DOCTOR WHO Episode 3: Thin Ice – Villainous Humanity: The Indifferent Cruelty of Prejudice

Over the years, Doctor Who has had a variety of foes and villains, both recurring and not. The question of which species was scariest or most challenging for the Doctor could be argued ad infinitum. There are certainly a number of villains that reappear consistently, in classic Who, the new series, and throughout the entirety of Doctor Who. His most famous adversaries, both in classic and new Who, have been the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master. The Daleks are the essence of prejudice personified. The Cybermen are humans devoid of their humanity. The Master functions as a dark and ambitious foil for the Doctor himself. The reason that these villains are so well received and so frightening is that they are familiar. Prejudice can be found throughout human history as a source of injustice and tragedy. The absence of emotion allows for atrocities to occur without care. Being able to see oneself in a villain makes the story all the more poignant and tragic, as it does for the Doctor whenever the Master reenters his life. A villain who resembles the hero and the audience, either in behaviour or appearance forces the viewers to examine not only these characters but their own world as well.

The theme of prejudice and the corruptible morality of man runs throughout Doctor Who. From their introduction in the second story of the series, the Doctor’s most consistent adversaries, the Daleks represent a fairly straightforward analogy for the Nazis. Hitler and the Nazis are consistent and fairly regular objects of comparison for adversaries. World War II had ended only eighteen years prior to the initial airing of Doctor Who. Their actions and policies remain one of the largest and most well known horrors to have occurred in modern history and some current groups remain allied with their ideologies. The parallels between the Daleks and the Nazis are many, but I’d like to focus on their ideology. The Daleks are obsessed with genetic purity and the removal of all life other than their own. This concept has not been limited to the Nazis and the Daleks. Tragically, there are and have been groups of humans throughout history who have endeavored to make all life match their own or be destroyed. In the first story of the series, an Unearthly Child, the cavemen imprison the Doctor and his companions in order to force them to produce fire for them. Similar narrative devices have appeared in Doctor Who in other episodes as well, such as in the Beast Below. This occurs yet again in Thin Ice: an entity is held against its will in order for its captors to gain and control the resource it provides. This is a reoccurring theme in Doctor Who just as it is a reoccurring theme in humanity.

Doctor Who does not shy away from the topic of slavery, as I discussed in my previous article; in fact, it at times draws attention to the lasting effects of the practice. Bill’s initial reaction to travelling back to 1814 is remarkably similar to that of Martha arriving in 1599 (they even both reference the butterfly effect). The Doctor’s reaction changes from season three to season ten from a self-assured dismissal to a jaded recognition. While Martha and the Doctor share the following exchange:

Martha: Oh, but hold on. Am I alright? I’m not going to get carted off as a slave, am I?
Doctor: Why would they do that?
Martha: Not exactly white, in case you haven’t noticed.
Doctor: I’m not even human. Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me.

Bill and the Doctor share a similar, yet more somber version of this same interaction:

Bill: It’s 1814. Melanin.
Doctor: Yes?
Bill: Slavery is still totally a thing.
Doctor: Yes, so it is.
Bill: It might be, like, dangerous out there.
Doctor: Definitely dangerous.
Bill: So, how do we stay out of trouble?
Doctor: Well, I’m not the right person to ask.

Strangely enough, while the tenth Doctor reacts in such a cavalier manner to Martha’s fears regarding her safety as black woman in an entirely foreign century (which could be argued as an attempt at putting her at ease by dismissing her concern), he reacts with shock to her Butterfly query:

Martha: Are we safe? I mean, can we move around and stuff?
Doctor: Of course we can. Why do you ask?
Martha: It’s like in the films. You step on a butterfly; you change the future of the human race.
Doctor: Tell you what then, don’t step on any butterflies. What have butterflies ever done to you?

In opposition, this Doctor treats Bill’s concern about the butterfly effect with a mocking joviality:

Bill: Travelling to the past, there’s got to be rules. If I step on a butterfly, it could send ripples through time that mean I’m not even born in the first place and I could just disappear.
Doctor: Definitely. I mean, that’s what happened to Pete.
Bill: Pete?
Doctor: Your friend, Pete. He was standing there a moment ago, but he stepped on a butterfly and now you don’t even remember him.
Bill: Shut up! I’m being serious!
Doctor: Yeah, so was Pete.

Given that a remarkably similar effect to the one the Doctor describes with Pete occurred when Rory was removed from time, the Doctor is surprisingly jovial in the situation. It could be that the Doctor dismisses perceived serious threats with humour to regulate the emotions of his companions and yet he does show genuine sorrow at the mention of the existence of slavery at this time in England’s history. I appreciate that both series of the show addressed the topic of race and slavery so directly in these episodes. I found the Doctor’s serious tone regarding it in Thin Ice very refreshing. This moment in the episode treats the subject and its importance to Bill with appropriate gravity, rather than dismissing it out of hand.

The fact of her race in this time period becomes an immediate threat to Bill when she and the Doctor inquire after Lord Sutcliffe. Upon seeing Bill seated in his drawing room, the man in question berates and belittles her to a horrifying degree. When Lord Sutcliffe cries out, “Who, who let this creature in here? On your feet, girl, in the presence of your betters,” the Doctor immediately punches him. The man’s dehumanizing and dismissive diatribe against the new companion and his subsequent punch to the face is immediately followed by his assertion as a member of the human race. While the Doctor gives facts about him, supposedly gleaned through the contact from his fist or perhaps through general observation, Bill asserts his status as human based upon his behaviour. After the Doctor lists his facts about the man, Bill states, “Yeah, that was pretty convincing racism for an extra-terrestrial.” Bill’s manner of phrase here could imply that an extra-terrestrial might be racist, but as it was not of this earth, would not be so convincing in this manner of racism. I however see Bill’s comment as being more on the base habits of humanity rather than on the nature of racism. Lord Sutcliffe, our adversary for this episode is decidedly human and the embodiment of Bill’s fears upon travelling to the past.

