This is another show where you can see a really good episode within, but it’s clouded by extraneous elements.
The Doctor and Bill, to settle a dispute go to second century Aberdeen to look for the legendary Ninth Legion, a contingent of Roman soldiers stationed in Britain (speculated to be in Scotland) who disappeared mysteriously. The Doctor believes they’ll be nowhere to be found, but Bill, who actually has some real interest and background in this story, thinks she can find them. They separate and Bill eventually finds the most diverse small group of Romans hiding in an underground cave. The Doctor and Nardole meanwhile discover the vanquished legion, killed by some strange phenomena. Upon further investigation, they come upon a tribe of Picts whose leader had summoned an ancient creature to kill the Romans, but has since lost control of it. It’s now up to our heroes to find the monster and contain it before it causes damage on a much grander scale.
“The Eaters of Light” is written by Rona Munro, which is very interesting because she penned “Survival”, the last episodes of classic Who in 1989. It’s a decent story complimented by Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred being awesome, but not a great end to the series, as it wound up being for fifteen years. Since then, Munro has honed her writing skill on movies from Ken and Jim Loach, and has finally returned to Doctor Who, more experienced and no doubt with more sway than she had working under the John Nathan-Turner regime.
And in some areas of this episode that really shows. The Doctor and Nardole are captured by the Picts, led by an anxious and vicious, but rash and misguided teenager called Kar. As is eventually revealed, the Picts have for generations, fought and defeated a beast from another dimension. The beasts in fact are coming one at a time but due to a time differential caused by the dimensional rift, it seems like it comes once every number of decades. Kar however, decided to release the beast so it could decimate the hostile invaders of the Ninth Legion for them. But once it did that it was too powerful for her to subdue and has since been running loose, gaining more strength and darkening the countryside. The idea of the naive youth unleashing a power she doesn’t understand is an old but good one. It invites character development as she realizes her mistake and desperately tries to compensate for it. It also allows for a character who’s very assertive and bold, but stubborn, forced to rely on help. And the Doctor fulfils that role perfectly. I like how harsh he is with her, as it adds to her own growth; and to do all this in a place and time I’ve not seen touched upon often, is a really good idea as it could prove educational. The episode even bookends with a couple Scottish kids in a modern-day cairn finding the carved evidence of this encounter, as if it were some part of a PBS series (I know, those bits were really saccharine).
But to be honest, the Roman subplot meant to compliment and add to this story, could have been cut entirely. This episode would have been better off if the entire Roman legion was dead. It’d be anticlimactic to the Doctor and Bill’s bet, sure, as well as the initial set-up as to why they’re there. But I think if the plot was more streamlined in the direction of the Kar character and her conflict, it would have been much better. Especially considering the Romans don’t impact the story a great deal, except to provide a theme for unity despite differences, which Doctor Who champions on a regular basis. None of the Roman characters are remotely interesting, in fact they’re all just grating teenagers, and the sequences devoted to them are mostly dull inaction compared to what’s going on in the other storyline. At one point the episode stops dead in its tracks so Bill can once again tell a guy who may be interested in her that she’s lesbian. And then the rest of them go on a tangent of their own sexual preferences, emphasizing the fact bisexuality was common in Rome. Setting aside that we already saw this sort of awkward situation conveyed in “Knock Knock” (one of the few good points about that episode), this conversation was just remarkably out of place and was clearly starkly politicized. It’s well-intentioned, but a wildly needless scene. And sure Bill’s later speech rousing the Romans was good, especially the bit where she pulled no punches about their likelihood to survive, but it could have been put into an array of similar situations. The time wasted on this thread I feel could have better expanded on Kar’s feelings and regrets, given Bill something more productive to do for the majority of the episode, or maybe even delved further into Pictish culture. No one really knows much about the Picts, so this episode really could have explored their society in a creative and honest way.
