Everybody loves a good sci-fi story with a monster that lives underwater. Everybody loves a good sci-fi story set in the past. Everybody loves a good sci-fi story that furthers the development of characters they already love.
But this week’s Doctor Who episode, “Thin Ice,” wasn’t just a good sci-fi story with a monster and fancy top hats. It was a pact with the audience, a renewal of faith. It was a reminder of the show’s philosophy toward life, even with the frequently murky moral space it occupies as a complicated piece of fiction.
“Thin Ice” has a lot to say about the Doctor’s evolution as a long-lived alien who often spends his time hanging around humans, getting into trouble, and saving people from all manner of danger. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of Peter Capaldi’s incarnation is how clearly he has matured from previous versions of the character—even his mistakes are more mature mistakes. So it is refreshing that he and Bill land in 1814, and when his friend comments on how dangerous it could be for her to walk through the past as a black woman, the Doctor recognizes that her concern is valid and tells her so. It’s a complete turn around from how the Doctor handled these sorts of questions with Martha Jones, who he told to walk around “like she owned the place,” just like him. That sort of advice was clearly born from the Doctor’s failure to recognize how differently he is treated by appearing to be a knowledgeable white man, and we see how well it works when Martha is no longer accompanied by the Doctor; when he uses the Chameleon Arch and forgets who he is, she is immediately relegated to servant work at the school where he is teaching, and is constantly spoken down to by the people there.
What’s more, “Thin Ice” is intent on reminding the audience of what true history looked like, with no excuses for homogeny. Once outside the TARDIS in period-proper clothes, Bill notes that the people she sees in London are far less white than she was expecting, to which the Doctor rejoins that Jesus was, too. Then, after weighing in on the “historical Jesus” issue (even more potent because we can assume that the Doctor is talking about Jesus from experience, being a time traveler), he makes the comment that history is “a whitewash.” Bringing up whitewashing at a point in time when the subject is increasingly being brought into public consciousness cannot be viewed as a random gesture—the Doctor is taking issue with the practice, and the episode itself has a completely diverse cast. Whether this is meant to be taken as a renewed commitment to accurately showcasing humanity’s past or not, putting those words in the Doctor’s mouth is a deliberate jab at anyone who would prefer to deny such truths. And when Peter Capaldi himself is showing up at climate marches, it’s safe to say that truth is something on the Doctor’s mind lately.
But the episode only gets more interesting as it progresses, leading the Doctor and Bill to discover a great big fish under the Thames who seems to be eating people attending the Frost Festival. They witness a homeless kid get pulled under the ice, and Bill has to stop and take stock when the Doctor admits that there’s nothing he can do for the child; this is the first time she’s ever seen someone die. Every companion has this moment, the point at which they realize the cost of these adventures and the terrible things they are bound to witness. But the Doctor doesn’t always make himself available at these times, and here he is forced to do so if he wants Bill’s continued help. They end up asking the other children living rough about who is responsible for the Frost Festival’s wide reach, and are led to Lord Sutcliffe: A man who has been using the byproduct of the creature’s steady human diet as a means of producing fuel good enough for interstellar travel.
The Doctor assumes that Sutcliffe is an alien himself, and asks Bill to leave the talking to him, claiming that her temper will not help them ingratiate themselves to another species. He tells her that he must be tactful, charming, diplomatic in this instance, then says: “Always remember, Bill: Passion fights, but reason wins.” These words are not far off from the common chide thrown at anyone who does work in activism—that being aggressive in campaigns for the rights of other human beings does not win battles. That only being logical and reasonable and calm will win people over, making it the only appropriate method of fighting oppression. This bid toward being “less emotional” insists that people who cannot make a separation between their feelings and what they are fighting for are hurting their cause rather than helping it… and in this moment, it seems that the Doctor is saying something quite similar to Bill.
That is, until they meet Lord Sutcliffe, and his flagrant racism toward Bill leads the Doctor to deck him across the face.
