❉ After nearly thirty years, writer Rona Munro returns to the fold.
“Roman soldiers don’t run. And we did.”
Survival, Rona Munro’s first Doctor Who script, rounded off the original run of the series in 1989 with a tale of young people caught in a landscape that, if they didn’t resist, brought out their animal instincts – literally, as they’d turn into cheetah people. Her first script for the 21st century series, and the first by a writer from the ‘classic’ series, again centred on young people at the mercy of a harsh environment.
The Eaters of Light took as it’s basis the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion of the Imperial Roman Army in AD 120, which numbered some 5,000 troops. Never satisfactorily explained by official histories, Munro speculated that the Ninth had been wiped out by a savage creature from another dimension. Well realised as the beast was – mainly as a frenetic blur of ultraviolet tentacles – the Doctor’s poetic conjecture about its nature was far more evocative and chilling, as one of a swarm of “light-eating locusts… [that] will eat the sun”. (Though quite how he came to this conclusion is a bit of a mystery).
Munro’s real interest lay with the opposing forces of Romans and Scottish Picts, who the Ninth Legion fought shortly before they disappeared. Authentically, both sides were played by very young actors, bringing home how quickly people had to grow up in the Second Century AD. Hearing the excellent Rebecca Benson as Kar deliver such a bitter tirade against the Romans – “robbery, slaughter, plunder – they do this work and call it Empire” from her prematurely bitter, war-painted face brought home how short and brutal these people’s lives could be.
The survivors of the Ninth Legion had their own problems. A sexually liberal lot – which moved Bill to, amusingly, comment on how “modern” they were – the Roman soldiers were ashamed that they’d run from the battlefield and were hiding in a cave. Again the brutality of these people’s world hit home when the wide-eyed Lucius (Brian Vernel) said he was in command because he was the eldest soldier left – at 18.
Possibly developing a theme from last week’s Empress of Mars, the solution to the monster problem proved to be the opposing juvenile forces working together, as it was “Time to grow up… Time to fight your fight.” As the Doctor dismissed everyone as “children”, the union of Picts and Romans was particularly satisfying, especially as they prevented the elder Time Lord from fighting their fight for them, and Kar atoned for her initial mistake of releasing an uncontrollable alien.
It’s getting predictable to say this, but the regulars were again on top form. There was some excellent banter throughout, including the Doctor’s bizarre and frankly worrying comment that he was a “vestal virgin, second class” and this memorable exchange as Nardole and the Doctor were surrounded by Pict warriors:
The Doctor: What are you doing?
Nardole: I’m ingratiating myself.
The Doctor: Stop it. It’s nauseating… I’m against charm.
Nardole: Yeah, we all know that.
A modishly attired Bill, meanwhile, had some good lines about how the Time Lords’ gift of universal translation, especially as it “lip-synched” with whoever was speaking.
An added bonus was the continuing story of Missy’s rehabilitation, if that’s in fact what is happening. It was sensitively played by Michele Gomez and Peter Capaldi, but, after all these years and the staggering amount of crimes and deaths that the Master/Missy has on her conscience, it’s hard to believe h/she really could reform. Then again, it alludes to what the Tenth Doctor offered the John Simm Master, and I reckon it’s no coincidence that the latter’s return is imminent. Judging by next week’s trailer, it looks like Steven Moffat has cast Missy in a role similar to the reformed vampire Spike in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), and that’ll be fun to watch.
All in all, The Eaters of Light was a diverting, atmospheric and witty – the stuff with the crows was fun – if rather lightweight entry among this year’s stories. Full marks, though, for the use of popcorn as an escape strategy.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 was released on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 17 July 2017. Complete Series 10 available on DVD & BD later this year.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.