Thursday, May 11, 2017

10.3 Thin Ice

Shall I tell you my favourite thing about Thin Ice? 

My favourite thing about Thin Ice is that when the street kids are taken to the big house for a meal, there there is milk, served in wine glasses, by their place settings. 

Someone sat down and thought about this. If you are going to give a group of early nineteenth century orphans a treat, then you give them a Christmas dinner, obviously, even if it is February. (Those are Christmas puddings on the table, aren’t they?) But what would you have given them to drink? Not fruit juice; oranges and grapes are still quite exotic, and you can’t get strawberries or raspberries out of season. Not wine or small beer. Not tea or coffee. So then, milk. Someone cared that much about getting the scene right. 

And no-one felt the need to say “Gee, Doc, I know this is the olden days and I don't understand time travel but couldn't anyone find some pepsi?”


So: the Doctor goes back in time to London, 1814. The Thames has frozen over, so everyone is having a festival on it, with fish pies and elephants and everything. This is a real thing: they did it on Blue Peter. (The overlap between what they did on Blue Peter and where Doctor Who goes has been insufficiently explored. Any day now I expect a story in which alien kangeroos take over the minds of the Tulpuddle Martyrs.) It was easier to obtain an elephant in those days because circuses and menageries were less squeamish about keeping wild animals in cages. Jesus was probably an elephant. 

It turns out that there is a gigantic Metaphor hidden under the ice. The Metaphor has lived there for hundreds of years. What the Metaphor does is eat little orphan children (and presumably other people, but mostly orphans) and shit them out the other end. The shit is collected by an Evil Capitalist who uses it to power his mills, which are, I imagine, dark and satanic.  At one point the Doctor thinks that the shit is going to be used to power a starship, but everyone gives up on this idea.

If we were talking about an animal we would ask if it only produced intensely flammable shit when it ate little boys, and how much faeces a mile long creature would be passing if all it had eaten since 1795 was a couple of small boys, and whether it wouldn't be more efficient for the Evil Capitalist to feed it cows and pigs?There are also little fish with luminous noses that swim round the Metaphor. Have they also been living in the Thames since 1788? What do they eat? Why has no-one ever caught one before? What is their relationship with the Metaphor? I suspect the true answer is “Someone had the idea of spooky green lights and came up with idea of dong-fish after the fact to retrofit the spooky lights to the Metaphor.” When someone is about to be sucked down under the ice, the green lights whizz round and round and form a vortex; which isn’t something you could remotely imagine the little fish doing. 

But it isn’t fair to ask how any of this shit works. It’s metaphorical shit. 

The dreadful Torchwood made extensive use of drug called “Plot Device”: when a human being saw an alien or discovered the existence of Torchwood, our heroes gave them a shot of the drug and they would instantly forget what had happened. (This idea was derived from Men in Black, as, indeed, was Torchwood.) There is a new consensus among Doctor Who writers that human beings don’t need the drug: they “have infinite capacity to forget the unusual and inexplicable”. Dalek invasions and giant metaphors in the Thames all get automatically edited out of everyone’s mind after they happen. That means Doctor Who is now taking place in a kind of invisible parallel universe, like London Below or Hogwarts. Homeless gods and wizards and fish with luminous noses are all around us all the time, but we never see them. 

Which would explain a good deal.

Obviously our idea that a slow-flowing river might freeze for a few days every couple of decades is a little lie we’ve invented to cover the uncomfortable fact that there has always been a giant Metaphor living under the Thames, and that one of the Metaphor's powers is to make everything really really cold. And obviously our far-fetched idea that if a big river in a big city did freeze over, carnies and street traders would move in and hold a big party there is necessary fib to cover up the fact that an Evil Capitalist was bribing people to go onto the ice in order to feed them to the Metaphor and turn them into shit to power his mills with. 


I assume that it is the same kind of ret-con drug which prevents everyone, including the audience, from understanding how the Metaphor works. Evil McEvilface makes it pretty clear that the fish represents Capitalism. That’s what Capitalism is for, isn’t it: chewing up little kids and shitting them out to power mills. But the Evil Capitalist is cunningly disguised as a one-note baddy who says racism and rehashes old Blackadder jokes, so no-one notices when he makes an extremely good point. There is no moral difference between sending little boys down mines, where they may die, in order to dig coal out of the ground, or feeding little boys to giant goldfish in order to harvest the goldfish poo. We are all, in a very real sense, Lord Sutcliff, which is why it is so satisfying when he gets punched. We have all, in a very real sense, sent orphan boys down coal mines and fed them to sea monsters. 

