Series 10 is almost at its end and we’ve come to the close of the last “normal” episode we’re going to see until the second episode of Series 11, and that could be over a year away. For the next four episodes of the show (the two part series finale, the Christmas Special and the first episode of Series 11) will all be “event” episodes dealing with the resolution of series arcs, a regeneration and the debut of the next Doctor. The episode is also Peter Capaldi’s final “normal” episode of Doctor Who. So how does The Eaters of Light fare, being our final taste of “normal” Doctor Who for quite a while?
Well I am very happy to say The Eaters of Light might just be the best non-Moffat penned episode of Series 10, with it being a close competition between it and Thin Ice. The Eaters of Light works incredibly well as the last episode before the finale, because it ties perfectly into the themes established in the series so far. A monster locked deep in a cage that requires a great warrior to guard it for thousands of years? Is it just me or does that sound like the perfect mirroring to the situation involving the Doctor and Missy?
The most striking thing about The Eaters of Light was just how weird it was. Talking crows and a monster that eats light are the sort of things that can only work in Doctor Who and the episode dealt with them brilliantly. The Eater itself was a wonderfully designed creature that, despite being a completely CGI beastie, felt distinctly old fashioned and memorable. While we didn’t see too much of it, the episode seemed to know when to give us more and when to hold itself back. The Eater was used just enough for it to leave an impact, but not enough for it to take over the episode. Less is more.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the occasional flourishes of CGI this episode could easily have been the cheapest of the series. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if it actually was. My biggest surprise was just how restrained The Eaters of Light was, but tastefully so and how much it delighted in taking a slower pace in order to accurately develop it’s supporting cast. For this was perhaps the first non-Moffat/Dollard penned episode of the series to actually take the time to flesh out the guest characters. Instead of being vague character archetypes or being poorly/hastily developed, the characters here felt fully fleshed out. And this really benefitted the episode. It made it easier for us to care about these characters once we got to know them a little bit.
Kar and Lucius, the respective leaders of the Picts and the Ninth Legion survivors, were particular standouts. Kar could easily have been just another “feisty” Scottish redhead, but managed to show some great character as a young girl in way over her head but trying to act like she’s in control. Kar may not have had a lot of screen time in the episode, but thanks to the strong writing and Rebecca Benson’s strong performance, she emerged as one of the highlights of the episode. It’s a shame Benson may not appear again (maybe she can pull a Freema Agyemen/Karen Gillian and go on to become a companion in the future, playing a different character) as she showed a lot of promise. Lucius meanwhile, also played brilliantly by Brian Vernel, was another highlight of the episode. Delivering a surprisingly complex performance, Lucius managed to bring a very human element to the Roman legion; a soldier who’s growing disenfranchised with all the death and destruction and is trying to keep a brave face, while wondering what exactly he’s fighting for. The scene where the two finally met and, thanks to the TARDIS’s telepathic circuit, were able to understand and talk to each other was an excellent moment in the episode; calling to mind how many conflicts in our history could have been solved if both parties talked to each other – harkening back to the Doctor’s speech in The Zygon Inversion.
The Eaters of Light could very easily have been an episode from the Classic Series of Doctor Who. Which is no doubt due to Rona Munro being the writer. Munro had previously penned the Sylvester McCoy serial Survival, which was also the final serial broadcast before the show’s cancellation, making her the only writer to have written for both the Classic and Revival eras of the show. The Eaters of Light then, felt like a magical blend of the two eras; the storytelling of Classic Who with the modern sensibilities and budget of Revival Who. Munro didn’t make the monsters the main attraction here, instead focusing on the story and the characters. The small moment in the middle of the episode where all the Romans revealed they were actually bisexual and considered people who only liked one gender (no matter which) to be odd but still accepted was a surprisingly sweet moment and called to mind how more open and accepting past societies were to the various forms human sexuality can take than our modern one.
