Doctor Who And The Thin Ice

Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in Doctor Who - Thin Ice (BBC1, 2017).

Following a thoroughly exasperated-sounding look at 2014’s Night Terrors – much of which I spent reminiscing about discontinued Monster Munch flavours and shouting at Jimmy McGovern – I quietly withdrew from reviewing ‘new’ episodes of Doctor Who. I hadn’t really been enjoying the more recent series that much, and that was very definitely reflected in the approach I took in the reviews, which to be honest were starting to feel more like a chore than they ever had done previously; compare this to the fact that I’d excitedly bashed out the first attempt at my review of Utopia seconds after the credits finished rolling. The negativity was coming to dominate in a way I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with, and above all else it just didn’t seem like fun any more. Other than a fairly ranty piece complaining about the over-emotional tone that the series had taken of late, and another frowning at the hipper-than-thou cultural touchstone-namechecking broadsheet columnist reviews of the perfectly decent The Bells Of St. John and their one reference point, I was as good as my unspoken word. After all, I had plenty to say about the ‘old’ series so there seemed little point in saying nothing for the sake of it about the ‘new’ one.

By Peter Capaldi’s final series, though, a good deal had changed. I’d become so disengaged with the last couple of batches of episodes, particularly during the interminable and often impenetrable Clara The Impossible Girl storyline, that I’d effectively lost interest; the fact that this had included one utterly reprehensible instalment that I honestly believe simply should not have been made did not exactly help matters. It had become something I watched when it was on; not always even when it was on, if I’m honest about it, and I paid so little attention to the then-forthcoming new series that I went into it knowing absolutely nothing about it. And… I really enjoyed it. I loved the dynamic between Bill and Nardole (who I hadn’t especially taken to during his previous appearances), the way that Capaldi could make lines like “I’ve brought Mexican” sound natural and genuine rather than contrived and wacky catchphrases-in-waiting, and how Missy’s attempts to do good by doing bad seemed every bit as valid as any of The Master’s previous doing-bad-for-the-sake-of-it schemes. Above all, however, I loved the actual episodes, which suddenly seemed upbeat, light-hearted, refreshingly free from complicated story arcs and most importantly fun again.

I was already starting to think that it might be time to start writing about brand spanking new Doctor Who again when an invitation to review one of the episodes came out of the blue. Knowing absolutely nothing about what was coming, I was happy to be assigned a random episode, and as it turned out Thin Ice gave me plenty to say for plenty of reasons. It’s amazing what a bit of distance from the subject can do.

Even better still, the experience inspired me to offer to write another review the following series; this ended up being Rosa – the best episode in a very long time, and one which shared certain thematic obsessions with Thin Ice – which you can read my review of here and hear me talking about here.

In the December 1970 newsletter from The Doctor Who Fan Club, Pertwee-hungry fans could find out all that there was to know about the forthcoming new series. And that, really, wasn’t very much at all. The first story was identified as Terror Of The Autons, which would introduce two new members of UNIT and was partly filmed on location at a factory; the second, The Mind Of Evil, was about a mysterious box; the third would be called Vampire From Space (it wasn’t) and would involve UNIT investigating something; and the fourth absolutely nothing was known about. There was no mention of the fifth and final story, and surprisingly nothing about a certain new character called The Master. Other than tentative transmission times and dates, and the news that Patrick Troughton had recently ‘starred’ in Little Women, that was your lot. You can bet, however, that the readers were thrilled by every last word of that round-up, and this odd disparity between level of excitement and quantity of available information was a pattern that would repeat itself pretty much throughout Doctor Who’s original incarnation.

