Doctor Who #992: The Eaters of Light

"Stop being brave! I can't stand brave people!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jun.17 2017.

IN THIS ONE... The Ninth Legion and the Picts face a light-devouring monster.

REVIEW: With The Eaters of Light, Rona Munro becomes the first classic series writer (its last!) to pen a NuWho episode, and she hands in the most lyrical story in a good while. Not surprising for "Survival"'s writer. Eaters is an episode that's better understood in terms of poetics than of strict plotting, and works as a piece of Celtic myth more than science-fiction, with an added layer of metaphorical commentary about war and Empire, the Romans as much devourers as the eponymous monsters.

The story takes us to 2nd-Century Scotland so Bill can win a bet with the Doctor about what happened to the legendary lost Ninth Legion. As it turns out, neither of them are right, and what unfolds is even more fanciful than the legends we do have - the Legion and the Picts allied against a monstrous force that would consume all light, the sun, the stars, the universe, and standing guard against that threat for all time. Throw in the very reason crows caw (they are actually remembering the sacrifice of the Pictish leader Kar) and you really do have something that feels magical despite the Doctor's pseudo-scientific explanations. So this is a tale of friendship and alliance keeping the darkness and apocalypse at bay, quite literally. Moreover, it seems to say something that our hopes are on the shoulders of young people (the casting is striking in this regard), the adults in both groups having been all killed by an escaped Eater, and that the warrior impulse is entirely treated as a childish thing, a form of honor espoused in cowardly ways. When the Doctor tries to sacrifice his existence by claiming he's the only one who can do this, the in-story explanation is that he's essentially immortal, but in reality, it's that he sees himself as the only adult. (In fact, we the time distortion, you don't need to be immortal to stand guard over the cairn.) The kids "grow up" in that moment, and accept a great responsibility, one worth the honoring. And while the whole "standing at the gate" thing is a fine metaphor for the Doctor himself, this story is also about the older generation trusting the younger, quite topical (though it perhaps always has been), the Doctor standing in as the ultimate "old guard", condescending to Kar, infantilising her constantly - not an endearing trait, but one that pays off. Perhaps not coincidentally, Munro's "Survival" also dealt with a lost generation. "Lost" like the Ninth Legion, or like Bill... or is it just that we don't know where it is?

It's not all lyrical, of course. It works as a proper (if weird) Doctor Who story, with the Doctor and companion getting split up, falling in with different sides, etc. as they either chase a monster or are chased by it (even a lurking POV shot), with brilliant use of location and color accents. Without the poetics behind it, one might say the monster isn't that great - we don't see its massacres, only one-on-one conflicts, and certainly doesn't make a bid for the very sun; the physics of it are wonky. I do like its bio-luminescent tentacles/tongue and wish it were all like that instead of coming off some reptilian body (though perhaps I'm missing some Celtic reference). Bill, as usual, comments on Doctor Who tropes in new and slightly meta ways, confronted for the first time with the translation circuit, and is delighted to discover Roman "modernity" includes a lot more fluidity when it comes to sexual orientation. As in Oxygen, she gets called out on her own parochial attitudes, which is amusing. Perhaps because because this episode was originally set to air before Empress of Mars, she fails to say "again!?" after falling into another pit. I do rate her rallying speech though, and how the young Romans listen because no one else is saying anything - more than lost, they are a silent generation. The Doctor also has that fun escape using popcorn, and Nardole is always good for light banter and zingers ("Death by Scotland" among his best).

And then there's the Missy coda. It seemed incongruous that, after her appearance out of the Vault at the end of the previous episode, it should not be addressed at the top of this one. But her story has moved on, and now the Doctor has her working on his engines, a much less captive prisoner. Has he in fact saved her soul yet? While her loopy Master has been as camp as Ainley's in the past, Michelle Gomez here proves to be the best actor to ever play the role, agonizing over her past, or perhaps only baiting the hook with hard-to-resist hope that she might have truly reformed. We believe her entirely, but like the Doctor, we also know better. She's in tears again, listening to the music supernaturally resonating from the stones, something the Doctor says has been beyond her 'til now. How could she have heard the music - i.e. been able to appreciate beauty, the universe, etc. for its own sake - when a single drum beat was echoing in her head since childhood? Absent this interference, is Missy now allowed to become who she was meant to become? Or is it too late for her, and is she going through the motions, doing what she thinks the Doctor wants her to do? Has the dark overtaken her light? We'll find out soon.

REWATCHABILITY: High - On first viewing, I was impressed with the lyricism if not with the nuts and bolts of the plot. On the second, I found myself welling up at the great speeches and at the metaphorical background opening up to me. Just like Survival, there's a lot more going on under the surface than a synopsis might infer.

3 comments:

LondonKdS said...

Apparently the monster was based on something called the "Pictish Beast", which does appear in art of the era.

Anonymous said...

I can't say I liked this one. What got me was everyone fighting to be the ones to sacrifice their lives, and the math was nonsense. If it's one second there to one day here, let's say the troop of warriors could hold out for three hours on the other side. That'd be 10800 days, or about 30 years. Even if it's only one day a year that matters (the solstice), okay, that's still only 10800 years.

And what of the Doctor sacrificing his life? It's not necessary to kill him and all his regenerations (all infinity of them), you'd just need to sit on him. Basically, everyone seems to be rushing off to die in a completely futile effort.

If this had been a Matt Smith episode, a warrior or warriors would have gone into the rift, and the Doctor would have done something with the TARDIS to repair the rift so that only the tiniest crack remains, with the sound of Pictish music echoing through the ages. (Matt Smith would have felt really bad about them sacrificing themselves but he would have let them, which would have given him a chance to do his haunted demeanor again.)

Brendoon said...

Ah! It's interesting that you rated this one high... I thought the trailer was fantastic but the episode was a bit rubbish! Both too heavily edited AND not enough editing-in-the-right-places... all at the same time.
FOR MY TASTES, I must add. This isn't an empirical judgement from an experienced filmmaker.
(You note experienced film-makers tend not to judge each others work?)

I'm actually finding the Colin Baker Big Finish episodes more gripping than some of the current run on telly... although that's normal, I think a lot of the telly episodes try to deliver high and fall short.

I LOVE(x10) Capaldi as the doctor but I'm thinking some of the best writers are on radio. Radio episodes are longer admittedly but some of their short stories are to die for too! (eg: Mozart's hundredth birthday after his foray into electric drums, hip-hop and sconemaking- very Hitchhikers Guide; or the one where they try to stop Caesar being born as a girl in 100BC and Evelyn tries to scuttle his plan for the sake of womankind....)

 

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