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Recap / Doctor Who S36 E3 "Thin Ice"

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"Sometimes you see lights under the ice."
Click here to see the Radio Times magazine poster for this episode: 
The Doctor: Conjecture. There's something frozen under the Thames and it's eating people.
Bill: Okay.
The Doctor: Proposal. We need to get a closer look it.
Bill: Good, yeah.
The Doctor: Plan. Let's get eaten.

The one where the Doctor punches a racist.

Notable for being the first historical adventure since "Marco Polo" to make a real effort to accurately represent the ethnic pool, and heavily avoid a period piece whitewash.

Written by Sarah Dollard.

Following directly on from the previous episode, the TARDIS is being "naughty" and has brought the Doctor and Bill back to England... specifically, to the frozen Thames in 1814. It's the last of the great Frost Fairs, a marvelous carnival that extends right onto the river itself. Neither can resist the chance to explore, and soon they're dressed to the period-appropriate nines.

But as they mingle with the masses, the twosome soon notices beautiful, mysterious green "fairy lights" shining beneath the ice — lights that seem to be seeking things. Then a child pickpocket, one of a gang of homeless urchins who have been promoting the Frost Fair, manages to swipe the Doctor's sonic screwdriver. As he tries to escape capture, he goes out too far, onto the thinner ice. As Bill watches in horror, the fairy lights circle beneath them, and he is pulled down through the ice. And though the Doctor grabs his hand, in the end all he is able to save is his sonic as the boy vanishes completely.

The Doctor has no time for tears, Bill finds. He is a man who must keep running, who cannot stop to remember all the lives he's lost, all the people he's killed. If he does, more people will die. As they seek out the answers to the mystery of what lies beneath the ice, they will encounter a variety of monsters — some of whom are human. And Bill will see beneath the stoic mask of her professor and discover a man with a soul of fire.


  • All There in the Manual: According to the "Doctor Who: The Official Annual 2018", Sutcliffe's full name and title was "Lord Peregrine Sutcliffe".
  • Anachronism Stew: Diving suits of the type used by the Doctor and Bill weren't invented until the 1820s. The book the Doctor reads to the urchins is Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann, written (in German) in 1845. The Doctor could have procured both from the TARDIS. However, the Wimshurst Machine that Sutcliffe uses to power his Plunger Detonator wasn't invented until the 1880s.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The sea serpent's excrement burns slower than coal at higher temperatures, and can even burn underwater.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Lord Sutcliffe, a man whose family have kept a creature enslaved to harvest its dung as fuel, and who shows no remorse at having people fed to the creature.
  • Armour-Piercing Question: Bill, to the Doctor: "Have you ever killed anyone?"
  • Artful Dodger: Kitty and her little gang of pickpockets. She's the oldest and the leader, but still can't be more than twelve or thirteen, so she's this rather than The Fagin.
  • Artistic Licence – History: Bill remarks that, in 1814, she would have to deal with slavery. While that would be true if the TARDIS landed in America in 1814, chattel slavery (as opposed to serfdom) was never legal in Britain and the courts had ruled against the practice decades earlier, in the Somerset case. Encounters with slave owners were still a possibility, as British-owned colonial outposts still engaged in chattel slavery, but Bill herself being thought a slave was not. This could be a justified misconception, however, as Bill is not familiar with the time period, but the Doctor does seem to concur with her (or at least seeks to assuage her concerns). The actual episode never has any slaves or slavery in it, unless the river creature's bondage qualifies.
  • Artistic Licence – Physics: The shockwaves from several bombs going off underwater would almost certainly crack the ice.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: The Pie Man points out that the Doctor asking if he's seen a man with a ship tattoo when you're living near the docks is this.
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: The frozen Thames provides shelter for a very large serpent.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: Lord Sutcliffe pretends to be impressed by the Doctor's Patrick Stewart Speech, then gives a Shut Up, Kirk!.
