The Tenth Series of Doctor Who is certainly picking up a good head of steam as the partnership of Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie continues to develop and impress. “Thin Ice” is an adventure straight out of the modern era copybook – a historical setting with an alien twist. In this instance, the Doctor and Bill arrive in the great Thames’ freeze of 1814 to discover that creatures beneath the river are causing Londoners to fall beneath the frozen ice, where they are eaten by an unknown vast creature. The story plays out in one sense as one would expect, and one sense not at all. As one expects, the Doctor’s aim is to figure out what is going on, and to remove the threat to innocent lives. Unexpectedly, the creature itself is found not to be the threat, but instead a wealthy industrialist who has kept the creature in chains and using its waste product for fuel.
It is a great story with great dialogue, and explores well and sensitively several deep themes; Bill confronts the Doctor after one death, wondering how he can be so calm about watching someone die. It is a sign of truly great acting and scripting that you’re completely in agreement with Bill, and not until the Doctor confronts the selfish and bigoted industrialist do you see the Doctor reveal his great underlying compassion for sentient life: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege.”
Equally exciting is that the Doctor and Bill are developing a mentor and apprentice dynamic that was never really achieved with Clara. In Series 8 episode “Kill the Moon” for example, the Doctor leaves the choice of what to do to humanity, but Clara resents being forced to make that choice. There is a much nicer and healthier dynamic between Bill and the Doctor, in which the Doctor teaches Bill that choices are important, so therefore you should choose well – while also cheerfully reminding her not to worry about every little action in life – excellent life advice!
It was such a good episode that it is a shame to say “But …” – but there is a rather massive objection in this episode, and I shall hit it square on the jaw. Doctor Who has always been a political show, and writers have always been given free rein to express their political views – viewers would have been in no doubt seeing the parallels between the Daleks on their television screens, and the Nazis that the nation had defeated only 20 years’ previously. Such flavours, whether in relation to the Miners Strikes of the 70s (The Monster of Peladon) or the Thatcher government of the 80s (The Happiness Patrol) make Doctor Who the multi-flavoured wonder that we know and love.
Doctor Who has always been political. But it has rarely been preachy, and has usually had a reasonable regard for historical accuracy. Yes, there are plenty of anachronisms or inaccuracies – sometimes made for the sake of good story telling, or sometimes simply because the show’s producers made a mistake! But I was horrified to read in a Radio Times article[i] that showrunner Steven Moffat actually embraced the reimagining of history – as he put it: “It is bending history slightly, but in a progressive and useful way.” As a historian it horrifies me to see anyone treat the study and presentation of the past so cavalierly. Hartnell’s Doctor put it quite superbly in the very first season of Doctor Who in 1964: “You cannot rewrite history! Not one line!”
To give credit to the writers where it is due, the past was undoubtedly much more unpleasant than we know today; the upper classes did hold abhorrent views on race, gender and class; there was slavery, and abject poverty, and social historians would be quick to point out that the history of ordinary people is easily lost when you focus on the major historical events, which usually focus on the wealthy and the powerful. It is fair enough to point that out, and important to learn from the past. But I am worried that in reimagining the past, the show’s producers commit the same mistake that the Doctor’s companion Barbara did, when she attempted in Doctor Who’s very first season to rewrite the history of the Aztecs. In that story a painful lesson was embraced: the past is the past, for better and for worse.
Since first watching the episode, I have come to appreciate that the art of telling a good story demands creative and poetic licence, and I have certainly come down from my high horse! I still think though that the BBC have lost more through their creative liberties than would have been otherwise gained through the truth. I worry that a diligent young historian, now determined to study why migrants were ‘white-washed’ out of history, would discover that migration prior to the 20th Century was nowhere near the scale we know it today. That’s not something to be proud of or embarrassed about; it’s just historical fact. It would be a huge pity if a really powerful and good lesson about the importance of every human life was tarnished through a well-intended half-truth.