This review contains spoilers.
Two not-bad episodes of Doctor Who in a row? Good lord.
Thin Ice, written by Sarah Dollard, sees the Doctor and Bill arriving in London, 1814, by accident. (They’d been aiming for London, 2017, so I guess by the standards of these things they weren’t too far out.) It’s the year of the last Frost Fair, when the Thames froze solid enough that markets could be held on the ice. Bill is delighted and charmed by her visit to Olde Englande, until she isn’t: the Doctor and Bill spot green lights under the ice, surrounding unwary wanderers and dragging them down into the depths. Investigating, they find themselves digging into the underbelly of Regency England, the racism and the poverty and the oppression. Why is there a massive sea-creature chained at the bottom of the river? What are the dredging-yards doing? Why are the upper classes such dicks?
There are some great observations about oppression here: the series is obviously continuing its theme of multicultural understanding and tolerance. Bill remarks that 1814 is considerably less white than she expected (which, kudos to the production team, who have obviously worked to put multiple people of colour into actual important speaking roles, rather than just the token extra); the Doctor replies, “History is a whitewash.”
Huzzah! I honestly never expected to hear Twelve saying that.
And when Bill is angry and upset about a child being eaten by the creature under the ice, the Doctor explains to her that outrage is a luxury; that if she doesn’t pull herself together more people will die. It’s a smart choice, by the way, to have Bill and the Doctor in middle-class period costume, while most of those they interact with are working-class or lower; it makes for an interesting discussion of privilege, highlighting the sharp distinction between Bill’s relatively luxurious 21st-century lifestyle and the street urchins’ desperate, hand-to-mouth 19th-century existence.
Like Smile, though, I think some of the good, well-intentioned representational stuff in Thin Ice has some unintentional connotations. Specifically, I feel like Thin Ice‘s implicit comparison between 19th-century and 21st-century mores strays into self-congratulatory territory. Let’s not forget, after all, that we might expect Bill to know something about the luxury of outrage already, being both working-class (how much does that canteen job pay, anyway?) and a person of colour herself – as the episode points out. And it’s a shame that the only person who is outwardly racist is the villain of the piece, utterly uninterested in anything except capitalist progress, and so utterly irredeemable: it perpetuates the lie that only really evil people are racists, that a few powerful villains made the slave trade (which Thin Ice references both explicitly – Bill raises it with the Doctor, concerned that Regency England may not be safe for her – and symbolically, through the chained sea-creature) possible; when in fact the very opposite is true. Where’s the casual racism of Regency England, the beliefs so widespread that they were uttered entirely without conscious malice, as self-evident truths?
At the end of the episode, Bill is asked (as seemingly all the Doctor’s companions are at some point) to make a choice: whether or not to set the sea-creature free. On the one hand, it is clearly not a very happy sea-creature, and it is eating people. On the other hand, if it goes free it might eat some more people. “If your future is based on the suffering of that creature,” says the Doctor in his infinite wisdom, “what’s that future worth?” This is an excellent point, but sort of elides the fact that our future is still based on the suffering of others, because that’s what capitalism means. The system is founded on it; but Thin Ice suggests that solving capitalist greed is easy, as simple as freeing the chained slave and destroying the venture capitalist. Look at how ludicrously one-sided Bill’s dilemma is: there’s never any serious suggestion that letting the creature go will endanger London, whereas keeping it in chains is definitely Evil. (Compare this situation to the similar one in The Beast Below, when everyone thought that letting the space-whale go would cause the break-up of the ship and kill millions of people. That’s a better metaphor for the relationship between capitalist greed and Western society.)
And what about the Doctor’s speech to the capitalist villain keeping the creature chained up: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry; it’s measured by the value you place on a life”? To me, it seems that the Doctor is making an implicit comparison between the backward, oppressive values of the Industrial Revolution and our more enlightened times: we value everyone equally now! Isn’t that nice?
Except we don’t. People still die in crowded factories in China and India, working twelve hours a day to bring the West iPhones and fast fashion. Children still sift through toxic waste to find the minerals for Western touchscreens. Disability and chronic illness still plunge people into poverty in England. We haven’t solved racism, sexism, oppression; it’s important to remember that.
While I’m enjoying the social conscience that Doctor Who seems to be re-developing, I’d like to see episodes that reference colonialism and oppression actually dig a bit more into the implications of those metaphors, within the constraints of the format. It’s a show where literally anything could happen; so if we’re finally getting away from the white male patriarchy it developed during the last season, it would be good to see something properly radical come out of it.