With only two weeks left before the Series 10 finale, Moffat is preparing us for what is sure to be an emotionally charged and entirely unpredictable Doctor/Master/Missy showdown. Unfortunately, the excitement for this overpowers the entirety of ‘The Eaters of Light’. By no means is it a terrible episode, but other than a few wonderful, short-lived moments it unfortunately falls short of the other exceptional stories that Series 10 has given us.
Capaldi is right at home this week as the TARDIS trio visit the highlands of Scotland to resolve a historical dispute – what happened to the Roman Ninth Legion? According to legend, back in the 2nd century AD, five thousand of Rome’s finest soldiers mysteriously disappeared while marching through the misty hills of Caledonia.
Bill thinks they simply followed a river out. The Doctor believes they were slaughtered in battle. Nardole couldn’t care less and just wants to stay home, but he ultimately makes up his mind and tags along with the Doctor to help look for a battlefield, while Bills goes her own way searching for a river.
On their separate adventures, our main characters discover the Pictish tribe, native to Scotland, and the survivors of the Ninth Legion. A monster is on the loose, and is responsible for the deaths of the Roman soldiers through… bone disintegration? Light depravation? Not really sure to honest, the explanation is a little bit fuzzy. Either way, if the monster isn’t captured soon it will devour every last photon of light in the universe, ending life everywhere.
This sense of apathy is the feeling that unintentionally underscores most of the episode, as a lot of time is wasted on plot points that we aren’t fully invested in. But for now, let’s look at those positive aspects that saved ‘The Eaters of Light’ from becoming a completely lackluster affair.
First and foremost, Bill discovers the TARDIS translation circuit for the first time. This piece of technology has been part of Doctor Who folklore since the revival in 2005, but it has never been anything more than a quick explanation as to why we hear aliens speaking English. Here, the translation circuit is a fully-fledged plot device, and works in an absolutely beautiful yet unexpected way. The warring Romans and barbarous Picts, who were previously separated by a language barrier, can finally see past their ferocious exteriors and realise that they are all just children.
Also notable in ‘The Eaters of Light’ is Murray Gold’s beautiful music, which has clear epic Celtic influences and creates a real sense of 2nd century Scotland. Along with wonderful landscape shots of the rolling highlands and intricate costume designs, the director Charlie Palmer achieves a great deal in creating one of the most sensual and visually gorgeous episodes of this series.
The last great part of this episode is the decision of Kar and the Ninth Legion to enter the inter-dimensional rift and guard the portal for eternity. Their sacrifice is touching, and the fact that they forcefully hold the Doctor back from making the sacrifice his own makes it even more so. Even if the defeat of the monster is uninspired, the solution to the larger problem of protecting the portal has enough emotional weight to make for a reasonably satisfying conclusion.
As great as it would be to celebrate these parts of ‘The Eaters of Light’ in isolation, they do not make up for the fact that the crux of the story is, to put it plainly, unexciting. The fact that crows could mimic human words in 2nd century AD, for example, does not have any impact on the plot whatsoever. Their mimicking of the name “Kar” by the end as a tribute to her sacrifice gave an amusing explanation as to why crows today sound like they’re saying “caw”. But unfortunately this just felt like padding to stretch the episode out to its running time, ultimately coming across as contrived and tacky.
The last 5 minutes are likely to be the ones that everyone will be talking about in the lead-up to next week. The dynamic of having Missy in the TARDIS is something I and many other people have been pining for since the reveal of her identity in Series 8, and it foreshadows some truly exciting developments. Regrettably the episode’s pacing is still off even here, as it cuts between the girl from the pre-credits teaser and the current events in the TARDIS. Despite being dragged out for a little longer than necessary, it is still a brilliant teaser for what’s to come in the final weeks of Series 10.
Next Week: Missy tries saving the day for a change, Bill is in an alien hospital, Mondasian Cybermen return, and John Simm’s iconic Master is back with mysterious motives.