In “Thin Ice” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his new companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) find themselves in 1814 London, at the last great frost fair. Despite initially enjoying the sites and entertainment, Bill learns that life as a companion isn’t all fish pies and coin tricks. “Thin Ice” creates an incredible setting and shows that Doctor Who has quickly found its footing with this new companion.
Bill Anderson directed “Thin Ice” as well as the next episode, “Knock Knock,” following Steven Moffat’s pattern of having a set of episodes directed by the same person. “Thin Ice” was written by Sarah Dollard, who previously penned “Face the Raven.” We get a nod to the Doctor’s history when he comments that he’s been to the 1814 frost fair a few times before. He took River Song to the frost fair to celebrate her birthday (mentioned in “A Good Man Goes to War”) and promised to take Clara Oswald to the Frost Fair (“The Caretaker”).
The role of Doctor Who companion has become increasingly independent over the years, yet they still serve as a vehicle for exposition. The Doctor may be conveying information that is new to the entire audience – such as the history of an alien culture – or touch on what’s already familiar to most of the audience for that sense of familiarity and continuity–such as the sonic screwdriver. A new companion also helps those new to the series to experience it for the first time by acting as a surrogate of sorts. Not only is Bill introduced to the sonic screwdriver, the psychic paper, and the wardrobe room of the TARDIS, but she also has questions about the rules of time travel, which the Doctor doesn’t really answer. There should be some kind of guide for new companions. As well as learning the location of the swimming pools on the TARDIS, companions often go through different stages with the Doctor. Let’s look at the Five Stages of Traveling with the Doctor.
Stage 1: Amazement
The first stage is the most exciting–when companions learn the TARDIS is bigger on this inside and discover they can travel throughout space and time. They also quickly recognize that the adventure comes with a certain amount of danger. We’ve seen this with Bill in the first few episodes of Season 10. Though new locations are still exciting for Bill in “Thin Ice,” she has started to adjust to this aspect of traveling with the Doctor.
In “Thin Ice” Doctor Who gives us a wonderful location on the frozen Thames. The crowds, the vendors selling all kinds of animal parts, the wrestlers and acrobats, the con men, and the Dickensian street urchins–the Frost Fair has it all. Though snow in London is usually only seen during the Christmas Special, “Thin Ice” creates a striking backdrop of ice and snow, captured beautifully on camera. Everything about the Frost Fair adds to Bill’s enthrallment as she walks around the Fair, just as it does for the audience. She tells the Doctor, “I hope you know, I’m going to try everything.”
Bill has quickly learned how dangerous traveling with the doctor can be. Though the TARDIS, the Doctor, and the audience know that danger is around the corner, Bill is focused on the fair. When Bill finally tells the Doctor about the lights under the ice, he knows already, responding, “Well, you were enjoying yourself. I assumed we’d get to work eventually.” Seeing the undersea creature in the underwater scenes adds an element that is at first menacing, but then disturbing. The Doctor points out that the creature’s cry sounds of “despair, loneliness–a prisoner in chains.”
Stage 2: Adjustment
At some point, companions start to learn the rules of time travel and the TARDIS. And of course there are at least some guidelines, such as time travel–time being a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, that though time can be rewritten fixed points in time cannot be altered, and then there are the changes to the time-space continuum that can destroy the universe. Even though the Doctor brushes off Bill’s questions about the butterfly effect, she’s starting to learn a bit about time travel. The Doctor reveals to Bill that you don’t steer the TARDIS, but instead try to reason with her, because she’s always looking for trouble.
Stage 3: Moral Uncertainty
The Doctor himself is changeable and not just because he can regenerate. Being 2000 years old and having seen so much death, the Doctor sometimes needs the human touch. Companions often function as the Doctor’s moral compass. The Doctor sometimes needs humanity to reinforce or challenge his judgment, such as Clara’s empathy flashcards or Donna pleading with him to save at least one family from Pompeii.