  • Berserk Button: It takes a lot to anger The Doctor enough for him to straight-up slug somebody for being absolutely racist towards his companion. Congratulations to Sutcliffe for figuring out the secret.
  • Big Bad: Lord Sutcliffe.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • The Doctor's statement that his being over 2,000 years old means he "doesn't have the luxury of outrage". Especially when, later in the episode, he decks Lord Sutcliffe for being a racist jerk.
    • The Doctor flatters the foreman on how intelligent he is, when he's just let two people Bavarian Fire Drill their way inside and con him into telling everything he knows.
      The Doctor: Yes, we need to use code, otherwise anyone could walk in here and get you blabbing like a fool.
    • The Doctor tells Bill that he needs an order before acting.
  • Brick Joke:
    • The end of the episode sees the Doctor finally having that tea Nardole was making him.
    • Bill isn't impressed by the Doctor's Totally Radical slang, but it turns out the street urchins think the way she speaks is pretty strange too.
  • Butterfly of Doom: Referenced, but as per the norm on this show, not actually used, with the Doctor even mocking it when Bill hesitates to grab a flyer.
  • By "No", I Mean "Yes":
    • Bill wants to know if they'll be totally defenceless while diving beneath the ice in primitive diving gear to investigate the Monster of the Week.
    The Doctor: No, no, no, no. Well yes. But don't worry about it.
    • Bill points out he's steered the TARDIS wrong. The Doctor says you don't steer the TARDIS, you reason with it. When Bill asks how you reason with the TARDIS, the Doctor replies, "Unsuccessfully, most of the time."
  • Call-Back:
  • Changed My Jumper: Notably averted — the Doctor changes into full period dress for the first time in decades. (Except for when Eleven wore late-Victorian attire in "The Snowmen", and he'd been living in that time period for a few years and it wasn't very different from his usual dress sense anyway.)
  • Changeling Fantasy: Played with. The street kid the Doctor picks to name in the forged will really is a street kid, but he gets to be the new Lord Sutcliffe anyway.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Doctor asks the fish pie vendor to teach him the trick he uses to cheat at coin tosses. At the end, he does it to Nardole so he can keep travelling with Bill.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Doctor mentions having been to the Frost Fair "two times" before. One of these was mentioned in "A Good Man Goes to War", when he was accompanied by River Song and Stevie Wonder. The other may be referring to the Big Finish Doctor Who story Frostfire, which involved the First Doctor, Vicki and Steven.
    • The Doctor gives Bill the same directions to the TARDIS wardrobe that Nine gave Rose in "The Unquiet Dead".
    • Bill asks the Doctor how the screwdriver is "sonic", and he tells her it's because it makes a noise.
    • The Doctor's forgotten the number of the dead he's seen, saying he's moved on, similar to "The Day of the Doctor". Also like that occasion, he's scolded for doing so.
    • This isn't the first time the Doctor has called himself "Doctor Disco".
    • This isn't the first time the Doctor's altered a will.
    • The search engine Bill uses is Searchwise, the same one Rose used in "Rose".
    • A group of street urchins led by a responsible "big sister" type? Sounds familiar.
    • The Doctor tries to stop Bill screaming for help, no doubt remembering "Leather-lungs" Victoria all too well.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: The Doctor and Bill are tied up by Sutcliffe's henchmen and left in the tent with the explosives. However, despite Bill saying she'll scream her head off, the men don't bother to gag her as no one hears her over the sounds of the Fair.
  • Curse Cut Short: Bill gives us one heck of a doozy.
    Bill: No sh—
    [cut to a horse whinnying outside Lord Sutcliffe's mansion]
  • Cuteness Proximity: Bill gushes over the little girl selling flyers. The Doctor pays her with a bag of chestnuts and leaves her his top hat.
  • Dead Hat Shot: The serpent burps out the hat that Spider, the street urchin it ate, was wearing. At the climax of the episode, Lord Sutcliffe's hat also flies off him as he's pulled under by the serpent-fish himself.
