This story in a nutshell: Rona Munro returns to Doctor Who after almost three decades…
Indefinable: Dare I say this out loud? There were times where I felt that Capaldi was phoning it in a little, almost as if he knew it was his last (and not particularly interesting) standalone and he had had enough of this role a little. It was especially apparent during the climax where the Doctor attempts to sacrifice his life for the umpteenth time in a spectacularly unconvincing fashion. There is an entire arc that is playing out around this season that hasn’t been anywhere near polished off, is the Doctor really going to sacrifice himself here and leave Missy to roam about the universe in the TARDIS causing mischief? To boil it down to something insulting, the Doctor simply is not going to give up his life to guard a portal and save a bunch of Romans. You know it and I know it and Capaldi knows it and yet he’s forced to say the lines to the contrary anyway and it doesn’t come off plausibly. He said in a recent interview that there were only so many ways you can declare the end of the world…and I think he might have come to the point where it has become a little tiresome. I enjoyed the opening scenes of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole arriving and arguing about the mystery of the missing Roman Legion. It’s a shame that Nardole felt the need to mention the vault again because Missy is spending more time out of it than in it these days and the arc intrusion, for once, felt unnecessary. Let this scene be what it is, the Doctor and his companions landing in history and debating a point. You might think the Doctor is too hard of Kar, but she is so stubborn and inflexible I thought he wasn’t hard enough. The 12th Doctor of season eight would have thrown her to the light eating alien and gone and had some tea.
Funky Chick: There’s a fine line between complaining about Bill harping on about her sexuality and somebody complaining that homosexuality features too much in Doctor Who and television in general. I do want to do the former, but I most definitely do not want to do the latter. I have met a lot of new people in past couple of years I don’t think I have had to explain my sexuality once, let alone several times as Bill has this year. The ‘get to know you’ scene smack bang in the middle of this episode where Bill and the Romans reveal who they sleep with felt very unreal, for once it genuinely felt like a political statement. Doctor Who is gay friendly and we want you to know it. That is a really wonderful thing and it should be embraced, but I personally don’t need scenes like this interrupting the flow of an episode to tell me that a Roman character takes it up the arse. Besides I wouldn’t want Bill’s character to be defined by her sexuality. What Russell T Davies did so cleverly in his era was to create vivid, real, memorable characters first and assign them a sexuality second. With this era does feel a bit like a token gesture without any of the substance. Beyond her sexuality and her mother dying, how else would you define Bill? I remember in interviews before the series came out there was an emphasis on Bill being gay not being important and just enjoy the series…but it is a point that is being made again and again by the people who gave those interviews IN the series. Hell, mostly thanks to the efforts of Pearl Mackie I really like Bill and I still think she has been the most successful female companion of the Moffat era. However, I do feel the character has lost some of her initial sparkle from the first half of the season, since The Pyramid at the End of the World the character has either been making really stupid choices or simply coasting. I hope she gets a really good send off in the next two episodes otherwise she will wind being a bit of a non-entity in canon terms. Odd, because you could hardly say that of the only other one season wonder, Donna. Why does Bill keep talking in that strange voice when she is being sarcastic? It was cute at first but she keeps doing it more and more these days. This is the first new series story to be written by a classic series writer and within 10 minutes Bill has gotten lost and fallen down a hole. There’s progression for you. No, that’s not fair, Bill is the one that drives the mystery, she heads off independently and she holds her own amongst a group of randy Romans. And to be fair to Munro she characterised Ace beautifully in Survival, giving her a predatory and sexual awakening and giving her a memorable homecoming. It’s not fair to compare the two as they are completely different types of story (aside from being obsessed with teenagers) but I’m a Doctor Who fan and it is what we do and Ace wins hands down in this category. Bill has a few charming moments in The Eaters of Light, but Ace was the beating heart of Survival. Bill’s decision to defy the Doctor at the climax and reminding him that he cannot take on every fight, was nicely done. She needs a few more moments like that, where she stands out and fights his opinion.
Faithful Sidekick: The saving grace of The Eaters of Light as far as I am concerned, Nardole seemed to be the only character who was actually having any fun. I love how he steps from the TARDIS in a dressing gown and tea cosy and has no intention of getting changed, no matter how inappropriate. This episode is a nice chance to see how it would have been had the Doctor and Nardole gone solo this season. He tries to ingratiate himself with the local populace, which the Doctor finds nauseating. He sits around gossiping about future events whilst the Doctor is transfixed by the portal for a couple of days, irritating Doctor Who fans by offering a cheeky alternative theory to the disappearance of the Marie Celeste’s crew. In case the Doctor bears a grudge, Nardole knows 10% of the Doctor’s secrets (the dark ones) and he is the only one in the TARDIS who knows where the teacakes are.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ll hold them back? What with your lollipop and your kiddie face paint and your crazy novelty monster killing tool?’ The Doctor can’t take these kids seriously either.
