“The Eaters of Light” was written by Rona Munro and directed by Charles Palmer.
Spoilers ahead for “The Eaters of Light,” because hey ... it's a TV Recap.
The Short Version: The Doctor, Bill and Nardole go off on an expedition to find out what happened to the lost Roman Ninth Legion in Scotland in the second century. Bill splits up from the Doctor, and Nardole and falls in with a handful of Roman deserters who are hiding out from a “beast” that killed most of the Ninth Legion. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Nardole find the local “painted barbarians” who've been battling the soldiers while trying to figure out what to do about the beast they unleashed. Believing the creature is the “eater of light,” the Doctor soon discovers just how right they are about what the beast is capable of and what it might do to the Earth, the Sun and the stars if it's not stopped.
The Bad: Doctor cranky pants returns!
Normally I'd start my recap with The Good and the positive things, because I really do like Doctor Who most of the time. I'm a fan and have been since the Tom Baker days. But “The Eaters of Light” had one enormous problem with it that was so maddening that I had to switch things up.
When it comes to Doctor Who, I've enjoyed all of the Doctors to some extent, some more than others. But for the first two years Peter Capaldi's Doctor was often condescending, cranky and not very nice. Then came Bill in his third season and suddenly the 12th Doctor lightened up and I started to like him.
Unfortunately, “The Eaters of Light” brought back the pre-Bill Doctor, perhaps because the Doctor and Bill were separated for a good chunk of the episode. I liked the story, which involves a real historical mystery, and there were highlights along the way that made the episode worth watching. However, I am not a fan of the Doctor in this episode, who is inconsistent at best.
“The Eaters of Light” starts off lightweight enough as the Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive in ancient Scotland to explore the mystery of what happened to the Roman Ninth Legion, which vanished during the second century. After arriving in scenic ancient Scotland, the Doctor and Bill argue about who knows more about the missing legion, and Bill takes off in one direction, toward a local river, searching for the soldiers, while the Doctor and Nardole head the other way to look for the legion's last battlefield.
The Doctor and Nardole pass a rock structure called a cairn and some crows that seem to speak. “Early Celts loved stone cairns. They built them under the ground but close to the sky. They think they're doors between worlds.”
The duo quickly find the remnants of the Ninth Legion and evidence of a terrible battle, and then get captured by the Scottish Picts, aka the “painted barbarian” locals. The Doctor and Nardole try to find out what's going on with the Picts and meet a young woman named Kar who says she's the Gatekeeper.
When Kar says she killed the Roman army, the Doctor doesn't believe her. “Are you the mighty warrior we've all been waiting for? Where are all the grownups?” But he does believe something is on the other side of the gate. The Doctor goes through the gate and sees countless beasts swimming in a blue sky (or ocean or something). As one of the dragon-like beasts comes toward him he steps back and the gate closes.
Outside, Nardole is telling a story to the locals, but he's wearing a different outfit and his face has markings like the Picts. He tells the Doctor he's been gone for two days, but the Doctor tells him it's only been seconds. Then the Doctor realizes, “It's an inter-dimensional temporal rift. A second in there equates to days of time on this side.”
As for Bill, after some adventures -- getting chased through the woods by Kar with a sword, falling through another hole (like last week), meeting a Roman soldier and realizing they understand each other's languages, him getting killed and Bill almost getting killed by the dragon-like beast with blue tendrils -- Bill meets a group of Roman Centurions who deserted just before their Legion was killed by the creature. The soldiers save Bill, who suffers a touch of one of the creature's tendrils, and she passes out. Luckily she wakes up about the same time the Doctor comes back through the gate.
Meanwhile, the Doctor confronts Kar and we discover that “It's called the Eater of Light and we held it back. Every generation a new warrior went into the gate and fought the Eater of Light so it couldn't break through,” Kar tells him. She believes the beast is weak and that it will die soon. When the Doctor tells her there are millions more waiting to break through, she tells him she'll hold them all back. “You'll hold them back with your lollipop and your kiddy face paint, and your crazy novelty monster-killing tool?” the condescending Doctor says.