Nowadays, of course, everything has changed. Material leaks ahead of broadcast, every last recording session has a glory-hunting forum-posting prat with a camera lurking somewhere on the perimeter, and tabloids fall over themselves in a bid to outdo each other in revealing embargoed details about Doctor Who for no other reason than because they can. And if you do try to avoid any of this, there’s always some jerk who will thrust it unbidden into your social media timeline under the misapprehension that they’re doing everyone a favour. Those fans who remember simpler times will no doubt have occasionally found themselves pining for the days of Radio Times listings actually seeming exciting, the press generously blanking The Special Weapons Dalek out of photos of an actual news story, and that all too familiar mantra The Final Three Part Story Does Not Have A Title As Yet. And, surprisingly, that’s exactly where I’d found myself right back to in the run-up to Thin Ice.

Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in Doctor Who - Thin Ice (BBC1, 2017).

Whether you agree with this standpoint or not, the cold hard fact of the matter is that, having initially been thrilled by ‘new’ Doctor Who, I’d found myself enjoying the more recent series progressively less and less. Some of the Peter Capaldi episodes I haven’t even got around to rewatching yet; something that would have seemed unthinkable back in the days when I watched an off-air of a montage of clips on That’s Television Entertainment so many times that the tape wore out (‘Re-record not fade away’ indeed). When you’re not enjoying something as much, you’re not as interested in it, and when you’re not as interested in it, you don’t tend to find yourself encountering that many details of forthcoming new episodes. Literally so, in fact – despite having agreed to review it, I didn’t even know Thin Ice was called Thin Ice until a couple of days before it was broadcast. Contrast that, of course, with the fact that I have not been able to avoid some of the meaner-spirited newspaper-instigated spoilers, and that’s the exact crux of the problem right there. And also the basis for an entirely different article, so let’s move on.

Mind you, the fact that I’m reviewing Thin Ice at all is little short of a miracle. As those of you who follow my rantings will know, I had said fairly definitively that I wasn’t interested in writing any more about any more ‘new’ episodes. Even aside from not caring about dense mythology, resenting feeling like I was being set homework by the story arcs, failing to see the fun in the darker and more mean-spirited tone that the show as a whole had adopted, feeling alienated by things happening and characters getting involved without anybody bothering to introduce them, and being sick to the back teeth of Amy crying, Rory false-dying, Clara… whatever in the name of sanity was going on with all that impossible girl business, and The Doctor not actually being the focus of his own sodding series, there was a more basic and fundamental reason for wanting to concentrate my analytical energies in other directions.

In short, I was finding it more and more difficult to get my own particular style of critical crowbar into a slick and streamlined brand-managed venture, that even when it was bad was simply just there as opposed to being enjoyably awful, and increasingly feeling that there was more point and purpose in concentrating on pouring scorn on the preponderance of rope bridges in the black and white stories and trying to figure out why anyone in their right mind would have decided to use that clip of Sylvester McCoy listening to an apple in the ‘Tonight… on BBC1!’ rundown. I did actually try to review some of the episodes that I hadn’t really enjoyed that much by using this general malaise as a deconstructionist starting point – and going on about Monster Munch a lot for some reason – but even the novelty of that soon wore off. There was a whole long history of Doctor Who that I had more to say about – not to mention the likes of Camberwick Green and Skiboy – so why not let the people who wanted to be positive about it have a go instead? Of course, it was as a direct result of that decision to focus on the wider world of television history that I found myself bewilderingly accused of having perpetrated a The Power Of The Daleks ‘hoax’, but that’s another story.

Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in Doctor Who - Thin Ice (BBC1, 2017).