That being said, this story did provide Bill with a few good moments. I liked her keen interest in Roman history at the start. It’s nice to have a companion who has genuine knowledge and excitement about a particular point or event in history. It also allowed for some hubris on the Doctor’s part, dropping the fact he’s lived in ancient Roman Britain. Early in the episode we also get a few good Scotland jokes which are unavoidable: “It’s Scotland; it’s supposed to be damp”. My favourite probably being Nardole’s dark joke when they find a dead centurion with disintegrated bones due to complete absence of sunlight, to which Nardole comments “death by Scotland”. As I said, the Doctor has a bunch of good moments defying Kar’s ego, and it goes to show how mean he can be, even to someone so young, when the world’s at stake. At one point the Doctor just says to everyone “grow the hell up!” But in contrast with that, there’s a nice moment where the Doctor speaks to Kar clearly from his own experience, about not wallowing in the grief of those who died on her account, otherwise more will. It almost feels like a parallel to the speech he gave to Bill back in “Thin Ice”. When the Doctor comes back from his two day reprieve in the cairn, Nardole’s telling the Picts the story of the Mary Celeste, how the crew was wiped out by aliens -a story that we know is completely untrue because “The Chase” already showed us what really happened on the Mary Celeste. This episode also marks Bill’s first realization of the translation field when she’s told she’s speaking Latin. It comes up again later when the Picts and Romans come together, and Bill observes they all sound like children when they can be understood, which is kind of a lame excuse for the two sects to come together.
The climax though very unambitious and more than a little dull, leads to one very good moment between the Doctor and Bill. Once they’ve sealed the creature back in the portal, the Doctor declares he’ll guard the gate, his immortality making him the perfect candidate. Bill obviously protests this, but what I really like is that it’s not just out of emotional attachment, but the fact it’s an incredibly irresponsible decision on the Doctor’s part. The Doctor can sometimes be too noble -we see this in many episodes where he’s immediately willing to sacrifice himself for some greater cause. This show points out that it’s not his place. He’s got other responsibilities after all, Nardole would be sure to remind him of Missy. On this occasion, Bill is in the right more than the Doctor. “You can’t take on every fight” she tells him later, which the Doctor might know deep down but doesn’t want to accept. Luckily, Kar is eager to make up for her mistake, and with the Roman soldiers by her side, who’ve suddenly decided to be brave, volunteers to enter the portal and the cairn collapses. To prevent him from stopping this, Bill actually knocks the Doctor down! Damn! Everything’s resolved after this: Nardole gives the Doctor some funny reasons not to hold a grudge against him for assisting Bill’s defiance, and there’s an implication that crows (whom the Doctor insisted earlier in the episode can talk, only they’re usually all in a huff) are saying Kar’s name when they kaw. Was the whole episode just a build to that one dumb joke?
“The Eaters of Light” has a good story idea to it, but one not developed to satisfaction because it’s hampered by an unnecessary subplot. The climax is lacklustre as well and there’s not a ton of energy or fitting mood to the episode. But it does still have a few really good moments, including a confrontation of the Doctor on one of his biggest and longest-running character flaws. The stuff I liked, I liked enough not to dismiss this episode entirely, and I do want to see Rona Munro return.
Of course at the end of the episode, it’s revealed Missy has been sitting in the TARDIS this entire time, because I guess they all forgot she’d been there at the end of “The Empress of Mars”. The Doctor assures Nardole she’s been doing some work for him, which drives Nardole into a huff of anger and condemnation (oh shut up Nardole! -you let her out yourself just one episode ago!). I like that Bill’s offended at the notion Missy may be doing the Doctor’s chores. Missy apparently monitored their adventure, which leads to the Doctor telling her she never learnt to hear the music, even though it’s been established the Master has always constantly been hearing drums in their head -also that music motif is a bit unclear. He plays some Celtic music for her which she’s moved by, though she doesn’t know why. The Doctor admits he’s opening to the possibility Missy may be changing for good, something he deeply wants for his old friend, but still can’t rest his hopes on it. Next episode’s teaser seems to indicate this resistance may be a good thing, as it appears the Doctor will be testing Missy by having her essentially take on his role in an adventure. However it’s no ordinary adventure: the original Mondasian Cybermen are coming back. The last time the Doctor encountered this particular kind of Cybermen, it initiated his first regeneration! More significant than that though, John Simm’s fifth Master will somehow return. It’s nostalgia for both classic and new series fans, and let’s hope it can deliver on both fronts.