By giving us this moment, the Doctor undoes his previous assertion; in the face of such despicable prejudice, passion is the appropriate display. In fact, the Doctor does one better, suggesting that Lord Sutcliffe’s opinions lessen him as a person, saying, “I preferred it when you were an alien. Well, that explained the lack of humanity.” The Doctor does not necessarily believe that bigotry is humanity’s natural state, but he does believe that displaying it makes a human being less human.
In effect, we live in the world that has lately been debating the moral correctness of punching Nazis, and Doctor Who has just answered that with a resounding Yes, Please Do.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Doctor does his best to get information out of Sutcliffe, but also calls him out on his part in the murder of countless London citizens by using the Frost Festival to feed them to his pet money-making beast. Lord Sutcliffe feels absolutely no culpability in the situation he perpetuates—he reckons that without the fish, his wealth would come from coal mines where men die all the same, and he believes that his family has done well for England. For Empire. The Doctor calls that what it is, an accident of birth that has caused Sutcliffe to believe that because he has more, he is more. That his life is more important than the people he puts to death. And Lord Sutcliffe has no difficulty with this belief because he thinks that he and his family have helped their country progress.
We are now standing in the midst of an era where white supremacy, nationalism, sexism, homophobia, and any other number of prejudices stand to become rule of law because too many have embraced the type of thinking that Sutcliffe propagates: that having more makes a human worth more, and that progress is to be measured by power rather than empowering others. And in the parlor of an English Lord’s manor in the year 1814, we receive an answer to this philosophy. The Doctor has made a lot of great speeches throughout the show’s history, and frankly, he makes them a lot. Some of them are standoffish, some of them are touching, some of them dare his enemies to unleash their worst. But this might be the most important one he’s ever given:
“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.”
By uttering those words, Doctor Who is explicitly asking its viewers what currently defines us—you cannot hear those words and neglect taking stock of the world around you. Are we placing value on lives without privilege? Or are we continuing to base our progress on stuff and power and wealth? What age are we in? And if we’re on the wrong end of this… how do we turn and run in the other direction?
The episode turns to Bill to give us the answer, as she’s given a choice by her new traveling companion. The Doctor’s previous experiences have taught him much about how to present these questions. He has been called out by companions before for making decisions on behalf of individuals and entire species, and for forcing his friends to make do without him for the purpose of teaching a lesson—whether it was Donna Noble insisting on jointly making the choice to destroy Pompeii, or Clara Oswald refusing to travel with the Doctor for a time due to his callous decision to abandon her when she decided the moon’s fate. But here the Doctor makes his position clear; he could set the creature free (to potentially harm others or swim far away), but he won’t do anything without Bill’s permission. She must speak for her planet and give him the order. But he does offer one helpful bit of advice: “If your future is built on the suffering of that creature, then what’s your future worth?”
So it’s Bill’s turn to decide: What value do we place on life? Do we define ourselves by the people (and beings) that we allow to suffer, or do we muster compassion to make ourselves into more than that?
They set the creature free. Of course.
Our systems remain mired in oppression and cruelty, as the episode shows us—the general citizenry never really learn what was going on under the ice. The Doctor gives Lord Sutcliffe’s estate to the urchin kids, but it has to go specifically to the one white boy in the crew because Sutcliffe’s will only allows for a potential male heir. People lost their lives for generations due to the Sutcliffe family’s greed. But if people make the commitment to place value on life rather than might, if they refuse patterns of power and subjugation as a mark of progress, then there is a chance for the world to get better. Doctor Who is asking you to remember that.
“Thin Ice” is a powerful response to a world that is currently subsumed by fear and cynicism, a meaningful rumination on the choices that we make each day, and our ability to affect change when we act out of empathy and kindness. The episode’s markedly subtle conversation with the show’s past only makes it more enjoyable. If you’ve loved Doctor Who for a long time, you’ll see how the show has arrived at this moment. If you’re just starting out with the TARDIS, it’s hard to think of a better way to get to know it. Stories like these are the reason why Doctor Who exists—to prove to us that we aways have the ability to move beyond our meanest impulses and embrace lives built on excitement, wonder, and love.