When the beast kills one of Kar's people, the Doctor tells her it's getting stronger. He realizes that Kar let the creature through the gate on purpose to stop the Roman army, and while it destroyed the Legion, something terrible was unleashed. Unfortunately, the Legion didn't weaken the creature enough, and it started to get stronger as the beast feeds on the light and the light outside begins to dim.
And this is where the episode lost me. Perhaps because the actress who plays Kar (Rebecca Benson) is so good when the Doctor goes for her juggler and verbally assaults her for trying to save her “muddy little hillside” and dooming “your whole world,” it's just wrong. The Romans were killing and enslaving and overrunning everything she knew. Kar took the risk of letting the beast through because she had no choice. What teenager wouldn't try to save the people and the home she loves? She didn't know the beast was an alien creature. She didn't know what it would do. She was a kid with the weight of the world and her people on her shoulders, and she did what she thought was the right thing.
The condescending, cruel attitude of the Doctor is infuriating as the Doctor verbally rips Kar apart. Bill, who's woken up and made nice with the Romans, is giving a pep talk to the Centurions telling them how they should find the Doctor because he always helps. “He always makes a difference.” When the main soldier, Lucius, tells her they are outnumbered by the barbarians and the creature, she tells him, “Maybe that's what you don't learn when you think it takes 5,000 highly trained soldiers to slaughter a bunch of Scottish farmers.” Thank God for Bill in this episode.
The soldiers travel through the cave system and eventually run across the Picts and the Doctor (and Nardole, who is basically comic relief for this episode). The Doctor and Bill are happy to see each other, but the Romans and the locals are not quite so happy. Bill and the Doctor talk them down because thanks to the Doctor and the TARDIS they are all speaking the same language, and they are all sounding a lot like children. The condescending Doctor tells them it's time to “GROW UP!”
The Good: Taking on a real-life mystery, enemies coming together, Bill's surprise
While the Doctor's verbal assaults were mean, there were a lot of other things about the episode I liked. The episode was written by Rona Munro, who also wrote the final episode during the original run of Doctor Who.
I love seeing the Doctor and gang tackle a real historical mystery, as they did in “Thin Ice,” especially one that is so, well, mysterious. Of course, it's unlikely the real Roman Ninth Legion went missing because of light-eating alien dragons, but there are worse ways it could have gone missing in the Doctor Who universe. The episode does about as much as any one hour of television could in giving us a touch of insight into the Roman Centurions and the Picts, at least for an hour with alien dragons.
As the episode closes the Romans and the Picts come together to fight the beast. In the cairn, they play music and make other noise to attract the creature. And the beast comes galloping into the cairn, but the two groups have joined forces using gatekeeper weapons. As the gate opens at dawn, they drive the Eater of Light through.
Then the Doctor tells Bill what he's planning: Rather than send a warrior into the gate to fight for a few moments, as the Picts have done for centuries (because even if they only hold the beasts off for a few seconds it's centuries on our end), he's going to go through and hold the beasts off, because he can go on “forever.” Bill tries to stop him. But then Kar tells him it's her destiny. The Romans and other of Kar's people join her and walk through the gate to battle the light-eating beasts.
With too many people going through at the same time, the cairn collapses. While the Doctor sulks a bit, Bill says goodbye to Kar's brother, whose plan it is to carve her name into the stones left around the cairn -- well, that and make sure that the crows remember her name. As the Doctor, Nardole and Bill enter the TARDIS, Bill wonders whether she hears music. In the TARDIS they find Missy, who the Doctor has let out of the vault so she can perform maintenance on the engines -- a plan neither Bill nor Nardole is a fan of. The Doctor and Missy have a moment, and he ponders whether it's time for them to become friends again.
