Doctor Who – Thin Ice Back

A frosty river, a strange creature lurking beneath the icy crust, and mysterious lights that lure unsuspecting fair-goers to their deaths: all the makings of a straightforward monster-slaying episode of the BBC’s iconic science-fiction series Doctor Who. Except that the year is 1814, and the real monster is not the ‘Loch-Less Monster’ trapped in the frozen Thames but the mercenary industrialist Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) who keeps it chained there. That this episode intends to capitalise on the exploitative parallels with colonial slavery is underscored when the Doctor’s new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) hesitates by the door of the Tardis: ‘it’s 1814 […] slavery is still totally a thing’. Yes, the historians are probably already screaming in outrage at the anachronism. This is, after all, a Thames dockside seven years after the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Whilst it would be 1833 before slavery itself was abolished throughout the vast majority of the British Empire, case law created in the 18th century had established that no one could legally be deemed a slave whilst actually on British soil. If the series editors had wanted to make an episode that referenced the British slave trade it would have perhaps been more effective to situate the plot prior to the passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act. That the exigencies of the plot require the action to occur at the time of the last great frost fair on the Thames in early 1814 does produce a distinct sense of a story trying to draw together historical facts and events that are not always in the most convenient place for the narrative. However, this structural awkwardness is less distracting than it might have been were it not for the episode’s other quite exceptional qualities.

Most striking of all is Bill’s surprised observation that Regency London is a ‘[b]it more black than they show in the movies.’ ‘So was Jesus’, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor replies, ‘history’s a whitewash’. Doctor Who has a long and noble tradition of probing errors in analeptic historical narrative, albeit usually for comedic effect. For instance, it’s probably safe to assume that the Daleks weren’t responsible for the abandonment of the Mary Celeste (The Chase, 22 May – 26 June 1965). Back in 1963, the first ever episode of the series saw the Doctor’s companion Susan poring over a book about the French Revolution proclaiming in consternation ‘that’s not right!’ (An Unearthly Child, 23 November 1963). It is the transformation of this long-running joke into a serious comment upon the authenticity of historical drama that makes ‘Thin Ice’ such a powerful moment, both for Doctor Who and for the wider realm of historical drama. The self-consciously metatheatrical flair of those two lines is astonishing. In one moment, the programme lands a punch into the face of the aptly termed ‘whitewash’ of history with as much satisfying emphasis as the Doctor’s outraged response to the racial bigotry of Lord Sutcliffe. For despite evidence proving there were thousands of Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals living in Britain in the eighteenth century, especially in and around British seaports, the representation of such groups in costume dramas remains disgracefully and inaccurately low.[1] By contrast, Doctor Who’s Regency London is a rich and diverse society in which the appearance of a black woman and her 2000 year old time-travelling companion does not merit even a raised eyebrow let alone a comment.

Far more noticeable would be the flagrant want of attention to historical accuracy regarding the costumes in which these two hapless time-travellers have camouflaged themselves. The Doctor’s top hat and suit shriek Dickensian rather than Regency, while Bill’s awkward arrangement of a spencer-jacket worn over a pelisse finished with a head-piece more suited to an Austen-esque ball seems to suggest that it might be time the Doctor hired an archivist to curate the Tardis wardrobe.[2] Left to herself, Bill has possibly just followed her presumptions of Regency fashion based on what she’s seen in ‘the movies’, but if this discrete catch-all term also includes BBC historical dramas then this is surely something of an own goal. Since such close attention has been paid to historical accuracy in other aspects of the programme – not just in terms of racial diversity but also with regard to details of the frost fair itself, such as the acrobats and the elephant – the inauthenticity of the main characters’ costumes is especially disappointing.

Despite these minor deficiencies, however, the episode offers a highly enjoyable if superficial peep into Regency London. Although occasionally the plot itself seems to be poised on ice as thin as that alluded to in the title, this is largely because the focus of the episode is placed firmly on philosophical rather than pragmatic questions. Through the bright, light-hearted tone that characterises the show, the creators here explore some extremely weighty and sensitive issues of race, class, and morality. When Doctor Who was first commissioned it was intended to be an educational programme, with the creators emphatically advised to include ‘no bug-eyed monsters’;[3] yet this is an episode that clearly demonstrates how the presence of a – if not bug-eyed then certainly big-eyed – monster by no means precludes the development of a highly informative and educational narrative. The intriguing twist here is that ‘Thin Ice’ aims to inform not just about times past, but also about the way in which we continue to interpret and present history through entertainment.

[1] See Kathleen Chater, Untold Stories: Black people in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade, c. 1660-1807 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).

[2] With acknowledgements to Hilary Davidson (@FourRedShoes) for her kind advice regarding Regency fashion history.

[3] Alan Kistler, Doctor Who: A History (Lyons Press, 2013), p. 26.

‘Thin Ice’ is Episode Three of Season Ten of the BBC’s modern Doctor Who. It was first broadcast on BBC One on 29th April 2017.