Doctor Who Series 10, Episode 3
Posted by Sage
Every episode of Doctor Who is “a very special one,” in the parlance late ’80s sitcoms. Their effectiveness depends on their execution, but there’s always an intended takeaway – the G.I. Joe “Real American Hero” life lesson it’s trying to impart. And maybe most of those lessons have been broad enough in the past (at least in the modern series) to side-step that “political” label. But we are living in do-or-die times. Neither the Doctor’s advocacy of the downtrodden nor his distaste for the capitalist machine are anything new. But in 2017, telling a story about why a rich white guy SHOULDN’T be feeding penniless orphans to a Thames-dwelling aquatic alien to amass more fortune IS political, because that’s actually become a controversial stance to take!
Doctor Who is out here speaking the same truths that it always has. But episode writer Sarah Dollard has the vocabulary to make his entrenched beliefs sound immediately relevant. (This is why not always with the 40-something white cis male writers, industry.) “Thin Ice” is for Brexit and Trump, for anyone who loves watching this show and had to face the truth that their me-first attitude is directly at odds with their hero. Good. I hope this episode made them squirm. I hope they felt ashamed.
Dollard achieves this vitally important script by utilizing a tried-and-true Doctor Who set-up. The powerless are being exploited by those in power. And their weapon is an enslaved species who doesn’t have any say in the matter. In this case, it’s a man named Sutcliffe who has been handed down the secret that the beast below the river (episode title reference intended) excretes a material that burns longer and hotter than coal. His family has been living off of this secret for generations; it’s deadly nepotism, kind of like when Jared Kushner is put in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the Doctor and Bill arrive in 1814, the working class and the poor of London have no idea that they’re basically walking alien chum. Instead, they’re enjoying a celebration that appears to be made for them; a low-admission respite from whatever their daily drudgery may be. They sing songs, sell their wares, and enjoy some amateur wrestling while they tip back their beers. Some Dickensian poppets do Sutcliffe’s marketing for him so that they can scrounge together some bread for the hovel they share. Some of the politics of this episode were blatant. But this bit of symbolic scaffolding was a little more subtle: the Frost Fair is attended by poor people who are blissfully unaware that they’re being called to slaughter. (Kind of like a Trump rally in rural wherever-the-fuck.)
I realize I’m making this episode sound very dour, but besides the loss of sweet little Spider, it’s actually a romp. (If you’re a liberal, at least.) Again, the Doctor is so pleased to be “off-world” with this inquisitive young woman. He’s missed it, so give him a break, Nardole. But he also doesn’t dismiss Bill’s concerns about carrying on in 1814 with her skin tone. Instead, he waits for her to see for herself what almost every period film ever has gotten wrong: there were black and brown people in London in the Regency times. And, by the way, Jesus didn’t look anything like the Irish boy band member your great aunt has hanging over her fireplace. (Do you think anyone has ever pitched a Doctor-meets-Christ story to a showrunner? Because I am SURE of it. Imagine the letters.)
The banter is still so good between these two (the Doctor and Bill, not the Doctor and Jesus) – there’s bonding over the troublemaking feminine energy of the TARDIS; a joke about their friend Pete; who they’ve only forgotten because Bill “stepped on a butterfly”; and the Doctor buying his companion a fish pie of unknown origins. “It’s just time travel,” he says when she worries. “Don’t overthink it.” Affable confidence is a good look on him. Though I treasure Ten’s swagger, Capaldi gives his Doctor an ease that’s untouched by arrogance. He doesn’t even make a big deal about the lights under the ice until Bill asks about them, because he wanted her to have her good time first. Like a good host.
But all it takes is one gobbled-up child to ruin everybody’s fun. Bill learns her first tough lesson about her kooky old professor in this episode when she watches him watch Spider die without showing the emotion she believes it warrants. At a certain point, an awareness of the Doctor’s body count becomes a ticket to ride for all companions. Willy Wonka wouldn’t be Willy Wonka if his factory weren’t a death trap for spoiled brats, nor can you travel all of time and space without facing the mortality of others dead-on. (That analogy works in my head. You have to break a few eggs, is what I’m saying.) The Doctor wants to skip the part where Bill comes to term with this. But she has a right to demand these answers.
The Doctor tells Bill that he doesn’t have the luxury of feeling outrage every time a life is taken. His travelogue is marked with loss; and if – WHEN – he stops to feel sorry for himself, he struggles to push on again. And I get this argument from both sides. On one hand, when you define yourself as a person who cares about a cause, there will always be those who deny your right to pick your battles or to take a break from rage. On the other, a lack of rage can point to a lack of empathy. If these aren’t your people, you may have some distance. And this whole conversation is particularly interesting when your companion is a gay woman of color. No, the Doctor isn’t an alt-right bro who thinks equality is an attack on his rights and made Pepe in a TARDIS his Twitter avatar. But he’s not an human person from 2017 who claims less social privilege than his appearance gives him. A poor child being snuffed out in an instant has a different affect on Bill, and that’s not just because she’s not an alien.