The Doctor doesn’t have a solution to the Metaphor. Or at least, he does have a solution, but not a very metaphorical one. The Evil Capitalist Mill Owner is going to blow up the Fair with explosives, so that the monster gets to eat everybody at once and do a really really big poo; but the Doctor escapes from being tied up while the orphans tell everyone to get off the ice and gets into a diving suit and transfers the explosives to the Metaphor’s chains, so the Metaphor can swim off to…wherever it came from and do...something happily ever after. Which is a lot better than last week and the week before and in fact next week where the Doctor solves the problem just by being the Doctor.

It isn’t even that great as a non-metaphorical solution, really. Right back at the beginning of New Who, the Doctor was chastised for not thinking through the consequences of his actions — not worrying about where defeated slitheen go at the end of the episode. Today, he is quite happy to just let the Metaphor swim away and not give a second though to where it came from and where it is going to go and how many orphans it is going to eat along the way. 

At the very end, he physically alters evil Lord Sutcliff’s evil will so that one of the un-eaten orphans inherits the evil money he made from killing orphans. But this doesn’t address the general issue of capitalism devouring children. Even metaphorically.


Thin Ice is recognizably a Doctor Who story; and even a good Doctor Who story. Not a great Doctor Who story — political sketch writers 50 years from now will not reference the story in order to poke fun at the incumbent prime minister — but a good one. The Doctor goes back to the olden days, and encounters a monster. Not merely an alien: a monster. The twist — that the giant, orphan eating fish is relatively benign (provided you don’t mourn the orphans to much) and the real monster is Capitalism — is the kind of twist that Doctor Who has done once a season since the 1960s. The Doctor defeats the monster using his ingenuity and innate goodness, and returns home literally in time for tea. What could be more like Doctor Who than that? 

It is very possible to imagine Doctor William or Doctor Patrick visiting the Frost Fair. And it is a racing certainty that they would have found some sort of Monster under the ice. Well, Doctor Patrick would have done. Doctor William would have had to foil a plot to assassinate the prince regent while Ian and Barbara got involved in a separate plot about one of the wrestlers turning out to be a runaway Moorish prince. And the BBC would have done it very well: impressive painted backdrops, and six or seven extras in period costume, with historical research that would warm your teacher’s hearts. But you wouldn’t have had sweeping shots over the Thames, London skylines, scores of extras, wrestlers, jugglers, elephants, orphans, and a whole nother plot-line set in a posh Regency house. Or any black people at all. 

This isn’t merely “spectacle” or, god forbid “special effects”. This is about taking us back to a particular time and place and making it live again, which is arguably the whole point of Doctor Who. Bill loves it, the Doctor loves it, we love it.  We get chases across the ice. We see the Doctor and Billy in massively anachronistic diving suits, looking into the giant eye of a mile long sea creature. We see the Doctor and Bill tied up, and doing the classic heroic wriggle to free themselves from the ropes. We see the Doctor bantering with con-men and reading stories to little kids and punching fascists. The nasty capitalist who feeds orphans to sea monsters gets eaten by the sea monster in the final scene. No buckle remains unswashed; no devil is undared. This is what I watch Doctor Who for; if Doctor Who were like this every week, I would have nothing to complain about and this column would be very boring.

So here comes the "but"...

When Evil McEvilFace asks the Doctor about the relative merits of coal mines and fish poo as a means of exploiting the working class, the Doctor replies: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life….” This is a non-ridiculous thing for a liberal hero to say. It would work rather will in William Shatner's voice. But everyone swoons as if the Doctor has suddenly picked up Jessie Custer's knack of speaking in read typescript. The villain stops the action to tell us what a brilliant speech it was; and two scenes later Bill, who has previously misread the Doctor as being callous, wonders out loud how long it took the Doctor to make speeches like that. Which spoils the scene, the Doctor, and the perfectly harmless little speech. The Doctor is special and unique and we know he is special and unique because everyone keeps telling us how special and unique he is. Everything he does has to be triple underlined in fluorescent yellow marker pen.