  • Death of a Child: Spider gets gobbled by the serpent, and the creature later burps out his hat, confirming that he's dead.
  • Deliberately Cute Child: The street urchins, when attempting to distract potential marks so they can pickpocket them.
  • Delicious Distraction: Rather than explain what happened to their fellow urchin who got eaten, the Doctor suddenly decides he's hungry and produces pies from his hat. Although, given that he's eating something, he may be explaining what happened to the Urchin without actually saying it.
  • Disposable Vagrant: The first on-screen victim, the drunk of whom nothing is left but his bottle spinning on the ice.
  • Eat Me: Averted; the Doctor isn't really planning on being eaten, just have the glowing lights pull them under the ice so they can find out what's there.
  • Establishing Character Moment: It only takes one scene for Sutcliffe to establish himself as a completely unsympathetic character.
  • Eye Motifs: Continuing a major motif of Series 10, the Doctor and Bill look into a Giant Eye of Doom as they discover the creature.
  • Failed a Spot Check:
    • The Doctor and Bill leave the TARDIS right before it alerts them of a lifeform detected in the Thames.
    • The Doctor can't see in his diving helmet that Bill has been surrounded by the glowing lights, so she chucks her lamp at him just before being pulled under.
    • Averted when it appears only Bill has noticed the lights. Turns out the Doctor has noticed them, but as Bill was enjoying herself at the fair, there was no reason to rush into investigating the Unknown Phenomenon of the Week.
  • False Reassurance: While posing as an inspector, the Doctor tells the overseer of the packing operation that if he keeps on the way he has been, he won't be working there much longer. The overseer takes it as a hint that his show of initiative has put him in line for a promotion; the truth is that he's given the Doctor everything he needs to shut the whole operation down.
  • Fantastic Racism: Inverted. Bill points out that Lord Sutcliffe's racism is too spot on for him to be an extraterrestrial.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: The Doctor dubs the creature "Tiny."
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The street urchin, Spider, who pickpockets the sonic screwdriver, fiddles with it and is promptly targeted and sucked underwater, hinting that the screwdriver's noise can get people targeted by the fish that help feed the serpent.
    • At one point, Bill asks the Doctor if he has "magical alien powers". He doesn't answer, or even give any indication he heard her. The audience, meanwhile, does know the answer.
  • Foreign Queasine: (Or Historical Queasine in this case). Bill enthusiastically declares that she's going to try everything. Until she sees the food on offer, such as sheep's heart, ox cheek, and the suspiciously-shaped piece of anatomy that the Doctor is eating. She finally settles on a fish pie, but even they turn out to be alien.
  • Forging the Will: At the end, the Doctor tampers with Sutcliffe's will so his fortune is left to Perry.
  • The Gadfly: When Bill expresses concern about removing people from history, the Doctor says she's right; can't she remember Pete? He was just next to her.
  • Giant Eye of Doom: The Doctor and Bill find themselves staring right into it.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Bill dons a period-appropriate outfit.
  • Hand Wave: The Doctor entirely dismisses Bill's disbelief that the discovery of the creature in the Thames didn't end up having any kind of historical significance as the result of humanity's willingness to ignore that which they cannot explain. Plus a lot of them were drunk.
  • Hate Sink: Sutcliffe. His first five seconds go by, and we still know he totally deserved that punch from the Doctor.
  • Heir Club for Men: When the Doctor is changing Sutcliffe's will, it's mentioned Sutcliffe's long lost heir can't be a girl, so he leaves the fortune to Perry.
  • Heroic BSoD: The deaths of Spider and Lord Sutcliffe's henchman send Bill completely into shock.
