When last we left the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) on “Doctor Who,” they narrowly escaped certain death in a human colony run by robots who communicate via emojis and kill you if you get too sad — you know, just a typical Saturday. The Doctor and Bill headed home to present-day England, but the TARDIS abruptly changed course and took them to 1814 London instead. “You don’t steer the TARDIS, you reason with it, unsuccessfully most of the time,” the Doctor explains. “She’s a bad girl, always looking for trouble.” And trouble is what she got.
There’s Something Fishy Going On
During London’s last frost fair, with conditions just right to freeze the River Thames, Londoners partake in a festival atop the icy surface. That’s based on a true event, but the creature lurking underneath is pure fiction — at least, as far as we know. There’s a monster lurking at the bottom of the Thames, and it’s devouring people on the surface one by one. We see the evidence of that in strange bioluminescent lights under the surface: smaller fish who scout for prey and pull the unsuspecting victims straight through the ice into the murky depths. What kind of evil creature would do such a thing? The answer isn’t what we might expect.
The Doctor vs. Capitalism
The sea monster is eating innocent people, but it’s behaving out of biological necessity, not malicious intent. No, to find the true source of evil, follow the money. In this case the Doctor discovers that the real villain is Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burne), an enterprising man who has discovered that the sea creature’s fecal waste is a powerful energy source. He has tied the creature in chains and supplies it with a steady diet of peasants. Sutcliffe exploits poor Londoners and the enslaved creature while profiting off of what they produce, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to read this story as a critique of capitalism. It’s fitting that his product is literal excrement — he’s sitting pretty, but it’s a crappy deal for everyone else.
“Doctor Who” is often skillful at redirecting our sympathies and complicating our perceptions of right and wrong. This episode does just that. At first we consider the sea creature to be a killing machine that must be stopped, but the real monster is the human who takes advantage of death to make a buck. He tells us the knowledge of the creature has been passed down from generation to generation, much the way ill-gotten wealth can be passed down through rich families.
The heart of the episode is the first confrontation between the Doctor and Sutcliffe, in which Sutcliffe claims to act in the interests of progress: “Without that beast my mills would rely on coal mines, and men die in coal mines all the time … I help move this country forward.” The Doctor counters with a speech that captures the core theme of the episode — the mission statement of the entire series, really. “Human progress isn’t measured by industry,” the Doctor explains. “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.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the Doctor is “feeling the Bern.”
But How Much Does the Doctor Value Life?
As I said above, “Doctor Who” likes to pose difficult moral questions, and it didn’t stop with Sutcliffe. What about the Doctor himself? How much value does he place on a human life? How many lives has he taken to save how many others? Bill is forced to confront those questions for the first time in this episode, as most of the Doctor’s companions have had to do over the years. “If you care so much,” she says, “tell me how many people you’ve seen die.” And when the Doctor can’t answer that question, she asks him how many he has killed. He can’t answer that either. “Do you know what happens if I don’t move on?” he says. “More people die … I’m 2,000-years-old, and I’ve never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”
At the climax of the episode, the Doctor asks Bill to make her own moral choice that weighs the life of the sea creature against the lives of the people on the surface: “If your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?” he asks her. She chooses compassion and decides to free the creature. Luckily, the frost fair revelers escape the ice just in time, the creature escapes, and the only one who gets eaten is Sutcliffe. That’s undoubtedly a happy ending, but it could have ended much differently, and that’s the point — don’t be so quick to judge because you yourself may one day be forced to choose the best of bad options.
Redistribution of Wealth
With the sea creature freed and Sutcliffe dead, the Doctor makes the most of it by arranging for a poor street urchin to inherit Sutcliffe’s fortune. If this didn’t read as an allegory of capitalism before, having the Doctor redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor certainly drove the point home. But when the Doctor and Bill finally return to the present day, Bill is surprised their adventure didn’t have any lasting impact on the time line. “Never underestimate the collective human ability to overlook the inexplicable,” says the Doctor. “Also, the frost fair involves a lot of day drinking.”
Knock, Knock, Who’s There?
We got another hint about what — or who — is in the Doctor’s vault under the university. As Nardole (Matt Lucas) checks to make sure the door is secure, we hear a loud knocking on the door from the inside. “No one’s going to open the door just because you’re knocking,” says Nardole. “He may have a little friend now, and he may be a little bit distracted, but I’ll tell you something: I’m still here, and as long as I’m still here you are going nowhere!”
The plot thickens.
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