Monday, 1 May 2017
Doctor Who: Thin Ice (Episode Review)
For those immediately wondering - No, this doesn't involve the return of the Ice Warriors. Yes, I was disappointed as well, but despite this fact the story in question is surprisingly good. This latest series so far seems to be something of a re-introduction for people, establishing the new style, presentation and narrative arcs of the series. While "soft reboot" is too much of a stretch here, it's far less continuity heavy than past outings, and it seems as if each initial tale will cover a type of series story. So, with a modern day abduction tale done, followed by a far future outing (yes, we will be getting to that tomorrow, it just proved to be a difficult one to fully analyse in the end), we now have a historical tale.
"Historical" always has two meanings with Doctor Who. In the classic series, at least early on, it referred to tales which lacked all science fiction elements save for the Time Lord and his TARDIS. Mostly however, it now refers to stories which are set in a past era but have some unique or unknown threat thrown in, from aliens to far more supernatural things. Thin Ice is definitely the latter, a fact it tells you very early on.
Set during the 1814 London Frost Fair, the Doctor and Bill appear at the TARDIS' behest, seemingly fixated on this one point in time. Leaving for a bit of light entertainment, they start browsing the stalls and enjoying the best that London has to offer. Yet, as is often the case, things are not as they seem. People are disappearing beneath the ice, and as lights dance beneath its surface, it's clear something hungry is lurking down there, consuming anyone who crosses its path...
It has been quite some time since we have last witnessed a true historical outing for the show, and thankfully the new creators pulled out all the stops with this one. While the likes of The Snowmen and a few previous arcs limited themselves to a few select locations, Thin Ice makes sure you get a proper feel for the setting. While certainly limited to a few key locations, the variety of people, acts and costumes present at the fair itself offers it a sense of liveliness the show often lacks in such settings. Better yet, it fits this directly into the story without it seeming out of place, or showing how limited the sets really are. The entire key event is focused upon this one area, after all, and the Doctor is only given any logical reason to leave at one specific point before being returned. It really seems that the show was stepping back and looking at how best to use what they had on hand.
There are also more than a few themes here which emulate some of the early stories with Rose Tyler and the Ninth Doctor, particularly the sheer wonderment of it all. There is a push to just enjoy the sensation of travelling through time and the sheer spectacle of it all, which doesn't override the main arc. True, you know it's all going to hell and that there's a big monster in here somewhere, but the story doesn't let that override the entertainment of this. Compared to the break-neck speed of past outings, it's a nice change to give some much needed character establishment and development for both Bill and the Doctor himself.
When it does get into the main mystery, it equally doesn't rush into things. Events progress a little sluggishly to be sure, but the story here is all about establishment and re-establishment of elements. So, even if you're left waiting for a bit, it always makes sure to throw in something entertaining or interesting. This is evident when the two time travelers are forced to speak with a few orphans for a time, where the the episode does stop almost entirely. It's only for a few minutes, but it's for a brief montage showing Bill coming to (somewhat) understand how the Doctor works, how this incarnation of the Doctor has changed since Clara departed, and building the trust they need to get things moving for the rest of the story. It's the sort of slow but purposeful approach, methodically stepping forwards one moment at a time to avoid plot holes and establish new elements without them clashing with one another.
Speaking of the two for a moment, this is definitely a character driven tale when all is considered. It's very much akin to Gridlock in that the situation is important, life threatening and somewhat ties into a few past outings, but most of it comes down to establishing new ideas for the series to come. These are delivered entirely through dialogue and just the actors' expressions, and they're definitely the highlight of the whole story. A particularly strong one remains the discussion over Bill witnessing her first death and how the Doctor has effectively come to accept it. While he certainly doesn't like it, and he is hit hard by any loss of life, but you can see why and how he has come to almost see it as something they need to overcome rather than being caught up on it.
Also, as a final note, there is some fun closure during the finale. Something which shows the sorts of changes the Doctor can make to lives, even in the most hectic of moments and how history seems to rework itself to ignore certain events. It's certainly not a full "cracks in time" event, but plays more into the "amazing capacity for self-deception" joke presented in Remembrance of the Daleks.
So, with that done, as you might guess, there are certainly a lot of poor ideas to conflict with this as well, unfortunately.
With all of the above said, there are many, many points here where the story almost seems to be on auto-pilot. Okay, that's not entirely fair, there is work being put in here, but it lacks the massive effort and sheer drive of other stories. Ideas are brought up, are interesting and are good, but they simply lack the impact or establishment they need. For example, the whole thing surrounding the monster in the Thames? We get perhaps two scenes of it, and beyond a great teaser and good conclusion it does little to really establish itself as a force in the story. Equally, the Doctor and Bill dive down, look at it, and then leave again with little to no lasting impact. Anything they do learn could have been just as easily accomplished via a periscope (with far less danger to themselves, it needs to be said) and that's it. In fact, the whole scene in question seems to only be there for the imagery to show up in promotional scenes.
The villain is definitely where the ball is dropped the most though, as it's a waste of a great idea and a great actor (the perpetually underrated Nicholas Burns). There are some good scenes, some great dialogue, and a few brief moments of entertainment, but there's no depth to his character. There's one fleeting moment here it looks as if he might start to excuse elements or even justify his ideas before it goes "Nope, villain!" This is also hindered by a very late introduction, meaning any scenes or establishment of him is rushed to hell and back, leaving little real impact on the audience.
Another definite problem which arose while watching it was how the story itself did seem to repeatedly pause at various points. There was no urgency behind events, no drive, no ticking clock or ongoing threat. There was just no real drive to resolve matters,which gave the story a lack of real impact. After the first death there should have been some drive to focus matters upon the impending threat, especially after the story left so many visual hints early on, but instead it keeps stopping for other things. On their own, these moments work well, but when there's a giant murderous sea monster bumping off passers by, it's very out of place.
Finally, despite some truly great visuals throughout the story, there are some major stumbling points which takes you out of the experience. For starters, after the CGI ranged from acceptable to great throughout the story we have an ending shot with is unconvincing to say the least. Equally, the last few shots of the fair itself makes it clear that this is all set on a sound stage. There's no sense of bitterness, cold or even exposure to the elements here, and it's the last thing we see in the story before cutting back to present day. To drop the ball at the last hurdle like this is astonishing to say the least, especially when it leaves any viewer with such a negative final impression of what had been great visuals up to that point.
This episode sadly seems like it retains a lot of filler at times. It's not the sort of auto-pilot outings we've seen from the series for sure, and visually it remains outstanding from start to finish, but the story is definitely stretched thin at a few too many points. It's as if the writers had a lot of fun moments they wanted to play with, a lot of great images, but stopped working on it all once it reached the "good enough" phase. So, what could have been something fantastic is just satisfactory instead.
Should you watch it? Definitely, and you'll probably go back to view a few specific scenes a few more times in the years to come, but don't expect it to leave much lasting impact on you.