keen on the hoodie that he insists on wearing (Capaldi is never going to be down with the kids, an issue this episode touches upon amusingly) so I’m not sure why they bother. He’s not insulting people or trying to impress them with his electric guitar, this is the Capaldi Doctor at the height of his powers, engaging with history, protecting his friend and doing his best for a creature that is being exploited. Dollard really knows how to unassumingly present the 12th Doctor at his most heroic. Note that there isn’t a Flatline style speech about a man who fights the monsters or a Steven Moffat ‘I am the Doctor!’ style ego stroke…it’s just very strong, very engaging characterisation. Watching him entertaining the kids made my heart beat faster, some part of me wishes he could have had a younger, teenage companion because children bring out the best in him (remember that gorgeous scene in Mysterio in the High School?). He looks like such a cantankerous old git that the presence of children and his gentle way with them smooths over a lot of his craggier edges. The Doctor talks about diplomacy, tact and charm but when his companion is insulted in the most vicious way he uses his fist to do the talking. It’s a spectacular moment. How wonderful is the scene where the Doctor and Bill are tied up, back to back, as the climax approaches and they try and utilise the sonic screwdriver to escape. It’s the sort of scene that typifies Doctor Who, having played out many times over the five decades the show has been on air. It’s as glorious now as it ever was. The Doctor states that he serves to protect the human race, a glorious mission statement and specifically asks Bill for an order to act. A lovely element of this season is how the Doctor is tied to Earth for once, rather than the companion. There is an excuse to return beyond the ‘old life/new life’ dilemma faced by Amy and Clara in recent years. Plus there are pleasing echoes to the third Doctor era, especially how he is established in a professional environment on the Earth. I like the idea of grounding him (and as a result him constantly breaking the rules) very much. 

Funky Chick: ‘I bought a pie of that guy! A fish pie!’ Some might say that Bill earned her stripes in The Pilot and it is true that she made quite an impression, but I would reserve that honour for Thin Ice. In Dollard’s hands, she truly comes alive and has a genuine, dramatic presence in the story. As my close friend Jack said after the episode aired, it has been an age since a companion has questioned the nature of death in the show and had a trouble reaction to it. I don’t think it has truly happened since series four where there were several examples of Donna dealing experience outside the realm of normality (the death and torture of the Ood, London going nuclear, death camps). Amy and Clara waltzed through stories as though death was commonplace – and if anybody mentions Danny Pink that was completely different. He was in a relationship with Clara. It shouldn’t take that for death to haunt you. It’s easy to see why people are declaring Bill the greatest companion since Donna or perhaps the greatest companion yet…her approach to time travel might be one of naivete but that means we go on the journey with her and experience real emotions as a result. The horror on Bill’s face when she admits that she has never seen anyone die before is heart-breaking. She won’t have the Doctor tell her how to feel about death and she has some very pertinent questions about his relationship with the dead and his feeling about facing it. The scene is understated and rather brilliant because of it. This could have been hysterical and unsubtle. She’s low key in love with the TARDIS because she loves dresses and likes a bit of trouble. Bill steps on the frozen surface of the Thames with trepidation and excitement and once she is sure she isn’t going to fall beneath the surface she wants to try everything. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She’s a bad girl, this one. Always looking for trouble.’
‘Every choice I make in this moment, here and now, could change the whole future’ ‘Exactly like every other day of your life. The only thing to do is to stop worrying about it.’
‘How is that a screwdriver?’ ‘In a very broad sense!’ 

The Good:

* Some Doctor Who stories can swing a vote on their setting alone. Planet of Evil and Death to the Daleks might qualify. I’m not talking about their realisation, although that is an important factor too. I mean the very idea of the TARDIS setting down in a particular location. The London frost fairs have been mentioned in the series for some time now so I think it must have been stewing in the back of Moffat’s mind. It conjures up wonderful images in my mind before the episode even begins; mist swirling on ice, a collection of idiosyncratic entertainers, street urchins and a foreboding London back drop. Fortunately, the episode does not disappoint. Director Bill Anderson spends a lot of time getting the atmosphere of the story right and half the battle (for interest, of course) is already won. I wanted to explore this place. I wanted the Doctor and Bill to step on the ice and enjoy in the festivities. Remember when the Doctor and Donna stepped out into the bustle of ancient Rome? It’s exactly that feeling, that the TARDIS can take you to some truly wondrous places in the universe and how exciting to leap out and take in the bustling scenery that is exploding with life. It’s a sense of wonder that Doctor Who gets very right. I mean, who can’t get excited about the setting when the opening shot is of an elephant screaming out of the snow? 
* Should Doctor Who be engaging with racism wholeheartedly or merely touching upon it like in recent years? Of course it should, this stuff really happens and even though we might cough into our hands in embarrassment, still happens now far more than we care to admit. Whilst SJA’s The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith and Lost in Time and Doctor Who’s Human Nature threw light on the subject, Thin Ice is interested in shining a spotlight on just how terribly people can be treated for little more than the colour of their skin. It’s barbaric and it should be portrayed as such.
* How many Doctor Who stories don’t have a ‘monster’ as a central feature? By monster I mean a creature that is out to actively harm people. Zygons, Daleks, Sontarans, Toclafane, Sycorax, The Silence, The Giant Spiders of Metebelies Three…you all know the sort of nasties I mean. They are a staple of the show, one of the reasons that the kiddies (and some adults like myself) still get excited watching. So what happens when you remove that feature and replace it with a creature that is portrayed as something horrid but ultimately turns out to be misunderstood and it is the human characters that are the true monsters? It could be very twee if mishandled (I think The Beast Below struggles in that respect) but Thin Ice makes a very decent stab at this unusual approach. Where Sutcliffe might be a little too OTT to swallow, the portrayal of the creature is wonderfully done. It helps that the first half of the episode perfectly convinces you that the creature is murderous and that makes the later scenes of the Doctor and Bill stepping in and freeing Willy (sorry, the creature) particularly triumphant. Torchwood’s Meat dealt with a similar monster and tone and if you enjoyed this, it works as an effective alternative to this kind of morality tale. The two creatures don’t look dissimilar now I come to think about it. What I really love about Thin Ice is how Dollard refuses to acknowledge whether the creature is alien or terrestrial. The Doctor dismisses the point as moot, the important thing is that it is in chains. As the creature swims off into the ocean singing I almost felt like congratulating the Doctor and Bill for a good days work.
* Doctor Who fans can be a rum bunch. Watch the sequence where the Doctor and Bill explore the ice at night with the shadowy backdrop of London behind them. Falling below the ice, they walk through the Thames and encounter the creature. It is stunningly atmospheric. And scrolling through a Doctor Who review page comments section I read the objection from one observer that the whole episode was ruined because the diving suits the Doctor and Bill are wearing aren’t historically accurate. Stone the crows! If you were viewing Doctor Who for historical accuracy then you would have to examine the contemporary stories with the same critical eye and in that case pretty much every Doctor Who story aside from those set in the future (aside from those which were made within the 53-year period that the show has been on air and that year has now been reached such as The Tenth Planet) would fail. Simply put, objecting to a mere detail when the scene itself is so exquisitely realised is utterly counterproductive that I have to wonder why you are watching television in the first place. It’s a common condition amongst Doctor Who fans. I hate Mark of the Rani because there is a sign advertising a cream tea in the background of one scene…never mind that the location work in that story is some of the most stylish in the entire classic series. It’s a very strange affliction.
* The vault. Interest officially piqued.

