Bill may have chosen to go the future last week, but as this week’s episode shows, the TARDIS ensured that our newest companion gets to experience the past as well, taking both the Doctor and her to 1814 London. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Idris is just as fond of Bill as we are. And given Bill’s admission that she’s “lowkey in love” with the TARDIS’ penchant for trouble and possession of dresses, it’s clear the feeling is mutual — which of course makes me hope they might eventually get to meet. But alas, seeing as how Bill might just be a companion for a season, this could be a story relegated to the realm of fanfiction.
In any case, turns out Regency Era London is not only home to Jane Austen’s brand of social comedy, but also a ginormous creature — which the Doctor aptly nicknames “Tiny,” the “Loch-Less Monster,” and “the Not-So-Little Mermaid” — that lives under the frozen Thames, allowing it to remain frozen and house the current ice fair.
After they witness one of the street urchins who tried to steal the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver become the creature’s latest meal, the Doctor and Bill venture underwater in old-timey diving suits to suss out the situation. Turns out, it’s not the creature’s fault — people are being fed to it by some bioluminescent alien-ish angler fish. It’s chained and in pain, presumably having been kept this way for years. The sight is haunting both to Bill and the viewer.
This new discovery prompts Bill and the Doctor to visit the men dredging up the river for the creature’s droppings, which apparently make some kind of fuel that burns not only longer and hotter than coal but also underwater. This leads them to theorize that Lord Sutcliffe, who’s in charge of the whole operation, is an alien. After all, how else would someone display this much lack of compassion?
But as they realize upon meeting the man, he’s a 100 percent human, and a 1,000 percent scumbag. Not only has his family known about the chained up creature for decades, but he’s perfectly fine sacrificing people to it. In fact, he’s got a plan to blow up the Thames later so that people assume it’s a fireworks accident and forget about the disappearances and move on — only now, Doctor Disco and Bill are also going to be two of the lives lost as they’re tied up in a tent on the ice. Like I said, scumbag.
Thankfully, the Time Lord and his companion quickly manage to fish out the sonic screwdriver. But before he can really free them, the Man With the Ship Tattoo arrives and confiscates it. Unfortunately, he missed the Doctor’s whole explanation about how the anglerfish are attracted to sound, which is how they know when someone is by themselves, and perfect for the taking. Just before he falls through the ice, Tattoo Man tosses the Doctor the sonic screwdriver.
Now free, Bill recruits the street kids to help clear the ice. Sutcliffe tries to stop people from fleeing the soon-to-explode river, but when that doesn’t work, he moves up the timeline of his explosion. Only when he does set it off, it doesn’t work like he planned. As we then learn, the Doctor was able to use his diving suit (which was somehow nearby?) and place all the explosives by the chains trapping the fish. Not only does this cause the ice to crack, it also sees Sutcliffe plummet to his death under it. With that, Tiny swims off to freedom, with Bill grinning at how happy she sounds.
As for the kids? With Sutcliffe gone, they “Doctor” his papers saying that Perry, the young boy of the group, is his long-lost heir. (Because apparently, girls aren’t eligible. But I suppose, one social issue at a time.) When the Doctor and Bill arrive in the present — just as Nardole is bringing them their “coffee”-flavored tea — they check on the past to see that their handiwork stuck. The Doctor credits this to Bill, whose “order” it was to do so.
Of course, Nardole isn’t happy about this new change of events, especially with the Doctor flipping a coin to get him to leave him alone. Though to be fair, it was the Doctor who reassembled him (no doubt for companionship) so maybe the Time Lord shouldn’t be so annoyed by Nardole’s attempts to keep him on task guarding the vault, which as we see this week, is holding something that can knock back… and quite insistently at that. It’s enough to give anyone who’s a regular viewer of the show flashbacks to the drums that drove the Master mad. And seeing a certain someone is returning this season, this might not be too wild a theory at the moment. All we know is that Nardole is on the job and that he’s vowed to keep whatever it is locked up — even if the Doctor is a little distracted by his “new friend.”
Speaking of which, I know I’ve said this every week at this point, but I don’t blame the Doctor for being absolutely enamored with Bill. Their interactions, especially the fondness with which he regards the refreshing savvy and genuine amazement with which she views each adventure, are easily the best parts of each episode so far. (See Exhibit A, below.) Peter Capaldi is absolutely selling the Doctor’s soft spot, but Pearl Mackie is doing an equally good job of showing just why the Doctor would have one.
However, this week’s adventure saw the pair hit a hiccup in their relationship as Bill not only witness her first real death and also realizes that the Doctor has not only seen a lot of death, he’s caused some of it too (enough to lose count of how much). But as the Doctor explains, he’s 2000 years old, he needs to move on so more people won’t die. (To be fair, she did witness a child die.) And while Bill does accept this explanation at first, she really does once the Doctor gives what really is a magnificent speech in his attempt to sway Sutcliffe:
“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.”
This comes up again when we see Bill herself faced with deciding whether to free the creature (thus endangering hundreds of Londoners). Only here the Doctor asks: “If your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s that future worth?” It’s significant that the Doctor leaves these kinds of decision in the hands of his human companions; sure, he might save us a lot, but he can’t really use his wisdom and experience to make our decisions for us. That’s something for us to do on our own. Or in this case, Bill.
Of course, we also need to address the “elephant” on the Thames of this episode, which is how the show handled race, an especially tricky area when it comes to time travel. Bill is absolutely right to point out that as a black woman (like Martha before her) she’s absolutely at a disadvantage, because back then, “Slavery is totally a thing.” And to the show’s credit, it does not shy away from that issue at all. We see that the Doctor is visibly affected at the mention of it, not to mention his punching of Sutcliffe the second he even begins to demean Bill, effectively throwing out any “diplomacy, tact, or charm” he’d planned on using. But even more significantly, the show populates its world with people of color, something that gives us the following exchange:
Bill: “Regency England… Bit more black than they show in the movies.”
The Doctor: “So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.”
It’s a small moment in Bill and the Doctor’s relationship, but a pretty significant one in terms of how TV shows — especially about time travel — have addressed history, something that other series like NBC’s Timeless and Fox’s Making History are slowly grappling with. (Even Doctor Who has had some trouble with it in the past.) But writer Sarah Dollard is able to handle the moment with the sensitivity required, while still providing viewers with the more family-friendly, fun-filled romp this season is slowly becoming known for — slightly darker episode themes aside.
This season of Doctor Who is the strongest the show has been in a while, part of which is because it’s actually addressing some of the criticisms of past ones. It’s making me sad that Capaldi is leaving at the end of this year because it feels like he and Mackie have just gotten started. That being said, I would like to see Nardole go on more adventures with them as we’ve only had glimpses of how fun that dynamic could be. Here’s hoping he tags along — and we get more answers about that door — next week!