  • "Hey, You!" Haymaker: The Doctor's reaction to Sutcliffe's racist attitude towards Bill is to tap him on the shoulder, then deck him.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The explosives Sutcliffe had hoped to use to break the ice are used to free the creature... who breaks the ice while Sutcliffe is standing on it.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Despite the Doctor and Bill's original belief that Sutcliffe is an alien, he turns out to be completely human; the giant serpent in the Thames is his prisoner and not openly malicious, just an animal eating the food that comes its way.
  • Human Resources: Sutcliffe sees people as this, planning to use the visitors to the Frost Fair to feed the creature.
  • Hypocrite: The Doctor says he "doesn't have the luxury of outrage". The ABC's review show Whovians had great fun with that line, compiling a montage of all the times the Doctor became outraged.
  • Hypocritical Humour: The Doctor tells Bill to let him do the talking when they meet Sutcliffe, saying the situation requires tact and diplomacy, and she has a bit of a temper. He ends up punching Sutcliffe for lobbing racial insults at Bill.
  • I Ate WHAT?!:
    • Bill isn't too pleased to find out what kind of fish were in the pie she ate and enjoyed.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Before the Doctor and Bill confront Lord Sutcliffe, the Doctor gives Bill a long lecture on how they are here to collect information and not reveal themselves, and no matter what disgusting thing the villain does or says she mustn't react emotionally. Cue Lord Sutcliffe walking into the room and instantly starting to racially abuse Bill, at which point the Doctor immediately decks him.
  • I'm Mr. [Future Pop Culture Reference]: The Doctor introduces himself to Lord Sutcliffe as "Doctor Disco".
  • Incredibly Obvious Bomb: When the Doctor and his companion are tied up next to wooden casks with suspicious wires coming from them, Bill says nervously that they might just contain rum... the Doctor quickly disillusions her.
  • Internal Homage:
    • Bill's deliberate first step onto the ice echoes Rose's first step into the snow in "The Unquiet Dead". Rose getting a period-appropriate dress from the TARDIS wardrobe in the same episode also gets a nod when Bill does the same.
    • Bill has the same two questions as Martha did during her first trip into the past: about how people are going to react to her ethnicity, and about the possibility of changing history by, for instance, stepping on a butterfly. Perhaps because they have already established a teacher-student relationship, Bill gets proper answers instead of a couple of one-liners.
    • The Doctor has Bill decide what to do about the creature, as the decision on whether to free something that could kill hundreds of thousands of humans needs to be made by a human. This calls back to the last time he did something like this in "Kill the Moon" – the difference is that this time he is far more open and deferential to her about it, in a situation where he knows the stakes are real, unlike the last time where Clara ultimately took it as a patronising Secret Test of Character for the Puny Earthlings.
  • Jumped at the Call: The TARDIS. Bill approves. So does the Doctor.
    Bill: So, how do we stay out of trouble?
    The Doctor: Well, I'm not the right person to ask.
  • Karmic Death: Sutcliffe is devoured by the creature he's been feeding people to.
  • Lack of Empathy:
    • Sutcliffe doesn't care how many people are eaten as long as he can use the creature's feces as a fuel source and make profit. What makes this more disgusting for the Doctor is that he is human.
      The Doctor: I preferred it when you were alien.
      Sutcliffe: When I was...?
      The Doctor: Well, that - that explained the lack of humanity.
    • Once again the Twelfth Doctor's apparently callous attitude alienates his companion. However when Bill hears his Patrick Stewart Speech, she realises the Doctor really does care.
  • Meaningful Echo: "I moved on." Then a wink at the person who said it first.
  • Monster Organ Trafficking: Sutcliffe has been feeding people to the serpent so he can have its poop dredged up and used to fuel his factories.
  • Morality Chain:
    Bill: Why is it up to me?
    The Doctor: Because it can't be up to me. Your people, your planet. I serve at the pleasure of the human race, and right now, that's you. Give me an order. Not long till noon. I need an order.
  • Motifs: Specific to Series 10:
    • "Villains" who aren't evil: The Serpent is an innocent creature.