The Good: I don’t know if this story was shot in Wales or Scotland, but it sure looks rugged and beautiful. The landscapes on offer are an artist’s inspiration, the scenery offering more complex characterisation than the script. It looks exactly the sort of place where the TARDIS could plonk down, almost incongruously, and an adventure can begin. The windswept desolation brings to mind The Sontaran Experiment and the gorgeous autumnal glens reminded me strongly of The Mysterious Planet. The Doctor and Nardole discovering the great pile of bodies in the landscape is a moment that made me sit up and pay attention. Another visual that defies the slumbersome nature of the plot is the gate itself, a fearsome light show of spectres dancing given some welly by some Murray Gold bombast.
The Bad: ‘Crows in the future are all in a huff?’ Every now and again Doctor Who loves to put out these cute ‘he talks baby’ moments. I didn’t mind the idea that crows can talk, it’s kind of creepy in how it was realised. What I do object to is the payoff to this idea and the reason the crows don’t talk in the future. Or only make one sound. My other half turned to me as they started screaming ‘Ka!’ at the climax and said ‘that’s just embarrassing.’ Kar is a character that should stand out for all the right reasons, a female warrior who is tired of the Roman arrogance to come and civilise the rest of the world. But as played by Rebecca Benson, I found her desperately unlikable, annoying even. There isn’t the weight of the slaughter on her shoulders, she just sounds like a whining teenager. And Dawn Summers taught us how irritating that can be. Listen to her dialogue, it makes a lot of sense but in complete opposition to The Empress of Mars you have actors that are sabotaging the complexity that is inherent in the script. The Roman characters were sweet but not particularly interesting, beyond their sexuality I felt as if I barely got to know them, just their situation. I’m wondering if it was the fact that I was dealing with two sets of teenagers that I had a problem with. If there had been adults involved I might have been able to have taken it more seriously. I’m sure Munro has researched this well and it is accurate, but it does have a feel of Doctor Who history 90210. Half the problem is that I never had a sense of real jeopardy here. The last time Charles Palmer directed an episode was Oxygen and every second I felt the setting and the situation tightening around the characters. But if the kids here can sit around and natter so much the desperation of the scenario is hardly apparent. And with a conclusion as easy as this, it could have been solved a lot sooner than it was. It’s rather amusing that Munro is a 7th Doctor writer and this has more than a touch of Paradise Towers to it, with two warring factions (including a teenage clan) coming together to fight their real enemy. It feels less triumphant this time around.
Result: This was the episode I earmarked for a watch with my very good friend Jack in Australia, we try and marry up one episode a season and we decided that it should be the episode written by a classic series writer. I wished we had gone for somebody more obvious like Matheson or Dollard, now. I wasn’t engaged by The Eaters of Light at all and by the end we watched Extemis just so I could wax lyrical about something this season. To give a balanced view I did find the first ten minutes, whilst never exactly riveting, set up the reasons the Doctor and company have arrived, luxuriate in a stunning location and introduce what appears to be an intriguing new monster. It’s everything that happens after that that is the problem. Not a great deal. There is a dearth of incident in this story after it is set up, a lack of tension, of pace and finally of a sufficient conclusion. The characters sit around and discuss this cataclysmic situation (and who they like to sleep with) and then join forces and step into a light. The end, there I saved you the need to watch this desperately mediocre slice of Who. Had there been some knockout characterisation, some confrontation with bite, some more insight into the light eater or even some logic behind how it was defeated, I might have been able to stay awake. It probably doesn’t help that Romans and barbarians and creating mythology in history isn’t really my bag, so I might have been onto a loser even if those things were in place. Series 10 has been a really mixed effort as far as I am concerned. Whilst there was a freshness with Bill and some initial excitement around an engaging new TARDIS team (The Pilot, Thin Ice, Oxygen and Extremis all working extremely well), there is also a tiredness in the writing and a feeling that this production team is trading on past glories rather than embracing the future of the show (and with the Cybermen and the Master appearing in the finale it looks like nothing is going to change). For me, there have now been more so-so episodes than good, especially since the middle the of the season. Practically every Doctor Who year ramps up towards its conclusion (look at the run up in series three and four) but series 10 seems to be limping to the finish line with a pair of disappointing Monk episodes, a love letter to the Ice Warriors and a failed attempt at attaching poetry to history. It’s hardly gathering momentum, is it? And if you think I am only hard on Moffat’s seasons, I think the run from Kill the Moon to Last Christmas is very strong, with only a few exceptions. Given the way Missy has been not-so discreetly shoehorned into so many episodes of late I would have thought this would have been her breakout episode before the finale. Even she seems less than impressed with this tale as she sums it up less than favourably in her five minute intrusion at the climax. Perhaps if this had taken place earlier in the season it would have felt more diverting. Somehow I doubt it. Think of some of the Capaldi standalones – Into the Dalek, Mummy, Flatline, The Girl Who Died, Fear the Raven, Thin Ice, Oxygen – why did this have to be his last one? This is Doctor Who in fatigue. It needs a creative defibrillator to pump some life back into it: 4/10