In 1989, near the start of what has since become a long and successful career of writing for stage, film, and television, Rona Munro penned what turned out to be the very last episodes of Doctor Who’s original 26-year run. With this week’s episode, “The Eaters of Light,” she becomes the first classic series writer to contribute to the show’s 21st-century incarnation. The episode establishes an ominous atmosphere right from the start of the present-day framing sequence, with a couple of children playing among ancient standing stones on a windswept Scottish hillside, from which “ghosts” can be heard playing strange music. After the opening titles, we see the same hillside, with the markings on the stones now fresh and new as the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie), and Nardole (Matt Lucas) arrive in 120 A.D.
Bill proves, unexpectedly, to be an enthusiast for Roman military history—specifically, the real-life mystery of what happened to the Ninth Legion, which vanished from the historical record some time after they were stationed in the north of Britain in the early second century. After some friendly wrangling with the Doctor over which of them is better informed about the period, they blithely split up so that Bill can fulfill the traditional Doctor Who companion’s function of wandering off and getting into trouble. She duly does so, falling into a pit containing a young Roman soldier even as a lurking alien presence is observing her, while the Doctor and Nardole discover a field of dead legionaries whose bodies have been reduced to shriveled husks.
There’s some choppiness to the first part of the episode, as though Munro had to compress her story to fit it within a 45-minute span (one particularly jarring transition sees the episode skipping forward several hours from day to night). But the tale soon develops momentum, as the Doctor and Nardole are captured by the native Picts while Bill faces an attack from the monster. It kills her Roman companion while she escapes to find his comrades. The design and realization of the creature—an entirely CGI creation—is impressive: a massive beast resembling a warthog but with a host of anemone-like tentacles bursting from its mouth that drain the life from its victims.
As he did in “Oxygen” with the blackness of space, director Charles Palmer makes great use of dark backgrounds to keep the viewer’s attention focused on the characters; many of the episode’s scenes are lit only by fires or flaming torches, such as the Doctor’s confrontation with Kar (Rebecca Benson), the leader of the Picts. The young woman reveals that her people are the guardians of a strange portal through which, at certain times, one of the alien creatures emerges. This time, rather than kill the beast, she decided to let it attack the Roman interlopers—a decision that she now realizes was foolhardy, as most of her people were slaughtered as a result, and the creature will become unstoppable as it absorbs ever more light and life.
The Romans who Bill encounters are also young; their leader, Lucius (Brian Vernel) is only 18. Having both factions led by adolescents out of their depth plays on the idea (as in 2010’s “The Beast Below”) that, compared to the Doctor, practically everyone else in the universe is like a child.
The tension is leavened with humor thanks to Nardole, who’s a notably reluctant adventurer here, emerging from the TARDIS in a dressing gown and slippers. Lucas plays him in a fashion that’s probably closer to what most people expected from Nardole before the season began: less sober sidekick and more of a fountain of comic relief. (He has some good comic moments, such as happily munching popcorn while the Doctor is trying to intimidate Kar.) Later, the Doctor leaves Nardole on guard while he investigates the portal, but he discovers it’s an extra-dimensional rift where time passes differently inside. He’s in there only for seconds but emerges two days later to find Nardole comfortably regaling the Picts with stories of his adventures.
Meanwhile, Bill establishes a rapport with the Roman soldiers (even while fending off Lucius’s advances), thanks to her sudden realization that the TARDIS is allowing her to understand their language. This is a standard plot point that’s been used multiple times with previous companions (see, for example, 2005’s “The End of the World” or 2008’s “The Fires of Pompeii”), but it was smart of Munro to make it integral to her story, by applying it to the other characters as well. When the Romans and Picts finally come face to face, the Doctor’s presence means they can actually understand each other. While the Doctor performs his usual plot function of coming up with a method of trapping the creature, it’s an added pleasure to see him acting as a catalyst; without even doing anything, he brings the two sides together.
Capaldi gets a wonderfully varied range of material in this episode. There are the forceful speeches he’s come to specialize in, as the Doctor tells of the threat the creature poses to all life on Earth and beyond. There’s also plenty of expertly handled comic business with Lucas (a particularly funny moment is when the Doctor tosses Nardole’s bag of popcorn into the fire to cause a distraction so they can escape from the Picts). He remains a commanding figure right up to the climax, forcing the creature back through the portal, but when he volunteers to stay inside to keep the way blocked, the decision is taken out of his hands. Kar and the Romans sacrifice themselves to keep the portal closed, with some of Kar’s people accompanying them playing the music that was heard at the beginning, resonating through the ages.
Nardole is shocked at the Doctor’s seeming willingness to abandon the guard duty he already has but is even more surprised when they return to the TARDIS and find Missy (Michelle Gomez) inside. The Doctor is clearly now comfortable with allowing her out of the vault and aboard the TARDIS, even though he still doesn’t know whether her apparent reformation is genuine or not. For the third week running, Capaldi and Gomez make the final scene a highlight of the episode, as the Doctor wonders whether they can now become friends again. It may yet turn out to be a terrible mistake, but as he says, the trouble with hope is that it’s hard to resist.
Next Week: The intricate dance between the Doctor and Missy finally takes center stage in part one, “World Enough and Time,” of the season finale.
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: Rona Munro’s previous story, which wrapped up Doctor Who back in 1989, is “Survival,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred.
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