Anyway, the Doctor’s compassion chip is clearly activated. When he and Bill track the urchins to their living quarters, he cares for them like a parent would. (Imagine how long it’s been – if ever – since an adult read them a story.) He shows the eldest, Kitty, the respect of a leader. (“With your permission, of course.”) And it’s not long before Bill is making funny faces and forgiving him entirely. YOU CAN’T STAY MAD AT THIS GUY.
After a quick visit under the ice to meet “the not-so-little mermaid,” the Doctor and Bill check out the river-dredging operation that Sutcliffe has going on. Their palace inspection angle works like gangbusters on foreman, who is either too stupid or too uninterested to find out what’s making the mud so…muddy. (Such is the way of middle management.) He does point them in the direction of Sutcliffe’s house, and while they wait for the man himself, the Doctor tells Bill to play it cool.
I don’t know his first name, so let’s just call him, oh, Donald J. Sutcliffe. It’s takes him mere seconds to offend the Doctor right out of civility (his literally always hanging by a thread anyway), it gets him a wicked punch right across the face. Since there’s been argument, I’d like to say that I land FIRMLY on the side of the Doctor punching racists. Because racists should be punched; this guy knows from justice; and he’s not that good at feeling his feelings on the inside anyway. Yes, the Doctor is capable of working the long game when he needs to, but it’s clear to him that he and Bill are in no immediate physical danger in this mansion. Sutcliffe is a sniveling, aging rich boy who makes the money he didn’t inherit off the skins of working people, not an alien warlord. So the Doctor is free to let that impulse fly, and that impulse is to punch the racist in the face. A simple, elegant reaction. I have never loved him more, and I’m counting guitar tank.
And the wonderful, wonderful Sarah Dollard doesn’t leave it there. No, we get the punch AND the speech, which is frankly an embarrassment of riches. It’s repulsive to the Doctor that Sutcliffe has convinced himself that what his family has done to London is the natural order of things, and not a man-made caste system. And he lets it rip in a monologue that’s gloriously on the nose, because HELLO, NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR SUBTLETY.
The Doctor: Human progress isn’t measured by industry, it’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.
Privilege is a very specific, very zeitgeist-y word to use here. And the Doctor is a man for all time. So it’s, in fact, not a stretch to assume that he’s also talking here about free school lunches, affordable health care, racially charged police brutality, trans rights, and every single other point of equality we’re fighting for right now. Sutcliffe is every wealthy, powerful white man who thinks that he was born with a god-given right to rule instead of a god-given right to serve. This entire episode is so cathartic, and the fun continues on Twitter, where those same men are bending over backwards to convincingly say that this is not about them.
The resolution is familiar and quick. After the Doctor and Bill wriggle their way out of the tight spot Sutcliffe’s muscle put them in, they inadvertently feed the tyrant to his monster. That leaves a satiated but sad creature without a master, and the Doctor leaves it up to Bill to decide what to do with her. It’s her pop-quiz-hotshot with the Doctor on this trip. This is where she finds out that in fact, the Doctor won’t ALWAYS be the teacher who tells her things, especially when those things are important to her kind. He’s just the sidekick sometimes. “I serve at the pleasure of the human race,” he says. Be still my West Wing heart.
Of course, Bill opts to exclude that big ol’ fish from the narrative, one that it never asked to be a part of. Outrage can be productive when it pointed at the right target. The monster was just following its biological imperative; anyway, what else are they going to do with it? (“300,000 fish pies.” – that vendor) Bill’s choice was the one the Doctor had hoped for and expected. Back in his office, he beams at her and calls her “boss,” and I cry, because isn’t that Clara’s pet name? They’re buzzing off of their success – including the Doctor’s successful forgery of Sutcliffe’s will, which sets their orphans up for life. Nardole’s chastisements don’t have a hope of denting this post-trip bubble, though his warnings about the Doctor’s oath are becoming more and more ominous. (IS Nardole more like the Doctor’s jailkeeper than his “valet”? That’s actually interesting to me!) So while the Doctor takes his tea in his “specially chosen tea clothes,” it’s left to Nardole to check in on the vault. Something inside is knocking. And though Nardole tries to sound confident as he vows never to let those contents out, his voice cracks. And the knocking continues. One…two…three….
Timey Wimey Observations
- Petition to add a top hat to Twelve’s ensemble permanently.
- “I’m a bit of a thief myself.” Said proudly. How Eleven of him.
- Doctor Disc-co, from the Fairford Club.
- Every time P. Cap says “tattoo,” an angel gets its chest piece.
- “Smug belongs to me.”
- “Get a load of you lot. Cute as!”
- Did the Doctor just shout out to day-drinking?
- This isn’t my Jane Austen episode, but it’ll do.
What’d you think about “Thin Ice,” readers? Are you pro or con punching racists? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBCAmerica