This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
10.10 The Eaters Of Light
“Everyone knows there are ghosts in the hill”
Thanks to a surprisingly long epilogue at the end of The Eaters Of Light, it feels as though the stage is tantalisingly now set for wherever Steven Moffat’s very last Doctor Who finale two-parter is set to take us. With the story of this particular episode told before 40 minutes had been clocked up, we were left in the TARDIS with the Doctor, Missy, Nardole and Bill. One of those people was supposed to be in the vault (a mystery whose pay-off continues to be far less satisfying than the build up), but has been deployed on TARDIS maintenance work instead. Nardole seems the only one massively bothered.
Exactly where the character of Missy is heading remains to be seen, notwithstanding previously revealed spoilers for the next two episodes which may on the surface have given a bit of the game away. Still, we’ve not seen an iteration of The Master with a tear running down their face before. Is Missy really feeling remorse for her actions? Are she and the Doctor set to be good friends again when all this over? With two episodes of Doctor Who series 10 to go, I ain’t betting on it. Thanks to the modern ecosystem of releasing reveals some way in advance, I’d wager neither are you.
“I got an A star!”
I do think it’s telling, though, that the bits running around my head after watching The Eaters Of Light twice – appreciating I was bored neither time – remain the threads in that ending. That whilst the main story had a few moments, it didn’t choose to stick around in my brain once the credits had rolled.
It felt a bit oddly scheduled, which didn’t help. Last week’s The Empress Of Mars dealt with cowardice, missing characters underground, the need to cooperate to go forward in life, and characters who were enemies at the start, but were working together by the end. The Eaters Of Light? You’d have to say there was some notable overlap in the Venn diagram.
That said, if some of the themes felt familiar, the setting was different. Plus, there was some fetching loungewear in this one, ably modelled by Matt Lucas. The set up, then, saw the Doctor, Nardole and Bill landing around the Aberdeen area. More to the point, the Aberdeen area in around in Roman times, where the ninth legion of the Roman army have gone missing. Bill has a theory that’s she got from a book as to what’s happened. The Doctor has another. They have a wager. A crow crows. The story begins.
Quickly heading underground, it’s there that Bill quickly finds at least some of the missing Ninth Legion soldiers, in this case the ones hiding away. The Doctor and Nardole ultimately find the rest, their bodies disintegrated apparently in double quick time, thanks to a lack of light. They also find another bunch of people, including the ‘Gatekeeper’ (that’s as far as the Ghostbusters reference went). Turns out, and this is far from the first chilling moment of this Doctor Who run, it’s they who indirectly led to the slaughter of the Ninth, courtesy of a monster being let across a portal to feast on them. Cheery stuff, and utterly brutal.
The Eaters Of Light comes from the pen/typewriter/word processor/brain of Rona Munro, and I think many of us have been looking forward to her return. After she penned the final episode of the classic Doctor Who run, Survival, she’s built an enviable, hugely-respected career in playwriting, with a particular pedigree for historical stories. It’s here she feels on best form in this episode too, as the story of the Ninth Legion unfolds. There’s even some space afforded for Bill to have a quick natter with them about which gender everyone’s attracted to.
What The Eaters Of Light lacked for me, though, was a sense of threat, a strong monster or force to push against. The creature we got was an impressive looking beast for the most part (certainly in the lit up bits, anyway), the one who keeps popping through a portal when able and allowed to wreak havoc. But whereas there are moments in this run of Who that have really dug under the skin and been quite creepy, this time it felt like we got a decent enough creature, yet the sense of peril didn’t come across for me.
Furthermore, as we subsequently discovered, there are more of said creatures trying to get through the portal too. Hence, it builds to a moment of sacrifice at the end, where the Doctor says he’ll watch the portal until the end of his days. Even before the mighty Peter Capaldi had finished the sentence, everyone watching knew someone else would be doing it within a minute or two. “What are the chances of him actually sacrificing himself here?”, I asked one of my children. “Dad, there are two episodes left”, they drolly replied. Quite.
“You’re not cowards. You’re scared. Scared is fine”.
There were moments that broke through. In particular, the conversation between Bill and the Doctor where she realises that everybody basically sounds like children was really excellent, a further demonstration of the growing strength of Bill. Ten episodes into her time on the show, and I never get the sense that she’s not learning, not evolving, not picking up, absorbing new skills as a character. It helps that Pearl Mackie has been a real triumph, too. I also found Munro’s conversations between characters human and interesting, too. And Murray Gold’s score was exquisite, to my ears offering a nudge back to Survival in places.
And yet I can’t say that The Eaters Of Light particularly won me over. I come back to this: I found it enjoyable enough while it was in front of my eyes, but the second it was gone, I didn’t find myself yearning to go back to the start. Narratively, it felt like a complete story, it’s just that it never really soared or sparkled for me.
Furthermore, it leans on a familiar Who cocktail. I have no quarrel with the show resolving every single episode with human beings coming together rather than fighting if it wants to, but there needs to be a spin on it, something to make it feel fresh and different. I don’t think The Eaters Of Light had that. Although it did explain why crows have been in a bad mood for so long.
The set up for next week was intriguing, of course (as was the next time trailer, that I won’t go into here). We’ve now got the Doctor and Missy on the verge of being friends, with the latter seemingly overcome by the impact of her actions. Just in time for a two-part series finale, that’ll presumably see much of that wiped away.
I do feel that the first half of this series – up until the start of the three parter – was really something, a show on strong form, bristling with confidence. Since the Monks story stumbled to a close, I’d suggest it’s not got that momentum back yet. The Eaters Of Light, whilst enjoyable, hasn’t managed to pull it back either. Fingers crossed for next week, with every sign suggesting that a terrific 45 minutes lies ahead…
Our review of last week’s episode, The Empress Of Mars, is here.