“That’s the trouble with hope. It’s hard to resist.”
Like last week’s throw back adventure, ‘Empress of Mars’, this weeks ‘The Eaters of Light’ feels almost old fashioned when compared to much of the usual Moffat stuff. But whereas ‘Empress’ felt like series 1 or 2 Russell T. Davies fare, ‘The Eaters of Light’ goes even further back. And for good reason too; episode writer Rona Munro is the first classic series writer to script a Nu-Who episode. And it was with her 1989 3-parter, ‘Survival’, that the show ended it’s original 26-year run. But times have changed. TV audiences expect more than late 80’s Doctor Who was offering. Has Munro managed to change with the times or is the episode stuck in the past?
Last weeks sort-of-shocking ending with Nardole releasing Missy to help rescue Bill and The Doctor is seemingly forgotten about this week. Instead we start with Bill and The Doctor landing in 2nd Century Scotland, aiming to discover the truth behind the famous Roman Ninth Legion and their even more famous disappearance. It’s a great premise for a story actually, I’m surprised it took this long to make an episode about the disappearance of the Ninth Legion (5000 men just up and vanished) – it seems like a quintessential Doctor Who mystery. Munro has a great go of it though, perfectly mixing together the historical and science fiction elements. In a move that could have proved fatal with lesser companions, The Doctor (and Nardole) split off from Bill early in the episode. It’s a credit to Pearl Mackie that she carries her solo stuff so well – it’s a role that many previous companions would have struggled with. It’s Bill who first meets the Ninth Legion, or what’s left of them. The entire group, bar a handful of runaways, were slaughtered my a peculiar beastie – the eponymous Eater of Light. While Bill makes conversation with the Roman soldiers (including a fun moment making light of how much of a non-issue Bill’s sexuality is) The Doctor and Nardole meet the Roman opposition – a near-feral Pict tribe. The tribe are responsible for guarding an ancient cairn which, for a few moments a year, reveals itself to be a portal to another world filled with the light devouring creatures. In a cool twist it’s also revealed that what feels like a few seconds for The Doctor inside the portal is actually 2 days outside of it.
The story doesn’t develop much more than that to be honest. The Doctor’s realises they’ll need to get the monster back through the portal but who ever guards the gate will be forever out of time (due to the time displacement between the inside of the portal and outside). The story isn’t weak, but Monro’s strengths lie more in the moments between the story, the character moments. The bit with Bill and the Romans discussing their sexualities is a wonderful example, as is the Doctor’s tirade of abuse towards the childish Pict tribe (“Do you know what that sound was? That was the sound of my patience shattering into a billion little pieces.”). Maybe it’s the setting heightening his Scottishness but The Doctor comes across as much more gruff than we’ve seen him of late. He hasn’t got time for the Roman’s or Picts, who he sees as childish, and the episode even goes as far to suggest the Doctor is wrong. Sure, wanting to sacrifice yourself instead of others isn’t exactly the worst mistake but it shows The Doctor’s big headedness, something a lot of writers play for laughs (or ignore completely). Another delight in Munro’s episode is Nardole; Matt Lucas’ lovably relatable alien companion and probably the best character on the show at the minute (which is saying a lot). His back and forth with the other characters, Capaldi’ Doctor especially, is frequently hilarious. Even though he usually has little to do his mere presence in an episode usually makes it better.
Not much more can really be said about Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie. They’re the best pairing Nu-Who has ever had and I feel for who ever has to follow them next series (I’m still hoping Mackie stays on though). Capaldi has been dealt a few crap episodes during his time on the show but has never, ever given a bad performance. The rumour that the next show runner, Chris Chibnall, might use a US style ‘writers room’ instead of the traditional method of individual writers scripting episodes is worrying to say the least. ‘The Eaters of Light’, like many episodes before it, is fantastic purely because it’s got a single voice running through out. Letting writers like Rona Munro and Jamie Mathieson (‘Oxygen’) write their own stories is what makes Doctor Who still so enjoyable. Tuning in each week to see a new take on the mythos, having your own best and worst episode writers, that’s why I like Doctor Who. ‘The Eaters of Light’ is a perfect example of this. Munro’s story is funny, relevant, and full of great ideas. Accompanied by stellar performances, cool creature design (those tentacles won’t be easily forgotten) and some fantastic direction from Charles Palmer, ‘The Eaters of Light’ is yet another strong entry in a fantastic season. And next week could be even better as John Simm is back(!)
Reviewed by Tom