Contains spoilers for episodes aired to date.
When writing about “The Eaters of Light”, it is mandatory to start with a section about the writer of the story or else risk losing one’s Doctor Who reviewers union card. It’s not just because Rona Munro is an award-winning theatre playwright with three decades’ worth of success to her name, together with a number of television and radio projects. Rather, it’s her unique position within the history of Who itself. Some 28 years ago, she was the writer of the classic-era story “Survival”, the serial that inadvertently brought the curtain down on the original run of the show.
Needless to say, it wasn’t her fault that the show was cancelled (or more accurately, that the BBC simply never got around to ordering season 27). By the time “Survival” was being made, the writing was already firmly on the wall in permanent marker. However, for some 16 years thereafter, Munro had to live with the reputation of having penned the final nail in the coffin for the Doctor when it came to his television adventures. Fortunately the show finally regenerated in 2005 and against all odds came back to life, bigger and stronger and more successful than ever, and no one could have been happier at its renaissance than Munro herself who was and is a genuine Who fan then and now.
To have Munro return to write for the show in 2017 is another example of how the current season is looking to its past to find a new way of moving forward. I’ve commented in previous reviews of how the show is mixing in grace notes to the past in season 10: Susan’s framed picture on the Doctor’s desk in “The Pilot”, for example, or Ysanne Churchman’s credit at the end of last week’s “Empress of Mars“. Seeing Munro listed as the writer of “The Eaters of Light” is right up there in terms of misty-eyed nostalgia for Who fans of good standing, as she becomes the first (and obviously to date only) person to have written stories for both the Classic (20th century) and New (21st century) incarnations of the show.
But let’s not think for a moment that showrunner Steven Moffat has gone soft and given a commission to someone purely based on sentiment. Quite the contrary, Munro’s reputation and prestige means that Moffat can count himself very lucky to have successfully enticed a very busy Munro back to the show. But then, she’s a proper long-time Who fan and that means it’s surely impossible to turn down the chance to write a script that includes the direction: “INT: Tardis”.
All this talk about Munro and her background and her place in Who history is not just some sort of meandering preamble to the review of “The Eater of Light”. In many ways this story is a prime example of unmistakable authorial imprint as you’re likely to get. Of course, Doctor Who is no stranger to that – Moffat’s own scripts are also utterly distinctive, as were Russell T Davies’ before him. But it’s somewhat different with Rona Munro: I had no idea what sort of writer she would be today before watching “The Eaters of Light”, and yet after watching the episode I feel I know her as well as if we’d sat down and had a long conversation over dinner and coffee. Her personality imbues her writing so vividly that she’s present in every moment, making it subtly but emphatically different from any episode of recent times.
In fact, if you’re going to be pedantic, it evokes an eerie sense of instant familiarity. The tribe of Picts even recall the Cheetah People in “Survival” from 1989. Similarly, the moment that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) arrive in Roman-era Scotland and decide to split up feels just like one of those timeless episodes of the show’s Classic era. As a result, the structure of the story doesn’t feel quite like anything we’ve seen in modern Who, but at the same time there’s no sense of it being old fashioned either. Just … well, Classic, if we’re being honest.
Munro’s ability to give a new sense to the show’s original era goes in hand in hand with the way that she plays with the sense of myths, legends and fables to produce something very modern. From the moment that we meet young Judy (Jocelyn Brassington) and her brother playing among ancient ruins and hearing faint Pictish music echoing from the stones, we’re drawn firmly into a delicious world of folklore and superstition. The Doctor eventually gets to the science fiction reality of it using time travel, but ‘knowing’ the roots of the old tales doesn’t rob them of their magic or timeless ability to entrance and move us.
