From Victorians and Ice Warriors to Romans and Picts; The Eaters of Light saw a reunited TARDIS team head back in time to investigate the mystery of the missing Ninth Roman Legion, but – as always – getting rather more than they’d bargained for in the process. Read on to find out what our team thought of it all…
Imperialistic interlopers battling against barbaric natives, cowardly deserters redeeming themselves and two opposing factions eventually united by a common cause. On paper, The Eaters of Light looks an awful lot like the episode it follows, Empress of Mars. The beauty of Doctor Who, however, is that it is capable of such huge diversity of storytelling that the same concepts, placed in different scenarios and in the hands of such contrasting writers, can take on a completely different flavour.
Where Mark Gatiss’ Empress of Mars is unapologetically bold and painted with fairly broad strokes, Rona Munro’s The Eaters of Light is a more understated and contemplative affair. This is helped no end by its wonderfully atmospheric setting of 2nd century Scotland complete with talking crows and echoes of music in the cairn, lending the whole thing the mythical aura of a Scottish folk tale. Added to this almost otherworldly ambience are the titular eaters of light. Although perhaps more foreboding in the shadows than when seen in their entirety, the concept of beings that devour light is all the cleverer for its simplicity and ultimately executed well, even if at times they could have perhaps been used to imbue the story with an even greater sense of peril.
But where The Eaters of Light really excels is in its intricate character work, featuring as it does one of the most carefully developed supporting casts in recent times. The striking youthfulness of both Romans and Picts coupled with their obvious fear easily makes them sympathetic, both sides clearly affected by the horrors of conflict. Despite this they resolve to display courage and determination, leading to a truly heartwarming resolution when they team up to hold off the light-eating monsters. Their selfless actions serve to grant much-deserved redemption not only to Kar, plagued by guilt after her misjudged decision to let the monster loose, but also to the deserters of the Ninth Legion.
Although The Eaters of Light – as with Empress of Mars – largely sidelines the TARDIS crew in terms of plot, the Doctor and Bill still have significant roles to play in facilitating the alliance between the two opposing sides. Bill’s increased confidence allows her to take charge at key moments, with her consistently perceptive nature recognising the desire of the Picts and Romans to take control of their own fate. This is presented at direct odds with the Doctor’s autocratic attempt at self-sacrifice on their behalf, showing that perhaps the pair’s dynamic of professor and student is now working both ways. Nardole, meanwhile, returns from his near-absence of the previous episode to once more excel at providing light relief with impeccable comic timing.
And then there’s Missy. Where perhaps the perfect ending for The Eaters of Light could have been the lingering music in the cairn and the crows poignantly carrying Kar’s name in the wind, the impending series finale means that time is instead devoted to an intriguing epilogue involving the two Timelords. The weighty history of the relationship between the two is keenly felt, even if it is more ambiguous than ever; it only remains for the series finale to resolve Missy’s subtly compelling character arc.
I think it could be quite easy to be cynical about The Eaters of Light. There is in my view a simplicity to the story, but in fact what shines through is a real charm, and then something much deeper as the Doctor is overridden, much to his anger and frustration, when it comes to finding a solution to the dilemma faced by the warring sides of the native Scottish Picts and the legendary Ninth Legion of Roman soldiers as both face a common enemy.
This episode is excellent in showing us why Bill is the Doctor’s favourite student, with the speed at which Bill guesses that the TARDIS is why she is able to perfectly understand a Roman Soldier. She dwells upon the notion of a telepathic link and ponders ‘that’s why everyone in space can speak English’. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the TARDIS’ powers could extend to every place in time and enable free communication between all? This is what makes the breakthrough as the Romans and Picts, previously at war, suddenly understand each other very much on equal terms – in fact through the Doctor’s eyes as all a bunch of ‘children’.
The excellent young cast of supporting actors display this feeling with great skill (the eldest amongst the Romans nicknamed ‘Grandad’ yet is only 18). The Doctor is pretty brutal with the young group of people around him and stamps his authority amongst everyone by sheer attitude and gravity of words. Bill, realising she is older than ‘Grandad’, adopts fantastic reasoning and asserts herself. Her experiences have enabled her to make quick and generally correct conclusions, and she also displays great boldness in taking the lead in The Doctor’s absence whilst still always urging others to see him as someone who can and will help all sides.
In Series 10 the Doctor has shown a very pragmatic and matter of fact belief that it is he who must conquer all obstacles and be the willing saviour for all. At the end of this episode however, united in spirit and cause, it is Romans and Picts alike who bravely enter the gateway to fend off the eaters of light. Indeed, it is the Doctor’s own earlier encouragement to those he inspires which causes him to be prevented from sacrificing himself to the point of regeneration in protecting the alien gateway. And let’s not forget the Doctor spent four and a half billion years in a torturous confession dial and so he knows a great deal about stamina!
I think the Doctor feels anger at Bill for her part in denying him the means to offer himself up to save everyone else. She gently points out to him that not every fight is his yet the Doctor argues comically ‘I hate brave people’. Nardole is essential in placating the Doctor, stating ‘I’m the only person in the TARDIS who knows where the teacakes are kept’. Great humour as ever from Nardole who almost plays the elephant in the room throughout, whether in a strikingly outrageous dressing gown or having ‘ingratiated’ himself with the locals with face paint and tales of the extraordinary.
With a tragic tale having a wholesome conclusion, we then return to the TARDIS to find Missy awaiting the Doctor, Bill and Nardole, seeming totally at home much to Nardole’s disgust (which almost brings out his ‘squeaky voice’!). There is clearly a disturbing undercurrent between the Doctor and Missy. Not even The Doctor is sure whether Missy’s tears are crocodile ones or not, saying maybe it is time to be friends again although ‘the trouble with hope is that it is hard to resist’. Missy seems almost too eager to comply with the Doctor, but the sly covering of her mouth in the final moments of the episode is enough to keep us all guessing her real intentions as we head closer to the end of Series 10.
Doctor Who continues with World Enough and Time on Saturday 24th June at 6:45pm on BBC One.