August 17: "The Eaters of Light"

Promo pic for "The Eaters of Light" (from BBC One - Doctor Who, Series
10, The Eaters of Light) ©BBC
Now this is something special: for the first time, a writer from the original run has written a story for the BBC Wales run.  Award-winning writer Rona Munro wrote the very last serial of the original run, Survival, and now she's returned, to give us a tale of Romans and Picts and the Pictish Beast.

The fact that Munro had written for the show in the previous century seemed to have biased some reviewers, with comments about how "retro" this episode felt, but I have to say that I can't really see what they were getting at.  It's not about modern concerns, I suppose, and there's no effort to make the Romans or the Picts seem "just like us" (which is frankly welcome), but it's not like this episode is particularly out of step with the rest of series 10.  I mean, we could make comparisons with Survival if we really wanted to (for instance, both feature gateways between worlds, sort of), but it doesn't really seem necessary -- particularly since Munro has given us such a strong episode.

The inspiration for this story seems to have been a desire to explain both the fate of the Ninth Roman Legion, which was stationed in Britain in the 2nd century but then disappeared from Roman records, and the Pictish Beast, a drawing of a strange-looking animal on various Pictish monuments that no one's quite sure what it's meant to represent (a lot of commentators seem to have overlooked this second inspiration, mind).  And so we're told about a creature from another dimension that's made its way through an "interdimensional temporal rift" and which feeds on sunlight (and people too, by absorbing all the sunlight inside them?  This part's not super clear), and which single-handedly wiped out the Ninth Legion, barring those who ran away.  And it's actually a fun idea to tie these two things together, and it's done in a very Doctor Who manner, with time running at different speeds and an isolated area for the creature to stalk around in.

The beast is restrained and driven toward the gateway. ("The Eaters of
Light") ©BBC
But the best moments are the smaller ones: the idea that crows can talk and just choose not to is the sort of offhand magical idea that Doctor Who does well.  The way the Doctor is completely unawed by the Picts ("Shh!  Did anybody hear that?  Do you know what that sound was? ... That was the sound of my patience shattering into a billion little pieces"), and the way Nardole has completely ingratiated himself into the Pict tribe in two days (complete with face paint) are both lovely and completely in character for them, while Bill's interactions with the remnants of the Romans are really something special.  Pearl Mackie continues to be outstanding, and the way she discusses sexuality with the Romans, the way she works out how she can understand Latin, and her general bravery are all portrayed so well.  Other actresses might struggle with this material and the different skills required, but it's no problem for her.  And these little moments of characterization are particularly noticeable after "Empress of Mars" -- here they feel like natural extensions of the characters we've already seen throughout the series, rather than traits grafted on.  And it's because of a character moment that we get the resolution, as Bill uses her new-found knowledge regarding the TARDIS translation circuits to bring the Romans and the Picts together, to help fight the beast hunting them both.  It's a delight, watching Mackie watch the two groups slowly figure out what's going on, with the Doctor there to spur them into action. "She slaughtered your legion," he tells them.  "You slaughtered everything that she loves.  Now, you all have a choice.  You can carry on slaughtering each other till no one is left standing, or you grow the hell up!  Because there's a new war now.  I think these creatures are light-eating locusts, looking for rents and cracks between worlds to let themselves into dimensions of light.  Once they break through, they eat.  They will eat the sun, and then they will eat the stars.  And they will keep eating until there are no stars left.  So, whose side are you on now?  Because as far as I can see, there's only one side left."

In some respects the ending is obvious.  Time passes differently in the gateway, and while the Doctor decides to fend off the Eaters of Light until the end of time, the Romans and some of the Picts decide to do it instead of him, seeing it as their duty (er, except even with the time flow difference they'll still die out a lot sooner than the Doctor would... the script rather glosses over this).  But because the episode opened with the girl listening for the music, this takes on the air of an inevitability rather than a plot twist everyone saw coming.  And the idea that the crows (which can talk, don't forget) say "caw" because they're remembering Kar, the Pictish gatekeeper who went into the gate with the Romans, is quite lovely too.

In some ways this isn't an overly ambitious story, but it's definitely a confident one, and the way the episode weaves a quiet sense of wonder and magic through everything (no doubt helped by the gorgeous location, sets, and costuming) makes this something special.  Yes, there are a couple logical oddities, but everything else works so well, and nothing hinges on these things, that they're easy to overlook.  It's a really lovely script, with some excellent characterization for everyone on board, and it provides nice Doctor Who-style explanations for old mysteries too.  If this is the quality that Rona Munro can still deliver (she's two for two right now) then I hope she comes back under Chris Chibnall. In short, I rather adore this story.

(Ooh, and that ending with Missy!  Has she changed her ways for real, or is it all a trick?  They've been spending quite a bit of time trying to make it look like she has indeed had a change of heart(s), but with just enough doubt left to make you wonder. But I guess we'll find out soon...)