‘Doctor Who’ Regeneration Review: A 2000-Year-Old Alien Punches A Racist In ‘Thin Ice’

The Doctor Who Regeneration Review is a weekly column cataloging all the times Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor nearly regenerates, or dies, in the latest episode of BBC America’s popular science fiction show. Since this is the Scottish “cross” character’s final season — a fact the showrunners have enjoyed teasing in the promos — we decided to tease back. Most items are serious, some silly, and all measured with the Doctor’s ?.

Audiences unfamiliar with Doctor Who since its 2005 reboot probably thought the same thing after watching this season’s first two episodes: “This is a really diverse show!” While the cultural and historical reasons for this are somewhat different due to the program’s European origin, it’s still a welcome thing to see on modern American television. Yet Bill Potts’ (Pearl Mackie) arrival is meant to shake things up even more, as she is the first openly gay companion to accompany the Doctor in the show’s history.

Whether or not Doctor Who does this aspect of Bill’s character justice remains to be seen, but if the program’s attempt to address race in “Thin Ice” is any indication, hopeful Whovians have reason to worry. The episode takes place in 1814 London, 19 years before the Slavery Abolition Act. On account of her skin’s abundance of melanin, as Bill puts it, gallivanting around the city doesn’t appeal to her since “slavery is still totally a thing.” Needless to say, it doesn’t go very well.

Bill isn’t the first black companion to travel with the Doctor. Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) accompanied the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) for a season in 2008, and Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) occasionally appeared as Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) boyfriend in 2005. To “Thin Ice” writer Sarah Dollard’s credit, however, neither of these characters experienced racism as abruptly as Bill did in her episode. “It wouldn’t be a pleasant place for [Bill] in several respects,” showrunner Steven Moffat told TV Guide. “Taking that on is just respectful of the audience really.”

“History is always whitewashed,” he continued, noting they “didn’t see an alternative” to confronting race head-on. Yet just because Moffat and company claim the episode addresses period racism doesn’t mean they address it successfully. For as a pertinent scene described below reveals, Doctor Who puts the Doctor front and center when Bill should have been the one to take that righteous swing.

“Do something and save him” (???)

As family friendly as Doctor Who is, many cursory characters don’t make it pass the end credits — especially in the Moffat era. “Thin Ice,” which draws heavily from 2010’s “The Beast Below,” is no different. The episode’s primary impetus is a giant alien creature trapped underneath the iced surface of the River Thames. It subsists on a diet of unfortunates pulled through the ice by bio-luminescent pilot fish — including a young pauper boy nicknamed Spider who stole the Doctor’s sonic screw driver. As he’s pulled into the water, the Doctor, Bill and a girl named Kitty can only watch in horror.

“Let’s get eaten” (????)

Spider’s death and the Doctor’s reaction to it shock Bill. Instead of trying to save the boy, the Time Lord simply waits until the right moment to retrieve his stolen instrument. The general assumption is the Doctor wouldn’t have been able to save the kid, especially since he had no idea what was happening, but Bill doesn’t buy it. So she questions her guide’s motivations throughout, like when he acquires diving gear so the two of them can get “eaten” and discover what’s hiding, or trapped, beneath the ice. This leads to a close encounter that, save for a few massive lengths of chain, could have ended disastrously for them both.

“You have a temper” (??)

Despite the presence of a giant, people-eating sea monster, the real villain of “Thin Ice” is actually a man. Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns), to be exact — a pompous aristocrat whose family uses the creature for financial gain. Before our heroes find all this out, however, they weasel their way into his residence to confront him. That’s when the Doctor advises Bill to say nothing due to her “temper,” then proceeds to punch Sutcliffe in the face after he insults her. While this racially charged moment will likely elicit a few cheers, the fact that it comes after the Doctor silences Bill’s passionate impulses before indulging his own should be acknowledged. Not only does it put their lives in jeopardy, but it also diminishes Bill’s agency during a historical moment in which people like her legally had none.

“Turn it off, there’s a button on the side” (???)

After Spider’s death, Bill asks the Doctor if he’s ever killed anyone. He avoids the question, causing her to ask again until he finally answers. Yes, he has killed before. It’s a moment that will pull at ardent Doctor Who fans’ hearts, as they know their favorite violence-hating hero has in fact committed, or allowed violence against others. Villains usually, but living beings nonetheless. Like the unnamed Sutcliffe henchman the Doctor lures into a trap with his sonic screwdriver. The pilot fish encircle him and suck him below the ice, allowing the captives to escape and save the day — though not before nearly being sucked into the water themselves.

“We blow it now” (?????)

Freed from captivity, the Doctor and Bill warn festival goers off the ice before Sutcliffe can explode it, thereby feeding everyone to the creature. The latter employs some of Spider’s fellow paupers in her efforts, but the Doctor? He disappears long enough for Sutcliffe and his goons to realize their bombs are no longer above water. Instead, the Doctor dons another diving suit and transports the bombs below, placing them near weak spots along the sea monster’s chains. When they explode, the beast cracks through the ice and escapes the Thames. Basically, the Doctor willingly subjects himself to the possibility of dying by the creature, by explosion, or by falling through the ice while rescuing Bill. That’s a lot of potential regenerations.

New episodes of Doctor Who air Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.