My wife was working last Saturday, and didn’t get a chance to watch the previous episode, “Smile,” until the middle of the week. In that episode, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) asks new companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) if she would like to travel to the past or the future. My wife said aloud, “the past,” and I responded, “I have a hard time believing a modern-day gay English black woman has any interest in going to the past.”
Fast-forward to “Thin Ice,” where The Doctor and Bill have indeed landed in the past as the London Frost Fair of 1814 takes place on the frozen Thames River. Side note: I am really enjoying the return to a classic Who trope where the previous episode ends on a hint of the next episode to come, and the new episode picks up where it left off. It’s a dangerous thing from a narrative standpoint to always do. It’s one of the reasons expanded universe stories for the First and Second Doctors can be a bit unwieldy, but it is a neat harking back to a previous norm I had almost forgotten about.
Back in 19th-century London, The Doctor and Bill investigate mysterious disappearances on the ice and a fantastic creature chained to the bottom of the river, who is being used to produce fuel for a local lord’s mills. Personal theory, I think the beast is a Zygon Skarasen left over from the failed Zygon invasion in Mark Morris’s novel The Bodysnatchers, which takes place 20 years prior, but that’s just deep mythos for Eighth Doctor nerds like me. Point is, a big freaking creature in the Thames is being used by some rich jerkwad to be a richer jerkwad at the expense of other people getting eaten.
And the Twelfth Doctor goes total SJW on him. And it was glorious.
Bill is the first to question whether she is safe, similarly to how Martha Jones questioned Ten in “The Shakespeare Code.” Bill is a little more direct, though. She remarks out loud that slavery is still totally a thing when they land (The British abolished slavery in 1833…mostly). Upon seeing a racially diverse London, she wonders out loud how much more diverse it is than the history books. Twelve baldly states that history is whitewashed, which I assume means Earth history, but now wonder if even his own past or the pasts of the Time Lords might be a lot less white than previously shown on television. I’ve always argued that we are seeing a linear interpretation of The Doctor’s life rather than the four-dimensional, dimensionally transcendental reality that he likely embodies. The show is the best way to perceive the imperceptible. Would Barbara and Ian have run off with a South Asian-looking woman in 1963 England? Hard to know, but from here in 2017, the options of who could be The Doctor are somewhat broader.
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Regardless, Twelve calls the lord privileged, punches his extraordinarily punchable face, eventually feeds him to his own beast and ultimately forges his will so that his fortune passes into the hands of a street urchin he employed to lure people to their deaths, a gang run by a black girl.
I try not to curse in this column, but this season of Doctor Who simply has no f***s to give. None. Nary a one. The past two seasons might have been long explorations on the aftermath of the alteration of the end of the Time War, but this one is unabashedly The Doctor tackling simple, human injustice and being utterly without patience on the subject. I almost get the impression that Doctor Who, as a show, is expressing being fed up with even having to deal with the subject, and is hitting as many buttons as possible to move into its next phase.
And I love it. Nothing is more tiring in the social-justice game than dragging the last of the stragglers forward so we can bloody get one with it. People out there complaining that a black companion or a possible female Doctor are soooooooo boring. It’s like explaining math problems to a third grader, and that is not what I watch television for.
“Thin Ice” is the sort of story people love when it is safely in the ’70s, but who wonder if it is talking about them now. Good. Art is politics, and Doctor Who, in the age of Trump, has brought a Tardis to a gunfight!