By D.S. White
I came to love Doctor Who as an adult because it respected the sentimental and moral sci-fi/fantasy fiction that I loved as a child, but last weekend’s “Thin Ice” (Season 7, episode 2) made me realize that it had been a long time since I’d loved an episode of Doctor Who on its own merit, for the particular story it told and the characters and situation used to tell it. “Thin Ice” brought back Doctor Who at its best: The time-traveling alien Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his new human companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) on a lively adventure, learning something fundamental about the universe and themselves, well-matched in terms of smarts, bravery, and a good heart (or two hearts, in the case of the Doctor).
The Doctor is very, very old–at last count, somewhere north of two thousand years–and the catalog of pain and joy he’s seen in his life informs an extrahuman weariness or extrahuman hopefulness at what’s possible, who can be saved, and who is lost. For the first time, he has a companion who’s a match for him in her long-term historical perspective, although she’s only in her twenties: Bill is a Black woman, with the psychic weight of what it means to be the descendant of a people previously in bondage.
This is only the second time Doctor Who has cast a black companion. The first was Martha Jones (played by British bae Freema Agyeman), who joined the show in its 2007 third season, with David Tennant playing the Doctor. Martha’s first trip to the past landed her in Shakespearian England, where she immediately expressed apprehension about being “carted off as a slave” as soon as she stepped outside of the TARDIS. Ten years ago, the Doctor’s response wasn’t great: he equated her blackness to his “outsider” status as an (heterosexual-, white-, male-presenting) alien, and said that if he was safe, she would be, too.
It was a realistic depiction of the way minorities’ fears are dismissed, but unfortunately, it was presented as a positive “aha” moment for Martha’s provincial way of thinking. Having given us a preview of the #AllLivesMatter movement (and they say time travel isn’t real!), the show never explored the idea again.
So, ten years on, I was apprehensive but hopeful as I approached the episode where our second-ever Black companion traveled back in time. The Doctor threw open the door and declared them to have landed in Regency England–specifically, 1814 London, at the end of the Little Ice Age. To my dismay, the conversation began to play out the exact same way it had ten years ago with Martha: she stood at the doorway of the TARDIS refusing to step outside, saying “Slavery is still totally a thing!” At that point, I felt my stomach sink a little: were they going to have the Doctor handwave away her concern again?
Wonderfully, that didn’t happen. This time, Capaldi paused a moment and let the sad realization settle onto his face, before replying simply, heavily, “Yes, it is.” A powerful validation.
And what more is there to be said in that moment, anyway? Slavery is definitely real, it’s definitely awful, it definitely affects the way Bill will be treated, and it’s definitely not something he’s thought about before. I got the sense that he would be thinking about it now, though–a change that’s also been earned in his character because he is coming off of the loss of several companions that he feels he failed to properly protect (and, in fact, tried to swear off companions altogether so he wouldn’t risk another coming to harm under his watch). It’s not just an insta-woke Doctor; it’s one who is trying to be far more cautious going forward. It’s three seasons in and only now is there a storyline that lives up to the magnificent, resigned sadness of Capaldi’s Doctor, as he’ll have to protect Bill not just from Daleks and Cybermen but from other humans, too.
And we didn’t have to wait long to see that internal conflict made external: the villain of the episode, the Earl of Sutcliffe, turned out not only to be a murderer but a vicious and vocal racist. The Earl flips out when he sees that Bill is sitting in a chair while he and the Doctor stand–he demands that she “stand in the presence of her betters,” calls her a “creature”–it’s more explicitly cruel than Doctor Who has gone before (it’s ostensibly a child-friendly program, so we probably won’t get language that’s much worse). And the Doctor, almost always the voice of reason and jokes over action, takes a page from the antifa handbook and promptly punches the Earl in the face. Not only would I love Doctor Who to become my weekly television destination for watching bigots get cold-cocked, I want to see what it means for the Doctor to confront this specific cruelty that humans inflict on one another and reconcile it with his fascination and defense of our species.
By the end of the episode, I had even gotten on board with the near word-for-word recitation of fear of being enslaved expressed by Martha and then by Bill. It’s a trope that every companion exclaims that the TARDIS is “bigger on the inside,” so why couldn’t it be a trope that companions of color ask whether it’s going to be safe for them to travel back in Earth’s history? It’s as realistic and obvious a question. The response of the Doctor and reaction of the companion to his response would be a good way to mark growth. And every time the next companion asks about it, we can learn a little about them, a little about the Doctor, and a little about ourselves.