Often in my recaps, I rely on the history of the writer while forming my thoughts and opinions of an episode. Doctor Who is very much a writers’ show, even though the head writers like Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat get the most credit (as well as the most blame). Rona Munro, the writer of “The Eaters of Light,” holds a special distinction: She is now the first and only writer to have penned scripts for both the classic and the modern incarnations of Doctor Who. Her previous contribution was, in fact, the final classic series story, 1989’s “Survival.” One thing I never really expected to write much about in this recap was “Survival,” because surely that 28-year-old script would have nothing in common with this new tale … and yet in some ways it does, not the least of which is its elliptical yet mythically epic style.
The unlikeliest TARDIS trio ever travel to Aberdeen, Scotland, circa second-century A.D. because Bill and the Doctor are bickering over who knows more about the lost Ninth Roman Legion, which famously disappeared from history without a trace. (Between this outing and “Thin Ice,” mad props to season ten for the entertaining history lessons.) Beside the pair, Nardole is decked out in his Arthur Dent best — pajamas and a preposterously out of place robe. One imagines him being awakened from sleep and dragged through time, and indeed, one also wonders why he came along at all given that his primary concern once again is the vault. Thankfully, between the end of this episode and the preview for next week’s, the vault nonsense seems over and done with. The argument for guarding it doesn’t even work particularly well here, given the way events have played out in recent weeks (when the Monks were invading, it barely seemed like an issue).
Bill goes one way to find her Roman soldiers and the Doctor and Nardole go another. Bill stumbles across the Scottish lass Kar (Rebecca Benson) honoring dead relatives in a ceremony of smoke and fire. Upon seeing the woman from the future, she screams a ferocious battle cry and goes after her. Running away, Bill falls down a hole (two weeks in a row) and finds herself face to face with a spear. At the other end of it? One of her coveted soldiers, a young man named Simon (Rohan Nedd). One of the first things she takes note of is how the two can understand each other perfectly. She obsesses over it, which is an especially peculiar thing for Bill, supposedly the sharp one, to just now finally notice in her travels with the Doctor. (To her credit, she does smartly assume it’s got something to do with her mentor.) There are fleeting moments such as this when the episode feels as though it belongs earlier in the season, but later, the lack of language barrier plays a big role in the resolution. It’s a shame the idea wasn’t integrated into the episode more gracefully.
The Doctor: “Shhhh! Does everybody hear that? Do you know what that sound was? That was the sound of my patience shattering into a billion little pieces!”
The Doctor and Nardole discover the body of a Roman soldier that’s seemingly had all of its bones removed, and soon after they find a field of slaughtered Roman bodies — the mystery of the missing legion solved … well, sort of. What happened? Soon they’re captured by the local Scots, led by Kar, who claims to be the Gatekeeper (shades of Ghostbusters of all things?). They all go to the nearby cairn, which turns out to be a gateway between worlds. In the dark of the night, the Doctor steps inside and sees a swirling mass of alien (shades of Pacific Rim?), which looks sort of like mean, four-legged versions of Uncle Deadly of The Muppets fame. When he steps back outside, it’s daylight, and Nardole is dressed in the garb of the locals. Though only moments have passed for the Doctor, it’s been two days for everyone else. It turns out Kar let an Eater through thinking it would slaughter the Roman army, which it did. The only problem? It’s still out there and others will follow.
Meanwhile, Simon has died at the glowing tentacles of the Eater and Bill has stumbled into a cave where she finds the other soldiers, all deserters. Two days pass in this story line as well, though it seems to be mostly marked by a dwindling food supply and a crush that Lucius (Brian Vernel) develops on Bill. She explains to him that she’s not into guys, which is perfectly acceptable to these Romans from a much different time period. Lucius proclaims himself ordinary in that he’s into men and women, while Vitus (Sam Adewunmi) is only into men and proud of it. We can talk about other dimensions and creatures that devour the light of universes, but when it comes right down to it, progressive scenes like this are what stick in the memory long after the episode is over. It’s a scene like this that will make the lasting impression on a young teenager looking for acceptance in a world that may feel increasingly intolerant.
Eventually the Scots and the Romans meet (and the time travelers reunite) and their initial inclination is to destroy one another … but something funny happens, and it goes back to Bill’s amazement over being able to understand the soldiers. The Romans and the Scots can, for the first time, understand one another — and because they can, they suddenly have far less reason to fear each other. They work together using weaponry and gadgets to corral the loose Eater back through the portal at sunrise. Then Kar and Lucius and several others make the ultimate sacrifice by going through the portal to guard it for eternity (remember the time gap), keeping more Eaters from coming through.
Look, I’m not going to pretend that I understand all of “The Eaters of Light.” Frankly, some of the sci-fi elements struck me as vaguely baffling, and yet there was so much conviction on the part of the cast that I found myself mostly going along with it. Further, the human themes of cowardice, redemption, bravery, and sacrifice (some of which were explored last week as well; is the show building up to something?) all ring true, and each of these kids are likable to some degree or other. As with Munro’s “Survival,” “Eaters” is about ordinary teens thrust into an extraordinary situation, where they must find ways to deal with all of the weirdness being thrown at them.
Capaldi looks like he’s playing to each guest star (it doesn’t hurt that he appears to tower over nearly every single character), and they all up their game as a result, even Mackie and Lucas. He almost seems possessed by the location filming; what a gift to give him near the close of his era! So many of his lines had me in stitches — stuff like, “Did you throw your action figures at them?” had me rolling. Good golly, this guy is still able to surprise, even at the end of his run. Anytime he reverts back to the disagreeable grump is a cause for celebration. The rock-and-roll Doctor is brilliant, but this side should also be there until the bittersweet end.
The moody Scottish landscape and the Celtic music drifting through the hour added layers of texture, also making a nice placeholder for those of us patiently waiting for season three of Outlander. The popcorn bit is a scream. The story of the crow’s voice is one of those touches that probably made Steven Moffat jealous. Bill’s astute observation that everyone in the universe must sound like children to the Doctor is brilliant. The cinematography from Mark Waters is elegant and the direction by Charles Palmer feels fluid and natural. Palmer, who also directed “Oxygen,” isn’t new to the series; he previously helmed what is arguably the greatest story of modern Who, the “Human Nature” two-parter way back in the third season.
Finally, there’s the revelation that Missy isn’t even in the vault. She’s actually in the TARDIS doing repairs for the Doctor, hence his lack of interest every time it’s brought up. What is there to say that won’t be better said next week? One thing seems certain: If Missy turns the corner and makes the changes she’s on the verge of achieving, her past self will be quite displeased.
No odds and ends this week, but do read this article about future Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall to get intrigued by and excited about the future of Doctor Who.