“The Eaters of Light” is something of a milestone for Doctor Who, for it marks the first time since the series returned in the 21st Century that a writer from the classic series has come back to the show. In a way, it’s hard to see another series of the new Doctor Who where this would have been possible; part of the overall vibe of Series 10 has been the way it has embraced a classical approach to Doctor Who, a sort of back-to-basics style. And in this way, Rona Munro‘s “The Eaters of the Light” feels very much of a piece with the era in which she first wrote for the show, even as it still feels modern. It all adds up to an episode that is once again suitably fun and enjoyable, even as its actual plot winds up a bit underwhelming.
Rona Munro wrote the final story to be aired in the 26-year run of classic Doctor Who, “Survival.” The final two seasons of the classic series were among its most bold and innovative but in 1989, Doctor Who was no longer popular, let alone the cultural touchstone it had once been. It had no money, few viewers and an almost total absence of respect from the BBC higher-ups. It had been placed on hiatus already, and frankly not many people outside of diehard fans thought it deserved to continue. And with little left to lose, producer John Nathan Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel elected to take risks, hiring untested and young writers and taking the show (and its lead character) into more ambiguous, complex and strange directions. The show became unafraid to be, well, weirder than it had ever been before. They literally had almost no budget, so what the hell else could they do, really?
And “The Eaters of the Light” does retain some of the weird energy and eccentricity of that era, even if it doesn’t quite have the boldness. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie), and Nardole (Matt Lucas) arrive in 2nd century Scotland to settle an argument Bill and the Doctor are having about the mysterious fate of Rome’s 9th Legion. In classic style, the travelers are separated, with Bill finding the remnants of the Roman soldiers hiding underground while the Doctor and Nardole find themselves captured by Picts. Each of the groups are facing the same threat from an inter-dimensional monster that devours light itself. But why is the monster here, what connection does it have with the Picts, and how is it all tied to a lonely cairn set into a Scottish hillside?
There’s a lot to enjoy in “The Eaters of Light,” even if those pleasures are on the subtler side. Like the Seventh Doctor and Ace era of “Survival,” Munro’s script shines by giving us compelling supporting characters with different but equally sympathetic points of view, as well as in depicting the Doctor’s companion as both multi-faceted and smart. Instead of having the Doctor explain to Bill how the TARDIS allows her to perceive everyone speaking English, Munro has Bill figure that out on her own, and not only that, but use that knowledge to bring the Picts and Romans together. The conflict between the Picts and the Romans is also well delineated, but in other, less inventive scripts, the Doctor would point out the nuances of each side, but here we get to see Kar, leader of the Picts, examine Rome’s impact on her world. Similarly, the surviving members of the Legion are hardly mighty Roman soldiers but rather brave yet terrified your men, kinder and more perceptive and lost without the might of organized Rome behind them. Munro’s script then is all the better for having the Doctor stick to figuring out the threat of the aliens while leaving Bill to successfully find a way to make all the warring sides work together. It’s her perceptiveness at realizing that these are all basically young people with the same fears and aims, and her ability to articulate that to them, that helps save the day.
And it’s a good thing too, because frankly the adventure itself is really not that special. The alien menace never becomes more than a threat, neither designed well enough to create much of a compelling visual, or with a resonant enough concept to come alive beyond being simply fearsome. Contrast them against the Vashta Nerada, for example, and they come off as simply functional at best. And while there are a lot of really weird touches (the fact that crows used to speak to humanity is never explained, and the strangeness of the cairn’s portal is simply a fact and Munro integrates that into the Picts’ society in a way that doesn’t require a ton of explanation), the plot proceeds without many twists and turns that elevate beyond serviceable into one of those memorable adventures.
Director Charles Palmer does his best to inject menace and tension into the proceedings, and the first half of the episode fares better in this regard, especially Bill’s early tribulations. Additionally, her scenes with the Romans are wonderful, particularly a moment when she assumes they will be more provincial than her 21st Century home, only to discover that civilization doesn’t always move in a progressive direction. The supporting players, are all cast extremely well, a directorial skill that accomplishes much, and in this case results in disposable characters resonating in a more meaningful way than you often get in episodic television.
We’re now nearing the end of the 10th series of Doctor Who, and though, for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed the classical vibe of this series, it’s hard to deny this more episodic and stripped down approach has resulted in a lack of rising action to the series as whole. The underlying narrative of the Vault and Missy’s redemption is the series-long story arc, but it’s a quieter, more introspective one. As a result, we’re lacking the sense of impending crescendo we typically got in previous series that featured a more bombastic tone. In keeping with the entirety of Peter Capaldi’s era, Series 10 has been experimental in its own way, and that’s bound to be divisive. For my part, I’m hoping the final two episodes of the season stick the landing, and though I haven’t enjoyed the last few episodes as much as the brilliant first few, I still have never been bored nor ever not found a lot to love.
“The Eaters of Light” may not wind up being memorable for its adventurous components, but the riches it does showcase could afford to appear more often in Doctor Who, and here’s hoping this isn’t the last time we see Rona Munro, or other classic Doctor Who writers, return to the fold. 8/10