You have to feel a bit sorry for Rona Munro. There she is, making history – the first Classic Who writer to pen an episode for the new series, and the first story we’ve had from a woman since…well, ‘Survival’ that wasn’t either half-baked or utterly dreadful. For anyone who had doubts (and there’s no reason for you to have had doubts, but I will momentarily allow you that luxury), this week ought to be enough to dispel them utterly: women can write great sci-fi and they can write Doctor Who and ‘The Eaters of Light’ proves it in abundance. And what’s everybody talking about? Bloody John Simm.
Even I did it. Five hours after my episode 10 deconstruction I scheduled another Metro post that discussed the new promotional image for the series finale. There are YouTube clips from the Tenth Doctor’s confrontation with Rassilon, and quotes from Andrew Marvell. You go with the Twitter trends. I did, at least, decide that I’d make up for the shortfall in here. Because Rona’s tale of loyalty, empire and monsters in the darkness turns out to be one of the best episodes of Doctor Who this year, and possibly in a long time.
‘The Eaters of Light’ is one of those times when Doctor Who puts its own spin on an unsolved riddle. Agatha Christie, the Great Fire of London and the Mary Celeste have all had similar treatments (although really, spin-off material aside, why haven’t they done JFK yet?). And yet its windswept opening shows how much Bill has developed as a companion, given that the Doctor is, for once, letting her lead: she’s determined to find out what happened to the missing Ninth Legion, which may or may not have vanished in Europe some time in the second century, with the Time Lord taking the role of reluctant designated driver, in the manner of a father escorting a group of excited children to a Disney screening. From the outset to the conclusion, and all Tumblr-baiting monologues aside, we’re never in any doubt that Bill’s in charge: if this were a musical episode, she’d be singing ‘I’ve Got A Theory’, and Nardole would publicly admit his debilitating fear of squirrels.
It’s an interesting reversal: typically episodes open with a companion lamenting the fact that they’re on yet another grimy spacecraft, while the Doctor leaps around expressing enthusiasm for the workmanship. On this occasion it’s Capaldi’s turn to be grumpy: Aberdeenshire (all right, the Brecon Beacons) may be beautiful but the Doctor, you sense, is less than thrilled to be here. “It’s Scotland,” he harrumphs when Nardole complains about the weather. “It’s supposed to be damp.” Nardole, meanwhile, is stumbling over the rocks in his dressing gown like someone attempting an awkward Arthur Dent impression, but seemingly manages to ingratiate himself into the tribe within seconds of the Doctor stepping in to explore the cairn (although it’s been two days for everyone on the hill). Time passes much slower inside the portal than outside, acting as a neat forerunner to next week’s story.
In the meantime, Bill is making friends with what remains of the missing Ninth Legion, and is disturbed to find herself in the company of a bunch of teenagers: it’s like watching a sixth form caving trip gone horribly wrong. They’re hiding out in the woods, with low supplies and a visible sense of cabin fever, and despite some outward displays of bravado Bill is the Wendy they’ve clearly needed for quite some time. (I have an old friend who, in the aftermath of divorce, decided to go travelling; she seems to spend a lot of time hanging out with random twenty-somethings she meets in the hostels but in Thailand she ran into a group of male students who more or less adopted her for a bit, and watching Bill with Lucius and the others was not unlike how I imagine it was for her.)
It’s here that we’re forced to endure a ghastly vignette about equality and lesbianism – Bill, you see, is expecting a cacophony of awkwardness when she admits to Lucius that she bats for the other team, only to find that Lucius bats for both, and considers himself ‘ordinary’ – “I think it’s really sweet,” he adds, “that you’re so restricted.” We can see where they were going with this: ‘Ha ha,’ the BBC are saying, ‘look at you millennials, with your political correctness and cultural appropriation and so called enlightenment. You’re not the generation who invented sex, or non-binary.’ I’m not disagreeing, but that doesn’t mean it works dramatically – it sticks in the throat, a bitter, insoluble pill that you failed to swallow.
Thankfully that’s the only duff moment. Everything else just works. This is a self-contained narrative that is sure of its own identity. It is well-constructed and frightening when it needs to be, with decently-realised set pieces. Even the finale, which feels rushed and madly convenient (oh look, it’s the self-sacrifice trope again) is reasonably good. And Murray Gold – presumably on retainer at the moment – seems to have actually composed something of substance this week, with some pleasant enough New Age Celt things.