Munro’s jumping-off point for this story is the the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth written by Rosemary Sutcliff which tells the historical tale of the mysterious disappearance of an entire Roman legion of 5000 soldiers in Scotland in 117AD. It was a children’s adventure story (rather than Young Adult), and Munro keeps the same general feel for “The Eaters of Light”. There are no characters older than 18, and the story is explicitly about children needing to grow up and take over responsibility when there is no one else who can. In this case we have two bitterly opposed groups – the few remaining young Roman soldiers, and the surviving children of the Pict tribe that the Romans destroyed. The moral of the story is that each side has to put aside the past and come together to combat an even bigger threat, in this case a “light eating locust” which will lay waste to the world after succeeding in coming through an interdimensional portal concealed inside a hilltop cairn.
While this might have on one level the feel of a children’s story, Munro’s sharp and intelligent script never once talks down to that section of the audience, and has rich and complex subtexts that also make it a very grown-up tale for the adults watching. It’s a story with no easy answers, and no one comes out of it without dark shading to their complex characters. The Romans for example have to face the fact that they murdered hundreds of defenceless Picts while acting as part of a global war machine of invasion and domination; but the Picts aren’t blameless either, because in their desperation to fight the Romans they knowingly unleashed the locust that now threatens to destroy the entire world. It’s their fault the world is ending, but the Romans drove them to it in the first place.
“The Eaters of Light” is the second story in a row with an extensive guest cast. Where Mark Gatiss was able to invest his characters with personality by falling back on broad-stroke caricatures to make it come alive in the short running time, Munro shows she is the real deal and uses her playwright experience to create rounded characters of true depth and complexity despite labouring under exactly the same time constraints. All of the people in this story felt genuine and moreover surprising, forcing us to take a closer look at them and see into their souls rather than accept that they were just here to stand in the background while the Doctor gets down to business as had been so often the case in Doctor Who in recent years. In fact, while the Doctor plays a crucial role in bringing the two warring groups together in the first place, thereafter he’s muscled to one side and put in his place because the young guest stars have taken over and are running the show.
In wanting so badly to sacrifice himself to save the day, and with his sharp no-holds-barred rebuke of Pict leader Kar (Rebecca Benson) for her actions, the Doctor seems in a particularly dark place in this week’s story – even more so than we saw throughout series eight, in fact. In many ways it suggests that he is being written closer to the previous Scottish incarnation of the character played by Sylvester McCoy, whom Munro would have written for in “Survival”. This is not a bad thing, but at the same time it didn’t quite seem like the Doctor we’ve come to know in this current run. One has to wonder whether that is a function of who was writing the script, or whether it points to some terrible sense of knowledge and foreboding within the Doctor himself that might play into his imminent regeneration.
As for the other regulars, Nardole is properly integrated into this story and gets to provide some much needed comedy relief (just the sight of his round face inscribed with Pictish symbols under a woolly hat is enough to make you laugh, as is his “death by Scotland” quip) but he also gets a chance to show his steely side too. And it’s a return to form for Bill, who in one scene suddenly realises that the Romans and Picts are apparently talking English, while the Romans insist she’s speaking Latin. It’s something we’ve seen before – Donna Noble in “The Fires of Pompeii” is one of the more recent examples – but it’s the way we see Bill work it out herself and come to the correct explanation (as already established in Who series lore) that is really delightful. The cherry on the cake is when she observes that the auto-translation also does lip-sync as well.
Bill is also central to a scene in which the Romans discuss gender and sexual orientation. When young legionnaire Lucius (Brian Vernel) tries to chat her up, Bill tells him she only likes girls and braces herself for the response, only to find that such things are of little importance to the soldiers who are in many ways more modern-minded than Bill herself. Doubtless some viewers will role their eyes at this bit of ‘politically correct preaching’ but no only is it an always-valuable piece of commentary, it’s also historically correct and contributes to bringing out the individual characters of the solders as they hide in underground caves from the light eating locust.
