I had a total of two thoughts going through my head during this week’s episode of Doctor Who. The first was “Now this is one hell of a good episode,” and the second was “this is definitely trying to say something, and that’s amazing.” Yes, we have in fact hit our first genuinely grand episode of series ten, and not a moment too soon. Now that we’ve gotten the awkward introductions out of the way and set the tone for what to expect, now we can get to actual proper adventure-and it is glorious.
Spoilers below for episode three of Doctor Who’s tenth series.
Resuming right where we were last, The Doctor and Bill have arrived in 1814, in the middle of the Frost Fair, being held upon the River Thames. In explaining to Bill how they ended up here, it’s indicated the TARDIS detected an event they may need to intervene in, but for the time being, it’s off to the fair! Bill is a bit hesitant, given that she’s very clearly not white. Yet, The Doctor reassures her it will fine. Sure enough, he’s right, as Bill discovers that history is indeed a bit more colorful than she thought.
Eventually, street children try to grift the two, leading to the sonic screwdriver being stolen. In pursuit, they enter the outskirts of the fair and things start to get weird. Lights start to spin around the child running with the screwdriver and they are pulled through the ice without breaking it, but The Doctor is able to retrieve the screwdriver. The loss of the child disturbs Bill, and comes up one of the less enjoyable character traits of The Doctor-his ability to move on, courtesy his constant exposure to things like this. However, it becomes pretty clear quickly that there isn’t time to dwell on grief. The Doctor befriends the children in his charismatic way, and they discover that the children are actually being paid to attract people to the fair in the first place.
Realizing that the entire event is likely a trap, Bill and The Doctor set about trying to trigger the same event as before to be pulled under the ice equipped with diving suits. The plan works, and they discover that there is gigantic aquatic monster chained under the surface of the Thames, and the lights are luminescent fish that help select targets for the creature to take. With the help of a local, they trace this to warehouse further down the river, which appears to be harvesting the waste product of the creature. Yep, monster poop. Told you this episode ruled.
The monster poop apparently burns significantly better than coal, even burning underwater. Because people are people, of course someone is profiting off of this. Putting more of his charisma to use, The Doctor manages to track down the owner of the warehouse to an old family British home. At this point, they aren’t sure if what they’re dealing with a nasty human or an extraterrestrial, and that’s what leads to the greatest alien test possibly ever. Securing a meeting with the head of the household Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns), things quickly descend into madness when Sutcliffe loses his composure upon seeing the not-white Bill. Going off about her needing to know her place as a “lesser,” he gets slugged out by The Doctor for it. It’s amazing. And yeah, no alien would have been that convincingly racist.
Unfortunately, Sutcliffe isn’t the only one in the building and they are captured and detained. Confronted, we are met with an exchange between Sutcliffe and The Doctor, in which Sutcliffe feels completely justified in his actions as it progresses the culture and the empire. Because the people being consumed are on the lower tiers of society, these people are expendable to provide even more opportunity for their “betters.” Replying with another powerful speech about real progress being about the ability to care for others-and Capaldi is still stellar at these-the two are sent off to returned to the fair. Sutcliffe sets the rest of his plan in motion, to blow up the frozen river and properly feed the chained creature.
Using some solid teamwork, Bill and The Doctor escapes and sets about trying to stop the plan. The Doctor forces Bill to decide if the kill the creature or try to save it, going back to the loss of the child earlier. Deciding to care, they decide to save the creature. Bill takes up the charge of trying to clear the ice by starting a panic. The children from before come in to assist. Sutcliffe is forced to get involved to set up his detonator and firing it off before Bill can finish clearing the ice. However, The Doctor was successful in getting his diving suit back and moving the explosives to the creature’s chains. Freed, Sutcliffe falls through the ice and is eaten, and the creature escapes, Free Willy style. Before departing, The Doctor edits Sutcliffe’s will to make one of the street children a secret heir, so they’ll be taken care of for the rest of their lives.
Finally returning to the point in time they intended and reconnect with Nardole, who can still tell they left despite what The Doctor promised. Even so, The Doctor overrides the concern, pushing that he can still have adventures and protect our MacGuffin vault. Speaking of that vault, the ending gives us a hint-whatever is behind those doors, it’s alive, and it know what’s going on.
So yes, if you couldn’t tell, while this episode was set in the 1800’s, it felt like a response to the rise of populism (and unrestricted capitalism, to a degree), that seems to be sweeping the politics of Doctor Who’s primary audience regions. It can be tricky to get into those things without sounding preachy or biased or whatever people whine about. Yet, that’s the power of science fiction-the ability to be such commentary successfully. The villain isn’t so well put together, since he isn’t seen for half the episode, but Burns puts out a hell of a performance. And, seeing as Doctor Who can sometimes feel more cold than other sci-fi, this is extremely welcome. More like this going forward, please.
- Given Nardole’s final lines this episode, his days are numbered, yeah?
- There are so many well shot subtle moments that I just didn’t have time to cover them all. However, the way that The Doctor just watches Bill experiences these adventures are some genuinely heartwarming stuff.
- Poirot is in the next episode. Nothing to really say here, but that’s pretty cool.