Old meets new and fact meets fiction in this long-awaited Doctor Who comeback for classic series writer Rona Munro. But just what really happened to the Ninth Roman Legion…?
Time certainly flies, doesn’t it? It’s been a whopping twenty-eight years(!) since Rona Munro’s previous Doctor Who episode, Survival. But now, the scribe behind the last ever classic series story (TV movie notwithstanding) returns with a mythical tale set in the Scottish highlands. Inspired by a real life mystery, The Doctor, Bill and Nardole are hunting for the truth behind the disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion. The reality is (literally) out of this world – and maybe, depending on your narrative preferences, just a little bit magical.
Doc Aye The Noo
The first thing that’s striking about The Eaters of Light is just how amazing it looks. From the opening shots of the Aberdeen hillside, complete with a crow cawing “Doc-tor!”, there are some breath-taking landscapes to admire. It’s all a little misty and murky, but it perfectly sets the tone – and hey, that’s Scotland for you! We reckon the pitch for Series 10 was just a wish list for Peter Capaldi. Last week he met the Ice Warriors, next week he fights the Mondasian Cybermen, and this week he gets a tale set in his homeland. Not unlike Tooth and Claw, the Scottish influence is cranked up to the max. Quips about the country (“it’s Scotland, it’s supposed to be damp”) come thick and fast – a bit like the fog – as Murray Gold’s soundtrack is injected with a distinctly Celtic flavour.
It’s all fun and games until The Doctor discovers a dead Roman soldier, caused by a complete and total lack of sunlight (“death by Scotland”, indeed). Meanwhile, Bill finds herself in a pickle of her own. After falling down a hole for the second week in a row, she finds a Roman soldier too – the difference is, this one’s alive. At least, to start with. A light-eating beastie is on the prowl and it’s not long before her new accomplice meets a grisly end. After a thrilling chase through the eerie dark woods, Bill stumbles upon the company of the rest of the surviving Ninth Legion. And this is where the story really begins. Just what is that monster, and how on earth do they stop it? The answer, it seems, is not on this earth at all.
Tripping the Light Fantastic
It has to be said that The Eaters of Light is positively bursting with ideas. Arguably, a lot of them are things we’ve sort of seen before. The Romans and Stonehenge(ish) setting feel very The Pandorica Opens. The small village of Pict warriors feels very The Girl Who Died. Heck, Bill’s Latin TARDIS translation gag is ripped right out of The Fires of Pompeii. Why it’s taken ten episodes to address this series stalwart (or indeed, how the Pope could speak perfect Latin within close proximity of the TARDIS in Extremis) though is anyone’s guess.
Nevertheless, the concepts underpinning The Eaters of Light are solid stuff. It’s got a really whimsical feel to complement the setting, and if you’re into that sort of thing, it works wonders. The cairn containing a portal to the end of the world is beautifully realised. The notion of a Gatekeeper, passed down through generations to fight the monster off, is also appropriately fairy tale. And it must be said, the Eater of Light itself is a brilliant CGI creation. The fearsome beast lives up to expectations with an impressive, imposing design. That’s definitely one creature you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. It’s just a shame that we don’t get to see very much of it.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Bind Them
Unfortunately, that’s where things begin to falter: a lot of these strong ideas just don’t quite stick the landing. You can feel the budget straining under the weight of these “light-eating locusts”, desperately holding back some money for the finale. Though their presence is felt throughout, the fact that we get so little of the titular monsters is sorely disappointing. This means that there’s not a lot of action, and it’s far more of a ‘talky’ episode than we expected. Thankfully there are some sizzling one-liners among the carefully crafted dialogue, but what Eaters really needed to do was walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
The resolution, too, may fall flat for some viewers. Not because it’s weak or out of place – quite the opposite, it fits in nicely with the fantastical themes – but it’s an idea that feels a little too familiar. Splitting up The Doctor and Bill for most of the episode gives both a chance to shine, as well as allowing for some welcome interplay between Twelve and Nardole. But having them represent two opposing forces that ultimately team up and work together? We’ve seen that an awful lot in Doctor Who. We saw it only last week, in fact, with the British and the Ice Warriors in Empress of Mars. Spacing these two episodes out might have helped alleviate the issue. But, predictable or not, the episode rounds off Series 10’s standalone adventures in style. In the not-quite-words of the crows, it gets a “cor (blimey!)” from us. And that’s without even mentioning those Missy scenes in the last few minutes. She can’t be turning good for real… can she? Only one week to go until we (and The Doctor) find out! But seriously, how is it time for the finale already…?!