Doctor Who tends to do rather well in 19th century London. Ever since the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) donned Inverness capes and crinoline for 1977’s excellent serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, the TARDIS has made frequent stops there. Call it a certain sympathy for what would later become known as the steampunk aesthetic, or perhaps a predisposition towards the mode of storytelling ushered in by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Montague James, and the other pioneering science fiction and horror authors of the period, everyone’s favourite Time Lord has always got good mileage out of the 1800s.
So the series proved recently when, after two so-so episodes, the latest series of Doctor Who finally kicked into gear with “Thin Ice”, an engaging story combining 19th century imagery with horror overtones. The setting — the London frost fair of 1814, famously the last occasion on which the river Thames froze over for long enough to hold one — has in fact been the setting for various Doctor-related shenanigans in spinoff media, but this is the first time we have seen the TARDIS in this setting on screen. Peter Capaldi reveals himself to be in his element among gangs of Dickensian street urchins, and Pearl Mackie continues to be well worth the price of admission as companion Bill. The strength of Sarah Dollard’s script combined with the performances of our leads effectively outweighs the episode’s deficiencies.
One of the most egregious of these is the realization of 1814 London, which the Doctor and Bill discover to be plagued by the spectre of a giant sea-monster in the Thames. The tight shots in the frost fair are executed well enough, but when it came to shooting the scenes in which the duo examine the creature underwater in diving suits, the CGI is flat and unconvincing, looking for all the world as though it had been filmed through a lens smothered in Vaseline.
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Elsewhere, casting is pedestrian rather than spectacular. Everyone’s favourite arch-Idiot, Nathan Barley star Nicholas Burns, turns in a respectable performance as Lord Sutcliffe, the aristocrat whose family has benefited from the creature for centuries by supplying it with the sea-monster equivalent if fish food — human corpses, naturally — in return for the creature’s waste, which is sold as a fuel source superior to coal. The remainder of the characters, however, are largely paint-by-numbers roles, from the streetwise yet vulnerable orphans who pickpocket their way through London society, to the subservient overseer of the operation harvesting the creature’s fuel, played unobtrusively by Broadchurch star Simon Ludders.
What, then, of the story? The trope of the fabulous creature put to use by nefarious characters for personal gain is a well-worn one, having been covered at least three times in Doctor Who alone, most notably in Matt Smith episode “The Beast Below” (2010). That being said, the plotting is tight and well-judged, the interplay between characters snappy and natural-sounding, and best of all, we get a glimpse into the Doctor’s savage side. Those who rankled at the sight of the Doctor laying aside his non-violent tendencies to deck Sutcliffe with a roundhouse punch for his racist attitude towards Bill should be reminded of the many violent moments in the character’s past, from killing Cybermen to threatening to stove in the heads of cavemen with rocks.
Good episodes tend to be the ones in which this deeper understanding of the character is on display, and Dollard, who won her laurels so impressively with her 2015 Doctor Who debut “Face The Raven”, has the Doctor down pat. That surety of touch sees the viewer through the weaknesses of “Thin Ice”, making it a welcome addition to the annals of the Doctor’s travels through Britain’s Industrial Revolution.