RONA MUNRO! Infamously the writer of this episode once found herself confronted in a theatre bar by Doctor Who 00s team of Russell T Davies and Phil Collinson, the two star struck and robbed of the power of speech beyond yelling “RONA MUNRO!” at her. Munro has a special place in the field of Doctor Who writers. She’s the first, and so far only, writer to cross the millennial divide and write for both the 20th century incarnation of the show and, as of this week, the 21st century revival too.
She also holds the dubious honour of writing the last ever story before the axe fell on the show in 1980s – the unintentionally ironically titled “Survival.” Her debut added to the sense of unfairness of what would become a fifteen year hiatus. Not only was it great, but it brought a lyrical tone and otherworldly sense of theme that seemed somehow deeper and more emotionally true than was typical of eighties Who. More than that, as one of the few women to write for the show the different sensibility she brought made her a totem for what the female perspective could bring.
So ever since “The Eaters of Light” was announced, with Munro attached to it, expectations were sky high. Did it live up the fan hype? Mostly, yes.
This episode is unlikely to secure the same iconic space that circumstance and unexpectedness granted “Survival,” but almost three decades after that debut, it shares its spirit of poetry and emotion and a perfectly judged plot which is straightforward enough to fit comfortably in the forty-five minute runtime yet sophisticated enough to hold the interest and have worthwhile things to say.
That storyline sees the Doctor and Bill abusing the TARDIS to settle a childish squabble about the real life mystery of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire. Formed in 65BC and mysteriously ceasing to appear in all records from 120AD on, no record survives of why the Ninth Legion stopped existing, with theories having it destroyed in battle anywhere from Northern England to what’s now Israel. But Doctor Who, being Doctor Who, goes with the most compelling, romantic version – that one day in 108AD the Legion marched across the border into Scotland and vanished, never to be seen again; Emperor Hadrian responding to the mystery by building his famous wall to bar anyone from following them and to keep the Empire safe from whatever had destroyed them. Bill’s book learning has her convinced the Legion deserted and formed their own community among the native Picts, while the Doctor’s personal experience as a former Vestal Virgin Second Class has him equally convinced they’ll find nothing but a huge pile of dead Roman types when they open the Police Box doors. Smartly, after quickly becoming separated, they each find exactly what they expected; the Doctor thousands of Legionnaires bearing the marks of gruesome and unnatural deaths; Bill making contact with the handful of deserters who had survived the massacre.
Nardole doesn’t put his pants on in the morning for less than 10,000 dead Romans
The monster behind that massacre is a fine illustration of Munro’s ability to merge the mythic and symbolic with Doctor Who’s own pseudo-scientific abilities without one compromising the other. Like the Cheetah Planet in Survival – a world where violence by the inhabitants caused volcanic activity through a kind of sympathetic magic – that monster being a wolf like beast which threatens to eat the Sun shouldn’t fit with this show. Nor should it being held at bay by a gatekeeper who must stand for all time against the darkness at the door between this world and the next. But even though there’s a vague handwave in the direction of technobabble the script’s main tactic is exert total confidence in its own premise and defy the viewer not to accept it. A vision of the world which tells us how the crow got his “KAW!” in the manner of a Kipling Just So story, it’s exactly this lack of apology or quibbling about its irrational nature that makes it work. Writers of stories where the Doctor declares “There’s no such thing as ghosts/demons/hell/borrowers!” only to describe something identical in every way except for being a “psionic energy echo” or something should take note.
That awkward moment when it looks like you might have to spend five billion years wrestling with a monster in a pocket universe. Again.
These more lyrical elements, seeking to explain exactly what the Pictish Beast depicted on so many standing stones was, are balanced against a smart theme about the unexpectedness of history. History is always as much about interpreting the ancient world through the lens of our own society, and this week we’re challenged to view how differently these events looked to the people inside them. The surviving Romans don’t see themselves as noble extenders of the frontier of civilization, but simple lads out to do a job and hopefully not die along the way. The Picts don’t see the Roman occupation as bringing ‘progress’ but as bullies stealing their land and killing their people for no reason at all. And while no doubt some of the usual suspects will complain of the infamous “gay agenda,” the observation that bisexuality was the norm in the Roman Empire is simply a nice reminder that heteronormativity is a relatively recent cultural development.
Though only lightly sketched in, the guest cast of Legionnaires and Picts, led by Lucius (Brian Vernel) and Kar (Rachel Benson) seem fully believable, real people. Kar, in particular, with her conflict between her ancient duty as her generation’s Gatekeeper, destined to hold back the Eaters of Light, and her desire to fight back against the Romans and save her people, makes the sort of mistakes and bad decisions that seem perfectly human, rather than contrived (“To protect a muddy little hillside, you doomed your whole world,” rages the Doctor at her childishness). And her courage in making amends also strikes as true (“Stop being brave. I can’t bear brave people,” the difficult to please Doctor complains about her willingness to sacrifice herself).
Kar, Gatekeeper of the Picts is a fierce and proud defender of her people
The regulars are on sparkling, witty form, with their more humorous lines flowing perfectly from the character and situation. When the Doctor explains to Nardole his theory on Finding Missing Companions 101 – “[Look] for the maximum danger in the immediate area and [walk] right into it!” or uses a bag of popcorn thrown into a fire to provide a distraction (“for now, would you mind awfully just jumping out of your skins and allowing Nardole and I to escape in the confusion?”) they’re both fun lines and joyful commentary on some of the show’s standard tropes.
“That’s the trouble with hope. It’s hard to resist.”
The only flash of anxiety for this reviewer from this episode is the stabbing realization that it marks this TARDIS team’s last stand-alone episode. The Twelfth Doctor, Bill and Nardole have formed a wonderful dynamic this season and it seems tragic that just as we’ve hit on a setup that perfectly suits Peter Capaldi’s incarnation, he’s moving towards the exit door. Even Missy (Michelle Gomez) feels like part of the family now, more so than any time since Roger Delgado was practically a series regular in the Third Doctor’s ‘UNIT family.’ In part, that sense of a show firing on all seasons is down to the success in having a smooth and seamless story arc. Eschewing the days of hint-hint-hint-infodump-finale, the storyline that began with the mystery of what was in the Vault, and continued through to the Doctor making a major decision about Missy’s fate this week, it’s been satisfyingly steady in its development. And, crucially, it’s been a strand dependant on revealing and developing character rather than concealing it. If the “Impossible Girl” arc of a few years ago made it difficult to truly learn about Clara until that year’s finale, every week the Vault/Missy arc has gone on, it’s felt like something new or interesting about the Twelfth Doctor’s history and personality has been revealed, on top of what we’ve learned about Missy.
And with the most renegade of Time Lords ready to move to centre stage with next week’s start to the two part season finale, it leave us poised for the most exciting season climax of the Capaldi era. So strap in. It looks like it’s going to be a wild ride.
[Five TARDISes out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan