Doctor Who: Thin Ice

The Doctor and Bill land in London 1814, and the episode starts with lots of interesting discussions of the danger of time travel to a time when slavery still exists, as well as the potential to step on a butterfly and alter the future. With respect to the latter, the Doctor says it is just like any other day. And with respect to the past being “a bit more black” than one sees in the movies, the Doctor says “so was Jesus” and adds “history’s a whitewash.”

As they explore a “Frost Fair” on the frozen Thames, a boy steals the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. On the ice, mysterious lights take the boy – the Doctor just barely managing to grab his sonic screwdriver from the boy’s hand before he is taken through the ice to his death. This leads to Bill asking how many people the Doctor has seen die, and then how many he has killed.

Under the water, the Doctor and Bill find a large creature that has been chained up. A man named Lord Sutcliffe is from a family that has used the creature’s excrement as fuel for generations. He plans to blow up the ice and feed large crowds to the creature, to make more of the fuel, saying it is no different from, and perhaps better than, coal mines in which many people die as well.

The Doctor advocates calm, saying that “Passion fights but reason wins.” But he ends up punching Sutcliffe when he says racist things. Not long after, the Doctor gives a speech, in which he says, among other things, “Human progress isn’t measured by industry, it is measured by the value you place in a human life…”

He also says later, “Only idiots know the answers.” The Doctor asks Bill what the future of her country is worth if it is built on the suffering and imprisonment of the creature. He lets it be her decision (later calling her ‘boss’). So they work to free the creature. As a result, Sutcliffe drowns, and his fortune goes to a street urchin they had met.

The episode thus poses serious questions about what it means to act for good in the world. Bill initially thinks that it is following rules and avoding doing wrong acts, in particular killing people, but also failing to be appropriately traumatized by deaths even if one did not cause them. By the end, the viewer is made to ask whether it might not be better to maximize good and to right wrongs, even if in the process some bad also happens. Thin ice serves as a wonderful metaphor for this. One can tiptoe around trying not to crack the ice. Or one can go into the situation with a diving suit on, expecting that it will get messy as one tries to not merely be passive but to play a positive role. To put it another way, should the Doctor – like a doctor – “first do no harm”? Or should the Doctor (ironically a bit like Sutcliffe, yet in other ways the very opposite) recognize that harm is inevitable, and therefore doing good is better than avoiding evil?

What are your thoughts about the moral question the episode explores? And did you enjoy the story?

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  • Brandon Roberts

    sounds good

  • myklc

    I think the writer may have read some Bonhoeffer!
    “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

    “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of
    victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into
    the wheel itself.”
    and, of course
    “And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God
    loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.
    God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs
    his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness;
    he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak
    and broken.”

  • starlightshimmers

    Jesus wasn’t Black, he was Israelite. European history is majority White, like how Asian history is majority Asian. I don’t understand why they had to add those lines.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Ancient Israelites, and first century Jews, would certainly have been darker skinned than most European portraits of Jesus have tended to be. That was the point, I think.

  • Paul E.

    Couple of interesting themes in this one, including slavery. Tiny was chained and enslaved to Sutcliffe, but it had its own little slave fish to get it food. Bill mentioned that slavery was still a “thing” but that Regency society was blacker than history portrayed it, hinting at the ties between slavery and racism. That link was made explicit with Sutcliffe’s reaction to Bill, and justified the Doctor’s passionate, rather than reasoned, reaction. The Doctor calls Bill “boss.” To whom was Sutcliffe a slave? That may be answered later.

    The loss of memory keeps coming up as well. The Doctor decided not to wipe Bill’s memory, then he wiped the emoji robots’ memories, then the reference here to Pete. Seems to be leading up to a resolution of the Doctor remembering (or not) Clara.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Excellent observations!

  • John MacDonald

    Dr. McGrath wrote: “The Doctor and Bill land in London 1814, and the episode starts with lots of interesting discussions of the danger of time travel to a time when slavery still exists, as well as the potential to step on a butterfly and alter the future.”

    That made me think of the Simpson episode where Homer keeps inadvertently changing the future:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUbzxPpaxjw

  • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

    OK – nothing profound to say, just a geeky Doctor observation.

    In this episode, Before going out into 1814 London, the Doctor gives Bill directions through the Tardis:

    Doctor: “1st door on the left, 2nd right, under the stairs, past the bins, 5th door on the left.”
    Bill: “What’s that?”
    Doctor: “The Wardrobe. Pick a dress.

    In the first of the new series (Chris Eccleston), episode 3, before going out into 1869 London, the Doctor gives Rose directions through the Tardis:

    Doctor: “There’s a Wardrobe through there. 1st left, 2nd right, 3rd on the left, go straight ahead, under the stairs, past the bins, 5th door on your left.”

    Apparently, the room shifted a bit over the years. Anybody else heard similar directions on other Doctor Who episodes?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The TARDIS even reconfigures itself, doesn’t it? The Doctor once (poignantly and symbolically) had the TARDIS jettison Romana’s room in order to stabilize itself…

      • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

        That’s what I was thinking. I wonder if similar directions to the wardrobe have been used by other Doctors. I also wonder if leaving out the direction “3rd on the left” was an intentional shift by the writers, or an unintentional omission by Capaldi: maybe he was unaware of the earlier reference, and didn’t consider it important to be precise with the line.

  • http://gospelaccordingtodoctorwho.tumblr.com/ gospelaccordingtodoctorwho

    Doctors who cut into your body to perform surgery are causing harm but this is to prevent a greater harm than if the surgery wasn’t performed. Short term suffering for long term gain.

  • Ursula L

    Sutcliff wasn’t simply “saying racist things.” He was attacking Bill.

    The verbal attack is clear – he was shouting at her, calling names, threatening her.

    The physical attack was more subtle, but a common tactic of abusers – leaning over her, crowding her space, having her cornered, so that she could not walk away from his verbal attack without pushing past him. Which would then give him the “excuse” for escalating his physical attack, as in trying to escape him, she’d have to touch him before he touched her, and he’d claim she attacked him.

    It is one thing to caution restraint before an encounter with someone who may be hostile.

    It is a different thing to stand by doing nothing, as a bigot attacks someone.

    The Doctor is Bill’s friend, and also her protector and guide as she travels in time. She needs to be able to trust him, if not to keep her safe at all times, at the very least to be her ally and have her back.

  • Nick G

    The Doctor and Bill land in London 1814, and the episode starts with
    lots of interesting discussions of the danger of time travel to a time
    when slavery still exists

    I don’t watch Doctor Who, so I don’t know exactly what was discussed, but a black person in 1814 London would not have been at any real risk of being enslaved (by which I mean being reduced to the legal status of slavery – obviously people of any race might be trapped in illegal bondage, and black people would probably be more vulnerable to this). The Somerset case of 1772, in which the slave James Somerset (whose owner had brought him to England from Virginia) escaped, was recaptured, but was declared free after a hearing before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, effectively ended legal slavery in England, although Mansfield’s judgement was less definitive than was and is widely believed. See Adam Hochschild Bury The Chains: the British Struggle to Abolish Slavery.