Welcome back Rona Munro, writer of this week’s Doctor Who, “The Eaters of Light”. Munro, as many fans will recall, wrote what turned out to be, rather sadly, the last story in the run of the classic series, “Survival”. It’s interesting to see that Munro is, thematically at least, almost picking up where she left off in 1989 with her episode for the current series. I’ll get to that in a minute…
First of all, let’s have a look at the basis of her story: the legend of the missing Roman Ninth Legion. There’s much conjecture about what exactly happened to the 5,000 troops of the Legion. Formed in 65 B.C, the Legion fought in Hispania and Gaul before their involvement in Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43 A.D. It’s recorded that the army was significantly cut down in the skirmishes with Queen Boudicca, and once reinforcements arrived it travelled north to York. They built the imperial fortress Eboracum and then vanished en route further north to deal with Caledonian insurgences. The theories are that, after 117 A.D, they were either wiped out in Britain by the Picts, or they simply disbanded and went to serve in the Rhine valley.
The legend was the basis for Rosemary Sutcliff’s excellent adventure story, published in 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth. She also focused on the mysterious disappearance of the Legion’s Roman eagle standard and how it came to be unearthed at Silchester. The book’s been adapted several times for BBC radio and television, and the most recent version of the story about how Marcus Flavius Aquila recovered the eagle standard, was Kevin MacDonald’s film The Eagle (2011). For Doctor Who, Munro takes the legend as the framework for her story and, of course, comes up with an appropriately unearthly explanation for the Legion’s disappearance.
From the outset I’d also suggest Munro is tapping into another rich vein of children’s literature. The contemporary framing device, set at the Devil’s Cairn where two children can hear the ‘music’ of the “ghosts in the hill”, reminded me very much of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Garner’s book was based on The King Under the Hill folklore well known to the inhabitants of Alderley Edge. It was the tale of a farmer who met a robed old man who warned him he’d never sell his horse at market and should instead sell it to him. Eventually convinced by the old man (supposedly Merlin) and failing to sell his horse, the farmer is taken to an iron gated entrance in the hill where Arthurian armies sleep, waiting for the moment of England’s direst need to ride out onto the Cheshire plain.
To add a further dash of telefantasy kudos to Munro’s story, the children hear the ghosts in the earth while exploring menhirs by the cairn. Standing stones and ancient barrows are the stuff of folk horror, so it’s rather lovely to have a flavour of that in this week’s episode and see how folk legends are passed down from generation to generation through ancient storytelling motifs. Naturally, a certain TARDIS is carved into one of the stones…
Munro even weaves in a bit of folk storytelling to explain the repertoire of calls and noises made by crows flying through the episode. They are birds of divination, judgements, and can be omens of good or bad luck. Groups of them are often referred to as a murder of crows. When the TARDIS arrives on the hill, the crows herald the arrival of The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), rather ominously screeching “Dark! Doctor!” and foretelling the fall of the Twelfth perhaps? By the end of the story the leader of the Picts, Kar (Rebecca Benson) has been immortalised in their familiar calls. Munro seems to have a penchant for introducing animals into her stories, as we had alien cats in “Survival”, and now we have talking crows that humans stopped having intelligent conversation with long ago. No wonder crows are having a “mass sulk”, according to The Doctor.
It seems that Bill (Pearl Mackie) has challenged The Doctor’s knowledge about the Ninth Legion and they’ve come to the 2nd-century to prove which of them is right. Nardole (Matt Lucas) is rather perplexed about this and brings to The Doctor’s attention that he should be guarding the vault as promised. Inevitably this will lead us to the intriguing coda to the episode.
The Doctor is adamant the Legion were annihilated in battle, whereas Bill’s convinced they survived and followed the river. Bill’s read the books and “got an A star” but The Doctor’s lived in Roman Britain and “governed, armed, juggled.” He’s also been a vestal virgin, second class. Bill bets the Legion is still by the river and “will meet you back here with a Roman soldier” as proof of her theory.
Thereby, Bill is split up from The Doctor and Nardole and immediately runs into trouble, disturbing Kar as she quietly honours the dead at her fireside in the forest. On the run, Bill falls down one of Picts’ traps (this is getting habit-forming for her, given the same happened last week) set for the Romans, and by a stroke of luck finds one of the survivors of the Ninth Legion, Simon (Rohan Nedd).
Meanwhile, The Doctor explains to Nardole that the Picts think their cairns — iron age churches — are doors between worlds, and where there are churches there’s civilisation. He is, of course, not far off the mark at all. One cairn in particular houses such a portal, an inter-dimensional gateway that allows creatures to travel to Earth, fulfilling a mythological purpose but also heralding the eventual disappearance of the stars if their intentions remain unchecked.
Bill discovers one of the benefits of travelling in the TARDIS is the ability to communicate in Latin with the Roman she’s found. I like the way Bill simply rationalises it as “a telepathic link. Auto-translate. That’s why everyone in space speaks English.” It’s another example of her natural intelligence that’s so appealing in these situations. As the Roman starts to tell her what happened to the Legion we find The Doctor examining a Roman’s body. He concludes an alien incursion has devoured the light from it instantaneously, and is the cause of the “great big pile of bodies” they find over the next hill. Before they can go in search of Bill, they are captured by the Picts.
