Previously on Doctor Who, “The Empress of Mars”
“I don’t even know why I’m crying. Why do I keep doing that?”
For the last standalone tale for Capaldi’s Doctor, “The Eaters of Light” lands on a good note, hitting themes from across his run and turning up the emotional dial to Sentimental in advance of the final arc. The story defines the Doctor without a great deal of the preachiness that many times accompanies such moments, explaining his priorities and struggles with the universe and time, his paternal view of those he helps, and the magic that happens when he’s simply in the room. These crumbs of identity don’t always fit so seamlessly into the script. Last authoring the 1989 “Survival” trilogy for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, Rona Munro joins the few women writers of New Who and brings her native Scotland into play only to endure some friendly swipes, from complaints on the dampness to Nardole’s quip, “Death by Scotland.” Given that Capaldi, Michelle Gomez, and Steven Moffat are all Scots, it’s startling how little the moorlands play a part, only appearing in five stories across the series.
As in Munro’s “Survival” arc, the protagonists of “The Eaters of Light” are teenagers left alone in the world by the ravages of war (and aliens), this time in second century Britannia when the infamous Ninth Legion of Romans, dispatched against the native Picts, disappeared without a trace, depicted sans aliens in the 2010 movie Centurion starring Michael Fassbender. The debate between the Doctor and Bill over what really happened turns a bit more complicated than expected: the Ninth Legion orphans the Pictish teens, who retaliate by loosing a Beowulf-like monster, the Eater of Light, which one Pict per generation has been sacrificing themselves to hold at bay. But once only a few Roman teens remain, the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Enter, the Doctor. Conceptually, it’s one of my favorite, elevating a historical ghost story and a lesser animal legend (“Why do crows say kaw?”) to inspirational moments when humanity saved, and keeps on saving, itself.
Another drag on imperialism, the story is framed by Scottish hillside ghost stories, a wee bairn pressing her ear to an ancient stone cairn, believing she can hear music. A crow caws, “Doctor!” and we’re off. The academic debate lands the Doctor and Bill in the 2nd century countryside, with Nardole so reluctantly accompanying, he hasn’t bothered to change out of his bathrobe. Each split off to prove their theory—Bill, that the Romans fled, and the Doctor, that they died. Both, it seems, are right. Bill characteristically tumbles down a tunnel into the dregs of the Ninth, remorseful boys led by 18-year-old “Grandpa” Lucius (Brian Vernel, reminding me of a young Burn Gorman in Torchwood) who offers help, friendship, and acceptance of her affinity for women, gently reminding us that, two millennia ago, “ordinary” sexuality was flexible and Bill’s dedication to one gender was “sweet.” Perhaps this experience with Lucius’s genuine offer of lifelong friendship and protection will inspire Bill to come out to her foster mother in present day.
Meanwhile the Doctor and Nardole run into the Pictish camp and meet the new Gatekeeper, Kar, played by Rebecca Benson (Margaret Plantagenet in The White Princess and Talla Tarly in Game of Thrones). During his investigation of the problem, the Doctor drops a gem about crows; back in the day, they could speak short words, but humans simply stopped conversing with them. Hilariously, neon-robe-clad Nardole keeps insisting he’s fitting in, and when the Doctor steps into the “Door,” an interdimensional, temporal rift, for 20 seconds that turn into 2.5 days of real time, Nardole captivates the Picts with his bizarre tales, has his face painted, is gifted a Pictish robe, and teaches a crow to say, “Nar!” The cairn’s purpose works quite logically, serving as a relief valve for the rift, which they are unable to close with their limited tools; the Guardian uses a crystal to “poison” the light quality when the monster steps through to devour it, encouraging it to retreat on its own. But now, as it roams the countryside like a hippogriff with light-eating mane tentacles that leach the light from your bones, the sun and even the stars of this system are at stake. For a Who-budget monster, the Light Eater is pretty impressive, and there are about a billion more just like it behind the Door.
Leading the Romans into the Pict camp, Bill literally stands between them as the shock lands that they can understand one another. She negotiates the starting point, motivating and encouraging, while the Doctor simply observes, eventually stepping in with, “Okay, kids,” her included. The fact that these are actual kids is only coincidence; most everyone, he admits, sounds like squabbling children to him these days. He even has a major “dad moment,” throwing his hand up with a loud PSH!
“Do you hear that sound? Do you know what that is? THAT is the sound of my patience shattering into a billion little pieces.”
Totally using that.
Brushing against the racism theme, both sides believed the other to be barbarians, but now must work together to draw the monster back into its dimension. The direction falters a bit here as the crowd “fights” the Light Eater with impossibly-angled sunbeams and stabs at nothing, but the moment of decision rebounds: someone must go through to make sure it does not return. Citing his lifespan, the Doctor volunteers to hold the gate, despite Bill’s protest that he must watch ALL of the gates, especially the one at the Vault. Kar refuses, taking her role as Gatekeeper maturely, and Lucius enlists the rest of his guard. Nardole surprisingly knocks the Doctor down, allowing the allies and musicians to step through, gate collapsing behind them. The crisis closes loops with the last Pictish leader teaching a crow to say Kar! in memory of her sacrifice, the Doctor admitting he was wrong, ghostly Pictish music drifting up through time, and Missy popping out from TARDIS maintenance.
Yes, in exchange for her help with the Monks, he’s let her out for a bit of TARDIS-based community service. The Doctor’s admission that her constant teariness might be all for show is reassuring, but there is something also touching about the two hoary Time Lords tentatively clasping hands in hope of rekindling their friendship. Between this, the crows’ remembrance, and Lucius’s slow-motion smile at Bill as he drifts into the gate, it got a little misty in here.
“That’s the trouble with hope: it’s hard to resist.”
Compared to the 12th Doctor’s other deep dives into humanity’s past, “The Eaters of Light” doesn’t quite hit the level of darkness as perhaps “The Girl Who Died,” but neither was that story perfect with the semi-cheesy Mire, which this one avoids. It does however have an emotional resonance suitable to Capaldi’s interpretation: not a permanent sulk, but a fierce, determined remembrance. Point of fact, two thematic elements call back to his last companions made immortal thanks to their travels with him—an ancient, indigenous girl caught in time and intelligent black birds with long memories. Kar sounds an awful lot like Clara, doesn’t it? It is also interesting that, in light of his upcoming regeneration, the Doctor volunteers for a similar time-suspended state as Clara. He even complains that he can’t stand brave people, a term she often used. Does the Doctor regret telling his last proteges too much? It’s taken 10 adventures for Bill to suss out the TARDIS’s translation field and garner the off-handed explanation that he regenerates instead of dying, although Nardole, at last integrated into the episode from start to finish, now claims to know a full 10% of the Doctor’s dark secrets and the location of the TARDIS’s tea cakes. That estimate seems high.
Visually it had a few weak moments. The light-drained soldier blobs are questionable in appearance, and when the Doctor first confronts Kar, his angle and her angle and motions noticeably do not line up. Then, after avoiding the curse of poor CGI fairly well, again the motions in the “fight” to flush the monster back into the portal miss the mark. But, overall, there is little to complain about in this short, inspiring historical fanfiction of the Ninth Legion’s disappearance, a friendly, warm hug full of hope and quotables before the final arc begins. With this constant commentary on imperialism and racism, the season seems to be building towards an ethnic cleansing storyline, which would fit the Mondasian Cybermen, or even, dare I say, something darker, like a return of the Time Lords. Only Time will tell.
“Who isn’t? But you’ve still got to face your beast anyway.”
Quotes, Trivia, & Theories
- Nerd calculations (yes, I did these myself at 2 AM): Give or take the seconds Nardole didn’t mention, the Doctor’s 20 seconds in the cave equaled 2 days, 8 hours, and 5 minutes. Each rift second then equals approximately 10,095 real seconds. If this crew is still alive in the rift after disappearing around 117 AD, they have been holding the line for nearly 69 rift days. Impressive, given their lack of food and water. Perhaps time moves even slower if one is fully engulfed by the rift, or perhaps the music is simply an echo of the time rift closing.
- Other episodes in Scotland: The Highlanders, Terror of the Zygons, Tooth and Claw, Under the Lake, and he technically dropped off Sarah Jane in Aberdeen in The Hand of Fear but didn’t know.
- The Doctor claims to have been a Vestal Virgin, second class. Doesn’t explain the “second class,” yet another secret society he inexplicably belongs to.
- As with their other trips to the past, the Legionnaires are racially integrated, with a black man named Vitus as the other exclusively gay person besides Bill.
- “She’s not a warrior. She’s an embryo.”
- “Their work is robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do this work and call it empire. They make deserts and call it peace.”
- The Doctor excuses never explaining himself to Bill as being constantly interrupted.
- Nardole explains the Mary Celeste‘s abandonment as an alien encounter with Enzomodons, who communicate by digesting each other. They choked on the lifeboat. DW previously rewrote this story as a Dalek invasion in 1965’s The Chase, and The Lusitania he mentions afterwards was covered in 1999’s audio tale The Sirens of Time.
- “I’ve been standing by the gates of your world, keeping you safe since you crawled out of the slime.”
- “I’m against it. I’m against charm.”
- “Big, bad wolf of a monster.”
- About the music echoing through time, “Music is like that.”