“They think these cairns are gateways to another world. Given that they keep going on about gates, possibly they’re right.”
Welcome back Rona Munro, the first writer from classic Who to get a gig on the new show, and still one of very few women to have written for the show in either era. Her 1989 story Survival was the very last of the classic run, and a favourite of mine; it’s an intelligent, mature story that tackles a number of themes the show had barely touched on before. She’s also an award-winning novelist and playwright, so it’s fair to say that my expectations for The Eaters of Light was pretty high.
What we got was a dreamlike, fascinating fairy story – a far better one than In the Forest of the Night. Rona Munro is clearly a fan of classic children’s literature; the fantasy touches (talking crows, mysterious stone gateways to other dimensions) were pure Alan Garner, while the book about the Ninth Legion Bill claims to have loved is almost certainly Rosemary Sutcliffe’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth (though Garner touches on it too, in his 1973 novel Red Shift).
If you weren’t aware, Legio IX Hispana (the Spanish Ninth Legion) are a real historical mystery. Consisting of roughly 5000 men, the entire legion disappears from historical records in about 120AD, and there are numerous theories as to their fate. This, I think, is one of the more interesting (though least likely) – they fell victim to an extradimensional demon released by vengeful Picts to suck their bodies clean of bones.
It does, however, dovetail into the most commonly believed location for their fate – the wilds of barbaric Scotland, whose population refused to cow to the invading Romans. Taking her homeland as a setting, Munro’s story offered some grand, sweeping vistas of Highland beauty (which I’d guess were actually shot in Wales) – full marks to director Charles Palmer for some impressive visuals.
The Scottish setting also provided for those colourful touches of Celtic (Pictish?) mythology, particularly the ubiquitous cairns so beloved of children’s fantasies like Children of the Stones. The talking crows were also a delightful touch; yes, they may be a little fantasy-based for an ostensible sci-fi show, but let’s not forget the Doctor can also talk to babies and horses. OK, some of the crows were examples of the show’s less successful CGI, but it didn’t detract from a lovely idea.
A well-rounded cast of guest characters allowed us to see the conflict between the Picts and the Romans from both sides, with the regulars usefully split between them. Bill’s ‘getting to know you’ session with the Roman survivors was a lovely, especially her confusion at the idea that her sexuality simply wasn’t an issue for them. It’s a nicely educative touch to be reminded that Roman sexual mores were quite different to our own (though nowhere near as simple as they seemed here), with the idea of being attracted to just one gender seeming restrictive to them.
It was this encounter too that led Bill to the realisation that Donna had to have explained to her in similar circumstances – that the TARDIS telepathically translates for you (“no wonder all those people in space spoke English!”). That built nicely on an ongoing aspect of Bill’s character; she’s obviously a sci-fi fan (think of all the films she mentioned last week), and as such can intuit the sort of tropes other characters in the show have needed to have explained. And, as on previous occasions, to lampshade the bits that more pedantic fans on internet message boards always bring up – viz, “wow, it even does lip-sync!”
It was also a nice touch that it enabled the Romans and the Picts to understand each other – we’ve not seen that before, though it’s never been stated that it wouldn’t happen either. I was a bit sceptical that suddenly being able to talk to each other would overcome the enmity between two groups who recently inflicted mass slaughter on each other; but the Doctor’s exhortation to all of them to “grow up!” surely helped (remember the legionaries were teenagers too). That, and the realisation that unless they put aside their differences both their peoples would be wiped out by a far greater danger – obviously the way Game of Thrones will end.
Speaking of the Doctor, Capaldi was on fine form again, with another of his passionate peacemaking speeches alongside tomfoolery like using Nardole’s popcorn to distract the uncomprehending Picts. I also loved his acid comment to Missy that you have to “learn how to hear the music”; the revelry echoing down through the centuries in that sweet epilogue in the present day.
It wasn’t a surprise to see him volunteer to sacrifice himself for the greater good (again) and Bill stopping him (again). This seems to be a running theme over the last few episodes; his noble self-sacrifices being thwarted by the more level-headed Bill. I’d guess it can’t carry on forever though…
That the Romans would volunteer to help young Kar in fighting off the Beast for the rest of time was a dramatic ending, but also, unfortunately, a tad predictable – after all, if they’d got back to Rome to report, there’d be no mystery about the end of their Legion. But it was a life-affirming moment to see two former enemies “grow up” to deal with the bigger problem. If only our politicians could do the same.
If I have to be critical, I’d say there were more than a few leaps in logic in the ep, but overall The Eaters of Light was an atmospheric, emotional piece that grasped how to play with classic mythology better than many of the show’s previous attempts. Only two more eps to go, so next week plunges into the season’s final two-parter, with Missy having her stabilisers taken off to test her redemption; her scenes here with the Doctor were beautifully played, Capaldi and Michelle Gomez showing their range on muted but emotional form. It’s going to be a shame to lose them…