A long time ago, the ninth legion of the Roman army vanished into the mists of Scotland. Bill has a theory about what happened, and the Doctor has a time machine. But when they arrive in ancient Aberdeenshire, what they find is a far greater threat than any army. In a cairn, on a hillside, is a doorway leading to the end of the world…
The Eaters of Light is a deceptively simple tale, but thanks to a hefty dollop of poetic imagination it’s one which like all the best Doctor Who episodes works on multiple levels. On the surface this is another series 10 throwback to the original 1963-89 run. The plot is structured around some very recognisable beats: the Doctor and his companion explore an unfamiliar world, get separated early on and end up on different sides of a conflict. Predictably, the resolution of the story depends upon those two factions coming together to defeat a common, alien enemy.
There are a few extra ingredients and twists added to the mix, including a frivolous but entirely believable explanation for the Doctor’s choice of destination. Not for the first time (see Robot of Sherwood) he’s here to prove a point and to win an argument with his companion.
A more profound departure from the norm comes through Nardole’s role in highlighting just how undoctor-like the Twelfth Doctor has been. It’s no small a mercy that even when separated from Bill, the Doctor is not alone. Charm has been the Doctor’s weapon of choice so many times before, and so it’s surprising to hear even the sardonic Twelfth reject such an offensive. At times Matt Lucas’s Nardole is more like the Doctor than Capaldi: his Arthur Dent-like attire, his captivating storytelling, his paper bag of popcorn (if only jelly babies could pop) and his flippant one-liners are all straight out of the Time Lord’s repertoire. Meanwhile, Capaldi gets to be at his most Malcom Tucker-like, with Kar in particular taking the brunt of his ire:
“You’ll hold them back? What, with your lollipop and your kiddie-face-paint? And your crazy novelty monster-killing-tool?”
Kar’s youth, her personal loss, and the plight of the Picts in the face of the Roman onslaught make the Doctor’s attitude particularly uncomfortable to watch. A quick perusal of Pict history might provide some explanation – this is no black and white goodies versus baddies struggle, but we are clearly meant to feel sympathy for the kids on both sides. Whilst Nardole doesn’t correct the Doctor, his lighter touches provide welcome relief, until Bill is reunited with them. Not for the first time Bill calls the Doctor out for his lofty dismissiveness, questioning his suitability to play the role of saviour. But for the Doctor this is not just a job, it’s part of who he is:
‘I’ve been standing by the gates of your world, keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime and I’m not stopping now!’
During Steven Moffat’s tenure, individual story ideas have sometimes been kept back due to similarities with other episodes. For example, Whithouse’s The God Complex was carried forward to the next series because Moffat already had a labyrinth in series 5’s The Time of Angels. With this being Moffat’s final year, that luxury is no longer available and it really does show here. Ideally The Eaters of Light wouldn’t be anywhere near Empress of Mars. For the second week running the underlying theme of the narrative is the excesses and the folly of empire building and the need for different cultures to come together. The correspondences don’t stop there – from Bill falling into a pit to the sentimental sacrificial ending, and from the verging on tokenistic black soldier to the guilt-ridden deserters, at times the episode felt like the Empress in new clothes. But the deeper issues of land ownership, insider versus outsider constructs, and the definition of bravery and cowardice, are all handled far more subtly here, aided no doubt by Rona Munro’s pedigree as a playwright.
The focus on mood and dialogue over exposition and logic, which fans of Survival (Munro’s other contribution to Doctor Who) will perhaps have been expecting, does leave a few gaps in the plot. How do the Picts know enough about the TARDIS to carve its shape in stone, why is Nardole wandering around in a dressing gown, and how can the lives of a few humans equate to that of a single Time Lord? But these mostly minor gripes are easily answerable and are less fourth-wall breaking than a group of near stereotypical characters for whom we lack any real empathy. True, parts of Kar’s speech may have been lifted straight out of Tacitus, but there is a raw authenticity to Rebecca Benson’s performance. The same could be said for the rest of the young cast.
The one place the Empress of Mars does triumph over The Eaters of Light is in the realisation of the monsters. There are several unwelcome flaws in the CGI work this week, with the creature’s best scenes when it’s in the shadows. It’s a largely faithful representation of the Pictish beast both in appearance and function, though once again its extremities appear to include non-organic material (see also the whale in Thin Ice or the ‘lice’ in Knock, Knock). Unless there is a plot point to come linking these family resemblances, it comes across as lazily repetitious.
We’ve come to expect now that every week Bill will provide a different take on a key aspect of the Doctor’s repertoire, and this time it’s the conceit of the TARDIS/Time Lord translation gift that comes under the microscope. It’s one of those allowances we have to make if there’s to be a story at all, and of course it isn’t unique to Doctor Who. With a few exceptions, everybody speaks in the same language and understands each other, so much so that it’s only when it doesn’t happen (the Pope in Extremis) that we notice it. Trying to explain it as anything other than a script convenience will invariable tie us up in knots, and whilst Bill’s lip sync observation is hilarious, it also only serves to highlight the issue. Talking crows are far more believable.
No doubt the internet will be awash with detailed explanations of this translation power, but the key contribution Rona Munro’s script brings to the table is not how it works, but what it might achieve. Bill sees a potential beyond the linguistic. The myth of the Tower of Babel once posited that languages were a curse to stop humans from becoming too powerful. In a delicious subversion of this theory, when the Picts and the Romans start to understand each other it’s not a shared ambition that pulls them together, but the recognition of how childish they all sound. The idea seems to fit in with the Doctor’s patronising ‘grow up’ admonition, and perceptively Bill realises that this is indeed how the Doctor sees us all. There is something deeply unpleasant about this characterisation of the Doctor as an aloof and judgemental figure. Ticks and mannerisms aside, the Twelfth Doctor is a world apart from the playful Fourth, who sees no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.
There is a huge contradiction in a Doctor who claims to be our gatekeeper, but is totally distracted instead by his mission to save his fellow Time Lord, Missy. There’s a sense that nothing else is more important to him right now, not even Bill who he’d singled out as one of those rare gems that stops him from washing his hands of us all (The Lie of the Land). Missy has become his latest obsession and though he doubts his own judgement, “That’s the trouble with hope, it’s hard to resist,” it’s clear that he’s not going to give up on his most daring quest yet, to restore a long lost friendship with his arch-enemy. Just in case we doubted Missy’s sincerity last week, here there were more tears again as she tunes in to the music of the gatekeepers.
Music looms large over series 10. To be fair it always has – from the Ood’s song of prophecy to Clara’s song of remembrance. On the one hand the musical theme of series 10 is a continuation from the conclusion to Series 9, when the Doctor was left with the earworm of Clara’s song as his only means of emotionally connecting with his forgotten companion (a tune we too were reminded of in The Pilot). On the other hand, the nostalgic function of Clara’s song has been sharply replaced by songs of commentary, symbolised by Missy’s piano stealing the spotlight from the Doctor’s electric guitar. The song of the gatekeepers represents the past breaking into the present, with all the romance and spirituality that brings, and the Doctor urges Missy to hear it:
“that’s what I’m trying to teach you, Missy, you understand the universe. You see it, you grasp it. But, you’ve never learned to hear the music.”
Missy’s instinctive reaction is to hide the Doctor’s guitar. Music is the one weapon that can save her, and the chances are that she isn’t all that keen on being saved. The fact that she can hear it at all is testament to the effectiveness of the Doctor’s harsh treatment. It sets Missy apart from John Simm’s Master who could only hear the terrifying, non-lyrical sound of drums.
Frequently in Series 10 we’ve had little codas at the end of episodes which only loosely tie into the preceding story, but the crossover of the gatekeepers’ song into Missy’s rehabilitation intimately links this (Moffat penned?) scene into Rona Munro’s story making it the most complete standalone of Capaldi’s final series.
I’m sure that every single reviewer will be chuckling at the notion that Missy has beaten us to it as the first to review the Doctor’s latest adventure. Unlike this reviewer, she’s not that impressed:
“Is it really up to your bleeding hearts standards?”
If the trailer is anything to go by, next week she’ll get a chance to show the Doctor how it’s done. She and Moffat will have their work cut out if they hope to present as good an episode as The Eaters of Light.