Before recording our latest episode, my podcasting co-host Curtis and I chatted a bit about this new series of Doctor Who. I confessed (or rather, whined) that while I understand all of the reasons and logic I wished they would just give the show to Sarah Dollard already. Sure, she’s young and still gaining experience, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that her two stories are better than all of Chibnall’s, for all his credits. It’s probably best to save Chibnall for some other separate blog post, after series 10 finishes, perhaps. I do have hope for his tenure, even if it’s not based entirely on the merits of his existing Doctor Who episodes. Nevertheless, our focus today is on Dollard and her sophomore outing, “Thin Ice,” and it’s enough to set one pining for what might have been (or what might still one day come to be, if we’re lucky).
It’s not simply a matter of good ideas. Those are important, for sure. The notion of the Trap Street from “Face the Raven” was extremely distinctive, but it’s not like it doesn’t bear similarity to other fantasy tropes — Diagon Alley, for example. Even here, I don’t think the best thing about “Thin Ice” is the idea. The chained and exploited beast bears resemblance to others within the Doctor Who oeuvre, as others have pointed out, noticeably Moffat’s “The Beast Below” and Catherine Tregenna’s Torchwood episode “Meat”. Setting the story during the last great frost fair gives the episode a distinctive visual flavor, and nudges it slightly out of the well-worn Victorian era and into a less well-explored Regency period. It was a time of war and expansion, with the British Empire still on the incline before the great Golden Age dominated by the long reign of Victoria. It contained the first (British) Industrial Revolution which kicked off an unprecedented rate of economic growth and social upheaval. Naturally the episode becomes about the exploitation of the poor, social inequality, and the abuse of the natural world. The cleverness of Dollard’s ideas comes in juxtaposing a perfectly standard Doctor Who plot with a fitting and well-chosen time period such that the two elements – alien and domestic – complement each other. (This is that “metaphor of the week” we talked about lats time, executed well this time).
But that’s not what makes Dollard a special writer. What makes her so refreshing is her willingness, and even more her capacity, to follow these ideas to their natural conclusions, despite the apparent risk or difficulty. In a way, she is to the new series of Doctor Who what Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, and the other great recent writers of the new series are to the Classic series. All are fans who can think critically, come in and execute the stories in ways that push them to new heights. Davies expanded the series’ emotional range, giving its companions families, jobs, and coherent character arcs (or at least that was the attempt, if you want to get picky). Moffat plumbed new intellectual depths, pushing the show as far as he could get it (and occasionally a bit too far) to live up to its description as a show about time travel. Both looked at the Classic series, loved it for all of its many virtues and innovations, and found ways in which they were uniquely suited to help it innovate further.
I think that Dollard (and perhaps a few of the other recent recruits such as Peter Harness and Jamie Mathieson) is doing the exact same thing. She has the entire Classic and New Series as a foundation. Those are some mighty big shoulders to stand on, yes, but that only highlights the ways in which she is clearing a new bar. I’m sure Moffat realizes it, based on the episodes she’s been given. The fact that he gave her, in her very first Doctor Who script, the job of killing Clara speaks volumes. It means she that was capable of such a thing, and the audience reception of “Face the Raven” bore this out. She actually managed to make Clara’s death not a fridging, which is huge. The audience loved “Face the Raven” before Moffat brought Clara back in “Hell Bent,” and that is all down to Dollard and what she knows about contemporary storytelling and fandom. She made the story all about Clara – her character, her choices, her flaws, her dignity. This sounds obvious and easy but it’s really not. I do think Moffat gets some credit for recognizing this ideal pairing of writer and brief, but that doesn’t in any way diminish Dollard’s skill.
It’s no mistake, then, that “Thin Ice,” her second story, got the highest AI (audience “Appreciation Index”) figure since “Face the Raven.” She is clearly scratching an itch. We are living in vexed times, and people are anxious to discuss these anxieties through stories. It’s simply not an option in 2017 to take Bill to Regency England and not address her color. Having Martha as the first companion of color was great and a big deal, no question, but you cannot have the Doctor do the “walk around like you own the place, works for me” gag. He can’t brush this off, and neither Bill nor Dollard let him off the hook. There were moments with Martha that flirted with addressing this issue more directly, like in Paul Cornell’s “Family of Blood” where Nurse Redfern dismisses Martha’s medical knowledge with the obliviously ironic, “You read that in a book” (“Yes, to pass my exams” Martha answers, wonderfully). But here, the Doctor hears Bill’s question about the existence of slavery, sees the fear in her eyes, and acknowledges its legitimacy.
Bill: Bit more black than than you see in the movies.
Doctor: So was Jesus. History’s a whitewash.
I know lots of idiotic trolls are going to label this P.C., but that’s brave writing right there. Twice now Dollard has shown how exciting, refreshing, and simply good Doctor Who can be in the hands of a writer willing and able to incorporate the realities of gender, race, and class. Plenty of writers before her have paved the way, but Dollard is forging ahead into new territory.
Beyond the Importance (capital letter) of her stories, Dollard’s writing just dances along. Her scripts are not the Doctor Who version of eating your vegetables. The delightfully funny Abbot and Costello bit about Pete, for instance:
Doctor: That’s what happened to Pete.
Doctor: Your friend Pete. He was standing there a moment ago but he stepped on a butterfly and how you don’t even remember him.
Bill: …Shut up! I’m being serious.
Doctor: Yeah, so was Pete.
Bill: You know what I mean. Every choice I make in this moment here and now could change the whole future.
Doctor: Exactly like every other day of your life. The only thing to do is stop worrying about it.
Bill: Okay, if you say so.
Doctor: Pete stopped worrying. [A few moments later] It’s just time travel. Don’t overthink it.
Bill: Is that what you said to Pete?
Doctor: Who’s Pete? [Bill smiles]
is a brilliantly delicate little duet. Of course the Doctor’s moment of “outrage” in which he punches Sutcliffe is hilarious and totally satisfying. The old-timey diving suits (coupled with Murray Gold’s Firefly-esque twangy score) strikes a pleasantly steampunky image. Naturally, as the writer who can competently handle addressing the death of female characters and race, Dollard is the natural fit for the companion’s third episode in which she starts to ask the Doctor Tough Questions (also in capital letters). Bill’s status as the companion who asks different questions than anyone before her goes further than the earlier goofy gags like if the TARDIS is a knock-through or if the Doctor has high blood pressure, and extends to the true stuff like how many people he’s seen die and killed. Of course these are questions he cannot answer because he doesn’t know. He lost count a helluva long time ago. Of course Bill “moves on.” She has to, or there’d be no story, and she quickly realizes there’s far more to the story than these facts and figures. In fact, she suddenly realizes she’s caught up in a story with much higher stakes than she originally thought. But it’s interesting to see her get to that place that quickly with the Doctor. It frees them up to further and more interesting places in the remainder of the season. She’s more than just the writer brought in when it’s time to address complicated “issues.” She’s a legitimately excellent and well-rounded writer of Doctor Who, full stop.
Luckily for us, Dollard is young. She has her entire career in front of her, and I sincerely hope that she continues to return to Doctor Who both during Chibnall’s tenure and beyond. If she’s capable of “Face then Raven” and “Thin Ice” this early who knows what she’ll be capable of as she continues to grow and mature as writer. And if, you know, when it comes time for Chibnall to pass on the baton, the executives at the BBC want to give Dollard a try I hope she accepts. She’s already got her finger on the pulse of the program’s present, and I think she probably represents its future.