Perhaps it’s because The Lie of the Land and Empress of Mars were underwhelming, but it’s hard to describe exactly how entertaining and refreshing The Eaters of Light really was. Perhaps the episode’s only major failing was how quickly the Eater was defeated. But this can be forgiven for how well the episode succeeded in other areas, especially as the following scene seeing Kar and the Ninth Legion sacrifice themselves to fight off the Eaters forever more than made up for it.
Atmosphere is a very important part of stories and The Eaters of Light excelled in atmosphere. From the talking crows, to creepy Scottish forests to dark and dingy caves, the entire episode just looked fantastic and this was in part down to some amazing direction by Charles Palmer. Having earlier directed Oxygen, an episode that also looked fantastic, it comes as no surprise that The Eaters of Light looked fantastic as well. If Palmer doesn’t get invited back for Series 11, then it’s a crime.
Matt Lucas really shone as Nardole this week. Nardole has been the highlight of the series overall so far so seeing the Doctor and Nardole really have a chance to play off each other without Bill around was really welcome. It’s just a shame that it took right until the end of the series for it to happen. I live and hope for a whole series of Big Finish audio stories of just the Doctor and Nardole bouncing off each other. Capaldi and Matt Lucas have incredible chemistry and it’s slightly saddening we only got one series of it.
A major reason why The Eaters of Light worked so well was perhaps because of how traditional it felt. While this may be down to Munro having written for the Classic Series, it elevated the material incredibly well. It was one of those rare episodes where Doctor Who is quintessential Doctor Who. An episode that perfectly sticks to the established clichés of what we expect from a “filler” episode, but never lets them hold it back. Rona Munro has crafted one of the strongest episodes of the season. As the last “filler” episode for quite a while, Munro’s latest episode is a resounding triumph. Here’s hoping it isn’t her last.
Trivia and Speculation:
With Missy’s appearance in this episode, both stories Rona Munro has penned for the show have featured the Master; with Anthony Ainley’s incarnation of the Time Lord appearing as the main antagonist of her earlier story Survival.
It perhaps fitting that an episode set in Scotland would be Scottish actor Peter Capaldi’s final “average” episode of the show. Previous episodes set in Scotland include 2006’s Tooth and Claw (which according to rumours was only set in the country to allow David Tennant to use his native Scottish accent), 2015’s Under the Lake/Before the Flood, 1967’s The Highlanders and 1975’s Terror of the Zygons. Peter Capaldi is the third Scottish actor to portray the Doctor; Sylvester McCoy and David Tennant both hail from Scotland. The Doctor has had various companions from Scotland including the Second Doctor’s companion Jamie McCrimmon and the Eleventh Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, played by Scottish actress Karen Gillian. Neve McIntosh, the actress behind Silurian detective Madame Vastra, also comes from Scotland.
The episode marks another appearance by Romans. Romans have been seen in many episodes across the show’s history; more recently in 2008’s The Fires of Pompeii and 2010’s The Pandorica Opens. In a pure coincidence, The Eaters of Light aired on the birthday of actor Arthur Darvill, who played companion Rory Williams from 2010 to 2012. Rory was memorably erased from time in his debut series and would later reappear as a Roman Centurion in The Pandorica Opens. Rory would don his Roman armour in two later episodes; A Christmas Carol and A Good Man Goes to War and it is considered his iconic outfit. It is a fun coincidence then that the episode featuring an appearance by Romans would air on Darvill’s birthday. An even more interesting coincidence that the episode would see a Roman soldier form a close bond with a Scottish redhead, since Darvill’s on-screen wife in Doctor Who was none other than Scottish redhead Amy Pond. It gets even more interesting still as Rory and Lucius have both spent thousands of years guarding a prison of sorts; Rory guarding the Pandorica and Lucius guarding the gateway to the Eater’s dimension.
Rona Munro’s first Doctor Who episode, Survival, originally aired in 1989. Rona Munro’s return to Doctor Who in 2017 is the longest gap between episodes of the show penned by the same writer with a remarkable 28 years!
The ending scene of this episode implies Missy’s Heel-Face turn is genuine, but the Doctor isn’t too sure. Could we be in for the Doctor not trusting Missy and this sending her back down the path of darkness?