In 1989, Rona Munro penned Survival, the final serial of Doctor Who’s original 26-year run on BBC One. As much as that story represented the end of an era at the time, it also looks like something of a blueprint for the show’s eventual regeneration in retrospect, with its focus on alien interference on a London estate, a similar setting to Russell T. Davies’ 2005 season.
With Season 10’s The Eaters Of Light, Munro becomes the first writer to have contributed episodes to both the classic series and the new series, but, fortuitously enough, she also gives us the 12th Doctor’s last standalone adventure, ahead of the forthcoming two-part season finale and Peter Capaldi’s final episode this Christmas. However, like Survival before it, it turns out to be quite unassuming for such an outwardly historic episode and that’s no bad thing.
As in earlier episodes, Bill’s intellectual curiosity spurs the narrative, as she argues with the Doctor over the fate of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army. Upon arriving in Aberdeenshire in the second century, they find fearful centurions and a tribe of Pictish warriors guarding a terrible, otherworldly secret, in a cairn on a hillside.
While the last two episodes have cooled down from the mid-season three-parter by returning to standalone adventures, it feels a little like a structural mishap that this comes one week after Empress Of Mars, a story that has several surface details in common with it. There are a lot of cave interiors, there are two factions at odds with one another, and something that happened to Bill last week happens again here. Still, it does enough of what it does well to appear unique, which is no mean feat in Doctor Who.
Munro’s script isn’t dense on plot detail, but neither is it lacking in morality or incident, and she gives the leads more than enough room to do what they do best – Mackie is inquisitive and compassionate, Lucas can’t half deliver a one-liner, and Capaldi is (at long last) as sharp-tongued as we remember his Malcolm Tucker, albeit without the malice and foul mouth. We also get more of the Doctor and Nardole together than we’ve seen since Bill came into the picture, and that’s an enjoyable pairing.
The guest performances are particularly strong too, with a pair of tough, but tremulous turns on either side of the Roman invasion. Rebecca Benson’s compromised Ka and Brian Vernel’s put-upon Lucius are both young characters, forced to step up and take responsibility, and the way in which the respective leaders are similar but divided is one area in which the episode is superior to last week’s.
There’s a smashing monster at work here too, and where later pre-finale episodes haven’t broke the bank in previous seasons, the entirely computer-generated creature is well integrated here – director Charles Palmer also deserves kudos for his handsome location work – and the tension around it is deservingly built up over the course of the episode.
Where this season has dealt in misunderstood or malfunctioning monsters in the main, The Eaters Of Light has a beastly, folkloric feel without reverting to more dastardly villainy. The episode’s use of music helps in a big, bad way as well, with Murray Gold’s score lending to the atmosphere, as well as bolstering the story in other ways.
The Eaters Of Light marks Rona Munro’s second incidentally massive Doctor Who story, but her long overdue return is worth the wait. From its spooky present day bookends to its stirring final moments, it’s a spirited but deliberately paced episode that doesn’t even take up that much of its 45 minute time-slot, so reserved is its execution. If it does its job right, you’ll feel like this is just the calm before the storm…
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– That went quick, didn’t it? It’s over and done in around 42 minutes, and that’s counting the extended TARDIS scene with Missy at the end. Munro is almost economical in her storytelling, clearly setting up the conflict and letting the fun and games arise from banter and action rather than any discernible second act. Still, some episodes lull in the middle, and this keeps moving as ruthlessly as the “locust”…
– The Eaters of Light themselves are a very well realised creation, used just sparingly enough as to not show up the CGI, but making a big impression whenever they do figure more prominently to absorb all the light of the supposedly doomed soldiers. The eeriness of the inter-dimensional door inside a cairn is a beguiling premise on which to build an episode, but the creature feature aspect elevates it.
– “Remembering, not sulking.” The in-universe reason why crows yell “caw” (or rather, “Ka”) is woven into the narrative very nicely, as is the communications gap between the Romans and the Picts. We thought that Bill might have discovered the babel fish-like function of the TARDIS’ telepathic circuits earlier on in the series, but it’s worth it for the unique pay-off together, making a common language between the two sides where none previously existed. Once again, though, Benson is really very good as Ka – one of the best guest performances of the series by a distance.
– Missy brings a very Scottish episode to a close, finally ready to see if going cold turkey on being bad has actually worked. While less ambiguous than last week’s mysterious denouement, the show isn’t tipping its hand yet, and there are still two more episodes for Steven Moffat to bring about an endgame for that running plot.
– We enjoyed it in The Return Of Doctor Mysterio too, but we’ll always laugh at Matt Lucas’ wardrobe changes mid-story. The Pict war paint is just the cherry on top…