“I told you, you don’t steer the TARDIS, you reason with it. Unsuccessfully most of the time. She’s a bad girl this one; always looking for trouble.”
At the end of “Smile”, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) see an elephant on a frozen Thames river. Bill thinks they are in a parallel universe. The Doctor assures her they are in this one. It is February 14, 1814 during the Regency period. Bill wonders how they got here. It’s the TARDIS doing; as the Doctor explains, “I told you, you don’t steer the TARDIS, you reason with it. Unsuccessfully most of the time. She’s a bad girl this one; always looking for trouble.” The event going on outside the TARDIS is a Frost Fair. The Doctor is ready to explore but Bill is hesitant. She is a black woman in a time when slavery still exists. The Doctor agrees, but there is danger wherever they go. He suggests she go in the back of the TARDIS to the wardrobe room to get an appropriate outfit for Regency England. Bill is impressed, “So the TARDIS has dresses and likes a bit of trouble. Yeah I think I’m low-key in love with her.” The Doctor: “Me too.” Bill emerges in her new outfit and the Doctor is also wearing an era appropriate outfit. They are ready to hit the fair. A man with vegetables bumps into the Doctor and some of his produce hits the ice. The vibration of the vegetables stirs up a creature that lurks beneath the ice.
A cute, little blonde moppet named Dot (Ellie Shenker) hands them a flyer and invites them to the Frost Fair for six-pence. The Frost Fair is quite a festival, you have the aforementioned elephant, sword swallowers, wrestling, and people selling food; all on the frozen Thames River. It is quite the sight. They buy some meat pies from a man (Peter Singh) flipping a coin. The Doctor says he is cheating. The Doctor happily runs out of his shop with stolen meat pies. Bill sees other black faces in the crowd, more than the movies ever show. The Doctor comments that history is whitewashed. While bowling (and knocking all the pins down, “two-time champ”), Bill notices some green lights beneath the ice. She asks the Doctor are there any side effects from time travel. The Doctor jokes there is, such as seeing green lights underneath the ice. A street urchin named Kitty (Asiatu Koroma) holds an empty collar and asks if they’ve seen her dog. The Doctor knows this is a con because the collar is too big for the dog she described. While they are distracted by Kitty, another street urchin named Spider (Austin Taylor) steals the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. They give chase to the little thieves. The green lights surround Spider and the frozen river sucks him in. The Doctor is only able to save his sonic.
“If I don’t move on, more people die. I’m 2,000 years old and I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”
Bill is shocked while the Doctor calmly inspects his sonic. She demands that the Doctor save the little boy. The Doctor can’t; the little boy is gone. Bill disappears into the wintry mist. The Doctor finds her sitting alone, distressed. The Doctor asks her, “What’s wrong?” Bill: “Seriously, what’s wrong?” She gets angry and asks him some hard questions. “If you care so much, tell me how many people you’ve seen die?” The Doctor: “I don’t know. I care Bill but I move on.” Bill: “Have you killed anyone?” After some evasive answers, the Doctor solemnly says, “Yes.” Bill: “Don’t tell me you’ve moved on?” The Doctor: “If I don’t move on, more people die. I’m 2,000 years old and I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage.” Kitty shows up and ends the fight.
The Doctor and Bill follow Kitty to her temporary home. The other street urchins under her care are hiding, or in Dot’s case trying. (Not her fault, her shoes are too big.) The kids are paid to lure people to the Frost Fair. Harriet (Kishaina Thiruselvan) asks Kitty where is Spider. Kitty stumbles to find an answer; the Doctor changes the subject by asking who is hungry. He gives each of the kids a stolen meat pie. While the Doctor is reading them a story, Bill speaks to Kitty. She assures Kitty the Doctor will help them, because that is what he does. Kitty asks Bill what she does aside from yelling at him. Bill responds they were fighting. Kitty: “What about now?” Bill: “I moved on.” The Doctor smiles and Bill sticks out her tongue. The Doctor asks Dot, Harriet, and the remaining boy in this little makeshift family, Perry (Badger Skelton) who pays them? They are hesitant at first but Kitty gives the okay. A man with a tattoo of a ship on his hand pays them. Bill wants to find him. The Doctor has a better plan. They’ll be eaten by the creatures.
Dressed in old-timey diving suits, the Doctor and Bill are on the ice. They wait for the little green lights to show up. They finally show up and take Bill, the Doctor follows her and dives in. The little green lights are bioluminescent angler looking fish. Bill and the Doctor see chains and then the big eye of a humongous sea creature. The creature is chained up and moaning. A little red hat floats by Bill, it is Spider’s hat. The Doctor and Bill discuss the creature’s moaning. Bill can feel it through her bones. The creature is moaning out of loneliness and the despair of being a prisoner. Bill and the Doctor make it back to the surface and see the meat pie man fishing. The meat pie Bill ate was the bioluminescent fishes that bring people to the creature. The Doctor asks the meat pie man if he has seen a man with a tattoo on his hand around here. He gives the Doctor a face, the Doctor doesn’t get it. Bill does and asks him if he has seen anyone acting suspiciously since the Thames froze? He responds the dredgers.
They find the dredgers working by the dock. The Doctor pulls out his psychic papers to gain admittance. The overseer looks at the psychic papers and thinks the Doctor is a representative of the royal palace, looking for his employer, Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns). The Doctor cleverly interrogates him. The bricks on the table are fuel they have harvested from the creature. It is the creature’s poop. The fuel is used for Sutcliffe’s factories furnaces. They burn 1,000 times longer than coal and they can’t measure how hot it gets. It can also burn underwater. An astonished Bill replies, “Sh_!” (We of course don’t get to hear her finish the word; it is a family show.) They are taken to Lord Sutcliffe’s majestic estate. Outside, the Doctor asks Bill to let him do the talking. Before she can object, he reminds her she has a temper, and they are about to meet a man who uses humans for raw materials and grinds up children for profit. They need to get information from him, and they’ll have to diplomatic and even charming to do it. Bill agrees to be quiet. The Doctor shows his psychic papers to Lord Sutcliffe and he thinks the Doctor is Dr. Disco from The Fairford Club; a club he wishes to join. Sutcliffe notices Bill and flies into a rage demanding that she stand for her betters. The Doctor calmly lands a hard punch on the racist’s face.
