Where Can I Find It?
What’s It About?
Ad copy: Moscow 1967. The Doctor and Ace have arrived behind the Iron Curtain, and the Soviet Union is seeking a new weapon that will give it mastery in the Cold War. What is the secret of the Martian relics? As the legendary War Lord Sezhyr returns to life, the Doctor is faced with some of his oldest and deadliest enemies. The fate of Earth – and the future of Ace – are now intertwined…
What Might Have Been?
Any amount of research into the history of Doctor Who, specifically into the history of the McCoy era, will eventually lead to the Cartmel Masterplan. This hypothetical document dictated the plan to move Doctor Who from the perceived failures of the Sixth Doctor era and in to a bright, new future. The Doctor would have been made more mysterious, possibly being revealed as a mythical Gallifreyan known as the Other. The overall vision was to put the “who” back in Doctor Who.
Naturally, the problem with the Cartmel Masterplan theory is that the plan probably never existed. I remember listening to an interview with Andrew Cartmel which had been conducted by the Podshock podcast, and Cartmel said this plan didn’t really exist. At best, the plan was spontaneous and organic, evolving out of the scripting at the time, not connected to a long-term, detailed vision for the show. But over the years the hints of a future in the McCoy era, the allure of the cancelled season 27, and the mythology that arose from the New Adventures novels contributed to theory and speculation. The Cartmel Masterplan became a lost, apocryphal golden era for the show.
With Thin Ice we are given, then, a glimpse at what season 27 could have been. But this glimpse may be less effective than anticipated. Based on some accounts, nothing had gone to script for season 27, although ideas had been pitched. If this is the case, then these lost stories are remembered pitches filtered through decades of development. They are an attempt to reproduce a previous era, not a reflection of an abandoned vision. Essentially, Thin Ice was pitched in 1989 but not written until 2011. It is a product of its time, and that time is the present. That time has also mythologized season 27, leaving me to wonder if these stories can even really be termed “what might have been.”
Looking at what we have been given, then, is nonetheless interesting. Thin Ice engages with the idea that Ace was to be inducted into the Time Lord Academy. The Doctor, seeing her potential, submitted an application without her knowledge and the events of Thin Ice become a test to prove her worth. This is somewhat interesting, and yet, despite the themes of change and the development of Ace’s character in season 26, it seems sudden. If becoming a Time Lady has been Ace’s journey, it hasn’t really been set up well. Moving from bitter (toward her mother) and violent to merciful and peaceful doesn’t not inherently entitle one to the knowledge of the inner workings of all time and space. Fittingly, this plot point is dropped when Ace is not accepted into the Academy. Instead, the Doctor allows her to take a greater role in their adventures, moving from the pawn to an active player. This is far more fitting.
So in a way, Thin Ice plays against the Cartmel Masterplan expectation by deflating it. What we are given instead is an adventure rooted more in Cold War spy antics than Time Lord mythologizing. The Ice Warriors lend themselves well to the Cold War (Cold, Ice, Red Planet), which is something we’ve even seen in the current series episode Cold War. I am always interested when Doctor Who portrays its monsters with nuance rather than, well, monsters. The alien races the Doctor encounters can’t always become stand-ins for those traits of society that we dislike. This is why Malcolm Hulke was such a great writer for Doctor Who. The monsters had believable motivations. And we have the same in this story, with an Ice Warrior agent working with humans to recover an ancient Martian artifact from Soviet possession. The artifact is a helmet with the biodata of a legendary Martian warrior who will be reborn into the wearer of the helmet. The Soviets have been experimenting with the technology, but in addition to the problem this technology will create in the timeline, the inevitable rebirth of this legendary warrior into a human would be a bad thing for human history.
In the end, Thin Ice is an entertaining story, made even more so when divorced from the mythologizing season 27 has been subjected to. This so-called lost season is shaped more by an attempt to tell interesting stories than to recapture a long-playing, long-abandoned plot. The Ace as Time Lord concept doesn’t really work as anything other than a sign to the fans that this ideas has been abandoned. Put it out of your mind and approach the stories as they are, not as we thought they were to be.
There really is no “might have been.”