Doctor Who: 10-10 “The Eaters of Light” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
After last week’s adventure to Mars, Doctor Who has one more time to indulge in a standalone story (Peter Capaldi’s last, as well. I’m not crying, you are) before the incredible looking finale kicks off. Except this time, we’re just ever so slightly removed from the landscapes of the Red Planet- instead, we’re in Scotland, in 120AD, in what will become Aberdeen. In fact, this is probably the most Scottish episode of the show we’ll likely ever get- set in Scotland, starring a Scottish Doctor (and Master!) under the watchful eye of a Scottish showrunner- and written by the Scottish Rona Munro, returning to the show to be the first Classic Who writer to write for New Who, twenty-eight years after her last Who episode, Survival, which turned out to be the final episode of the show in 1989 (or so they thought!) In Rona’s newest contribution, The Doctor and Bill are at loggerheads over just what happened to the Roman Ninth Legion- said to be the finest fighting battalion in history- turning out that in fact they had been wiped out by a deadly light-eating creature, with the only survivors of the Romans and the local Scottish Pict tribe being young adults. Death by lack of sunlight- a Scottish death if there ever is one!
Like last week’s Mark Gatiss written episode Empress of Mars, The Eaters of Light is another episode that could comfortably not seem out of place in the Classic era of the show- perhaps unsurprising given Rona’s last episode was a Classic series contribution (even if Survival feels very much of the New Who era!). It’s a more methodical, tentatively paced episode, happy to lay out its hand in due course, a mythical jaunt through ancient Scotland with music and mythology. Doctor Who has often had problems with pacing, throughout its entire history, but that criticism can’t be levelled against The Eaters of Light, with the story having plenty of time to breath and bring you into the world, with the vast, breath-taking location shooting locations helping to do so. Some might think of this episode as a slower one, and they’d certainly be right, but I feel like this was to its benefit. With The Doctor and Nardole (bathrobe adorned) split off from Bill all in search of the Ninth Legion, they soon bump into the local Picts and the survivors of the legion respectively, with The Doctor and Nardole captured (another Classic series identifier- the TARDIS crew were captured last week, too!).
It’s never addressed fully why only young adults from both sides have survived, but you can infer easily enough from what you see- they were frightened. Aside from being deeply rooted in song and Scottish mythology, The Eaters of Light centres itself around bravery, cowardice, and the nature of growing up. The excellently strong guest cast helps realise these layered themes, lending the episode a nicely archaic coming of age feeling. Both sides of the conflict are fleshed out- Rebecca Benson’s Kar leads the Picts, with Brian Vernel’s Lucius helming the remaining Romans. Kar released the titular monster through a mythical inter-dimensional rift that had been defended for centuries (the world-building in this episode is stellar) as a last-ditch effort to beat back the invading Roman army, with the creature wiping out nearly all the legion and now threatening to eat the sun and stars themselves and plunge the universe into darkness. The morality play on both sides is wonderfully written- you fully understand the frustrations of both sides, while it doesn’t try to excuse the Romans and their murderous, plundering attitudes. Both sides are believing in what they feel is right and all they know, humanised equally. Kar is played with such righteous fury by Benson that she almost stands up to Peter Capaldi himself in the intensity stakes, or at least until Capaldi verbally swats her down with his own anger.
I can certainly see the case for the thought that maybe The Doctor spoke harshly to Kar, overstepping the line, but although it might have been like Twelve in Series 8, his shouting was worthy. With this episode centring around the moment in which you must grow up, and after Kar’s decision to unleash the creature that had been held back for centuries by her ancestors- for whatever reason- was a foolish and yes, childish, decision that demanded harsh words to allow Kar to grow up and realise her potential and bravery. This core story is exceptionally strong, with The Doctor’s stern exchanges with Kar early on coming full circle late on as she and the Ninth Legion survivors team up to seize the day and, as in her own words, “fight my fight” as The Doctor had encouraged her to do, blocking The Doctor’s self-sacrificial attempt to save them. It may have been a rash decision by The Doctor to throw himself into the situation like that in the episode’s climax, but the scenario was growing dire and he felt the compulsion of his oath to humanity strongly- so it’s greatly satisfying for Kar and the not cowardly, now-brave Ninth Legion remnants to save the day.
The Eaters of Light is full of strong character moments, and solid humour also, like The Doctor’s admission he was a Vestal Virgin once upon a time and almost anything Nardole does this week (his ingratiation with the Picts is hilarious to watch). While they are dealing with the locals, Bill finds herself with the Romans, leading to a terrific exchange where Bill must reveal her sexuality again, but flipped completely on its head this time with the Romans having some decidedly modern (and true!) values. In fact, The Eaters of Light is absolutely at its strongest when it is dealing with the smaller character building exchanges, such as Bill’s discovery of how the TARDIS translation circuit works. That’s not to say the monster itself doesn’t pose much of a threat, because it does, with a striking design and fascinating background- the creature’s attack late on in the caverns with the Romans and Bill being an effective monster moment as you first see one of the Roman’s torches light dragged from the air to the creature’s maw. It’s just the episode works best when returning Oxygen director Charles Palmer keeps the monster hidden and Rona Munro’s script does its best work at being, well, Scottish.
When the story indulges in the fascinating uniqueness of the setting and the deep-rooted mythology within, it’s a real treat, a testament to the power of Doctor Who being able to provide a fresh adventure each week. The themes of music and the heart-warming and really quite funny use of the crows help this episode stand individual, a look into a time and a place, and how music “always carries on”. The little segments at the start and end of the episode with the kids are superb, tying in these themes and the sacrifice of the brave heroes at the climax into the unique mythology. The use of traditional music simply adds an extra level to the story and it’s clear that Rona Munro cares very deeply about her homeland- not least it being satisfying to have a story for Peter Capaldi in Scotland before his departure! Outside of the story’s music, The Eaters of Light’s incidental score ranks as another one of Murray Gold’s best, with the highlights being The Doctor and Nardole discovering the decimated Ninth Legion and when The Doctor makes his final speech bringing the sides together- tying it supremely with The Zygon Inversion’s incredible speech and maturity during fighting.
When all is said and done in the main story, we’re treated to one of the episode’s stand out scenes- another Missy scene, this time being the most charged of them all so far. Capaldi and Michelle Gomez are brimming with chemistry in this small scene, with just as much being said with their expressions as with their dialogue. I am loving this more peeled back, character focused arc that seems to be developing, and I almost hope that Missy isn’t just using this all as a ruse! The Eaters of Light isn’t an episode that many will go to for Doctor Who at its most exciting, but it could certainly be looked at as an example of character work, and a sense of feeling. Little treats like this episode, that spend more time interested with characters complement the more bombastic stories perfectly, and as one of those The Eaters of Light ticks every box- a lyrical, emotional episode rooted in heritage and prime Doctor Who weirdness.
NB: So, next week. Lot going on, isn’t there? Yikes. Giz a kiss indeed, John Simm (welcome back!)