In another exceedingly solid mystery episode, the Doctor and Bill save the London Frost Fair of 1814 from turning into a watery grave.
Series 10 — that time when Doctor Who suddenly acknowledged that diversity is a thing
If this episode had been written by anyone other than Sarah Dollard, I’d have scoffed and mumbled, “Yeah, very down with the kidz there, Who,” but as this episode was written by Sarah Dollard (who, last series, gave us the episode Face the Raven, arguably one of the most challenging episodes in that entire run, both to write and to act in), I daresay this is more than Doctor Who knocking out a token ‘woke’ moment.
As it is, racists are getting knocked out and, consequently, knocked into the Thames to drown, and it is immensely satisfying to watch. The Doctor was aiming for charming, but when Sutcliffe sputters some grade-A racist crap at Bill, he decks him straight in the face. Out in the streets, Regency England might have been “a bit more black than they show in the movies,” but institutional racism was the ugly truth. It pays to note that many of the black men we see in this episode are soldiers. Western European colonialists like France and England have never had any compunction sending young men of colour to die in their wars, even if they’d have never let them have full citizenship and agency in anything else.
I mean, Martha travelled to the past with Ten in Series 3, even further back, into Shakespeare’s time (The Shakespeare Code); and while there, also had to contend with Shakespeare spewing some… colourful euphemisms, Ten wasn’t decking him, he was rubbing his eye and mumbling ‘political correctness gone mad.’ So, you know, it’s hardly the first time Doctor Who has sent a character of colour back in time, but they’re being a bit more real about it in this script than in others. Blink, too, largely glossed over the political implications of a young black woman and a white man apparently living together, and Martha having to work to support them both in England during the 1960s, which… could not have been fun. At all.
Now what the show needs to do is to back all of this up with, y’know. Actual representation. It’s time for the Doctor to regenerate into someone other than a whippet-thin white dude.
There’s also something interesting in there about the Doctor telling Bill to leave the talking to him — not because she’s a woman, or because she’s black, but because she has a temper. And it’s not her temper itself that he criticises, which is important in the sense that women, and especially black women, are not supposed to have a temper. The angry black woman is a strongly harmful trope in fiction (and part of real-life racist prejudice), and while the Doctor claims not to have time for the human reaction of emotional outrage when it comes to death and injustice (though he clearly does), it’s not her temper in itself that he judges.
The lesson every companion learns: it’s a different morality
I’m 2000 years old and I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage.
Or so he claims.
Bill: No time for outrage, huh? Hardly time for anything else.
Doctor: Don’t be smug. Smug belongs to me.
The Doctor and caring — it’s a tumultuous relationship, that one. On the one hand, the Doctor is being very sweet in this story. Bill’s enjoying herself and he figures they’ll get to work eventually, so he’s happy to let her explore and steal pies for her until they get to the lights underneath the ice.
But then, it’s also abundantly clear that while Bill is still staring at the spot where Spider, Kitty’s friend, just vanished, the Doctor is busy coddling his Sonic Screwdriver. He doesn’t even try to save the boy — and yes, it would have been foolish to try, there was nothing to be done; but still. This is the lesson every companion learns, and I’m deliberately calling it a lesson in light of Bill warning the Doctor not to try and tell her what to think. He’s her teacher, and what he does includes a very different perspective and view of things that happen and decisions that have to be made.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care.
The Doctor: I preferred it when you were alien.
Sutcliffe: When I was…
The Doctor: Well, that would explain the lack of humanity. What makes you so sure 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.
Sutcliffe: I help move this country forward. I move this Empire forward.
The Doctor: 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.
Sutcliffe: What a beautiful speech. The rhythm and vocabulary, quite outstanding. It’s enough to move anyone with an ounce of compassion. (beat) So it’s really not your day, is it?
The thing with the quarrel that Bill and the Doctor have at the beginning, wherein she asks him how many people he’s seen die, when he lost count, and if he’s ever killed anyone — those are mostly very honest responses. Mostly. But his lines about situations that have no other outcome, and about moving on… Bill is right to keep at him, to call him on not answering her actual question, whether he’s ever killed.
Bill: We were fighting. It happens.
Kitty: Are you still fighting now?
Bill: No. I’ve moved on. (Bill and the Doctor, having heard her, exchange a look)
I think that bit is supposed to tell us that Bill accepts this about the Doctor, and that she will keep travelling with him, but that it’s not something she will easily forget. And I think that that might be designed to tell us that that’s how the Doctor feels, too. It is something he must accept about his life, about himself, but we know he’s never not taken the time to throw a good proper fit. And he’s never met anyone who wasn’t important.
Morally and practically, making a distinction between dead and dying isn’t useful.
In a sense, his reaction to Spider’s death is somewhat First Doctor. It’s clever that Bill asks him how long one has to be alive to make a speech like the one he just made, and the truth is: a while. The Doctor used to be a lot more callous than this, but he grew. His demand for Bill to “give [him] an order” evokes the time when he was exiled to Earth and worked for UNIT for a time, and even though he gave the poor Brigadier plenty of headaches, he was at least somewhat helpful.
There’s also a delightful parallel to The Beast Below in that particular exchange. Eleven was convinced that he would have to kill the Star Whale to put it out of its misery, for one thing, and because it would ultimately destroy the whole settlement. It was Amy who overruled his decision and reminded him that it was the humans that enslaved it, and that the Star Whale wouldn’t abandon them even after what they did to it. So now, Bill is given the choice because it is her planet (as Amy, being the actual human on that space settlement, should have rightfully made the decision in the first place in Series 5). Running the risk of the creature devouring London hole, she nevertheless tells the Doctor to save her because building a world on the back of one creature’s suffering… is not worth it.
When they return to the Doctor’s office, Nardole rather notices their very natty attire, and once again reminds the Doctor of his oath. The Doctor being the Doctor and a con man, tells Nardole they’ll toss for it. Yeah, right. Cheater.
At the end, Nardole checks on the Vault, muttering to himself about the Doctor, and that’s when, well. Three knocks at first, but any sort of knocking on Doctor Who fills me with dread, and with good reason. Now we’re getting the distinct sense that there is something inside that Vault. Or, possibly, someone.