Much of media through the decades has had the tendency to white wash historical events, literature, and society as a whole. Even as more and more people speak out against this practice, films and television continue to do this, rarely apologizing and oftentimes defending their choices amid the upset. Doctor Who is guilty of this, especially in the early years of the program, and while the new series of the show has increased its diversity, it still puts forth some potentially problematic situations on occasion: it’s treatment of minorities, oversimplification of complex issues, and occasional use of an historical figure of colour as a prop, plot device, or victim of exoticism (all of which are present in regards to Nefertiti in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship). With this in mind, it was so exciting to hear the Doctor acknowledge the practice directly in Thin Ice: “History’s a whitewash.” In addressing this issue and presenting a favourable alternative (being an episode in which characters of various races and genders interact and play believable parts both for the story and reality), Doctor Who seems to be forging a new path in their own show, which hopefully others will imitate. The Doctor has pointed out a specific flaw in the behaviour of humanity, which in true meta fashion can be reflected back onto the show itself both as a perpetrator of this and evidence of an alternative path. The introduction of Bill is fantastic for Doctor Who. Not only is she a wonderfully written and acted character, who shows both logic and compassion in her travels so far with the Doctor, but her status as a black, queer, female character has opened and hopefully will continue to open doors to new storytelling opportunities, previously unexplored or underused in Doctor Who.

Thin Ice showcases the dichotomy of various concepts through reactions to specific behaviours. When the Doctor enquires into the living space of the urchins, they resist, assuming he means to take them to the authorities. The Doctor assures them, “We’re not here to arrest you. We’re here to help.” His assertion that he’s “here to help” is entirely reminiscent of the same repeated phrase from Closing Time. This helpful nature of the Doctor was touched upon by Bill in the previous episode, Smile. Bill calls him an “intergalactic policeman,” to which he responds that he is “definitely not a policeman.” In that episode, the scene seemed to demonstrate Bill’s ability to read the Doctor and more broadly another person’s ability to see someone else better than they can see themselves at times. This fit neatly into the themes of that episode and reflected the emotion badges well. However, when paired with this scene from Thin Ice, my thoughts immediately went to cases of police brutality. The fear in the child’s eyes and the Doctor’s attempt to calm her with his assurances bring two thoughts to mind. Firstly, the Doctor is wary of authority and law as both a renegade thief and time traveler with the ability to see observable patterns in history. Secondly, in an episode dealing so heavily with the failings and subjugations of one sector of humanity by another, I can’t help but think that this was meant to evoke thought of the recent and highly visible incidents of police brutality. These incidents and their connection to the children in this episode seem to convey the idea that the Doctor is disappointed in the failing of humanity to protect and support its people, specifically minorities, children, and the homeless in these instances. The role of authority and villain come together in the person of Lord Sutcliffe. Once again, his villainy is emphasized during this exchange with the Doctor after insulting Bill a second time.

Doctor: I preferred it when you were alien.
Sutcliffe: When I was?
Doctor: Well, that explained the lack of humanity. What makes you so sure that your life is worth more than those people out there on the ice? Is it the money -the accident of birth that puts you inside the big, fancy house?

Lord Sutcliffe’s attitudes and actions are expressed as a lack of humanity, just as their presence was an indicator of his humanity mere moments before. The rejection of these base, detrimental human traits, those that harm rather than help in favour of supporting the disenfranchised members of society displays the highs and lows of human society.

The likes of the distasteful Lord Sutcliffe was not readily imagined as the main villain of the piece at the start of the episode. From the ominous organic lights to the disappearance and digestion of several individuals, the initially apparent foe lurked beneath the ice. However, as soon as the Doctor, Bill, and the audience get a glimpse at the chains restraining the creature, it becomes apparent that this behemoth is no more than a prisoner, another victim of the true villain. Just as the elephant seen in the opening of the episode, this “loch-less monster” is an intelligent creature, bound and exploited for the pleasure of humans. The creature does consume a number of helpless humans, but as the Doctor pointed out in the Pilot, “Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry. Hunger looks very like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery.” In the end, the Doctor leaves the question of whether to free the creature or leave it restrained to Bill, who compassionately sets the prisoner free despite the potential cost to her own species and planet. In this moment, humanity is not only the villain, but the hero as well.

Thin Ice shows the ultimate villain of Doctor Who to be the prejudices of man. The maltreatment of humanity’s most vulnerable by fellow members of their own species is addressed in one of the Doctor’s more inspirational speeches of the season or indeed of this Doctor’s run: “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. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.” Thin Ice showcases the misdeeds and vile behaviour of humanity, but in this speech and Bill’s choices, it contrasts that with the goodness and compassion found within our species.




Referenced Works

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, 1963. Producer: Verity Lambert. The Shakespeare Code, 2007. Showrunner: Russell T Davies. The Beast Below, 2010. Closing Time, 2011. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, 2012. The Pilot, Smile, Thin Ice, 2017. Showrunner: Steven Moffat.

A Sound of Thunder. Ray Bradbury, 1952.

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