In the third episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, Bill learns about the difficulties of time travel and saving the world the hard way. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of racism
Oh, y’all, I’m really enjoying this season thus far, and this episode really highlights why the dynamic between Twelve and Bill is so fascinating to me. This show hasn’t rebooted, and I don’t want my commentary to suggest that it has in any way. There’s so much weight behind what happens in “Thin Ice,” and those of us who have been following Doctor Who for a while know how much this character has struggled with death and complicity. But Bill is new to all of this, and I admit to really loving the early days of a new companion. How do they discover who the Doctor is? How do they react to his life? His morals? His need to save others when they are desperate or abandoned or forgotten?
In just these three episodes, though, we are seeing Bill’s growth, and what I like about that growth is that she isn’t becoming the Doctor. It’s not like he’s the standard by which she has to live. Indeed, she fights against him, and pretty fiercely, too. What is normal or acceptable or unchanging for the Doctor is not the same thing for Bill, and she’s given the space here to vocalize how upsetting this experience is for her. And I mean that in multiple ways! I was pleasantly surprised at the casual way Bill was allowed to remind the Doctor that she’s a Black woman and they just traveled to 1814 London. This script addresses racism without necessarily being entirely focused on it. Oh, it still matters to the story as a whole; Sutcliffe’s motivation for who he sacrificed is deeply based on his own racism and classism. So you can’t really divorce it from the script. But aside from a couple disgusting lines from Sutcliffe, meant to show us how humanity can be monstrous, Bill doesn’t spend “Thin Ice” suffering because she’s Black. It matters, it’s part of her identity, and there’s even a brilliant scene where she realizes just how white-washed history has been. Which is true! There’s so much scholarly/academic work that has been done over the years to demonstrate just how much many of us have been lied to about how “diverse” the past was, as well as how often works of fiction have led to these misunderstandings.
So it’s with all this in mind that Bill must deal with a deeply upsetting reality: someone has chained a creature to the bottom of the Thames in order to harvest its waste to use for an energy source. And that is just one angle of this all! Because what truly messes Bill up is the tragic death of one of the orphans because of this creature. At the time, she doesn’t know that this isn’t an act of malevolence, that the creature is just feeding as best as it can. Rather, she watches as this kid is consumed right before her eyes, and, most importantly, she watches the Doctor move on. In that moment, the audience is asked to put themselves in Bill’s feet. We have seen so very many people die in Doctor Who. I couldn’t even recall most of them. It’s a plot device; it’s a reality of the terrible things found in the universe; it’s what the Doctor is trying to stop, because life is precious, and all things deserve to live.
But what Bill sees is the Doctor’s hesitation as Spider is trapped in the ice, and then she sees the Doctor not save this kid. And truly, he couldn’t; at best, he got his sonic screwdriver back. But if he stepped too close to the tracking fish, he would have been pulled under and consumed, too, right? But Bill can’t fathom this; the Doctor saves people, right? So why not this kid? Why not the most vulnerable type of person she could imagine? How can the Doctor not grieve what he just witnessed?
So for me, it made so much sense that she would be angry at this, that she wouldn’t understand that death was part of this whole thing of traveling with the Doctor. While she does come to understand it, it’s not at the expense of her anger. It’s not written in a way that makes Bill suddenly believe that she shouldn’t be sad or upset over the loss of life. I love that the Doctor turns the reins over to Bill when it comes to the big decision. Do they free the creature, one they know has been suffering for untold years, and risk the creature retaliating? Or do they destroy it? Bill chooses life and freedom, though, and I feel like this is going to be a huge turning point for her. These decisions involve risks; they are not cut and dry; they are not easy. And I don’t even think that this episode is necessarily saying that you can’t save everyone. That’s something Bill already learned.
Instead, I feel like “Thin Ice” is a lot more subtle in that regard. Who do you save and how do you save them? What risks do you take in order to do what is right? Bill is faced with a hefty, frightening decision, but she chooses freedom. She chooses to let this creature loose because the alternatives are too ghastly, too unfair. She saves it, and she helps save those on the ice, and SHE SAVES PLANET EARTH. I didn’t see this delegation as a cop out, but one that is part of the dynamic of these two characters. The Doctor is a teacher, and Bill is his student. This lesson was necessary and painful, and Bill rose to the challenge. Will she rise to the challenge again?
Also, I’m bursting at the seams because I THINK I KNOW WHO IS IN THAT VAULT. Oh my god, three knocks. THREE KNOCKS. It has to be the Master, right??? She was still alive at the end of series nine, and the Doctor being forced to watch over her would constitute an oath. Oh my god, I feel like I’m convincing myself of this the more I think about it, so I hope I’m not wrong.
The video for “Thin Ice” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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