Sunday, 30 April 2017

Thin Ice

Thin Ice was written by Sarah Dollard, whose only previous contribution to the show was the excellent Face the Raven. This wasn't as good as her first contribution to the show but that's hardly a big surprise: Face the Raven was one of the better episodes of season nine and succeeded largely on the strength of its central ideas. Thin Ice suffered mainly from having less good central ideas. And really, the idea of secret (and delightfully albeit inexplicably Dickensian) streets hidden in London that house homeless aliens was so good, such a perfect fit for Doctor Who, that it's going to be a while before an idea of equal quality turns up again. 

Dollard was again tasked with finding an interesting spin on London. The idea of making use of the great frost fairs, held on a frozen Thames, was a good one. Having the plot centre on a giant fish chained up at the bottom of the river and being force-fed people for not entirely clear reasons was... a less good idea. It could have worked well but, ultimately, it didn't. Another draft was needed to make it as clear as possible what this giant fish was doing under the Thames, how it had gotten there, and (the big one) what the ramifications of its release were expected to be. These things were touched on but left a little hazy and undefined. Hazy and undefined can work in Doctor Who, but more in terms of, for example, something or someone's origins and less in terms of the nature of the threat the Doctor and his companion face. We need to know what's at stake and Thin Ice never quite got there.

Thankfully it succeeded in other areas. Like its tackling of race issues. A number of non-white faces cropped up as supporting cast and extras, and the lead human villain (the guy who's family had imprisoned a giant fish) was an open racist. Linking a TV baddie to something like racism, which is something that still hasn't been purged from modern society, is a good thing and sends the right message. It's not something Doctor Who as a show can do every week but it is something it can touch on more often than it does1. Really, it's the approach I wanted when talking about the overloading of Smile last week.

There was other positive stuff too. Good material for Capaldi's Doctor, which there hadn't exactly been an abundance of in the previous two episodes of the series. A return to well made, convincing sets after the aberration that was Smile. An attempt at tackling the butterfly effect in a fun, playful, Doctor Who-compatible way. Although that last one is a little frustrating as the way in which it was brought up and dropped as a concept within the first fifteen minutes of the episode makes me suspect it was more prominent in previous drafts and got edited down for time or to let other themes come through. It seems like the sort of thing Dollard's style would mesh particularly well with. Maybe Chibnall will have her back to do a forty-five minute episode of the potential perils of stamping on insects. 

The other interesting thing to talk about now that Thin Ice has aired is how the opening three episodes of season ten parallel the opening three episodes of season one. This isn't some arbitrary comparison, each trio follows the same basic pattern: a contemporary Earth story in which the Doctor meets a new companion, a future story in which the new companion is confronted with the mortality of the planet they take for granted, and a historical story where the companion learns that the future isn't guaranteed to take the shape you expect just because you've seen it. This is a formula RTD used on every one of the seasons he produced (with minor tweaks and changes here and there) while Moffat used it at the start of his first year in charge and has stayed clear since2. It's interesting that he finally came back to it for his final, maybe a tacit admission that it's a stronger approach than, say, starting with a two-parter and calling it the finale or something stupid like that. 

I don't think it worked as well here as it did in season one, and that's mostly down to Smile being a weaker episode than The End of the World. Comparing Rose and The Pilot feels unfair in many ways as Rose was tasked with relaunching the entire show, introducing basic concepts which are taken for granted now, along with two leads and a supporting character. The Pilot only had to introduce a new companion, both the Doctor and the lone supporting character of long term consequence (Matt Lucas as Nardole) were know to us. Shunting these burdens to the side both episodes have their strengths but it's Rose that's the more enjoyable of the two, not least because it has a more interesting visual threat in villainous shop dummies, something The Pilot's screeching puddle couldn't touch. 

Thin Ice and The Unquiet Dead fee the most similar. Both take place during winter in the 1800s. Both tackle social issues (racism for The Pilot, asylum seeking for The Unquiet Dead). Both go for a fairly standard Doctor Who plot, mostly to ease in new viewers and give them an idea of what a "standard" episode of the show will look like. Really, the biggest difference (aside from advances in production techniques) is that Unquiet is a celebrity historical, a trope the show has largely moved away from under Moffat3.

What do these comparisons mean? Not much, in the grand scheme of things. I mostly just thought the parallels were worth noting. Thin Ice was a good enough episode, a welcome improvement on last week, and an episode that accomplished everything it set out to. Perhaps most importantly it was further evidence that Sarah Dollard is a writer we should want to see back once Chibnall's in the producer's chair. 


1 In fact the last time I remember this being broached by the series was 2007's The Shakespeare Code when the Doctor told Martha to "walk around like you own the place, works for me." Which, let's be honest, was a bit of a cop out.

2 I could veer off into a whole spiel about how this nicely encapsulates the differences between Moffat and Davies but I won't because it would be boring and out of place.

3 It's interesting to note that Moffat did do a celebrity historical during his first season, having the Eleventh Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gogh. Again I'll refrain from comparing the two but it's clear ol' Moffles was using the Davies formula during his first season in charge and I'll be interested to see if that continues across his last.

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