Bill is overwhelmed after seeing the street urchin Spider pulled beneath the ice and the Doctor’s seemingly cold response to it. The doctor can’t save the boy, but he does save the sonic screwdriver. She wants to know how many the Doctor has seen die, which he can’t remember, and how many he has killed, which he tries to justify. The Doctor explains to Bill that outrage is a luxury he doesn’t have time for because he has to move forward or more people die. Yet, when the Doctor is tested himself by Lord Sutcliffe’s intolerance and disdain, he can’t restrain his own outrage and knocks the detestable man out. The Doctor shows he’s capable of moral outrage as well.
The Doctor: “I preferred it when you were alien.”
Sutcliffe: “When I was…”
The Doctor: “Well, that would explain the lack of humanity. What makes you so sure your life is worth more than those people out there on the ice? Is it the money? The accident of birth, that puts you inside the big, fancy house.”
Sutcliffe: “I help move this country forward. I move this Empire forward.”
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.”
Lord Sutcliffe: “What a beautiful speech. The rhythm and vocabulary, quite outstanding. It’s enough to move anyone with an ounce of compassion….So it’s really not your day, is it?”
Later, when Bill questions whether it’s wise to release the giant creature in the Thames, the Doctor gives an answer worthy of Ursula Le Guin: “If your future is built on the suffering of that creature. What kind of future is that?” Ultimately he leaves the decision about whether or not to release the creature to Bill, telling her she’s the boss. Perhaps he was going to override her if she wanted to keep the creature chained, but leaving such a difficult call to a new companion seems questionable at best and unfair at worst. Calling Bill “boss” comes off as patronizing, and forcing her to make the decision about the creature doesn’t feel empowering. Instead, it feels like the Doctor is placing an excessive burden on Bill just to teach her a lesson in philosophy.
Stage 4: Expertise
With rare exceptions, such as River Song, the Doctor is always the expert. The Doctor takes on the role of the teacher, while the companion plays the student. With Bill, the roles have become formalized since Doctor has taken on the role of her tutor.
After traveling with the Doctor for some time, companions gain knowledge through their experience. Sometimes this leads to them having very strong opinions about what the Doctor should be doing, like Nardole (Matt Lucas). Nardole is very focused on the Doctor’s oath to stay and guard whatever is in the vault. Now that the Doctor is having adventures with Bill, he doesn’t want to stay put. He tells Nardole, “Gimme a coin. We’ll toss for it. Heads, the TARDIS stays put or tails you’ll leave me alone.”
Later, Nardole goes to check on the vault. He’s still angry at the doctor and mumbles to himself, “Leave him alone? That would be a fine thing. Leave me alone. How’s about that for a new idea. I never asked to be reassembled, did I?” Something knocks loudly from inside the vault. Nardole seems very worried, but puts on a brave face:
“No one’s going to open the door just ‘cause you’re knocking. Getting cocky, now, are you? Why? What do you think you know? What has he told you? Because, yeah, he may have a little friend now, and, yeah, he may be a little distracted, but I tell you something–I’m still here and as long as I’m still here, you are going nowhere.”
Nardole turns and practically runs out of the room. If the Doctor is going to be out traveling the universe, let’s hope Nardole has developed some expertise of his own.
Stage 5: Exit
Companions depart the series in a variety of ways. Some get dropped off on a planet or trapped in a parallel universe, there are those who stop traveling with the Doctor after memories have been erased, some companions have gotten trapped by time, and, of course, there are those who die.
Bill and the Doctor have terrific chemistry. It hasn’t been announced yet if Bill will continue in the new season. Some have suggested that what Bill says in the Season 10 preview hints at a bad ending for this companion.
“The first time you meet him, he’s funny. The second time, he’s amazing. The third time you realize he’s the most dangerous man in the universe. He says he’s a man of peace, but he walks in war. I’m having the time of my life. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Even if it kills me.”
So far, Bill has been a terrific companion and her continued presence could provide some continuity between seasons and serve as a bridge between the Twelfth and Thirteen Doctors. We believe in a wait and see approach, but let’s hope that Bill’s exit won’t take place for a while.
Thin Ice Review
Doctor Who gave us an episode that was intriguing, funny, and heartfelt. Though there were some moments that seemed inconsistent, like Twelve suddenly enjoying children and giving Bill a morality test, “Thin Ice” was a very fun episode of Doctor Who. We have high hope for the rest of Season 10.