The structure of the story is set out at this point. When the creature that has escaped from the portal kills the Roman she’s with, Bill eventually meets the survivors of the Ninth Legion sheltering in a cave. The tentacled creature, of which we only get brief glimpses initially, is part legendary beast, part Lovecraftian eldritch alien and as the ‘monster-of-the-week’ it isn’t there to provide the spine of the narrative.
Instead, Munro delivers a treatise on how children eventually have to grow up and face what the world throws at them. It’s unfortunate that the episode follows “The Empress of Mars” where two opposing forces found a way to mutually resolve their differences and work together as, in much the same way, the Romans and the Picts also realise they have to combine resources to become the guardians of the portal and prevent the creatures breaking through.
But the ideas about children needing to mature takes us right back to some of the themes presented about The Doctor’s companion, Ace, in “Survival”. By its very title the story was about how, as teenagers, Ace and her friends matured and survived in an increasingly complex society with all of its incumbent pressures and stresses. Here, we have inexperienced legionnaires fighting on behalf of a world-spanning Empire for a piece of damp old Scotland and reduced to hiding in a cave.
The Picts are just as young and determined, but The Doctor rather subtly equates them to the innocents of fairy tales when he tells them there’s “a big bad wolf of a monster out there and you live in a house of sticks.” In fact, The Doctor comes across as that know-it-all, seen-it-all parent whose patience is “shattering into a billion pieces” when faced by these ingenues. Pointedly, when Kar, the gatekeeper arrives, The Doctor is underwhelmed and patronisingly asks, “where are all the grown ups?”
Kar stridently puts her side of the story, painting Romans and their work as “robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do all this work and they call it empire.” There’s that word again — empire — and the return of tropes about colonialism and imperialism that have run through several episodes since “Thin Ice”. However, The Doctor does point out that the so-called conquerors are all dead, and it’s likely that something on the other side of the gate she’s guarding was responsible. As the sun rises, The Doctor’s proved correct and peers through the portal to see exactly what they’re up against. Due to the temporal effects of the rift, he believes he’s been away seconds but Nardole confirms he was away two days and thought he was never coming back.
I’m not convinced the scene where Bill learned her sexuality was of no concern to Lucius (Brian Vernel) and the legionnaires was necessary. It seems a little late in the run of the series to have an affirmation of Bill as a gay character when it has, to its credit, already successfully achieved that. It does offer a different view of Bill’s sexuality as a narrow choice from the Romans’ perspective. The other thing to note is that, although Romans were very open about their sexual preferences, sex among soldiers was not tolerated and was seen as going against military decorum. It could be punished by cudgelling to death. However, that’s nitpicking about historical detail, and it’s a serviceable scene and helps consolidate characters.
Entire generations have held back these ‘Eaters of Light’, but unfortunately one slipped through and Kar believes it’s her fault and she must put it right. Although she used the beast to fend off the Romans, it’s gained strength rather than becoming weaker. “You made the deadliest creature on this planet very, very cross indeed,” chides The Doctor. Again, he’s terribly harsh on Kar, berating her for misunderstanding the situation. Bill is having a slightly different problem trying to convince Lucius and his men that The Doctor is the one man who can make a difference. The theme of cowardice is reintroduced again and Bill declares, “You’re not cowards. You’re scared.”
The theme of generational conflict, of the younger heeding their wiser, elder betters, develops from Lucius, known as “grandad” by the other troops because he’s the oldest one left, agreeing to listen to Bill. According to David Breeze’s book The Roman Army recruits would have been 18–23 years of age, so Lucius being the oldest at 18 might therefore make the rest underage, but recruits as young as 13 and as old as 36 were recorded. The Doctor also advises Kar of the need to “grow up” and realise that winning the war isn’t all about her but about working together to force the creature back through the portal.
Cultural divides are made redundant by the TARDIS telepathic field and Roman and Picts understand each other’s language. The problem is that they’re all sounding like frightened children and as Bill asks of The Doctor, “Is this what happens? When you understand what everyone in the universe is saying, everybody just sounds like children.” The Doctor clarifies the situation and, with the greatest threat coming from a light-eating locust, their skirmishes really do come across to him as child’s play.
Munro’s twist is that, after the creature’s been sent back to the void and The Doctor offers to sacrifice himself to the portal to hold back the other eaters of light for centuries, it seems the kids have their own ideas, their own sense of independence. Kar proudly confirms: “Time to grow up, Doctor” and she joins with the Ninth to guard the portal as their destiny, not his. Sulking crows and half-heard music are not what they seem. All in all, it’s an intriguing, solidly entertaining episode that touches effectively on mythology, symbolism, history and generational differences. However, it’s placing after “The Empress of Mars” is certainly to its disadvantage as it feels slightly repetitive and its power is somewhat diminished in comparison.
The episode ends with time to spare and this is where we get that curious little coda with Missy (Michelle Gomez) in the TARDIS. I still feel her tears and contrition are playing false. It all seems a bit of a game on her part, and she’s manipulating the situation. She may have been doing some work for The Doctor (but to what end), while The Doctor attempts to teach her about the music of the universe. She seems keen to worm her way into his affections and the intriguing idea of Missy as a companion is very “Scream of the Shalka.” The trouble with hope is that it might get you Missy taking on the role of The Doctor just as Mondas, its Cybermen, and The Master all hove into view.