The Bad: I do find it irritating that it only seems to occur when black characters are the incumbents of the TARDIS – it would be nice for a white character to face the same kind of prejudice in the future. Some unfortunate child performances mar. Kids either have it or they don’t in the acting skills. There’s very little middle ground. Sutcliffe doesn’t join the story until about two thirds of the way through, which doesn’t give him sufficient time to make his mark as a Doctor Who villain. We’d be denied the fun at the fair and the investigation if he had turned up any earlier and those are the best scenes in the episode. Besides, Nicholas Burns errs towards the theatrical and couple with a predictable motivation the character doesn’t exactly set the episode on fire.

Result: The best episode since Heaven Sent, almost 18 months ago. Admittedly there have only been 5 episodes in between (which I voted 3, 7, 7, 7, 3 respectively) but it has felt as though Doctor Who has been coasting for some time now, albeit coasting fairly entertainingly. Thin Ice scores on several levels for me; the atmospheric and playful setting, the unusual reversal of the creature being misjudged, the enjoyable characterisation of the Doctor and Bill (three for three on that score), the drama of asking the question of whether the Doctor has killed somebody and dealing with the emotional fallout of that and the astonishing production values. Countering that is the fact that there is nothing truly original happening here, it’s old ideas (jokes about wandering through history, exploitative villains, a deadly creature that turns out to be nothing of the sort, the Doctor’s chequered past) presented in a new way. But given they are presented so stylishly, who cares? Thin Ice is just shy of being an out and out classic because of this but it achieves what it sets out to do to a very high standard indeed. If this quality was the average week in, week out, we would be in really good shape. You could watch this with the sound down and marvel at the beauty of the direction. But then you would be denied Dollard’s exceptional ear for memorable dialogue, her ability to get inside Bill’s head in a very emotive way and miss out of one of the best presentations of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor yet. He’s effortlessly pleasurable to watch. I simply cannot re-instate enough how much I am enjoying Pearl Mackie’s performance and with each episode I am hoping she hangs around to bridge the gap between Capaldi’s departure and the new Doctor’s introduction. I love how she underplays the drama, she makes Bill’s reactions to the horrors that she faces really count. Whilst this is the most dramatically presented of the three episodes so far this season, they have all been fairly intimate tales. It feels like we are being escalated through the season, the stories becoming punchier as they go. If things continue in this vein, the finale should be explosive. All I’m asking for now is a plot with a bit of substance. Thin Ice is a story that is well crafted, well characterised and well filmed. Take a step out of the TARDIS and enjoy a night at the Frost Fair of Old London Town. One to savour: 8/10


Urlance Woolsbane said...

"I do find it irritating that it only seems to occur when black characters are the incumbents of the TARDIS – it would be nice for a white character to face the same kind of prejudice in the future."
Interesting as that would undoubtedly be, it would go down like a rock in this day and age, in much the same way that a planet of the misandrists affair would. The writer or showrunner would probably be accused of being Enoch Powell reincarnate.

Although come to think of it, the BBC is adapting Noughts & Crosses, so perhaps I'm being pessimistic.

Colin Brockhurst said...

Did the episode establish where the Doctor acquired the diving suits from? I don't think so. I would say the obvious answer is from the TARDIS, and that pillock on the review page should be pinning historical inaccuracy on the Doctor himself.

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David Pirtle said...

The story feels pretty run-of-the-mill, but you're right, it's gorgeously done, and the scenes between Bill and the Doctor make it worth a great score. Again, though, no particularly memorable characters other than the leads.