It helps that director Charles Palmer takes his visual cue from Nick Hurran by showing us the monster only sparingly. A single establishing shot of the Pictish beast racing towards the cairn (and a couple of illuminated flashes inside it) is about as substantial as it gets: the rest is all flourishes in the dark and wriggling tentacles. It is the ground itself that appears to have come to life: this is, of course, not the case at all, but it’s hard not to be a little unnerved when Bill is running through the woods with certain death right behind her. It’s notable that, like its spiritual companion, ‘Eaters’ suffers a little from a slightly tacked-on epilogue, but there has been a great deal written about that elsewhere and it’s not something I’m inclined to explore until I’ve seen exactly where it’s going.
Supporting cast are the usual mixture of affable, headstrong and irritating, but it’s the leads – and particularly the Doctor – who excel. Sidelined to an extent during ‘Empress’, Capaldi is in full flow this week, tossing his moods between scornful P.E. teacher and the dark sage we met at the end of ‘The Zygon Inversion’, although with considerably less shouting. It’s curious that in his two key scenes he’s addressing the same person, with varying degrees of contempt. “You got a whole Roman legion slaughtered,” he says to Kar about halfway through, “and you made the deadliest creature on this planet very very cross indeed.” It’s not the sharpest dialogue in the world, but it’s a moment where Capaldi sounds so incredibly like the Seventh Doctor you can picture McCoy sitting at home, saying “I could have done that. Actually I basically did, didn’t I?”
Still, it’s later (and not much later) that the actor really gets his chance. “Are you sulking?” he says. “When you want to win a war, remember this: it’s not about you. Believe me, I know.” It is whispered and understated, with Capaldi’s native Scots perhaps even more pronounced than usual, the way that newly repatriated residents often find their accents slipping back towards the native when they go home. It’s a stunning scene, worthy of the best of Tennant, but you sense that of the newer actors only Capaldi could really have pulled it off. If this series doesn’t win him a BAFTA, there is no justice.
Doctor Who episodes are too often rather hastily appraised. Much of the unsavoury reputation attributed to ‘Fear Her’ is down to its proximity to ‘Love and Monsters’; likewise I tend to view ‘In The Forest Of The Night’ with some disdain because ‘Do nothing’ is the solution to the problem twice in almost as many weeks. Similarly, there’s a very real risk that the good stories are being overshadowed this year because of headline-grabbing departures, regeneration rumours and long-anticipated character reappearances. What Munro has created this week is poetic and beautiful, but it will almost certainly be ignored in the weeks to come while excitement about the Master reaches fever pitch. It’s no secret that most fans seem more preoccupied with the words ‘Give us a kiss’ – and what that kiss might MEAN, BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT – than anything the Doctor said or did this week.
Because the inconvenient truth is that ‘The Eaters of Light’ is, at the moment, once more consigned to the undergrowth from which it came until the buzz dies down. For many fans it is a narrative hurdle, a story that was good fun but in which John Simm failed to appear. For still others there was resentment: where, I was asked more than once, was Rory the Roman? Why couldn’t we get a cameo? At least a nod? And I lament that this is how we do things now; that it is somehow expected that writers cater to the whims of fans simply because the fans now have an easy way of making their feelings known in advance. Never mind the fact that they had a legitimate excuse as far as the Telegraph was concerned, given that someone erroneously hit the ‘publish’ button six or seven hours before the episode went out. Are we really now at the stage where Doctor Who fans think they’re stakeholders in the writing process? (It is at times like this that I miss Points of View. At least you could only complain about stuff when it had already been broadcast.)
So much for fandom. Will end-of-series retrospectives and future rankings judge Munro’s masterpiece more kindly? Or is this a squandered opportunity, a story that will forever be resented for the things it chose not to do – and with good reason – than for the many things it did brilliantly? And good reviews don’t count. I want to see enthusiasm among the community. I want the audience to be jumping up and down and seeing this story the way I saw it, rather than with the nonchalance I witnessed on Sunday from those who thought it was ‘filler’, or ‘dull’, or ‘a good episode, I guess, but I’m stoked for the finale’. That’s not good enough. I want them to see it the way I saw it – to see that this is one of the best stories in years, and certainly one of the best the current series has offered. Can we get there? Against all odds, can we get there?
Time will tell. It always does. But sometimes they’ve already cancelled your show.