Some Doctor Who villains are Machiavellian geniuses. Others pursue their wickedness out of misguided loyalties or twisted views of how the world works. And then there are some, who, despite their obvious failings, you can’t help but admire for the lengths they went to in order to pursue their nefarious ambitions.
In this corner of Doctor Who’s rogues’ gallery we find Thin Ice’s Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns), he of the bright blue jacket and the sneering face of a scoundrel. He is, perhaps, Doctor Who’s uber-villain: a racist, a capitalist and a mistreater of animals. So obnoxious is he that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), normally a shunner of violence, is moved to punch Sutcliffe the face when he disses companion Bill (Pearl Mackie). Never cruel or cowardly, but this Doctor’s perfectly willing to thump you if you say something nasty about his friend.
Sutcliffe doesn’t get a lot of screen time in Thin Ice, what with most of the episode being devoted to solving the mystery of why an enormous fish is chained up beneath the Thames (and fair dues, it is difficult to fathom. Geddit? Fathom? Ah, whatever). But I don’t think we give him enough credit.
I mean, for a start, top hats off to the man for working out a way to chain a fish to the river bed. I’m talking about just an ordinary sized fish to start with. I haven’t tried it myself, of course, but I reckon it would take some doing. How do you keep it still? What do you fix the chains too? Why doesn’t the slippery sucker just wriggle out?
But somehow Sutcliffe, with all the technological wonders of Georgian England at his disposal, manages to do it. And not just any old fish. This thing is a mile long and shits rocket fuel. It’s not (we’re led to believe) of this Earth, it’s a creature from an advanced civilisation. (Or perhaps it’s the remnant of one of Earth’s ancient civilisations. The Doctor’s unsure and can’t be bothered finding out). But Sutcliffe manages to get the best of it with nothing but shackles and a can do attitude. Imagine the hours he spent trying to perfect his fish wrestling technique! He’s an inspiration to us all.
Mention of matters scatological reminds me of another indication of Sutcliffe’s ingenuity and determination. We’re told the big fish’s poo can burn hotter and longer than coal, and that it can even burn underwater. How exactly did Sutcliffe find this out? Where did he find this miraculous substance? And what made him think to set it on fire? I genuinely cannot think of a circumstance which would have led to someone thinking, “Hmm. Out of coal. What should I try next? Hang on… what about some giant fish faeces?” And then, high on success: “Gee, this burns well. Maybe I’ll try burning it underwater!”
Though to be fair, Sutcliffe didn’t come up with this genius idea himself. He says the creature has been there since “I don’t know when” and the secret has been handed down through his family over time. Oh, they must have been grand old nights around the fireplace with Grandpa Sutcliffe: “Don’t tell anyone, m’boy, but I know where there’s a big fish capable of crapping out the most wonderous substance! Well, I was down the river one day, just idly setting fire to any fish poo I could find, and wouldn’t you know, I came across this load of old shit which burns like there’s no tomorrow. Why, if a man could only restrain that fish and feed it a steady diet of unsuspecting passers by, he’d be marginally richer than we already are. There’s a notion for you, young Sutcliffe jnr!”
Sutcliffe probably would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that pesky Time Lord, his upstart friend and those meddling kids. He gets his comeuppance when the Doctor repositions explosives made of fish droppings to free the creature from its bonds (lucky that stuff explodes underwater as well as burns). It breaks the ice beneath Sutcliffe’s feet and he falls into the river and drowns.
And here we see that despite the man’s many talents, he isn’t immune to a little ironic misfortune. Because although he managed to find a giant, miraculous fish, chain it to the river bed and dredge up its precious dung, I like to think that as he sank below the waves, the thought that lingered in Sutcliffe’s villainous mind was, “you know, when I chose to embark on this scheme to farm a captive sea creature in the Thames, I really should have learnt how to swim.”
Lesson one for all would be entrepreneurs: don’t neglect the basics.
Thin Ice not-so mini quiz: which story does it better?
- Third episode trip to the 19th Century to show companion a slice of history? The Unquiet Dead or Thin Ice.
- The conversation between the Doctor and his companion where he convinces her to disregard the butterfly effect? The Shakespeare Code or Thin Ice
- The conversation between the Doctor and his companion where he dismisses her fears about being dark skinned in historical England? The Shakespeare Code or Thin Ice
- Having a big animal being enslaved to produce some product/service for mankind? The Beast Below or Thin Ice
- Having a group of street urchins aid and abet the Doctor? The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances or Thin Ice
- Dressing the Doctor up in 19th century duds complete with a new tall hat? The Snowmen or Thin Ice
- Having a sea monster turn up in the Thames? Terror of the Zygons or Thin Ice
- Conspicuous use of an elephant? The Ark or Thin Ice
- Conspicuous use of giant marine creature’s digestive processes to drive the plot? The Power of Kroll or Thin Ice.
- Uncharacteristic insistence by the Doctor on needing his companion to issue him an order so he can take action? Trick question: that’s unique to Thin Ice.
LINK TO Underworld: adventures that take place beneath the surface.
NEXT TIME: Where the winds of restlessness blow, where the fires of greed burn, where hatred chills the blood, here we will find the Safety Dance. Sorry, I mean Snakedance.