    • Imprisonment/Release: The climax of the story hinges on Bill choosing to have the creature set free. The final scene reveals that the Vault contains someone or something that wants out.
    • Exploitation: Lord Sutcliffe exploits the creature's natural processes, and furthers them by ensuring it has lots of humans to snack on... and it doesn't matter if they're "employed" by him to lure people to the Frost Fair, much less innocent revelers.
    • Swarming creatures: The little fish with their lights who "gather" food for the serpent.
    • Hidden threats: A serpent under the frozen ice of the Thames!
    • The value of each individual life: The Doctor argues for this to the uncaring Lord Sutcliffe.
  • No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel: Discussed; on hearing she's in 1814, Bill immediately worries how she'll be treated. The Doctor sadly acknowledges that slavery is still very much a reality in this time period, but Bill is surprised by how multicultural London is and most of the characters (of whom quite a few are also non-Caucasian) don't bat an eyelid at her. The one character who does is Sutcliffe, who promptly gets decked by the Doctor for it.
  • No More for Me: Implied when the Doctor claims the giant serpent might not have been recorded to history because many of the people at the Frost Fair would have been drunk.
  • Non-Malicious Monster: The giant serpent is not actually evil, as it was chained under the Thames for centuries and exploited by the Sutcliffe family.
  • Non-Answer: The Doctor tries to fob off Bill's Armor-Piercing Question this way, but she insists on an answer.
  • Off-the-Shelf FX: Sutcliffe's Plunger Detonator is a prochronistic Wimshurst machine with a plunger stuck on the top.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: The Doctor delivers one on how the measure of a civilisation is how it values the life of an unimportant person. Bill is impressed.
  • Plunger Detonator: Sutcliffe has one to set off his explosives.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted. While Steven Moffat claimed that presenting a racially diverse Regency London was "bending history slightly, but in a progressive and useful way", all the non-Caucasian characters and extras are working people (the fish pie vendor) or street urchins (Kitty), which actually happened in the time period.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The very first thing Lord Sutcliffe does is start racially abusing Bill the instant he sees her.
  • Rags to Riches: Street urchin Perry, thanks to the Doctor changing Lord Sutcliffe's will, ends up inheriting his fortune.
  • Red Shirt: The drunk guy who gets eaten, leaving nothing but a spinning bottle on the ice.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The Doctor tells Bill that they are indeed going to just knock on the door of the Big Bad who's potentially an alien, and so evil he's feeding people to a giant sea monster.
  • Regency England: Set in London, 1814.
  • Relocating the Explosion: The Doctor moves Sutcliffe's barrels of explosives underwater so they'll destroy the serpent's chains, leading Sutcliffe to think the explosives haven't gone off when he presses the detonator.
  • Running Gag: The Twelfth Doctor is once again compared to a magician; Bill calls the sonic screwdriver a magic wand and asks if he has special powers, while the Doctor pulls items out of his hat (albeit pies rather than rabbits).
  • Ret-Gone: Discussed. The Doctor jokes that this has happened to their other companion Pete, whom Bill cannot remember anymore.
  • Screaming Woman: When tied up with the explosives, Bill tries calling for help, but is drowned out by the noise of the fair.
  • Sea Monster: The creature chained in the Thames resembles a sea serpent, though its origin remains unknown.
  • Secret Test of Character: Implied when the Doctor leaves the decision of whether to destroy the creature up to Bill. She reaffirms his faith that not all Humans Are Bastards.
  • Seen It All: The Doctor isn't impressed with the wrestling match. It's not in zero-gravity, with tentacles and spell-casting.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: When his explosives don't blow up the tent, Lord Sutcliffe runs onto the cracking ice and gets eaten by the sea serpent.
  • Sequel Hook: There's something in the vault, and it's knocking to be let out.note  But as long as Nardole's still there, it's going nowhere.