Anyway, the real reason that I’m reviewing Thin Ice is that I was asked very nicely, but in all honesty I had already started to feel more receptive to the idea of putting a new episode under the Time Glass. Being that far removed from excitement, speculation and ludicrous fan theories, and having low expectations verging on no expectations, had made me unexpectedly better disposed towards this new run of episodes than I might otherwise have been. Despite myself, I had started to have positive feelings about the possibility of enjoying Doctor Who again, and I’m very pleased to report that this suspicion has been generously rewarded. The Pilot was quite simply the most enjoyable episode I have seen in a very long time, with the exact right balance between emotion and humour, excitement and technobabble, and indeed Doctor and assistant back in place as if they had never been away. Smile, while not quite so dazzling, was still entertaining and still very much a step in the right direction. Snigger if you must, but this was exactly how I felt about Sylvester McCoy’s first series way back when we all thought Time And The Rani was still going to be called Strange Matter; it’s as though someone has restarted Doctor Who’s router after years of sluggish response times and pages not loading. It would be a mistake to expect miracles from the outset, but there’s a whole series to get through yet, and if they keep up this pace then there’s every chance that by the end we might be cheering and punching the air almost as much as everyone was when unattended barbecues were left to sizzle out during The Parting Of The Ways.

Which is all very well and good, you’re probably all saying in somewhat slightly less polite language than this, but what did I think of Thin Ice? Happily, it was somewhere between the preceding two episodes, which roughly translated means that it was very good indeed. While the story itself was nothing really new, it was done entertainingly and refreshingly differently, and the presumably accidental but all-too-obvious echoes of The Empty ChildThe Shakespeare Code and that Torchwood where Rhys’ mates threw Pringles at an alien or something didn’t really matter as it was good to see such echoes in something that actually felt on a par with the glory days of Who-mania. The Frost Fair setting managed to give a sense of there actually being an outside world at stake – something that has been frustratingly lacking in recent years – while also giving sufficient and convincing scope for scenes with few characters as and when the action called for it. It was a pleasing change to see child characters depicted as little sods rather than helpful goody two-shoes, and a genuine surprise when that one who looked like the kid from the Ask The Family opening titles sank into the ice in an apparent tribute to notorious public information film Apaches. In a more general sense, reducing the story arc to Nardole occasionally re-enacting random bits of Paradise Towers is a welcome change after That Bloody Crack, the ‘he went to bed with a bucket on his head/sit, Ubu, sit’ song, and everything else they kept crowbarring in with all the subtlety of Who Hell He? from Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out. Then of course there was that literal smack in the face for the wave of idiots who apparently think it’s ‘OK’ to be racially abusive boneheads again, which to be honest has already been written about enough elsewhere, though it has been amusing to see the tellingly offended ‘speak as I find’ brigade fuming that they won’t watch Doctor Who again due to it having gone bleeding heart liberal, which makes you wonder if they’d actually been watching In Sickness And In Health by mistake all this time. Meanwhile, there was a bit where it looked as though it was going to turn into the Frogman episode of Mr. Benn, but it didn’t, so that’s that bit of arcane humour left back in the changing room. Anyone got any Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch?

Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in Doctor Who - Thin Ice (BBC, 2017).

While Thin Ice is not a story that I could ever envisage writing nigh on twenty thousand words about – which I really did do about Time And The Rani, despite people pleading with me to stop – it’s a welcome rung on a ladder leading towards being good again and away from the muddly approach of recent times. You know, like those sort of ladders they were forever scrambling up in half-comic half-nailbiting scenes in the David Tennant era. Whether or not knowing as little about it as possible before broadcast played any part in my enjoying it this much is hard to say, but it’s worth thinking about. And worth trying to emulate if you’re a bit fed up as well. And most importantly of all, it’s worth telling people gleefully sharing ‘spoilers’ to put a bloody sock in it. Much like the spoiler that I could have referenced to make the ending of this into a nice neat reference back to the first paragraph, but can’t and won’t because some of you might not have heard about it and it wouldn’t be fair. I am looking forward to finding out what that mysterious box is all about, though.

Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in Doctor Who - Thin Ice (BBC1, 2017).

Buy A Book!

You can find significantly more than twenty thousand words on Time And The Rani in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Preferably with no ice in, thank you.

Further Reading

You can find my review of the Doctor Who episode Rosa – which tackled many depressingly similar themes to those explored in Thin Icehere.

Further Listening

You can hear me on The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about Jodie Whittaker’s casting and the impact of real-world politics on Doctor Who in general here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.