I liked the fact that these bitter enemies have to join forces to save the world. When Bill learns that the Doctor and the TARDIS are the reason everyone in the universe speaks English (they don't), it's a light bulb moment for her and how the Doctor is able to “help.” And for the episode particularly, having the two enemies finally speak the same language makes them realize that what they have in common is more important than what they don't. Still, the bit about them all sounding like children is a bit heavy-handed, especially considering that the Picts and the Romans are actually teenagers who've been saddled with this war by the dead adults.
Of course, the battle between the Romans and the Picts plays into the Doctor and Missy's own battle. Whether Missy is really being rehabilitated or not, that's the question we'll likely have an answer for with the two-part finale, which begins next week.
As for Nardole, I'll put him in the good column this week. I wish they'd get rid of his ridiculous clothes, which are more of a distraction than anything else, but he's starting to make a place for himself as a companion, and he did add some humor to the story.
One other note ... It's a delightful moment when Bill once again learns that people throughout history are not quite as black and white as she thought they were. When she finds out that her liking women isn't any big deal in the Roman world, she says, “How modern.” It's funny and enlightening, as both we and Bill are reminded that people of all stripes have been around since the beginning of man and woman, and people haven't always been as narrow-minded as some are in our “modern” times.
Finally, the episode opens and closes with a little girl in the present listening to the remains of the stones and hearing music. Obviously the music is the music played by the Picts, who for moments battled the alien dragon Eaters to give their people decades or perhaps centuries of stopping the beasts from coming through the gate. I'm not sure if I would have missed it if it wasn't there in such a crowded episode, but it was a sweet touch.
Lingering Questions: The crows, gate mechanics, and Missy
As far as the episode goes, there were some questions. What was the point of the crows saying the Doctor's name and “talking”? Maybe one of them will have something to do with Clara's killer crow. There seemed to be some point to it, but if it was obvious I missed it.
The bigger episode question for me had to do with the mechanics of how such a gate between dimensions would have been built in the first place, or how it really works. I know Nardole said something about how clever it was that they opened the gate at dawn to relieve the pressure or some such thing, but it didn't make a whole lot of sense. And the Doctor claimed that the creatures were “light-eating locusts” hunting for every crack they would find to escape and eat the light. So why haven't they done it? Why haven't such dangerous creatures eaten the sun and the stars and everything already? Beyond that, did the collapse of the cairn close the gate forever, or can the creatures still come through at some point once the Picts and Romans can't stop them anymore? The Doctor was willing to sacrifice himself, but he doesn't seem very worried about the gate anymore as he flies off in the TARDIS.
While none of those questions will likely be addressed, Missy's not in the vault, and her rehabilitation will likely be addressed. When the whole vault thing came up earlier this season, the Doctor and Nardole talked about there being some cost to Earth if Missy was let out of the vault. Well, she's out. What's the cost? And is there really one?
Lines of the Night:
“Death by Scotland.” - Nardole
“It's not always fun to be right.” - The Doctor
“We're looking for the maximum danger in the immediate area and walking right into it.” - The Doctor
“This is what happens when you can understand what everyone in the universe is saying. Everybody just sounds like children.” - Bill
“She slaughtered your Legion. You slaughtered everything that she loves. Now you all have a choice. You can carry on slaughtering each other 'til no one is left standing, or YOU CAN GROW THE HELL UP! Because there's a new war now. I think these creatures are light-eating locusts looking for rents and cracks between worlds they let themselves into dimensions of light. Once they break through they eat. They will eat the sun. And then they will eat the stars. And they will keep eating until there are no stars left. So whose side are you on now? Because as far as I can see there's only one side left. If it helps, I do have a plan.” - The Doctor
“I've been standing by the gates of your world keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime. I'm not stopping now.” - The Doctor
“Oh, stop being brave. I can't bear brave people.” - The Doctor
Worst Line of the Night:
“To protect a muddy little hillside, you doomed your whole world.” - The Doctor
Here's the trailer for next week's episode, “World Enough and Time,” written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay: