Aired 17 June 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW
With ‘The Eaters of Light,’ Rona Munro becomes the first writer to have penned for both the classic and revived Doctor Who series. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, there’s something of a more deliberate feel to this episode, focusing on world-building and its supporting cast while hinting at the mystery of the Doctor and relying on the companion to drive the narrative forward. While those latter two aspects can certainly be attributed to any number of modern episodes, few classic episodes indicated that seemingly-inevitable change in direction of the franchise as well as Munro’s original script, ‘Survival.’
Doctor Who has always been at its best when it juxtaposes the utterly bizarre with the commonplace, and perhaps no era of classic Doctor Who did this more successfully than the final two years of Sylvester McCoy’s run as more modern and recognizable settings took precedence. And although Scotland at the time of the Picts and Romans is hardly modern, it lends an incredibly distinctive atmosphere to the story that is further anchored by the juxtaposition of a dimensional gate within a cairn and the notion of crows speaking the name of a Pict warrior for all time to remember her sacrifice. Even the dilatation of time that allows musical remnants of an action from so long ago to remain present in the modern day lends events a lasting and almost ethereal quality that transcends normal barriers of memory and recordings.
Yet whereas the preceding ‘Empress of Mars’ mined plenty of drama from the absurdity of Victorian soldiers on Mars, ‘The Eaters of Light’ keeps its characters more grounded in the known history surrounding the true mysterious disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion and the humanity of the individuals involved. Truly, the story excels at bringing to the forefront the differing perspectives, and it comes as no surprise that the few surviving soldiers taken away from their force that overwhelms through sheer numbers alone would show a degree of frailty or cowardice that would otherwise seem so out of place. Of course, the previous actions of the aggressive Romans give the Pict warriors a more hardened and emotion-laden perspective, and Bill along with Kar prove to be quite insightful when discussing the dangers and fallibilities of the singular approach that defined the Roman Empire in new territories. Fittingly, it proves to be the TARDIS translation circuits providing a common basis for communication that allows the two sides to see the individuals for who they truly are, allowing a dialogue and comprehension that simply was not possible to that point, and this incisive scene is wonderfully underplayed to keep the focus on humanity rather than science fiction.
Strangely, though, ‘The Eaters of Light’ doesn’t prove quite as successful with its alien invader. Part of this is down to the somewhat lacking visual effects that in themselves also echo classic Doctor Who, but even simply as a concept they and the gateway through which they come are never fully explained to give a more profound layering to them and explain just what the Doctor’s intended but warriors’ actual sacrifice means. The Doctor being willing to sacrifice several future regenerations to continue his defense of the Earth is a powerful sentiment that supports the most noble actions of all of his previous incarnations on an almost unimaginable scale, but just how much even a group of humans with much more limited lifespans can accomplish in defense through the ages is never truly discussed. These types of more abstract creatures have been heightened in other episodes by providing some sort of hidden frailty or motivation, but the aliens here serve little extra purpose besides simply advancing the plot and providing a device by which humanity can be explored.
Despite the invaders and what they represent being the weakest portions of the script, though, as a break from the norm and an exercise in exploring the commonality of individuals despite their differences ‘The Eaters of Light’ is a strong and entertaining story that highlights the progression of themes that Munro first included back in 1989.