  • Sherlock Scan: The Doctor instantly realises the cute kid with a dog lead is conning him because the dog she describes is too small for the lead, and the dog hairs don't match its colour.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: Having heard the Doctor's Patrick Stewart Speech, Lord Sutcliffe remarks that it would move anyone with an ounce of compassion... so it's really not the Doctor's day.
  • Snakes Are Sinister: There's a giant snake monster in the Thames. It turns out, however, that it's a prisoner, and the Doctor and Bill set it free.
  • The Sociopath: Sutcliffe, who tells the Doctor his speech would be "enough to move anyone with an ounce of compassion. So, it's really not your day, is it?"
  • Solid Gold Poop: The creature's dung is an incredibly potent fuel source.
  • Space Whale: Has the appearance of this trope, but as the Doctor points out, they don't know if it's really alien. He does note that its "fuel" would generate power capable of interstellar travel.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Bill pulls one on the Doctor, but he easily finds her again.
  • Sticky Fingers: After handing his top hat to Dottie, the Doctor nicks another one and fills it with stolen pies.
  • Street Urchin: The Doctor encounters a gang of them, and arranges for one of them to inherit Lord Sutcliffe's money and title.
  • Take My Hand!: With the stairs blocked by A Crack in the Ice, the Doctor pulls Bill up onto the dock by hand.
  • Time for Plan B: The Doctor's unexpected appearance with knowledge of his Evil Plan makes Sutcliffe advance his schedule. He does it again on seeing people fleeing the ice, deciding to detonate the bomb with a manual detonator that he already has in place.
  • Title Drop: The first death, that of an alcoholic vagrant, sees him going past a sign warning "Danger: Thin Ice".
  • Tranquil Fury: Invoked.
    The Doctor: You know what happens if I don't move on? More people die. There are kids living rough near here. They may well be next on the menu. Do you want to help me? Do you want to stand here stamping your foot? Because let me tell you something. I'm two thousand years old, and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage.
  • Totally Radical: The Doctor tries this on the kids and then Bill who asks him to "please stop!" — although it's an odd case, since the Doctor is using slang on the kids that is out of date by virtue of being ahead of their time.
  • Very Punchable Man: Lord Sutcliffe gets his face clobbered by the Doctor, no less, within less than a minute of his introduction. That definitely qualifies. (He very clearly deserved it for being egregiously racist to Bill, but even many outright monsters haven’t warranted a fist.)
  • Weather Manipulation: The serpent has the ability to bring cold weather, being stated to have a history of causing the Thames to freeze, and thus may be responsible for the entire Little Ice Age.
  • Weirdness Censor: The Doctor points out (again) that humanity has a very potent one, and when Bill returns to the present, she finds nothing on the Internet about a giant serpent in the Thames in 1814, even when it broke out of the ice and made no effort to be hidden.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Averted; Bill is visibly disturbed by the Doctor causing the death of one of Sutcliffe's henchmen, however unintentionally.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Similar to above, Bill really tears into the Doctor after letting a street urchin be eaten by the fish, prioritizing recovery of his sonic screwdriver. The Doctor had to justify it by pointing out there was nothing they could have done at that point.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: After the Doctor and Bill return to the present, Bill pulls up a newspaper article on her phone to discover what became of the Doctor forging Lord Sutcliffe's will to leave the man's estate and fortunes to the street urchins.
  • Where's the Kaboom?: Sutcliffe is not pleased when the tent doesn't blow up when he presses the detonator, unaware that the Doctor's secretly moved the explosives underwater to destroy the chains holding the giant serpent in place.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: The newspaper tells of Lord Sutcliffe falling through the ice and the scandal regarding his suddenly revealed heir, but completely misses a giant sea creature sailing off down the Thames.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Bill, upon being told she's in London and seeing masses of people and an elephant walking on the frozen Thames, initially thinks they might be in a parallel universe (not a bad guess, but incorrect all the same).

"History's a whitewash."