Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

The TARDIS lands in what looks like England’s so-called “imperial century,” and are surprised to find the waters beneath them not as safe and ordinary as they expect. An ambitious man with a great deal of power is engaged in an enterprise whose goal is a massive, unearthly profit, and he doesn’t care even a little bit how many human lives he must sacrifice to achieve it. The Doctor and his companion must recruit the assistance of an equally enterprising female and her ragtag band of rogues in order to get to the prize first and set it free.

I swear I’ll stop it with this gag sooner or later, but this could be 1983’s “Enlightenment,” or it could be 2017’s “Thin Ice.” The two stories also share the distinctions of being among the very few Doctor Who stories written by women (Barbara Clegg in the former case, Sarah Dollard in the latter) and being top-notch, practically flawless works. “Enlightenment” is a top five story for me as far as the classic series is concerned; “Thin Ice” may well rank up there as far as the new one goes.

Further, both stories are concerned with class. “Enlightenment” gives us an immortal “ruling class” of nearly omnipotent beings, the Eternals, whose spacefaring vessels are manned by mortal Earthlings who are often killed in the course of trying to win an interplanetary race for their masters. “Thin Ice” gives us an ordinary Earth aristocrat who feeds London’s working class and underclass to a giant chained creature that looks like a fish and sounds like a whale so that it can excrete them as a highly efficient fuel source. Both grant the final moral choice to the Doctor’s companion rather than to the Doctor himself. And both are concerned with the ethical dimensions of the choices made in the stories, rather than shrugging them off thoughtlessly as the consequence of adventure.

“Thin Ice” handles this last bit more convincingly and articulately and also gracefully than we’ve seen in a long time. This is the first time Bill has seen a person die in front of her, and, deeply affected, she confronts the Doctor about his apparent willingness to shrug it off. He does care, he tells her, but not enough to count the number of times it’s happened (surely some fan out there has made such a count; I certainly haven’t), and in the end he simply…moves on. She presses him: has he ever killed anyone? He hesitates, but eventually admits he has (season 22 of the classic series alone contains at least three unambiguous and often remarked-upon examples, and the most recent one that comes to mind is the Gallifreyan General he shoots in “Hell Bent”). He claims that after living for 2000 years he cannot afford the luxury of outrage. And though this claim is thrown into question later on in the episode when he seizes the opportunity to punch a racist in the face, I’d argue that it’s still accurate. Outrage is what one performs when one is unable, at that moment or perhaps ever, to act. If one can act, as the Doctor does at that moment and every other, there is no reason to dwell in outrage.

Though some will no doubt find the politics of “Thin Ice” heavy-handed, I found them beyond reproach. Conversations about the whitewashing of history, the value of life, the blindness of privilege, and the measure of civilization are handled with impeccable grace, even if Bill is perhaps slightly too impressed with the Doctor’s fairly matter-of-fact speech about the latter three issues. On two occasions the Doctor defers to female authority in situations where this is entirely justified (resolving a dilemma reminiscent of the one in “Kill the Moon” in a much saner fashion). The eventual passing of privilege to London’s less fortunate is exactly what we’d want to see happen. It’s the Doctor and his companion righting wrongs in a worthwhile, thorough, and satisfying way. One can imagine the churl who’d object to any of this, but one cannot agree with him, nor quite respect him.

The characterization of Lord Sutcliffe himself might be the most cartoonish element of the story, being entirely self-aware of his complete lack of compassion, but he’s no more cartoonish than your typical Dalek. The child actors are competent and never outstay their welcome. And both Capaldi and Mackie are in top form, already leaps and bounds more compelling to watch than in “The Pilot.” Blink and you’ll miss the scene where the Doctor tries to congratulate himself on his ability to entertain the street urchins with a storybook, and Bill objects (quite rightly) to his attempts at 21st century slang, but it works so much better than similar lines in the series opener. In some ways, the actor playing every new companion has it harder than the previous one did, having to sell the same reactions to the inevitable realities of traveling with the Doctor in a fresh new way, but Mackie is more than up to the challenge. When we finally see her toward the end, realizing that she’s run out of time and she won’t be able to save everyone still on the frozen Thames before the explosives go off and ice cracks, finally grasping the difficult choices the Doctor makes in every adventure and just urging the kids to run and save themselves, it’s the most natural transition in the world. For this episode, at least, this is a tremendous TARDIS team, and I can finally say I’m sad this will be the only season with the two of them.

In the postscript to one of the very best stories of the past ten years, we get more of Nardole back in that subdued mode that worked so well in “Smile,” providing both an explanation for his post-“Husbands of River Song” survival (the Doctor has “reassembled” him — what more do we need to know?) and a hefty bit of foreshadowing about what’s in the vault (more like “who,” and whoever it is they’re dangerous…so probably not the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, then). Terrific stuff, this. More, please.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

In a dusty hallway of an English university is a room, and inside the room is a professor. The professor is a man who’s had a colorful, exciting, long life and is now having a quiet one, giving lectures and puttering about with his hobbies and his books. He’s a man from another world, on the run from his own people, a hero or a criminal depending on who you ask and when, with two hearts, a long life expectancy, and some remarkable psychic abilities. But it’s his room that contains perhaps his most remarkable ability: the power to travel anywhere in space and time, and perhaps even out of both entirely. One of his students, who has no idea about any of this, is about to step into that room and into a more exciting life than anyone would believe was possible.

The man’s name is Professor Chronotis, the student is one Chris Parsons. This is Douglas Adams’ lost Doctor Who story, “Shada.”