“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. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.”
Sutcliffe’s men bind the Doctor and Bill’s hands. The Doctor observes that Sutcliffe has made the Frost Fair a bigger festival, even supplying an elephant. He wants more people on the ice to feed the creature so it can produce more fuel for him. The Doctor asks Sutcliffe what makes him think he is better than any of those people. Sutcliffe says he moves the country forward, he moves the empire forward. The Doctor responds to this pompous BS elegantly saying, “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. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.” Sutcliffe complements the Doctor on his speech and it would move someone with an ounce of compassion. The Doctor is out of luck. His men place the Doctor and Bill in a carriage. Bill asks the Doctor if he is really 2,000-years-old. Bill: “Is that how old you’d have to be to make a speech like that? if so it is worth it.”
“If your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s that future worth?”
They are placed in a tent back at the fair, tied up back to back. The tent is full of the fuel. Sutcliffe’s plan is to blow up the Frost Fair at noon, sending the creature a large feast. Bill screams to get someone’s attention, but it is so noisy outside that no one can hear her. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is in his pocket. He and Bill get it out, but it slides across the room. The man with the ship tattoo picks it up. The sonic is vibrating so it catches the attention of the bioluminescent fish. The Doctor tells him to throw it to him so he can turn it off. He does but it is too late. The fish pull him under. The Doctor asks Bill what to do. She asks why does she have to decide. It’s her planet, he is here to serve humanity. She is afraid if they free the creature it might eat more people in London. The Doctor agrees that is a chance, but he makes clear what the stakes are: “If your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s that future worth?” Bill decides to free the creature. The Doctor will deal with the explosives as Bill gets the people off the ice. With the help of Kitty and the other street urchins, they tell the public that the ice is thawing. People immediately run off the ice. Sutcliffe sees this and tries to convince people everything is alright but no one is listening, so he moves up his plan. When he gets to the plunger and pushes it down, nothing happens at first. Then you hear explosions, but instead of being on the ice, the explosions are beneath the surface. The Doctor placed the explosives around the creature’s chains, so when Sutcliffe pushed the plunger, he freed the creature. Sutcliffe runs onto the ice and plunges to his death. Good riddance.
The street urchins have been summoned to Sutcliffe’s estate. Bill cheerfully greets them at the door. A table has been set for them. As the kids enjoy their sumptuous meal, the Doctor is busy forging a document. He makes Perry (since he is the only male in this family) the long-lost heir of the Sutcliffe estate. The kids will be taken care of. With their work done, Bill and the Doctor head back to the present.
Nardole (Matt Lucas) brings the tea. He notices the Doctor and Bill in their Regency era clothes and scolds the Doctor for breaking his vow and going off world. As they argue, Bill is on her phone trying to see if the newspapers back then reported the creature. None did. The Doctor isn’t surprised, humans ignore the inexplicable. They look further and see the papers reported Lord Sutcliffe’s death and a street urchin being the only living heir. After going through the courts, Perry won, the kids got the estate. Bill is happy. Nardole goes down to check on the vault. Someone is knocking from within. It knows the Doctor has a new companion and thinks the Doctor will be distracted, allowing it to escape.
To Bill and my surprise, the frost fairs were a thing. Wikipedia reports: The River Thames frost fairs were held in some winters between the 17th century and early 19th century, during the period known as the Little Ice Age. The last frost fair happened in 1814, it began on February 1 and lasted four days. An elephant was led across the river. Good work from Sarah Dollard who wrote this episode. She must have been thrilled to read the elephant part. It is like they held the frost fairs for future Doctor Who episodes. The frost fair has been mentioned on the show before. The Doctor took River Song on a date there and had Stevie Wonder perform for them.
The Doctor and Bill had their first fight. This happens with all companions. The Doctor does something that appears cold and heartless to them, and they start seeing his alien side. They find out that the Doctor’s world is not all fun and games. There is a real commitment to being a companion, and they must decide if they can make the tough choices associated with it. Bill was crushed by the death of Spider, seeing him die. The Doctor didn’t respond like she wanted and he had to explain to her who he is. It felt like they forged a real friendship afterwards. This new understanding was symbolized in the scene where Bill told Kitty she moved on; the Doctor overhears her and smiles, and Bill playfully sticks her tongue out.
The episode dealt with racism and they didn’t dance around it. Lord Sutcliffe was clearly a racist and only a member of the alt-right could deny it. Not that Lord Sutcliffe had any other redeeming qualities. He happily fed people to the creature for its poop. He valued poor people less than poop. He would fit right in the Trump cabinet.
This was a great episode, maybe my favorite of the Capaldi era. “Hell Bent” is technically a better episode, but I enjoyed this more. I love Pearl Mackie, her chemistry with Peter Capaldi is out of this world. If they are in a scene together, I’m going to love it. Her Bill Potts is the type of companion you’d like to know. She brings such a jubilance to the TARDIS. I bet the TARDIS low-key loves her too. The street urchins were cute and not annoying. I really liked Kitty and I thought Dot was adorable. Lord Sutcliffe was a great villain, I wanted to punch him too. If I really tried hard, I can probably find some little nitpicks, but why bother. This episode is why we love Doctor Who.