“I make inspirational speeches now. Inspirational speeches are cool.” 

I grant that one of the things which Old Who did very badly was character development and emotion; and I grant that the Doctor’s conversation with Bill after the first orphan has died is piece of proper writing being performed by two proper actors. I perceived it has the Doctor talking to Bill, not two actors doing a Scene. (This is really the main thing I want from Doctor Who, Star Wars or indeed Twelfth Night.) But it is still self-referential as hell. Yes, of course, obviously, it’s a massive problem in any long-running adventure serial that if you remotely pretended that the main character was a real person, you’d have to conclude that he was a complete psychopath. (How many of Peter Parker's intimate acquaintances and close family members have been murdered?) This is a worse problem if the hero is nominally a liberal nice guy and not, say, a soldier or policeman whose job it is to deal with horrible stuff. And all Bill's aria about "how many people have you seen die / how many people have you killed" does is highlight the contradiction (in fluorescent yellow ink.) The Doctor couldn't possibly remain the affable trickster we see on the screen if we really believed he'd seen that much horror. So we really don't want our attention drawing to it. 

“But Andrew: that scene wasn’t about the Doctor; it was about Bill. It was Bill coming to terms with the sort of stuff she’s going to encounter as the Doctor’s new granddaughter.” OK. But here shock at the child's death and the Doctor's reaction to it last precisely 20 minutes. In the very next scene she admits that she, like the Doctor, is capable of moving on, and spends the rest of the episode doing her job as a spunky, happy go lucky Doctor Who Girl. "I was shocked when I saw a child being eaten by a monster, but that was half an hour ago. I’m over it now." This is not characterization; this is apparent characterization.

And finally, there is gigantic hand wave which comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, in which the Doctor tells Bill that she has to decide whether to release the giant orphan eating sea monster into the wild or not. He suddenly decides, for no reason, that he only interferes or helps out humans with their consent. It is never remotely in doubt that the Doctor will, in fact, free the beastie; it's just an obligatory piece of preparatory angst. Defeating monsters in New Who is supposed to involve Big Emotions, and the Doctor is actually going to free this one using explosives and the sonic screwdriver. 

Bad Doctor Who I can live with. There always was a lot of Bad Doctor Who. In fact, some of the best Doctor Who was, if we are being completely honest with ourselves, pretty Bad. And there is honestly no need to feedback and tell me that Doctor Who can't and shouldn't remain exactly where it was in 1963. Nothing would please me more than for Doctor Who to mutate into a new and different thing. But episodes like this feel like clones of Old Who having the life and joy sucked out of them by the parasitic growth of the new. As if something is chewing up innocent stories with intrinsic value and turning them into shit.


SK said...

The villain stops the action to tell us what a brilliant speech it was; and two scenes later Bill, who has previously misread the Doctor as being callous, wonders out loud how long it took the Doctor to make speeches like that

All it made me think was, 'isn't it a bit self-congratulatory for the person who actually wrote that speech for the Doctor to say, to then write lines for the other characters saying how brilliant the speech they wrote was?'

I mean, if your writing is really that brilliant, won't the audience realise its brilliance without the other characters having to point it out to them?

(It wasn't even that good a speech. Perfectly serviceable, and it got the point across perfectly well, but it's hardly something that's going to be remembered and quoted a century from now. It's not St Crispin's Day, is I think what I'm saying, even if the other Billy didn't feel the need for Westmorland to say, 'What an amazing speech, your majesty!' and instead relied on silly things like, you know, showing their active reaction to the speech having changed their minds from griping about the size of their forces to readiness for battle.)

voxpoptart said...

Thank you for noticing that Lord Sutcliffe made an excellent point about children in coal mines. I noticed it too, but it went by very quickly and was never referred to again, including in other discussion of the episode, and I was starting to wonder if I'd imagined it.

Thank you, also, for calling out Bill's praise for the Doctor's (aka Sarah Dollard's praise for Sarah Dollard's) inspirational speech. I didn't mind for a moment when Sutcliffe praised the speech; he was being a sarcastic little weasel.