Many people have written for Doctor Who over the years. Some have penned only a single script and, for various and sundry reasons, have never written another. Some have written two or three, and still others have written many. Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks were among the most prolific writers of the classic Doctor Who series. Since the show’s return in 2005, there have also been several writers to write many episodes, including Mark Gatiss, who wrote this year’s “Empress of Mars”. Russell T Davies wrote many episodes during his time as showrunner, and Steven Moffat wrote several episodes during Davies’s time and has written numerous since taking over as showrunner.
However, until now, there has been no writer to have written for both the original and revived series. Rona Munro is the first to fill this role. Munro wrote the final story of the original series’ run, 1989’s “Survival”. This year, she has returned to Doctor Who with the delightful episode, “The Eaters of Light”.
In several of my reviews for this year’s episodes, I have commented on Series 10 being the most consistently good series in some time. To be honest, over the previous two episodes, I was beginning to waver on that opinion. “The Lie of the Land” was frustrating, and “Empress of Mars”, while a decent episode, was not all that great either. “The Eaters of Light”, however, has restored my faith in the series. It returns to delivering what the early episodes of this series delivered: excitement, humour, great characters, an engaging plot, and everything needed for a great Doctor Who episode.
It’s definitely possible to notice the stylistic similarities between “The Eaters of Light” and Munro’s earlier story, “Survival”. The episode doesn’t waste time with needless exposition, instead dropping characters into one moment after the next and allowing the audience to discover things as the characters themselves discover them. There are quite a few moments of action and some moments move rapidly into others, yet the pacing never seems rushed. There are also calmer, quieter moments, allowing for character development, whilst never seeming slow or padded out.
Intriguingly, there are also some similarities plot-wise to “Empress of Mars” which immediately precedes “The Eaters of Light”. Both stories involve two groups initially at odds with one another who need to learn to get along by the end. However, “The Eaters of Light” accomplishes this much better than “Empress of Mars”, due in large part to the fact that “Eaters” has much better developed characters. In “Empress”, most of the characters are not all that easy to relate to, even the human ones. In my review of “Empress of Mars”, I stated that the characters were reasonably well-developed, though in retrospect, I’m not sure I agree with that anymore. We never really get to know any of them very well and thus cannot feel any significant sympathy for them. Conversely, “The Eaters of Light” takes the time to let us get to know the characters, and so they become much more alive, much more relatable and sympathetic. By the end of the episode, we can experience triumph at the valiant actions of Kar, Lucius, and the others. We can cheer on Kar as she stands up to the Doctor to insist on her destiny, and also feel Ban’s sadness along with him at the loss of his sister.
Indeed, the characters are a major part of what makes “The Eaters of Light” so good. Both the Picts and the Romans are developed as fully real people, with individual emotions and motivations. Neither side is made out to be fully villainous or fully virtuous, though the wrongs on both sides, especially the Romans’, are called out and challenged. It allows every character to feel like they are real people Even the ones who get very little screen time, like Vitus are easily identifiable, unique, and relatable.
The regulars stand out well in this episode, too. Bill, in particular, has a strong role to play, and it really helps to show why she is the best Doctor Who companion since Donna Noble (and may just edge out Donna—I’m undecided there). She is independent and is able to stand up to the Doctor when appropriate, but also knows when to concede to his experience and knowledge. She is also intelligent and able to use that intelligence to reason out explanations and solutions.
She also has her own unique way of handling the discoveries that every companion eventually makes. There generally comes a time when companions realise that languages are being translated for them, but Bill doesn’t just reason out that the Doctor or the TARDIS must be responsible, she also notices something no one else ever has—“Oh my god, it even does lip synch!” Indeed, this is something virtually every science fiction show with “universal translators” (Doctor Who included until now) simply ignores, so this moment is also a wonderful nod to nit-picky fans (amongst whose numbers I include myself) who do notice such things.
Nardole has some great moments too (I like when he tries to put on the charm against the Doctor’s objections), and it’s nice to see him not side-lined again. After side-lining him for many of the early episodes this series, it was a bit disappointing to see it happen again in “Empress of Mars”. I’ve grown to like Nardole quite a bit so I like it when he gets to do a few things.
It is interesting to see him back to objecting to the Doctor’s travels away from the vault again after his objections mysteriously disappeared last episode. The Doctor does briefly call him out this episode on not having a problem with Mars but having a problem with ancient Scotland, yet to be honest, this feels more like a patch to cover up the fact that “Empress of Mars” simply got things wrong when it came to Nardole. It does make him seem a bit of a hypocrite though when he reacts negatively to the Doctor letting Missy out of the vault, when he himself did the exact same thing so recently.
Speaking of Missy, she too gets some wonderful moments, despite only being in a small portion at the end of the episode. Something I’ve really liked about the Missy moments all series long is that we’ve been seeing a different side to her—calmer, less manic, and more introspective. Yet she’s still clearly Missy. Michelle Gomez’s performance is simply stunning and viewers can viewers can easily understand the Doctor’s conflict over whether to trust her. She makes us want to believe she really is changing for the better, despite the fact we know she can’t be trusted.
Peter Capaldi’s performance here is likewise heart-wrenching. We can easily see just how desperately the Doctor wants Missy to be good.
Alongside the human and Time Lord characters, there is another character in “The Eaters of Light”: the crows (which, while actually a whole species of characters, narratively work as a single character). This is another of the things that make “Eaters” work so well. It’s willing to take risks and do the weird and wonderful things that Doctor Who can do so well. The idea that the sound crows make is actually them remembering Kar is something that could so easily be cheesy and sappy, but it’s made to work beautifully here. Similarly, the bookending scenes with the two children in modern-day Scotland could have also taken the sentimentality of the episode over the top. But once again, they fit in naturally and lend a mythical scope to the story. The final product ends up feeling like more than just a Doctor Who story; it also feels like something out of legend.
The monster in this story is less a character than it is a focal point on which these legendary characters converge, but it is also very effectively realised, both in terms of its role in the plot, and on the production side of things. The design is incredibly evocative—I love the glowing tentacles—and the cgi is extremely good (especially considering that a lot of the cgi in recent Doctor Who has not been all that great). The final product is one of the most effective monstrous creatures to appear on recent Doctor Who. (There is a tendency to refer to all Doctor Who aliens as “monsters”, from Daleks to Ice Warriors to giant fish under the Thames. It’s something I do as well. But in this case, I use “monstrous” to refer to the more bestial Doctor Who aliens—things more akin to the beasts fought by heroes of legend.)
I really can’t praise “The Eaters of Light” enough. It takes a fairly straight-forward concept of two antagonistic groups coming together to fight a common enemy, populates it with relatable and sympathetic characters, and spins it into a tale both epic and poetic. It is, quite simply, wonderful.