Unable to reason with the TARDIS to take them back in time for tea, the Doctor and Bill find instead themselves at a Frost Fair in 1814…
This season of Doctor Who is bound and determined to be a rebooting of the show. Last week’s episode was a “flung into the future” adventure that recalled Rose’s first adventure with Nine in “The End of The World” or Clara’s first outing with Eleven in “The Rings of Akhaten”. This week was highly reminiscent of Amy and Eleven in “The Beast Below”…straight down to the fact that underneath the ice of the Thames lay a captive Beast, below.
The Doctor: You’re not stepping on a butterfly, you’re just taking a flyer. It’s just time travel–don’t overthink it.
Every season of Doctor Who features at least one period piece where the Doctor and the companion find themselves in need of some period clothes in order to blend in. Moffat seems determined to hand us an easter egg every week, like when we learned where the loo was in the TARDIS two weeks ago. This episode included directions to the wardrobe, from where those luxury outfits magically materialize.
This week was Regency England, 1814, the last of the Great Frost Fairs. Not that Doctor Who bothers that much with historical accuracy when it doesn’t suit them. (After all, last time the Frost Fair of 1814 was mentioned, River Song claimed they’d picked up Stevie Wonder and had him play for them under London Bridge.) But in the case of this one, they deliberate chose historically accurate details, including the fact that it was February 4th the day they landed (the last day of the Fair), as well as the elephant, which was the major showpiece that year.
Bill: “Regency England. Bit more black than they show in the movies.”
The Doctor: “So was Jesus. History’s a white wash.”
With the “wokeness” of the 21st century (for lack of a better word), the idea of time travel, long a staple trope of science fiction and Doctor Who, has recently come under scrutiny as one of the more privileged tropes there is. Only white men would want to travel to the past. After all, even as recently as 100 years ago, women were forbidden to have rights–hell until 1974, they weren’t even allowed to have credit cards. For people of color, heading into the past means far worse things. Doctor Who has sort of addressed this before–think the third season episode “Human Nature” where Ten’s memory is erased, and she’s stuck as a maid in 1913. But even that was not as pointed as this week’s reaction by Bill to arriving in a time pre-American Civil War. Slavery is still totally a thing, indeed.
But even though the show does round back to that point again when Bill accompanies the Doctor to Lord Sutcliffe’s house, these are merely asides to the main point of the episode. After 1814, the Thames never froze again. Why? Wikipedia and history books blame the embanking of the river that made it less likely to freeze, and the replacing of the old London Bridge with the modern one, that didn’t have nearly so many piles holding it up, allowing the water to flow faster.
Bill: How is that a screwdriver?
The Doctor: In a very broad sense!
Bill: How is it sonic?
The Doctor: It makes a noise!
Dollard proposes a third reason–the creature that has been housed under the river from the early 1500s to 1814, and caused those regular freezes of the river, was freed. And she was freed because Bill, good-hearted, inquisitive, wonderful Bill decided to not worry about how she might change the future. Instead she chose to do the right thing–because if the future of the human race depended upon the suffering of another creature, that wasn’t a future worth having. Much like Amy decided in the same way, in “The Beast Below” when she forces Liz 10 to free the Star Whale. (Unlike the Star Whale, which continued to carry humanity on her back of her own free will, the Thames creature swam away, somewhere North. Where? We don’t know. Check Greenland.)
Much like the last two adventures, this is probably not really a plot one should think about for very long, lest all the holes in it start showing up. We’re really supposed to believe that Lord Sutcliffe has been mining the turds of this monster for all these centuries, and burning them instead of fuel? Not that I’m complaining. It’s nice having a foil who for once isn’t an alien. (Humans can be be just as inhumane, as we all know.) And the speech the Doctor gives to him about the nature of humanity is one for the record books–and probably his next university lecture. (He also broke Doctor Disco back out!) And this is of course, the real point of the episode–a character piece where Bill sees the Doctor’s true nature, and the sacrifices he makes every day as he goes around saving people.
The Doctor: “Let me tell you something. I’m 2000 years old, and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”
Never had the luxury of outrage, indeed. On the contrary, the Doctor practically runs on the stuff, the same way Twitter does. At least Bill can see through the Doctor’s words, and his nonsense about “Passion fights, but reason wins.” The Doctor has always run on his passion for humanity, and his determination to believe that given the chance to give the order, humans will choose the right one. So much so that he convinces himself that Sutcliffe must be an alien. It’s easier for him to understand the lack of humanity if the man isn’t human.
I wasn’t sorry Sutcliffe came to a bad end, considering he was all but a twirly mustache away from a one-dimensional villain. But his end only compounded the sheer unbelievability as to how the episode ended. Would the ruffians the Doctor rescued from becomes Thames monster fodder really have managed to win themselves the rights to his estate? And how exactly did the Doctor get his screwdriver back from the middle of the Thames after the monster cracked all the ice? (And how did he manage to magically lift Bill off the ice single-handedly? Is the Doctor now some sort of Crossfit training maniac? On the whole, doubtful.)
The Doctor: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured on the value you place on a life–an unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river–that boy’s value is your value…. That’s what defines a species”
Lord Sutcliffe: “What a beautiful speech. The rhythm and vocabulary quite outstanding. It’s enough to move anyone with an ounce of compassion. So it’s really not your day, is it?”
Rather than allow the TARDIS to misbehave a second time in two episodes, the end of this week finds that the Doctor has reasoned with the old girl right back to where he wanted to be, in his study in time for Nardole to bring the tea. The lack of changing clothes of course, buts our Butler-esque character wise to their antics though, which upset him highly. Exactly why the Doctor is being Very Naughty by doing this is not yet clear. But by episode’s end we do have a clue–as whatever, or whoever, is inside the Vault inscribed with Gallifreyan is knocking. Could it be Missy? Or John Simm’s The Master?
Perhaps if whatever or whoever tried knocking four times, we’d find out. But until then, we’ll have to wait. Next week’s episode is this year’s major guest star turn episode, featuring Poirot himself, Mr. David Suchet, returning a favor from way back in 1991 when Capaldi guest starred in his series, in the episode “Wasps’ Nest.” (A story that is completely unrelated to the Doctor Who Agatha Christie adventure “The Unicorn and The Wasp.”) Exciting!