Doctor Who: Thin Ice

Posted on April 30, 2017

In this latest chapter of Doctor Who, Professor of Humanities, an elite university intellectual and a queer black woman violently overthrow the ruling class and redistribute wealth to a racially diverse collection of welfare recipients and immigrants while hosting a series of short discussions on privilege, the immorality of slavery, racism, the whitewashing of history, the sexism of inheritance laws, and the protection of endangered species. For real. It was somehow hilarious in its audacity while at the same time insanely admirable in its goals and in how well it pulled them off. Despite its Regency setting, this was definitely a Doctor for the modern age – to an almost shocking extent. Screenwriter Sarah Dollard clearly saw the introduction of Bill as a perfect stepping stone to introduce the types of conversations Doctor Who has generally not spent too much time on in its history. While the concept has always had a clear liberal streak in its general outlook, the show itself tended to deal with political issues in the manner of most sci-fi: through allegory. It’s rare to see such clearly delineated political concepts and practices openly discussed and put into action this way. The Doctor caused the death of a member of the ruling class and then stole his money to give to the very people the dead man despised. There was nothing remotely subtle about any of this. Like we said, we found it hilarious, but it was clearly designed to push some buttons in modern England, if not modern America, given the political atmospheres of both countries right now.

That rather delightfully unexpected (to us anyway, with a respectful acknowledgment that mileage may vary on the merits) hook aside, what made this episode so much fun is that the rest of it was as pure – one might even say as basic – as a Doctor Who episode can get. Set in a familiar period of quintessentially English history, a rare, dangerous creature is causing secret, horrifying death under the noses of unsuspecting Londoners. The Doctor, newest companion at his side, takes on a small collection of colorful locals to help him identify the problem and find a solution. At least one of these de facto companions die, giving the Doctor a moral and emotional reason to enact justice after the newest companion tearfully confronts him on his inhuman code of ethics and response to tragedy. In the end, a clever solution is enacted that allows the monster to suddenly become beautiful instead of scary, and the Doctor tries his best to ensure the happiest ending possible for the people he met along the way. From the giant fish to the street urchins to the sneering upper-class twit who gets his comeuppance, it’s been seen so many times before that it’s quite fair to call it formulaic. But that tends to be a word used when the formula doesn’t work or when the writer fails to find ways to make it fresh. It wasn’t just the surprising liberal speech-making that gave this episode such an entertaining twist; it was the qualities of the aforementioned companion and the fact that – rote as the story points may have seemed in retrospect – it was just great fun all around.

In modern Doctor Who, the introduction of a new companion has become so codified, so full of boxes needed to be checked off, that a lot of the preliminary scenes can seem both repetitive and unnecessary to the viewers at home. After all, we don’t need to be told what a sonic screwdriver is. We don’t need to be told that the Doctor has a unique form of moral code due to his long life span and far-flung adventures. We don’t need to be shown that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. But it seems the modern Who audience (or more likely modern Who writers) need to work their way through scenes like these every time. And we’d argue that such scene, repetitive as they may sometimes get, truly are essential to the viewing experience of Doctor Who over time. No, the long-time jaded fan doesn’t need another explanation as to why the TARDIS never quite goes where you ask it to go. But the long-time jaded fan needs – more than any other viewer – to be reminded of just how full of wonder and awe-inspiring the world of The Doctor can be. That’s the whole point to introducing new companions in the first place.

Bill’s first line of this episode was, “Okay, I have questions,” and then she proceeded to ask them at an amazing clip. One every 45 seconds for the entire episode, by our rough count. Seriously.

But what makes Bill so great as a companion is not that she’s naturally curious. Almost all companions were. If there’s one character through-line the Doctor looks for in his traveling aids, it’s an intense need to know the answer to the question, even as they’re forming the next question to ask. In decades past, such qualities in companions had a tendency to be rendered as busy-bodyness or an annoyance (rooted in sexism, commonly) or just a way to get the main character to spew some exposition. But in the modern era, there’s been a concerted effort to make the curiosity of the mostly female companions an essential part of her job description. The Doctor can be quite the egotist who likes to be the Man With The Answers. What makes Bill such a great companion is that she doesn’t treat him like a rockstar or a superhero or a potential boyfriend, like several have. She doesn’t even treat him like a buddy. She treats him exactly like a teacher. And she’s the kind of student any teacher would kill to have: sharp, curious, open to new things, ethical and secure enough to challenge things when she thinks he’s shoveling horseshit. One thing we noted when we decided to do a rough count of how many questions Bill asked this episode: the Doctor asked at least as many, if not more. An hour-long back-and-forth of two people constantly asking questions of each other (sometimes big, important ones) as well as everyone around them. This episode was quintessentially Doctor Who because it was practically a love letter to curiosity fueling change.

So yeah, maybe we’ve seen the “How can a screwdriver be sonic?” question asked one time too many, and maybe there’s not a lot of new ground to be covered in the requisite “How can you be so cruel, Doctor?” scene that all new companions must get through. But when you take those somewhat necessary confrontations and build a fun adventure around it, rendered in a crackling script that gets to the heart of The Doctor as well as the heart of what he looks for in a companion, there’s really nothing to complain about, is there?

 

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