So…here we are, the calm before the storm; the deep breath before barrelling downhill towards the 12th Doctor’s finish line with only the two-part finale and a Christmas special to go. The last ‘ordinary’ episode of Capaldi’s era. And what better way to honour an era which has shown such reverence to the classic series than to welcome back a classic series writer, Rona Munro (“Survival”), for the first time since the revival.
Determined to settle an argument with Bill (Pearl Mackie), the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes her and an inexplicably Arthur Dent-ish Nardole (Matt Lucas) to 2nd Century Scotland to discover what really happened to the Roman 9th Legion, which vanished abruptly and without explanation from the history books.
“Doctor Who” stories where the Doctor becomes involved (or occasionally the cause) of famous historical events have always been some of my favourites, from the Fifth Doctor inadvertently starting the Great Fire Of London in “The Visitation” to the First Doctor (and the Daleks) providing the explanation for the mystery of the Mary Celeste in “The Chase” (something which Nardole contradicts in this story). I expect the contradiction is explained by whatever The Great Intelligence/ Clara/ The Doctor did fiddling around with his own timelines.
Munro’s old-school sensibilities bring us the old fashioned mix of ‘monster of the week’ and a real historical mystery, topped off by a cracking guest cast and some classic separation of the heroes. Yes, it’s something of a Whovian cliché that the Doctor ends up bringing two warring factions together to fight a common foe but there’s enough effort made to give both the Romans and the Celts rounded characters that it’s only a minor grumble. Of course, it would have been the perfect chance for “Doctor Who” to deliver something extremely rare these days, a pure historical story, but it seems there’s just no getting away from a science fiction MacGuffin and so we have the potentially universe-ending threat of the interdimensional eaters of light. The monster is well realised but, as always, more effective when glimpsed in the shadows rather than fully revealed.
There are surprisingly few jokes about the Scottish setting given the writer and star of the show, although as the Doctor discovers the bodies of dead Roman soldiers, suffering from complete and total absence of any kind of sunlight, Nardole’s crack about ‘death by Scotland’ provides a wry chuckle. Although the Doctor only discovers dead Romans, Bill finds a few very much alive and learns a thing or two about the morality and social mores of early civilisation as they reveal some idealised modern but historically plausible attitudes. The Doctor and Nardole, meanwhile, end up in the hands of the Picts, who are more aware of – and more responsible – for the creature’s destruction than they initially let on.
Thankfully – for the plot at least – the TARDIS’ translation abilities seem to be in working order again (having opted out of giving the Pope some assistance in “Extremis”), allowing the Doctor and Bill’s peace effort to bear fruit. In the end, “The Eaters Of Light” requires a sacrifice to save the universe, echoing “Logopolis” in both scale and nature of the threat. Of course, the Doctor quickly volunteers to stay forever and fight the monsters at the gate – which does seem to be the 12th Doctor’s go-to move these days. He’s definitely not got the wanderlust of his predecessors and is always eager to leap at the chance to burden himself with some Sisyphean task, rooting himself to one spot. The 12th Doctor, it seems, is a penitent man, desperately seeking absolution. Is that why he’s helping Missy rehabilitate? Vicarious redemption?
Thanks to the modern format, much of the thematic underpinnings are left unexplored as the story rushes to conclude in its allotted 45 minutes rather than being explored at a more leisurely and rewarding pace of an old-style four part story. I’m grateful therefore for delightful little touches like the modern-day prologue with the legend of the stones and the music of ghosts (even if it did set me up for a ‘modern day children kidnapped by sinister forces’ story I didn’t get). The crow’s eery and often convenient vocabulary is nonsense, but cute nonsense and although telegraphed clumsily in advance, the Doctor’s escape using the unpopped popcorn that the increasingly arbitrarily equipped Nardole had in his dressing gown pocket was still a fun moment of ingenuity which thankfully didn’t lean on the sonic screwdriver.
Like last week’s “Empress Of Mars”, this wasn’t breathtaking Doctor Who but it was a solid, classic slice of timelord adventure. It’s a nicely meta touch at the end to have Missy review the Doctor’s adventure, though, and with Missy apparently on the road to rehabilitation, anticipation for next week couldn’t be higher. Hopefully the weather won’t be so glorious and I’ll be home indoors to watch it live rather than catching up midweek.