This season of Doctor Who continues to be spectacular and this week’s episode was no exception. Sharp, exciting, and heartwarming, this episode was also a great example of The Doctor’s complicated relationship with humanity.
Careful past this point, spoilers Sweetie!
We join Bill and The Doctor where we left them last, in a very foggy London and face-to-face with an elephant. We soon find out that they are in fact on the Thames, and it is 1814 during what would be the last Frost Fair where all of London partied on top of the frozen river. (Yes, this was a real thing!)
Decked out in era-appropriate clothing, the two head down to the river. After frolicking for a little while, Bill notices some lights underneath the ice and the two get to work. While chasing some children who have stolen The Doctor’s (new and swanky) sonic screwdriver, Bill watches in horror as a young boy is sucked underneath the ice. She angrily confronts The Doctor, demanding to know how many people he’s killed, why he doesn’t know the exact number, and how he can have “moved on” so quickly. Explaining that he doesn’t have the luxury because if they are to help they need to act now, The Doctor essentially puts Bill in charge.
Turns out there is an alien fish under the river and the steel king of London (named Sutcliffe) has been feeding people to it, because the fish produces a substance that burns much more efficiently than coal. His master plan is to blow up the ice, sending the attendees of the Frost Fair to a watery grave, and giving his captive monster a meal.
Doctor and Bill team up with the street kids they met earlier to get everyone off the ice. The Doctor rigs the bomb that Sutcliffe was going to blow up the ice with to instead blow the chains off of the fish; Sutcliffe himself gets eaten while Bill and The Doctor transfer his property to the remaining boy in the group of street urchins. I’m sure that they wanted to give it to the gang’s wonderful leader Kitty, but unfortunately, they cannot change the property laws of the time.
Once the two return to the present, Nardole appears with the tea that the Doctor requested in the last episode. He has thoughtfully added coffee to give it some flavor. Angry at The Doctor, who had obviously not come straight back to his office, Nardole is tricked into returning to that door the two are guarding in the basement. As he is grumpily checking the locks (I presume?) knocking comes from the other side of the door.
With every new companion, there is always the episode where they find out that The Doctor has to do terrible things and that he is and is seemingly unaffected by them. This was that episode for Bill. The “fish in the river” plot was less important than the realization that Bill came to, and the new understanding that she has about how The Doctor must operate.
This episode also addressed the issue of race and time travel. While several of Martha’s episodes tackled the subject, this episode took it head on. When they first land, Bill immediately brings up the fact that 1800s London just might not be the safest place for her. As they are walking around, she mentions that there are a lot more people of color than she thought there would be, and The Doctor say that well yes because history has been whitewashed. And of course, when the two come face to face with a screaming racist, The Doctor punches him in the face.
Shortly after the punch, Peter Capaldi got to deliver a wonderful speech about what he feels defines the human race; “The value that you place on a life”. Given all of time and space, The Doctor spends so much time with humans and tries incredibly hard to be one. I think that one of the reasons he does is because he knows their potential to love and be compassionate. While The Doctor definitely has his moments where he displays none of these traits (an example being earlier in the episode when he is focused on retrieving his screwdriver from the hand of a dying boy) he always strives towards humanity’s best qualities.
By the way, Martha got a nod in this episode when Bill mentioned the Butterfly Effect.
Overall, this was a wonderful episode. It tackled a tough conversation that The Doctor must have with every new companion in a thoughtful way without being over grandiose, and it also addressed several social issues that are just as important to us as they are to The Doctor and Bill. It gave Peter Capaldi a wonderful monologue, left breadcrumbs for the rest of the season, and included several references to past seasons. Applause all around!