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Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light (Review)

“I think we’ve lost her, Doctor.”

“No. No, no, no, no. We just don’t know where she is. Not the same thing at all.”

Caesar the day.

The Eaters of Light is notable as the first episode of the revival Doctor Who to be written by a writer who worked on the classic series.

Of course, Russell T. Davies populated his relaunch with veterans of the interregnum, of the period between the cancellation of the classic show and the debut of the revival. Mark Gatiss had written books and audio plays. Steven Moffat had scripted The Curse of Fatal Death. Paul Cornell had overseen his own stillborn reboot in Scream of the Shalka. Rob Shearman had written for Big Finish. So it was not as if the series had ever completely abandoned its history and roots.

Torchbearer.

Indeed, over the course of the return, various landmark events occurred. The Autons were the first villains to reappear, appearing in Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons and Rose. William Thomas became the first actor to appear in both the classic series and the revival, scoring guest appearances in Remembrance of the Daleks and Boom Town. Graeme Harper was the first director to work on both iterations, directing The Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks, before becoming a go-to director during the Davies era.

In some ways, The Eaters of Light offers another such landmark in the evolution of the series. Rona Munro becomes the first writer to work on both the classic series and the revival.

Stones of blood.

Munro is notable as the last writer to work on the classic series, scripting Survival. Somewhat ironically, given the title, Survival would be the last story of the classic series and that last story of the Sylvester McCoy era. It is a worthy addition to the canon, positioned in what many contemporary Doctor Who fans would argue was a creative renaissance for the series. As ratings declined, script editor Andrew Cartmel found the freedom to tell the stories that he wanted to tell, resulting in some of the most ambitious and bold storytelling in the history of the series.

After all, Cartmel was the writer who famously boasted that he wanted Doctor Who to “overthrow the government.” A lofty ambition for a series with a declining audience share, but one to which he committed. Cartmel engaged in a number of surrealist and socially-engaged narratives, from Remembrance of the Daleks to Paradise Towers to The Happiness Patrol to Ghost Light. Munro’s script for Survival was similarly political, reinventing the Master as the embodiment of Thatcherite capitalism gone mad, preying on the young residents of run-down council estates.

Just Roman around.

When Davies brought Doctor Who back to television, he was very clearly influenced by the Cartmel era. The gothic horror and monsters of the Hinchcliffe era would always define Doctor Who to the general public, but Bavies was drawn to the way in which the Cartmel era had pointedly engaged with the world around it and attempted to offer a more socially-conscious storytelling model. In some ways, Munro’s script for Survival feels like a very effective lead-in to Davies’ script for Rose, with its interest in working class characters in a relatively grounded setting.

As such, Munro feels very much like a comfortable fit for the revival. She is credited on a hugely influential era of Doctor Who, one that was particularly formative for many members of the production team even if it never really reached the wider audience. For her own part, Munro has worked fairly consistently since her time on Doctor Who. She has written the screenplays for Aimee and Jaguar and for Oranges and Sunshine. Munro is very clearly aware of the demands and constraints of modern film and television drama.

“Great Scot!”

One of the more interesting aspects of The Eaters of Light is the curious blend of influences at play. In some ways, it feels like an affectionate throwback to the classic horror vibes of the Hinchcliffe era. There is a monster loose in a historical setting, and the Doctor has wandered into a complicated political situation in which two sides are trying to murder one another while also dealing with an alien menace that just so happens to resemble a mythical creature from folklore.

In terms of aesthetic, with its interest in ancient monuments as a portal to another world, The Eaters of Light invites comparisons to the classic Tom Baker era story Stones of Blood. That story was technically the one-hundredth televised adventure for the Doctor. Stones of Blood was directly overseen by producer Graham Williams, whose tenure was largely defined by a lighter storytelling style. As such, Stones of Blood felt very much in keeping with the tone and style of his immediate predecessor, recalling The Horror of Fang Rock.

Gate-keeping.

However, The Eaters of Light also feels a little bit like late eighties Doctor Who. Its fascination with a more mythical version of Great Britain recalls the aesthetic of late eighties science-fiction and horror. The idea that these cairns are connected to some mystical realm, that Great Britain is an island still governed by magic and power, recalls the work of Jamie Delano or Paul Jenkins on Hellblazer in the late eighties. It evokes the neopagan movement, the idea of a spiritual connection between the land and something more primal and abstract.

Of course, this mystical connection is overtly political. Strangely enough, The Eaters of Light is one of the least politically explicit scripts in the second half of the season. It does not engage with the emergence of the political right as candidly as Extremis, nor does it tackle the question of how democracy allows itself to be corrupted as overtly as The Pyramid at the End of the World. It does not tackle the challenge of Brexit and resurgent British nationalism as effectively as Empress of Mars.

On the receiving end of some very pointed comments.

At the same time, there is a clear sense of broad political commentary about unleashing powerful forces and the horrors of empire. The Eaters of Light unfolds in a version of Scotland facing invasion from the Roman Empire. Building on the critique of the British Empire in Empress of Mars, Karr lays into the invading forces. “Their work is robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do this work and they call it ’empire’. They make deserts and they call it ‘peace’.” it is very overtly anti-imperialist.

There is arguably even shades of commentary on Trump and Brexit to be found in the way that The Eaters of Light unfolds. In some ways, The Eaters of Light plays almost as the narrative of a reluctant “leave” voter, a voter desperate for independence from a foreign power who unleashes a monstrous force in pursuit of that freedom. “To protect a muddy little hillside, you doomed your whole world,” the Doctor warns Karr, evoking the political and social chaos that was created by the Brexit vote.

In the forest of the night.

It goes without saying that the “leave” vote in the Brexit referendum was not exclusively right wing in nature, even if the activities of the Tory Party and UKIP generated the most press and attention in the run up to (and aftermath of) the polls. Many socially-conscious left-leaning individuals have long been skeptical of the European Union. Jeremy Corbyn has been wary of it, for example; his lackluster “remain” campaign drew criticism and there is even some speculation that he might have personally voted to “leave.”

The Eaters of Light might be sympathetic to such a left-wing “leave” voter. This is, after all, the story of European imperialism on the island of Great Britain and of the monsters unleashed in trying to vanquish it. It is a narrative that plays like a left-wing reflection on the decision to “leave” the European union, a defense of the more radical rhetoric felt by certain socially-conscious campaigners while acknowledging that actually casting a vote for the “leave” campaign was just empowering something monstrous and destructive and chaotic.

An uphill battle.

Still, The Eaters of Light never quite engages with this hefty political and social subtext. In many ways, The Eaters of Light is a surprisingly conventional monster episode. The monster at the heart of the story is a cool concept, rather than a clever metaphor. The scares are genuine and straightforward. The moral arc of the story is very familiar. The Eaters of Light even adheres to some fairly unflattering horror story conventions; the first character to die (Simon) is black, although he is not the only black character.

The Eaters of Light feels like it may have worked better as a standard pseudo-historical adventure early in the season, perhaps as part of the opening triptych. Interesting, Thin Ice is a much more pointed political narrative than The Eaters of Light, a little bolder in its ambitions and its arguments. The Eaters of Light seems to consciously avoid anything that could be deemed too political. It engages in broad generalisations, but never feels like it is specifically about any one thing.

Shining some light on the matter.

Indeed, the climax of the episode seems to back away from it all and to engage with abstract concepts removed from specific frames of reference. In what feels like a conscious retread of the powerful speech from The Zygon Inversion, the Doctor avoids taking sides in the political debate and instead suggests that the two sides locked in this conflict – the Scots and the Romans – simply need to sit down and communicate with one another. There needs to be some peace and reconciliation for the greater good.

There is something inherently optimistic in The Eaters of Light, as reflected through the recurring thematic discussion of the TARDIS translation circuit. Suddenly, the Romans and the Scots are literally capable of understanding one another. “So, now that we understand each other, how do we all sound?” Bill asks. The implication seems to be that communication is paramount, that any problem can be solved by simply engaging with one another. It harks back to the climax of The Zygon Inversion.

Spearheading a response.

The Eaters of Light goes even further than that. The episode suggests that the Doctor’s empathy is in some way tied to (or at least reflected in) the translation circuit, that his concern and his compassion is rooted in the fact that he can actually understand what everybody is saying. “Is this what happens?” Bill wonders at one point. “You can understand everything that everyone in the universe is saying? And we all sound like children?” It is an endearing commentary on the Doctor; of course somebody who can understand everybody would try to help everybody.

The Eaters of Light is an episode that seems engaged with a very idealised version of who the Doctor is and the role that he plays. At its climax, the episode seems to suggest that the challenge posed by the eponymous monsters is simply a literalised expression of the function that the Doctor has performed for Earth. The Doctor positions himself as the ultimate keeper of the gate. “This is who I am,” the Doctor states. “I’ve been standing by the gates of your world, keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime. I’m not stopping now.”

Taking the moral highland.

In some ways, this arguably ties back to the core themes of the season. The status quo of the Twelfth Doctor’s final season has found him tasked with guarding the Vault, serving as gatekeeper between Missy and humanity. However, the Doctor has repeatedly forsaken that duty to go on adventures, demonstrating that he probably isn’t so good at it. In fact, the ending of The Eaters of Light suggests that the Doctor’s symbolic role does not convincingly translate to a literal role. He does not get to guard Earth from the energy locusts, he does not even keep Missy in the Vault.

There are other hints of larger season arcs that play through the episode. Susan seems to intermittently haunt the season, most notably with her photograph in The Pilot. In The Eaters of Light, Bill comes into contact with a troop of Romans who call their commander “grandad.” As he explains to Bill, “They all call me grandad. I’m the command. I’m the oldest one left.” It reflects the irony of Susan calling the First Doctor “grandfather”, despite the fact that the First Doctor was the youngest iteration of the character. (Knock, Knock also evoked the relationship.)

All fired up.

Interestingly, the characterisation of Bill in The Eaters of Light seems to hark back to her portrayal in the early episodes of the season. Rona Munro casts Bill as a genre-savvy companion who understands the conventions of the stories in which she has been placed. It is striking that it has taken Bill so long to realise that the TARDIS has an auto-translate circuit, which is a nice touch. It allows Munro to weave that circuit into the themes of the story, and it underlines the idea suggested in episodes like Knock, Knock that Bill actually knows very little about the Doctor.

Bill is smart enough (and familiar enough with science-fiction) to deduce the existence and nature of the circuit. She quickly realises that she can speak (and understand) Latin thanks to either the Doctor or the TARDIS, and that it is “something telepathic” like an “auto-translate.” In a very nice touch that reflects her attention to even the little details, Bill gasps, “Oh my god, it even does lip sync.” It recalls her question from Smile about whether the fact that the Doctor has two hearts means that he has really high blood pressure.

Mirror, mirror.

This reinforces the sense that The Eaters of Light is an early-season story that inexplicably got shuffled towards the tale end of the year. It feels like Bill should be more familiar with the TARDIS and the Doctor at this point, and that the series should be telling more ambitious stories. This stretch of the season has traditionally been reserved for more experimental stories; Love and Monsters, Blink, Midnight, Turn Left, The Lodger, The God Complex, Flatline, In the Forest of the Night, and even Sleep No More. As such, The Eaters of Light feels very conventional.

The only aspect of The Eaters of Light that feels specifically like a late-season story is the inclusion of Missy. The arc with Missy across the second half of the year is interesting, if only because it represents a season-long arc that is actually an arc. Doctor Who has never been very good at threading a story across thirteen episodes, to the point that most of Davies’ big season-long arcs were effectively code words like “Bad Wolf”, “Torchwood” or “Mister Saxon.” Moffat has been a bit more ambitious, but has largely constructed mystery boxes, to varying degrees of success.

There’s something off-kilt-er about this.

However, the redemption of Missy that began with Extremis and was threaded through The Lie of the Land and Empress of Mars feels like an actual attempt to tell a story. There is meaningful growth for Missy as a character, and a sense that the Doctor is actually changing over the course of these episodes. There is still an element of mystery to all this, as the Doctor tries to determine whether he can trust Missy, but that mystery is rooted in something very grounded. The Doctor is trying to determine whether he can reconnect with an old friend. It is nice hook.

That said, there is something very clumsy in how the threads involving Missy have been integrated into the second half of the season. Missy has largely been confined to single scenes, whether the extended execution scene (cut up and played across the episode) in Extremis or the late-episode TARDIS-bound guest appearances at the end of Empress of Mars and The Eaters of Light. The result is that these beats often feel “bolted on” to an existing story, shoehorned on to the end of an existing narrative so as to provide minimal disruption to the episode in question.

Enemy Mine at the Gate.

This is mildly frustrating, if only because of the potential to actually integrate Missy into the show. Like Nardole, Missy is a very compelling character and an intriguing companion. Doctor Who has not had a set of companions like Nardole and Missy since the revival came back. Nardole is arguably an update of the classic K-9 companion, while the ambiguity of Missy evokes the darker aspects of Turlough. After more than a decade of human women from the modern day, Nardole and Missy should be a breath of fresh air.

However, the season has struggled to integrate these characters into the plot in a convincing way. Nardole has spent about half of the season cut off from the rest of the plot, whether because the Doctor was sneaking around in Smile or Thin Ice or because he got conveniently jettisoned from the action like in Empress of Mars. Similarly, Missy had her big moment in the TARDIS at the end of Empress of Mars. It feels redundant to confine her to another big moment in the TARDIS in The Eaters of Light.

Tunnel vision.

The TARDIS crew of the Doctor, Bill, Nardole and Missy is an incredibly exciting team. It is a shame that they should only exist for World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. The dynamic is intriguing enough to support twelve episodes, so it is deeply frustrating to see Nardole and Missy pushed to the periphery for so significant a block of time. This makes a conventional episode like The Eaters of Light feel particularly disappointing in a way that evokes the second half of Moffat’s second season; the issue is not so much the story as the squandered potential.

The Eaters of Light is a solid episode, which is mildly frustrating when there is material here that would support a much stronger piece of television.

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