Sunday 18 June 2017

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 10x10 - The Eaters of Light

Doctor Who 10x10 - The Eaters of Light

Doctor Who has never been one to shy away from a real-life mystery. After all, anyone who's seen The Chase will know that the crew of the Mary Celeste disappeared after the Daleks landed on it while chasing the Doctor through time and space. So this week it's tackling the real fate of the Ninth Roman Legion, which mysteriously disappeared and is thought to have been defeated by Celtic tribes in the north of Britain. The Eaters of Light is also a particularly notable episode because of it's writer Rona Munro - the first person to write for both the modern and classic iterations of the show, having previously written the show's "final" episode Survival in 1986.

When the two disagree about the fate of the Ninth Roman Legion, the Doctor brings Bill (along with Nardole) to second century Scotland so that one can prove the other wrong. The two split up in different directions, and both come across the Legion. The Doctor and Nardole find their bodies devoid of bones, while Bill meets the last few survivors hiding away from a creature that feeds upon the light.

Stumbling upon a local Pict tribe, the Doctor discovers that the creature has come through an interdimensional portal - usually guarded by the leader of the tribe. The tribe had allowed one creature through to defeat the invading Romans, but its arrival now threatens the entire universe. Now both sides must put aside their differences and work together to get the creature back through the gate and make sure one never gets through again.

Despite this in some respects being a historical episode of Doctor Who it's one that's pretty heavily steeped in the fantastical, not just from alien beasts and alternate dimensions but also more fairytale-esque elements like talking crows. That latter part can understandably come off as a bit too much to swallow for some (especially since it's mainly building up to something quite indulgent), but together these elements work together to build a particularly atmospheric woodlands adventure. However it's the characters rather than the setting that really make this episode work. The Eaters of Light is full of great dialogue and quotable moments, with the Doctor, Bill and Nardole competing for that one standout line. But between Bill's exchange with the Romans regarding sexuality, Nardole's announcement that he makes a "mean spag bol" and the Doctor suggesting that Kar (the current tribe leader) "throw her action figures at them" it's too hard to choose a clear winner.

But having The Eaters of Light come straight off the back of the Empress of Mars probably wasn't the wisest choice, since there's quite a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the two. The present day opening, wandering around caves, the resolution of two opposing sides having to reach a compromise and come together at the end - it's fairly basic Doctor Who stuff, but with the two so close together it plays out too much like a routine. Had the episode order been played around with a little bit more, the progression and impact of this story would have likely been much greater.

As certain stories have proven in the past a CGI monster can often make or break an episode, immediately spoiling the action if the budget can't match up to the initial idea. Thankfully The Eaters of Light is not one of these episodes, featuring an excellent creature design whose minimal onscreen appearances are used effectively. The trade-off for this is that it's an episode big on a dialogue and exposition, but low on any particularly show-stopping scenes or moments. Capaldi's Doctor has always been one that's been able to comfortably command an audience just by talking so there's still plenty to enjoy here, it just lacks that extra oomph that so many other episodes this series have benefitted from.

Sadly the episode also fails to properly address the lingering questions concerning the TARDIS from Empress of Mars, for now just brushing them aside with the revelation that Missy's now working maintenance rather than being imprisoned in the vault. Bill and Nardole are particularly unhappy about this of course, but as far as the Doctor and Missy herself are concerned there feels like some genuine attempt to improve their broken friendship here. The Master has always been a wonderful character but the classic iterations were never particularly complex, so to see Missy undergo this transformation (whether it's fake or not) is a really nice change of pace. The crazed Mary Poppins routine was fun (if a bit overbearing at times) to watch, but Michelle Gomez is showing there's so much to her incarnation beyond that. Outside of the 30 seconds Derek Jacobi got playing his real-self, this is perhaps the most straight-faced the Master has been played since the show came back.

The Eaters of Light is an episode that makes up for it's minimal action with some excellent atmosphere and dialogue, bringing out the best in the three leads as well as the extended cast. While unlike to break anyone's favourites list, it's a passable entry in what's for the most part been an excellent run. Next week it's the beginning of the end as Missy gets some work experience and the Mondasian Cybermen return in World Enough and Time. Will Missy's rehabilitation be threatened by the return of one of her past lives?

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