This week’s episode of Doctor Who, “The Eaters of Light” opens in present day Aberdeen as two kids listening to the sound of a hill. Back in the 2nd century AD, Team TARDIS lands in the same spot, where the Doctor and Bill both claim that they know more about Roman Britain and the mystery of the Ninth Legion. Because the Doctor is a child and proving that he’s right is more important than guarding the Vault, he goes off with Nardole while Bill searches for the legion she read so much about. This just in: Bill Potts is a history buff and it’s great.
She encounters a local Pict who starts chasing her until she falls down into a hole. There she meets Simon, one of the last surviving centurions of the Ninth Legion. They try to find the other Romans, but the monster that annihilated the rest of the army finds them and kills Simon. Bill only escapes because she manages to find the others in time.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Nardole meet the rest of the Picts and Kar, the young Gatekeeper who supposedly destroyed the legion. The Doctor doesn’t have the patience for their tales, so he goes to find the gate himself. It turns out to be an inter-dimensional temporal rift, so while he spent mere seconds gazing into it two whole days passed in Aberdeen. In those two days, Bill has been hanging out with the centurions. Their leader, the 18-year-old Lucius is hitting on her, but she kindly tells him that she’s only into women. He finds that a bit restrictive, since in the Roman Empire being bi is the norm, but he accepts her and promises to be her friend.
The Doctor realizes what the monster is, a light eater that won’t stop until the Sun and all the stars are gone. He also comes to the conclusion that Kar let it out of the cairn where the rift is to defeat the army, and that the Picts sent a warrior to hold it off every generation. They only need to last minutes for Earth to get decades without a threat. He’s quite mean to Kar throughout, but has a plan to help them all. Bill arrives with the Romans just in time. She convinced them that even though they were scared and ran away from the legion they can be brave now. She and the Doctor make the Picts and the Romans cooperate and build a trap for the monster together.
The plan is to chase it back to the gate and keep on with the Pict tradition of one warrior per generation. However, the Doctor wants to go in instead after the monster is on the other side. With his lifespan he could hold it off until the Sun blows up. Bill, Nardole, the Picts, and the Romans all disagree. Instead, Kar and what’s left of the Legion go in together to hold it off. As they are leaving, the team can hear the Celtic song that plays from the remains of the cairn.
In the TARDIS Bill and Nardole are surprised to find Missy, who’s been doing “chores” for the Doctor in the TARDIS. Neither of them like the idea of the Master out of the Vault, but the Doctor is hoping she really can change for the better. Even if she can’t hear the music of self-sacrifice just yet.
“The Eaters of Light” is a fun historical episode that proves Doctor Who isn’t just about the sci-fi and aliens in space. In fact, the episode could have been better and most certainly more unique by being purely historical, one without any sci-fi elements at all. It’s been 35 years since the last purely historical episode, “Black Orchid” aired. Since the rift and the light eating monster weren’t very well developed anyway, not compared to the Picts and the Romans, the episode could have focused on the human aspect instead.
Rona Munro’s script had the foundation to be about human conflict that’s resolved with the help of Team TARDIS, but because the mystery of the Ninth Legion is one of those that Doctor Who loves to take its spin on, of course it had to involve wibbly-wobbly stuff. It would have been interesting to focus more on the characters, particularly because both the main Pict and Roman characters were so young and only hated each other because of cultural differences.
Still, “The Eaters of Light” managed to be informative as well as entertaining, just like those good old Hartnell era historical episodes. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the Ninth Legion or the Picts before watching the episode, and although I certainly don’t claim to be an expert now I feel like this was a nice way to educate and raise interest. The episode wasn’t trying too hard. It was just the right amount so that you learn a thing or two while watching the team embark on a new adventure.
Speaking of, Team TARDIS was kind of all over the place this week. On the one hand, we have the constant perfection that is Bill, who fortunately had more to do than in last week’s episode. Although her revelation that the TARDIS auto-translates does come quite late—only 10 episodes in, seriously? On the other, Nardole only seemed to be there to make a few half-hearted one liners and agree with Bill in the last two scenes.
As for the Doctor himself, both his attempted self-sacrifice and his general unpleasantness towards Kar were in character, although the latter should have been acknowledged in-universe. Twelve is known to be abrasive at times, but he was shown to be softer during this season. So, this feels like a step backward for him, especially with the conclusion being that he basically unwittingly guilt-tripped Kar into sacrificing herself. Not cool, Doctor.
By far the biggest problem I had with the episode doesn’t have much to do with the story, but rather the bigger picture of Series 10. Fine, have Missy in the TARDIS, have Nardole and Bill confront the Doctor about letting her out of the Vault. The problem is, this just doesn’t fit in with the episode, just like how Missy didn’t fit into the last one. During the early episodes of the series the Vault was this mystery that we were waiting to have significance.
But ever since it was revealed that the Master is in the Vault, she’s been forced into the story. It wasn’t that obvious with “The Lie of the Land” as the Monks storyline was getting messy as it was. But both “The Empress of Mars” and now “The Eaters of Light” clearly seem like Mark Gatiss and Rona Munro are writing Missy in because the overall story of the series needed them to rather than it flowing from the actual main plot.
Now, I do like the Master, and I love Michelle Gomez’s portrayal in particular. My guess is that this issue could have been solved by simply rearranging the order of the episodes. Put these last two before “Oxygen”, spend more time with Missy during the Monk storyline and there you go. You’re set for a season finale full of the Master. The way it is now throws off the balance of the season. I don’t see the last two episodes redeeming that, unless something spectacular happens with the Master that makes it all worth it. Let’s be honest, with John Simm and the Mondasian Cybermen returning it doesn’t seem impossible, just unlikely.
I might be biased here because I automatically prefer historical episodes and because I was really rooting for Rona Munro, the last writer of the Classic Era to come up with a worthy comeback, but I really liked “The Eaters of Light”. I still think having the Master in the end was random. It was cheesy at times, not to mention it was an underwhelming monster, but it is an episode that fits in with the series. Munro’s script is full of amazing dialogue. It’s clearly a love letter to her home, Aberdeen, which I do appreciate, and it ultimately all makes for nice viewing experience. I’m not sure it works as well in context of the whole series. As I said, I wouldn’t have had this as episode 10, just before the final two-parter, but that doesn’t make the story worth any less on its own.