Imperial soldiers hiding in underground caves? Wait a minute. Doesn’t that sound a little familiar? Why, yes, it does as it happens. By accident or by design, this episode has strong echoes with last week’s story. While “The Eaters of Light” and “Empress of Mars” are worlds apart in setting and tone, they have a strangely large overlap in many areas. In both we have small groups of Empire-minded soldiers (sheltering, as mentioned above, in underground caves) who are facing off against an indigenous civilisation who turn out to be more powerful than they realised. In both, Bill ends up falling into a hole early in the episode; bravery and cowardice are themes on each occasion; and later on, the Doctor has to get both groups to see past their differences in order to achieve an understanding and broker peace. And both episodes end in a return to the Tardis and the surprise appearance of Missy (Michelle Gomez) waiting for them in the console room.
Neither Gatiss nor Munro are to blame for this, but it feels rather careless on the show’s part to commission stories with such similar themes and then to schedule them back-to-back. It’s as if they’re inviting the comparison, but to be honest it doesn’t really help either story: Gatiss’ writing is made to look cartoonish and amateur compared with Munro’s more impressively nuanced scripts, while the impact of Munro’s story is undermined by the sense that we saw a little too much of this just seven days earlier. Ultimately it feels an unnecessary situation for the show to have put the stories into, and one that as showrunner Moffat should have been alert to and avoided.
Since we’ve drifted into criticism, I should probably confess that while in general I was very impressed by this week’s story, I did find “The Eaters of Life” to be somewhat lacking in terms of central threat. The light eating locust works well when left unseen save for its illuminated tentacles (an effective menace in much the same way as the monsters in the film Attack The Block were achieved) but when we finally see its full form is looks like a CGI version of the Hound of the Baskervilles. While it’s true that the animation is very well done, it’s just not terribly all that frightening after all the ‘world ending peril’ build-up.
The direction also doesn’t do much to build up the sense of tension or threat. Charles Palmer makes the Scottish highlands look all look rather lovely – and the long-distance view of the Tardis materialising was a particular delight – but there’s a picture postcard feel to it that not only undermines the supernatural menace but even makes it awkwardly out of place. On top of that, some of the camera-work also struck me was rather odd: there’s one scene where the Doctor and Nardole are walking toward the camera in a two-shot having a conversation, but Nardole distractingly keeps slipping out of the side of the frame and then back in. It’s as though the shot hadn’t been properly thought-out or pre-planned, and there was no time for a retake. It didn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the episode’s production style.
I found “The Eaters of Light” to be an admirable, classy and intelligent piece of work, but I confess that without a strong central sense of threat I couldn’t honestly say it was the most memorable episode of the season. In fact the bit that stays most on the mind is the extended epilogue back in the Tardis, where the Doctor starts to wonder if it’s time to bury the past and accept Missy as a friend once more. It’s largely thanks to a superlative performance from Gomez who projects a vulnerability and emotional exposure that we’ve never seen from the character before. There’s a question as to whether Missy can possibly truly be a changed person, but there’s no artifice in Gomez’ performance to suggest anything other than the naked truth. We’ll find out more about that next week in “World Enough and Time” wherein we’ll see the return of John Simm as the Master and find out how he fits in with his regenerated successor. Presumably that will put paid to any redemption for Missy.
However, there is one aspect of this week’s story that’s going to stay stuck in my mind for some weeks, months and indeed years to come, and that’s the matter of the crows. They’re seen circling the stone circle at the start, and one of them even seems to say “Doc-tor” with its cries. The Doctor does indeed confirm that once upon a time crows could speak, but that they went into a sulk and stopped and that no one knows why. The end of the episode solves this seeming side quite beautifully, and in a way that will stay with children (and adults, too if I’m honest) every time they hear a crow in the park squawking out “Kor! Kor!”.
It’s little moments like this which make us experience the real world around us in a slightly different, magical way – as “Blink” did with funeral statuary – that are some of my favourite moments of Doctor Who, and it’s with this latest touch amid all the tales of myths and ancient tales that “The Eaters of Light” weaves a quality spell that is really rather special and bewitching.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes are now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with the second half of the season following on July 17 2017. A complete series 10 boxset is expected later in the year.