Okay, sorry, it’s not. But you can see how “The Pilot” might have the tiniest flavor of that never-completed story from 38 years ago, and it’s a lovely way to begin series 10. It’s also mysterious: why HAS the Doctor been teaching university for the past 50 years? To whom did he promise to stop adventuring, and is the promise related to the high-tech sealed vault in an abandoned basement on campus? How has his Penfoldesque companion Nardole kept his creamy complexion over 50 years, and is Nardole’s longevity related to the whirring sound it makes and the bolt that drops when he lifts his arm in a quiet room? If these mysteries are the series arc this time out, I applaud their subtlety.

This is, in fact, one of the most dignified series openers and companion introductions we’ve seen in recent memory. The comparison that comes to mind is “The Bells of St. John,” which this superficially resembles, except that this replaces the monastery with a university, and a motorcycle ride up the side of a skyscraper with a thankfully restrained pair of guitar riffs. The show continues to look better and better visually, and the direction is largely excellent; even the incidental music this time out is worthy of praise, setting an agreeably playful tone for the new season.

The story itself is well-conceived and mostly works, with a couple of caveats. Moffat seems to have mined elements from many of the better stories over the years, not just “Shada” from the classic series but also “Midnight,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Lodger,” and his own stories “The Doctor Dances,” “The Pandorica Opens,” and “The Eleventh Hour.” It never feels too derivative, though it also doesn’t quite cohere. For a thing that’s not evil, just hungry, the main threat seems awfully sinister and dysfunctional. And since the emotional weight of the story turns on the new companion’s relationship with the scary puddle’s first victim, it would probably have helped to give the two of them some chemistry.

A friend said that this felt like a two-parter squeezed down to one, and if so, the short shrift given to this relationship is the worst casualty. We never see Bill and Heather have a conversation that feels authentic and warm; after their eyes-meet-in-a-club moment, Heather always seems troubled and haunted, giving the impression that she’s already in the puddle’s thrall and is reluctantly seeking victims for it. She doesn’t appear to like anything very much, even Bill, and I had to watch a second time to see that her first vanishing act wasn’t an attempt to sacrifice Bill to the puddle. Bill’s crush seems superficial and unreciprocated as a result, though perhaps this is intentional; starting her time with the Doctor by losing the love of her life would have been a pretty heavy debut. It’s probably better for the bond to be easy come, easy go, even if this makes it less moving and more confusing.

We know Bill’s prone to crushes (as, charmingly, is Nardole) because of the story she tells the Doctor at the beginning of the episode about “perving” on the girl she serves chips to in the canteen. The story is bothersome for three reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, it adds to the confusion about her relationship with Heather. We get only the briefest of glimpses of the chip girl, and it’s not entirely clear they haven’t ended up being a thing, so when Bill starts to notice Heather, it’s easy to wonder: is this the same girl? have they broken up? The second reason is that Bill’s answer to why she comes to the Doctor’s lectures would probably have been more interesting than the story she actually tells, which feels like an outtake from Coupling. And the third reason is that Bill doesn’t seem to get that you can have beauty AND chips, and that you don’t have to stop liking a pretty girl just because she’s gained weight.

Luckily, Bill is so effortlessly appealing that she’s perhaps the only modern companion who could say something like that and get away with it. She’s wonderful from the get-go, making Bill entirely real, lots of fun, optimistic despite what looks like an uninspiring upbringing, and a breath of fresh air. After Me, the Impossible Girl, and the tangled web of Amy, Rory, and River’s intertwined timelines, it’s lovely to have a Possible Girl on board the TARDIS again. Pearl Mackie is great, turning on a dime from a minor freak-out over instantaneous international travel to pointing out that the Doctor’s granddaughter named the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

This season’s second companion, Nardole, is obviously the comic relief, and he’s so broadly drawn that he’s a bit less successful at it than he ought to be. It’s a tall order for any actor to juggle three thankless tasks: running around in fear whimpering “oo ‘eck!” at anything scary, laughtracking other people’s comedy (“banter! It’s good, this”), or — worst of all — underscoring obvious character moments of the Doctor’s (“quite silly,” “never notices the tears”). He’ll get a great line like “Human alert. Would you like me to repel her?” and have to follow it up with tired potty humor (“I’d give it a minute if I were you”). Matt Lucas is as appealing as anyone could be under these circumstances, but hopefully other writers will give him some better material.

Finally there’s Capaldi himself, whose performance as the Doctor continues to frustrate me. For every line he nails, there are three that seem like missed opportunities. It could be the script; for example, “I can see I’m going to have to raise my game” isn’t the wittiest line Moffat’s ever written, and yet I can’t help feeling Matt Smith would have made it into something perfect. I respect Capaldi’s credentials as an actor and he’s brought real magic and gravity to the role over the last few years, but he’s a much drier Doctor than either of his predecessors and it doesn’t always serve him well. I get the sense that behind the scenes he’s probably brought a steadying influence to a show that had started to get a bit over-the-top, but I’m ready to swing the balance back to a lead who can deliver a line about the sky being made of lemon drops without needing Nardole to rimshot it.

On balance, though, a small cast works well together to tell a simple monster story, reintroduce us to the TARDIS, provide a good jumping-on point for any new viewers out there, and give the longtime fans some Easter eggs right before the holiday. Everyone knows River Song, of course, but it’ll take a classic fan to recognize Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, in the other photo. And it’ll take a real classic fan to recognize the Daleks’ longtime enemies the Movellans (from “Destiny of the Daleks” in 1979) being cut to pieces by “the deadliest fire in the universe.” There’s something here for all of us, and it’s been worth the wait.