“Thin Ice,” the third episode of Doctor Who‘s tenth season, continues the pattern of strong, standalone stories we’ve seen so far. “Thin Ice” is actually a better, more cohesive story than last week’s “Smile,” while still allowing plenty of room for the Doctor and Bill to get to know more about each other. Things take a more dramatic turn in their relationship when Bill witnesses her first death and has an important conversation with the Doctor about how he can see so much death and keep going. It’s a good scene, and though I’ve grown tired of the trope of companions getting angry at the Doctor when he can’t save someone (despite all the people he has saved), I very much liked Bill confronting him about whether he has ever killed anyone himself. She doesn’t let him make excuses, either. She makes him own it, which actually brings them closer together.
Another thing I liked about “Thin Ice” is that the speculative element turns out not to be an alien enemy so much as an animal just doing what animals do, namely eating, without any malice or plans of domination. There is a real villain, of course, someone who is exploiting the animal in question, and that’s how it should be in a story like this. (In fact, there are echoes in “Thin Ice” of “Smile” and “The Pilot,” with both previous stories featuring a speculative, non-human element that is potentially deadly without truly meaning harm.)
The script by Sarah Dollard is a strong one, taking the time to address both racism and representation in Regency England, which is not something Doctor Who often takes the time to do. When the Doctor clocks Sutcliffe for calling Bill a “creature” who should show respect for her “betters,” it’s a pretty great scene, both humorous and cathartic. There’s a funny joke about an imaginary companion named Pete who erased himself from history by stepping on a butterfly. We get a scene involving the psychic paper again, which is something we haven’t seen in quite a while. We also learn a little more about the vault, namely that, thanks to some knocking from the other side of the door, it’s most likely a person inside, which I predicted back in episode one. At this point, I’m wondering if it will be Missy. The only thing I didn’t like about this episode was that Nardole is grumpy and moralizing again. Grumpy, moralizing Nardole doesn’t work for me. Matt Lucas is hilarious; they need to let him be hilarious. I’d love to see Nardole be as funny and disaffected again as he was in last Christmas’s otherwise forgettable special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio.” More funny Nardole, less grumpy schoolmarm Nardole!
And now a small bit of Doctor Who neepery! In conversation with the pie man at the frost fair, the Doctor asks about a man with a ship tattooed on his hand and attempts to bond with the pie man by sharing his disgust of tattoos. But, a little-known fact: the Doctor himself used to have a tattoo! Back in the very first Third Doctor serial, 1970’s “Spearhead from Space,” the Doctor is shown showering in a hospital bathroom and we see a tattoo on his forearm. (This is the only time we ever see the Doctor without a shirt on, until the 2010 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Lodger,” which revealed the tattoo is no longer there. Edited to add: A reader pointed out my oversight that the Ninth Doctor is shown shirtless in the episode “Dalek” in 2005. Notably, the tattoo is also not there.) The reason the Third Doctor has a tattoo at all is because the actor Jon Pertwee got it during his Navy days. Why it wasn’t covered up with makeup for the scene is anyone’s guess, so now the Doctor’s tattoo is canon! The tattoo itself is of a cobra, although when seen upside-down it looks remarkably like the question mark that would become a regular symbol upon the clothes of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors.